The jolting of the carriage along the quaggy road had been well nigh unendurable. Mistress Betty was groaning audibly. But Lady Patience, with her fair head resting against the cushions, was forgetting all bodily ailments, whilst absorbed in mental visions that flitted, swift and ever-changing, before her excited brain.
There was the dear brother in peril of his life, his young face looking wan and anxious, then Sir Humphrey Challoner, the man she instinctively, unreasonably dreaded, and John Stich, the faithful retainer, brave and burly, guarding his lord's life with his own. These faces and figures wandered ghost-like before her eyes, and then vanished, leaving before her mental vision but one form and face, a pair of merry, deep-set grey eyes, that at times looked so inexpressibly sad, a head crowned with a mass of unruly curls, a figure, lithe and active, sitting upon a chestnut horse and riding away towards the sunset.
It was a pleasant picture: no wonder Patience allowed her mind to dwell on it, and in fancy to hear that full-toned voice either in lively song or gay repartee, or at times with that ring of tenderness in it, which had brought the tears of pity to her eyes.
The hours sped slowly on, the cumbrous vehicle jostled onwards, plunging and creaking, whilst Thomas urged the burdened horses along.
Suddenly a jerk, more vigorous than before, roused Patience from her half-wakeful dreams. The heavy coach had seemed to take a plunge on its side, there was fearful creaking, and much swearing from the driver's box, a shout or two, panting efforts on the part of the horses, and finally the vehicle came to a complete standstill.
Mistress Betty had started up in alarm.
"Lud preserve us!" she shouted, putting a very sleepy head out of the carriage window, "what's the matter now, Thomas?"
"We be stuck in a quagmire," muttered the latter worthy, vainly trying to smother more forcible language, out of respect for her ladyship's presence.
Timothy, the groom, had dismounted: lanthorn in hand, he was examining the cause of the catastrophe.
"Get the other lanthorn, Thomas!" he shouted to the driver, "and come and give me a hand, else we'll have to spend the night on this God-forsaken heath."
"Is it serious, Timothy?" queried Lady Patience, anxiously.
"I hope not, my lady. The axle is caked with mud on this side, and we do seem stuck in some kind of morass, but if Thomas'll hurry himself . . ."
The latter, with many more suppressed oaths, had at last got down from his box, and had brought a second lanthorn round to the back of the coach, where Timothy had already started scraping shovelfuls of inky mud from the axle of the off-wheel.
It was at this moment, and when the two men were intent upon their work, that a voice, loud and distinct, suddenly shouted behind them,--
"Stand and deliver!"
Thomas, who was of a timorous disposition, dropped the lanthorn he held, and in his fright knocked over the other which was on the ground. He was a man of peace, and knew from past experience that 'tis safer not to resist these gentlemen of the roads.
When therefore the highwayman's well-known challenge rang out in the night, he threw up both hands in order to testify to his peaceful intentions; but Timothy, who was younger and more audacious, drew a couple of pistols from his belt, and at all hazards fired them off, one after the other, in the direction whence had come the challenge. The next moment he felt a vigorous blwo on his wrists and the pistols flew out of his hands.
"Hands up or I shoot!"
Thomas was already on his knees. Timothy, thus disarmed, thought it more prudent to follow suit.
From within the coach could be heard Mistress Betty's shrill and terrified voice,--
"Nay! nay! your ladyship shall not go!" followed by her ladyship's peremptory command,--
"Silence, child! Let me go! Stay you within an you are afraid!"
There was a moment's silence, for at sound of her voice Beau Brocade had started, then he leaned forward on his horse, listening with all his might, wondering if indeed his ears had not miseld him, if 'twas not a dream-voice that came to him out of the gloom.
"Have I the honour of addressing Lady Rounce?" he murmured mechanically.
At this moment the darkness, which up to now had been intense, began slowly to give place to a faint, silvery light. The moon, pale and hazy, tried to pierce the mist that still enveloped her as with a cold, blue mantle, and one by one tipped blackthorn and gorse with a cluster of shimmering diamonds.
Like a ghostly panorama the heath revealed its thousand beauties, its many mysteries: the deep, dark tangle of bramble and ling, beneath which hide the gnomes and ghouls, the tiny blue cups of the harebells, wherein the pixies have their home; the fairy rings in the grass, where the sprites dance their wild saraband on nights such as this, with the crickets to play the tunes, and the glow-worms to light them in their revels.
But to Beau Brocade the dim radiance of the moon, shy and golden through her veil of mist, only revealed one great, one wonderful picture: that of his dream made real, of his heavenly vision come down to earth, the picture of her stepping out of the coach that she might speak to him.
She came forward quickly, and the hood flew back from her face. She was looking at him with a half-puzzled, half-haughty expression in her eyes, and Beau Brocade thought he had never seen eyes that were so deeply blue. He murmured her name,--
"The Lady Patience!"
"Nay, sir, since you know my name," she said, with a quaint, almost defiant toss of her small, graceful head, "I pray you, whoever you may be, to let me depart in peace. See," she added, holding a heavy purse out to him, "I have brought you what money I have. Will you take it and let me go?"
But he dared not speak. He longed to turn Jack o' Lantern's head and to gallop away quickly out of her sight, before she had recognised him and learnt that the man on whom she had looked with such tender pity, and with such glowing admiration, was the highway robber, the outlaw, the notorious thief. Yet so potent was the spell of her voice, the moist shimmer of her lips, the depth and glitter of her blue eyes, that he felt as if iron fetters held him fast to the ground, there enchained before her, until at least she should speak again.
He dismounted and she stepped a little closer to him, so close now that, had he stretched out his hand, he might have touched her cloak, or even those white finger-tips which. . .
"Believe me, sir," she said a little impatiently, seeing that he did not speak, "I give you all I have freely an you molest me no more. I have urgent, very urgent business in London, which brooks of no delay. Kindly allow my men to go free."
She was pleading now, all the haughtiness vanished from her face. Her voice, too, shook perceptibly; the tall, silent figure before her was beginning to frighten her.
Yet he dared not trust himself to speak, lest by a word he should dispel this dream. This golden vision of paradise that heaven had so unaccountably sent to him this night! it might vanish again amidst the stars and leave the poor outlaw to his loneliness.
This moment was so precious, so wonderful.
Madly he longed for the god-like power to stop Time in its relentless way, to make sun, moon and stars, the earth and all eternity pause awhile, whilst he looked upon her, as she stood there, with the pleading look in her eyes, the honey-coloured moon above throwing a dim and flickering light upon her upturned face. . . her golden hair . . . that tiny hand stretched out to him.
She seemed to wait for his reply, and at last in a low voice, which he tried to disguise, he murmured,--
"Madam, I entreat you, have no fear! Believe me, I would sooner never see the sun set again than cause you even one short moment's anxiety."
Again that quaint puzzled look came into her eyes, she looked at the black mask that hid his face, as if she would penetrate the secret which it kept.
"Will you not take this purse?" she asked.
"Nay! I will not take the purse, fair lady," he said, still speaking very low, "but I would fain, an you would permit it, hold but for one instant your hand in mine. Will you not let me?"
The impulse was irresistible, the desire to hold her hand so strong that he had no power to combat it. She seemed puzzled and not a little frightened, but neither haughty nor resentful at his presumption: perhaps she felt the influence of the mystery which surrounded the dark, cloaked figure before her, or the more subtle spell of the mist-covered moon. She made no movement towards him, her hand which he craved to hold had dropped to her side.
There was magic in the vast stillness of the Moor; on each dew-tipped point of grey-green gorse, from every frond of emerald bracken, there glistened a tiny crystal. Timothy and Thomas had retreated to a safer position, out of sight behind the huge vehicle, and inside the coach Betty was cowering in terror. They stood alone, these two, away from all the world, in a land all their own, a land of dreams, of poetry, and romance, where men died for a look from women's eyes, and conquered the universe for a smile.
How silent was the Heath while he looked at her, and she returned his gaze half-trembling, wholly puzzled.
"Will you not let me?" he pleaded. And instinctively his voice trembled in the pleading, and there came back to her mind the memory of this same voice, young and tender, as she had heard it in the forge. But she would not let him know that she had guessed.
"Sir," she said with sudden, unaccountable shyness, "you have overpowered my men, they are but loutish cowards, and you are heavily armed. I am a defenceless woman. . . How can I refuse if you command?"
He took the pistols from his belt and laid them on the ground at her feet.
"Nay, fair lady!" he said, "there is no question of command. See! I am unarmed now, and your men are free. Give them the word and I'll not stir hand or foot till you have worked your will with me. You see, 'tis I am at your mercy . . . yet I still crave to hold your hand . . . for one moment . . . in mine . . ."
For one second more she hesitated: not because she was afraid, but because there was a subtle sweetness in this moment of suspense, a delicious feeling of expectancy for the joy that was to come.
Then she gave him her hand.
"Why! . . . how it trembles," he said, "like some tiny frightened bird. See how white it looks in my rough brown hand. You are not afraid?"
"Afraid? . . . oh no! . . . but . . . but the hour is late . . . I pray you let me depart . . . I must not tarry . . .for so much depends upon my journey. . .I pray you let me go."
"No, no! don't go," he pleaded, clinging to the little hand whose cool touch had made his very senses reel, "don't go . . . not just yet . . . See how glorious is the moon above those distant hills. . . and the mist-laden air which makes your hair glisten with a thousand diamonds, whilst I, poor fool holding your cool, white hand in mine, stand here gazing on a vision that whispers to me of things which can never, never be . . . No! no, don't go just yet . . . let the moon hide her light once more behind the mist . . . let the Heath sink into darkness . . . let me live in my dream one moment longer . . . it will be dispelled all too soon."
He had spoken so low, she scarce could hear, but she could feel his hand scorching hers with its fever-heat, and when he ceased speaking she heard a sigh, like a sob, a sigh of bitter longing, of hopeless regret, that made her heart ache with a new pain which was greater, more holy than pity.
A strange excitement seemed to pervade him. Madness was in his veins. He longed to seize her, to lift her up on Jack o' Lantern's back and gallop away with her over the Moor, far, far out beyond bracken and heather, over those distant Tors, on, on to the mountains of the moon, to the valley of the shadows, she lying passive in his arms, whilst he looked for ever into the clear blue depths of her eyes.
Perhaps she too felt this excitement gradually creeping over her; she tried to withdraw her hand, but he would not let it go. To her also there came the sense of unreality, of a vision of dreamland, wherein no one dwelt but she and this one man, where no sound came save that of his voice, rugged and tender, which brought tears of joy and pity to her eyes.
In the grass at her feet a cricket began to chirp, and suddenly from a little distance there came the quaint, sweet sound of a shepherd's pipe, playing an old-time rigadoon.
"Hark!" she whispered.
The sound, came nearer and nearer: she loved to hear the faint, elusive echo, the fairy accompaniment to her own dreamlike mood.
"What a sweet tune," she murmured, as instictively her foot began tapping the measure on the ground. "I mind it well! How oft have I danced to it beneath the Maypole!"
"Will you then dance it with me to-night?"
"Nay, sir. . .you do but jest . . ."
But his excitement was at fever-point now. The outlaw at least could work his will upon this Heath, of which he alone was king. He could not carry her away on Jack o' Lantern's back, but he could make her stay with him a while longer, dance with him, here in the moonlight, her hand in his, his arm at times round her waist in the mazes of the dance, her cheeks flushed, her eyes bright, her breath panting, aye! for she should feel too that reckless fire that scorched him. All the fierce, untamed blood in him ran like molten lava in his veins. Aye! for one more brief half-hour he--the lonely dweller on the Moor--the pariah, the outcast, would taste the joys of the gods.
"I was never more earnest in my life!" he vowed, with that gay, mad, merry laugh of his, "a dance with you here in the moonlight! Aye! a dance in the midst of my dreams!"
"But indeed, indeed, sir," she pleaded, "the hour is late and my business in London is very urgent."
"Nay, ten minutes for this dance will not much delay your journey, and I swear by your sweet eyes that after that you shall go unmolested."
"But if I refuse?"
"An you refuse," he said, bending the knee before her, and bowing humbly at her feet, "I will entreat you on my knees. . ."
"And if I still refuse?" she murmured.
"Then will I uproot the trees, break the carriage that bears you away, tear up the Heath and murder yon knaves! God in heaven only knows what I would not do an you refuse."
"No, no, sir, I pray you. . ." she said, alarmed at his vehemence, puzzled, fascinated, carried away by his wild, reckless mood and the potent spell of the witching moon. "Nay! how can I refuse? . . . I am in your power . . . and must do as you bid me . . . An you really wish for a dance . . ."
She allowed him to lead her away to a short distance off the beaten track, there, where a carpet of ling and grass, and walls of bramble and gorse formed a ballroom fit for gods and goddesses to dance in. At the further end of this clearing the quaint, shrivelled figure of Jock Miggs, the shepherd, had just come into view. At a little distance to the left, and close to the roadside, there was a small wooden shed, and beyond it a pen, used by the shepherds as a shelter on rough nights when tending their sheep on the Heath.
For the moment the pen was empty, and Jock Miggs was evidently making his way to the hut for a few hours' sleep, and had been playing his pipe for the sake of company.
"Aye! a dance here!" said Beau Brocade, "with the moon and stars to light us, a shepherd to play the tune, and the sprites that haunt the Heath for company! What ho! there! friend shepherd!" he shouted to Miggs.
The worthy Jock caught sight of the two figure standing in the centre of the clearing, not twenty paces away from him.
"Lud, have mery upon me!" he gasped. "Robbery! Violence! Murder!"
"Nay, friend! only merry-making," quoth Beau Brocade, gaily. "We want to dance upon this Heath, and you to play the tune for us."
"Eh? what?" muttered the shepherd, in his vague, apologetic way, "dancing at this hour o' the night?"
"And me to play for a parcel of mad folk?"
"Well said, honest shepherd! Let us all be mad to-night! but you shall play for us, and here!--here is the wherewithal to set your pipe in tune."
He threw a heavy purse across to Miggs, who, still muttering something about lunatics on the Heath, slowly stooped and picked it up.
"Guineas!" he muttered, weighing it in his hand, "guineas, as I live! Guineas for playing a dance tune. Nay, sir, you're mad, sure enough."
"Wilt play the tune, shepherd?" shouted Beau Brocade in wild impatience.
Jock Miggs shook his head with a determined air.
"Nay! your madness is naught to me. You've paid for a tune, and you shall have the tune. But, Lordy! Lordy! these be 'mazing times."
He settled himself down on a clump of grass-covered earth, and stolidly began piping the same old-time rigadoon. These were a pair of lunatics, for sure, but since the gentleman had paid for this extraordinary pleasure, 'twas not for a poor shepherd to refuse to earn a few honest guineas.
Beau Brocade bowed to his lady with all the courtly grace of a town gallant.
"Madam! your most humble, and most obedient servant."
As in a dream Patience began to tread the measure. It was all so strange, so unreal! surely this was a dream, and she would wake anon.
She turned and twisted in the mazes of the dance, gradually the intoxication of it all had reached her brain; she seemed to see round her in the grass pixie faces gazing curiously upon her. All the harebells seemed to tinkle, the shepherd's pipe sounded like fairy bells. Through the holes in the black mask she could see a pair of burning eyes watching her as if entranced.
She felt like a creature of some other world, a witch mayhap, dancing a wild saraband with this man, her lord and master, a mad, merry sprite who had arranged this moonlight Sabbath.
Her cheeks began to glow, her eyes were sparkling with the joy of this dance. Her breath came panting through her parted lips.
Aye! mad were they both! what else? Their madness was the intoxication which man alone can feel when his joy equals that of the gods! Quicker, shepherd! quicker! let thy pipe wake all the fairy echoes of this mystic, ghostlike Moor! Let all the ghouls and gnomes come running hither, let the stars pale with envy, let fairies and sprites clap their hands for joy, since one man in all this world was happier than all the spirits in heaven!
How long it lasted neither of them could tell. The honey-coloured moon lighted them all the while, the blue mist wrapped them as in a mystic veil. Still they danced on; at times she almost lay in his arms, hot, panting, yet never weary, then she would slip away, and with eyes aglow, cheeks in rosy flame, beckon to him, evade, advance, then once more put her hand in his and madden him with the touch.
Oh! that heaven-born hour! why did it ever cease?
A wild shriek, twice repeated, brought them both to a standstill.
She, with heart beating, and hand pressed to her panting bosom, was unable to stir. Whilst the excitement kept her up she had dance, but now, with that piercing shriek, the dream had vanished and she was back on earth once more.
"What was that?"
Thomas and Timothy, attracted by the strange spectacle, had gradually crept up to the clearing, and through a clump of gorse and bracken had been watching the weird, midnight dance. On the further side, and close to Jock Miggs, John Stich had been standing in the shadow of a thorn bush. He had been running all the way, ever since he heard the two pistol-shots. Amazed at the strange sight that met his honest eyes, he had not dared to interfere. Perhaps his honest faithful heart felt with, even if it did not altogether comprehend, the wayward, half-crazy mood of his friend.
Betty alone, terrified and not a little sulky, had remained in the coach. It was her shriek that roused the spectators and performers of this phantasy on the Heath.
"My lady! my lady!" screamed Betty once more at the top of her voice.
Then, all of a sudden, Patience understood. Fairyland had indeed vanished. The awful reality came upon her with appalling cruelty.
"My letters!" she gasped, and started running towards the coach.
But already Jack Bathurst had bounded across the clearing, closely followed by John Stich. Patience's cry of mad, terror-stricken appeal had gone straight to his brain, and dissipated in the fraction of a second the reckless excitement of the past hour.
The wild creature of one moment's wayward mood was in that same fraction of time re-transformed into the cool and daring dweller of the Moor, on whose head the law had set a price, and who in revenge had made every law his slave.
His keen, quick eye had already sighted the smith.
"After me, John!" he commanded, "and run for your life."
When the two men had fought their way through the clumps of gorse and bracken which screened the clearing from the road, they were just in time to see a man quickly mounting a dark brown horse, which stood some twenty yards in front of the coach.
The carriage door nearest to them was open, and poor Mistress Betty lay on the ground close beside it, still screaming at the top of her voice.
With one bound Beau Brocade had reached Jack o' Lantern, who, accustomed to his unfettered life on the Heath, had quietly roamed about at will, patiently waiting for his master's call. The young man was unarmed, since he had placed his pistols awhile ago at Patience's feet, but Jack o' Lantern was swift-footed as the deer, and would overtake any strange horseman easily.
Beau Brocade's hand was on his horse's bridle and there were barely a few yards between him and the mysterious horseman, who was preparing to gallop away, when the latter turned, and suddenly pointing a pistol at his pursuer, fired two shots in rapid succession.
The young man did not stop at once. He clutched Jack o' Lantern's bridle and tried to mount, but he staggered and almost fell.
"After him, John," he cried in a hoarse voice, as, staggering once more, he fell upon one knee. "After him! quick! take Jack o' Lantern, don't mind me!"
John had no need to be told twice. He seized the horse's bridle and swung himself into the saddle as quickly as he could.
But these few seconds had given the horseman a sufficient start. Although the moon was bright the mist was thick, and the bracken and thorn bushes very dense on the other side of the road. Already he had disappeared from view, and John's ears and eyes were not so keen as those of Beau Brocade, the highwayman, the wounded monarch of the Heath.