Chapter XIX
His Oath

Patience's first thought as soon as she reached the road was for Betty; she helped the poor girl toer feet and tried to get some coherent explanation from her.

"I was listening to the tune, my lady, and leaning my head out of the window," moaned Mistress Betty, who was more frightened than hurt, "when suddenly the carriage door was torn open, I was dragged out and left screaming on the ground. . . That's all I know."

But one glance at the interior of the coach had revealed the whole awful truth. It had been ransacked, and the receptacle beneath the cushions, where had lain the all-important letters, was now obviously empty.

"The letters! oh, the letters!" moaned Patience in an agony of misery and remorse. "Philip, my dear, dear one, you entrusted your precious life in my hands, and I have proved unworthy of the trust."

Her spirit wholly broken by the agony of this cruel thought, she cowered on the step of the carriage, her head buried in her hands, in a passion of heartbroken tears.

"My lady. . ."

She looked down, and by the dim light of the moon she saw a figure on its knees, dragging itself with a visibly painful effort slowly towards her.

In a moment she was on her feet, tall, haughty, a world of scorn in her eyes; she looked down with horror at the prostrate figure before her.

"Nay, sir," she said with icy contempt, "an you have a spark of honour left in you, take off that mask, let me at least see who you are."

The agony of shame was more than she could bear. She who had deemed herself so proud, so strong, that she should have been thus fooled, duped, tricked, and by this man! this thief! this low-class robber who had dared to touch her hand! All the pride of race and caste rose in revolt within her. Who was he that he should dare to have spoken to her as he did? Her cheeks glowed with shame at the memory of that voice which she had loved to hear, the tender accent in it, and oh! she had been his plaything, his tool, for this infamous trick which had placed her dear, dear brother's life in peril worse than before.

Meekly he had obeyed her, his own proud spirit bent before her grief. His face--ashy pale now and drawn with pain and weakness--looked up in mute appeal for forgiveness.

"A poor wretch," he murmured feebly, "whose mad and foolish whim. . ."

But she turned from him in bitter loathing, drawing herself up to her full height, trying by every means in her power to show the contempt which she felt for him. So absorbed was she in her grief and humiliation, in her agony or remorse for her broken trust, that she did not realise that he was hurt, and fainting with loss of blood.

"You . . . you . . ." she murmured with horror and contempt. "Nay! I pray you do not speak to me . . . You . . . you have duped and tricked me, and I . . . I . . . Oh!" she added with a wealth of bitter reproach, "what wrong had I or my dear brother done to you that you should wish to do him so much harm? What price had his enemies set upon his head that you should sell it to them?"

He tried to interrupt her, for her words hurt him ten thousand times more than the wound in his shoulder: with almost superhuman effort he dragged himself to his feet, clinging to the bracken to hold himself upright. He would not let her see how she made him suffer. She! his beautiful white rose, whom unwittingly he had, it seemed, so grievously wronged. Her mind was distraught, she did not understand, and oh! it was impossible that she could realise the cruelty of her words, more hard to endure than any torture the fiendish brain of man could devise.

"I'd have given you gold," she continued, whilst heavy sobs choked the voice in her throat, "if 'twas gold you wanted . . . Here is the purse you did not take just now! Two hundred guineas for you, sir, and you bring me back those letters!"

And with a last gesture of infinite scorn she threw the purse on the ground before him.

A cry escaped him then: the terrible, heart-rending cry of the wild beast wounded unto death. But it was momentary; that great love he bore her helped him to understand. Love is never selfish--always kind. Love always understands.

He could scarcely speak now, and the seconds were very precious, but with infinite gentleness he contrived to murmur faintly,--

"Madam! I swear by those sweet lips of yours now turned in anger against me that you do me grievous wrong. My fault, alas! is great! I cannot deny it, since in this short, mad hour of the dance my eyes were blind and mine ears deaf to all save to your own dear presence."

"Aye! 'twas a clever trick," she retorted, lashing herself to scorn, wilfully deaf to the charm of that faint voice, turning away from the tender appeal of his eyes: "a trick from beginning to end! Your chivalry at the forge! your rôle of gallant gentleman of the road! the while you plotted with a boon companion to rob me of the very letters that would have saved my brother's life."

"Letters? . . . that would have saved your brother's life? . . . What letters? . . ."

"Nay, sir! I pray you fool me no further. Heaven only knows how you learnt our secret, for I'll vouch that John Stitch was no traitor. Those letters were stolen, sir, by your accomplice, whilst you tricked me into this dance."

He pulled himself together with a vigorous effort of will, forcing himself to speak quietly and firmly, conquering the faintness and dizziness which was rapidly overpowering him.

"Madam!" he said gently, "dare I hope that you will believe me when I say that I know naught of those letters? . . . John Stich, as you know, is loyal and true . . . not even to me would he have revealed your secret. . . nay, more! . . . it seems that I too have been tricked to further a villain's ends. Will you not try and believe that had i known what those letters were I would have guarded them, for your sweet sake, with my last dying breath?"

She did not reply: for the moment she could not, for her tears choked her, and there was the magic of that voice which she could not resist. Still she would not look at him.

"Sir!" she said a little more calmly, "Heaven has given you a gentle voice, and the power of tender words, with which to cajole women. I would wish to believe you, but . . ."

She was interrupted by the sound of voices, those of Thomas and Timothy, her men, who had kept a lookout for John Stich. The next moment the smith himself, breathless and panting, came into view. He had ridden hard, for Jack o' Lantern's flanks were dripping with sweat, but there was a look of grave disappointment on the honest man's face.

"Well?" queried Beau Brocade, excitedly, as soon as John had dismounted.

"I'm feared that I've lost the scoundrel's track," muttered John, ruefully.

"No?"

"At first I was in hot pursuit, he galloping towards Brassington; suddenly he seemed to draw rein, and the next moment a riderless horse came tearing past me, and then disappeared in the direction of Aldwark."

"A riderless horse?"

"Aye! I thought at first that maybe he'd been thrown; I scoured the Heath for half a mile around, but . . .the mist was so thick in the hollow, and there was not a sound. . .I'd have needed a bloodhound to track the rascal down."

An exclamation of intense disappointment escaped from the lips of Lady Patience and of Beau Brocade.

"Do you know who it was, John?" queried the latter.

"No doubt of that, Captain. It was Sir Humphrey Challoner right enough."

"Sir Humphrey Challoner!" cried Patience, in accents of hopeless despair, "the man who covets my fortune now holds my brother's life in the hollow of his hand."

Excitedly, defiantly, she once more turned to Beau Brocade.

"Nay, sir," she said, "an you wish me to believe that you had no part in this villainy, get those letters back for me from Sir Humphrey Challoner!"

He drew himself up to his full height, his pride at least was equal to her own.

"Madam! I swear to you. . ." he began. He staggered and would have fallen, but faithful Stich was nigh, and caught him in his arms.

"You are hurt, Captain?" he whispered, a world of anxiety in his kindly eyes.

"Nay! nay!" murmured Beau Brocade, faintly, "'tis nothing!. . . help me up, John! . . . I have something to say . . and must say it . . . standing!"

But Nature at last would have her will with him, the wild, brave spirit that had kept him up all this while was like to break at last. He fell back dizzy and faint against faithful John's stout breast.

Then only did she understand and realise. She saw his young face, once so merry and boyish, now pale with a hue almost of death; she saw his once laughing eyes now dimmed with the keenness of his suffering. Her woman's heart went out to him, she loathed herself for her cruelty, her heart, overburdened with grief, nearly broke at the thought of what she had done.

"You are hurt, sir," she said, as she bent over him, her eyes swimming in tears, "and I . . .I knew it not."

The spell of her voice brought his wandering spirit back to earth and to her.

"Aye, hurt, sweet dream!" he murmured feebly, "deeply wounded by those dear lips, which spoke such cruel words; but for the rest 'tis naught. See!" he added, trying to raise himself and stretching a yearning hand towards her, "the moon has hid her face behind that veil of mist. . . and I can no longer see the glory of your hair! . . . my eyes are dim, or is it that the Heath is dark? . . . I would fain see your blue eyes once again . . . By the tender memory of my dream born this autumn afternoon, I swear, sweet lady, that your brother's life shall be safe! . . . Whilst I have one drop of blood left in my veins, I will protect him."

With trembling hand he sought the white rose which still lay close to her breast: she allowed him to take it, and he pressed it to his lips.

Then, with a final effort he drew himself up once more, and said loudly and clearly,--

"By this dear token I swear that I will get those letters back for you before the sun has risen twice o'er our green-clad hills."

"Sir. . . I. . ."

"Tell me but once that you believe me. . .and I will have the strength that moves the mountains."

"I believe you, sir," she said simply. "I believe you absolutely."

"Then place your dear hand in mine," he whispered, "and trust in me."

And the last thought of which he was conscious was of her cool, white fingers grasping his fevered hand. Then the poor aching head fell back on John's shoulder, the burning eyes were closed, kindly Nature had taken the outlaw to her breast and spread her beneficent mantle of oblivion over his weary senses at last.