John Stich too had heard that laugh; for a moment he paused in his work, straightened his broad back and leant his heavy hammer upon the anvil, whilst a pleasant smile lit up his bronzed and rugged countenance.
"There goes the Captain," he said, "I wonder now what's tickling him. Ah!" he added with a short sigh, "the soldiers, maybe. He doesn't like soldiers much, doesn't the Captain."
He sighed again and looked across to where, on a rough wooden bench, sat a young man with head resting on his hand, his blue eyes staring moodily before him. The dress this young man wore was a counterpart of that in which John himself was arrayed; rough worsted stockings, thick flannel shirt with sleeves well tucked up over fine, muscular arms, and a large, greasy, well-worn leather apron, denoting the blacksmith's trade. But though the hands and face were covered with grime, a close observer would soon have noticed that those same hands were slender and shapely, the fingers long, the nails neatly trimmed, whilst the face, anxious and careworn though it was, had a look of habitual command, of pride not yet crushed out of ken.
John Stich gazed at him for a while, whilst a look of pity and anxiety saddened his honest face. The smith was a man of few words; he said nothing then, and presently the sound of his hammer upon the anvil once more filled the forge with its pleasant echo. But though John's tongue was slow, his ear was quick, and in one moment he had perceived the dull thud made by the Corporal's squad as, having parted from Mr. Inch at the cross-roads, the soldiers ploughed their way through the mud round the cottage and towards the forge.
"Hist!" said John, in a rapid whisper, pointing to the fire, "the bellows! quick!"
The young man too had started in obvious alarm. His ear--the ear of a fugitive, trained to every sound that betokened danger--was as alert as that of the smith. With a sudden effort he pulled himself together, and quickly seized the heavy bellows with a will. He forced his eyes to glance carelessly at the door and his lips to whistle a lively country tune.
The Corporal paused a moment at the entrance, taking a quick survey of the interior of the forge, his men at attention behind him.
"In the King's name!" he said loudly, as he unfolded the Proclamation of His Majesty's Parliament.
His orders were to read it in every hamlet and every homestead in the district; John Stich, the blacksmith, was an important personage all around Brassing Moor, and he had not heard it read from beneath the old gallows at the cross-roads just now.
"Well, Corporal," said the worthy smith, quietly, as he put down his hammer out of respect for the King's name. "Well, and what does His Majesty, King George II., desire with John Stich, the blacksmith, eh?"
"Not with you alone, John Stich," replied the Corporal. "This is an Act of Parliament and concerns all loyal subjects of the King. Who be yon lad?" he asked, carelessly nodding towards the young man at the bellows.
"My nephew Jim, out o' Nottingham," replied John Stich, quietly, "my sister Hannah's child. You recollect her, Corporal? She was in service with my Lord Exeter up at Derby."
"Oh, aye! Mistress Hannah Stich, to be sure! I didn't know she had such a fine lad of her own," commented the Corporal, as the young man straightened his tall figure and looked him fearlessly in the face.
"Lads grow up fast enough, don't they, Corporal?" laughed honest Stich, pleasantly; "but come, let's hear His Majesty's Proclamation since you've got to read it. But you see I'm very busy and. . ."
"Nay, 'tis my duty, John Stich, 'in every homestead in Derbyshire' 'tis to be read, so says this Act of Parliament. You might have saved this trouble had you come down to the cross-roads just now."
"I was busy," remarked John Stich, drily, and the Corporal began to read:--
"It having come to the knowledge of His Majesty's Parliament that certain subjects of the King have lately raised the standard of rebellion, setting up the Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, above the King's most lawful Majesty, it is hereby enacted that these persons are guilty of high treason and by the laws of the kingdom are condemned to death. It is further enacted that it is unlawful for any loyal subject of the King to shelter or harbour, clothe or feed any such persons who are vile traitors and rebels to their King and country: and that any subject of His Majesty who kills such a traitor or rebel doth thereby commit and act of justice and loyalty, for which he may be rewarded by the sum of twenty guineas."
There was a pause when the Corporal had finished reading. John Stich was leaning upon his hammer, the young man once more busied himself with the bellows. Outside, the clearing shower of September rain began pattering upon the thatched roof of the forge.
"Well," said John Stich at last, as the Corporal put the heavy parchment away in his wallet. "Well, and are you going to tell us who are those persons, Corporal, whom our village lads are told to murder by Act of Parliament? How shall we know a rebel. . .and shoot him. . .when we see one?"
"There were forty persons down on the list a few weeks ago, persons who were known to be in hiding in Derbyshire," said the young soldier, "but. . ."
"Well, what's your 'but,' Corporal? There were forty persons whom 'twas lawful to murder a few weeks ago.. . .What of them?"
"They have been caught and hanged, most of them," replied the soldier, quietly.
"Jim, lad, mind that fire," commented John Stich, turning to his "nephew out o' Nottingham," for the latter was staring with glowing eyes and quivering lips at the Corporal, who, not noticing him, continued carelessly,--
"There was Lord Lovat now, you must have heard of him, John Stich, he was beheaded a few days ago, and so was Lord Kilmarnock. . .and they were lords, you see, and had a headsman all to themselves on Tower Hill, that's up in London: some lesser folk have been hanged, and now there are only three rebels at large, and there are twenty guineas waiting for anyone who will bring the head of one of them to the nearest magistrate."
The smith grunted. "Well, and who are they?" he asked roughly.
"Sir Andrew Macdonald up from Tweedside, then Squire Fairfield, you'd mind him, John Stich, over Staffordshire way?"
"Aye, aye, I mind him well enough. His mother was a Papist and he clung to the Stuart cause. . .young man, too, and hiding for his life.. . .Well, and who else?"
"The young Earl of Stretton."
"What! him from Stretton Hall?" said John Stich in open astonishment. "Jim, lad," he added sternly, "thou art a clumsy fool."
The young man had started involuntarily at sound of the last name mentioned by the Corporal; and the bellows which he had tried to wield fell with a clatter to the floor.
"Be gy! but an Act of Parliament can make thee a lawful assassin, it seems," added honest John, with a laugh, "but let me perish if it can make thee a good smith. What think you, Master Corporal?"
"Odd's life! the lad is too soft-hearted mayhap! Our Derbyshire lads haven't much sense in their heads, have they?"
"Well, you mind the saying, Corporal, 'Derbyshire born and Derbyshire bred. . .' eh?"
"'Strong i' the arm and weak i' the head,'" laughed the soldier, concluding the apt quotation. "That's just it. Odd's buds! they want some sense. What's a rebel or a traitor but vermin, eh? and don't we kill vermin, all of us, and don't call it murder either--what?"
He laughed pleasantly and carelessly and tapped the side of his wallet where rested His Majesty's Proclamation. He was a young soldier, nothing more, attentive to duty, ready to obey, neither willing nor allowed to reason for himself. He had been taught that rebels and traitors were vermin. . .egad! vermin they were, and as such must be got rid of for the sake of the rest of the kingdom and the safety of His Majesty the King.
John Stich made no comment on the Corporal's profession of faith.
"We'll talk about all that some other time, Coporal," he said at last, "but I am busy now, you see. . ."
"No offense, friend Stich.. . .Odd's life, duty you know, John, duty, eh? His Majesty's orders! and I had them from the Captain, who had them from the Duke of Cumberland himself. So you mind the Act, friend!"
"Aye! I mind it well enough."
"Everyone knows you to be a loyal subject of King George," added the Corporal in conciliatory tones, for John was a power in the district, "and I'm sure your nephew is of the same, but duty is duty, and no offence meant."
"That's right enough, Corporal," said John Stich, impatiently.
"So good-morrow to you, John Stich."
The Corporal nodded to the young man, then turned on his heel and presently his voice was heard ringing out the word of command,--
"Attention!--Right turn--Quick march!"
John Stich and the young man watched the half-dozen red-coated figures as they turned to skirt the cottage: the dull thud of their feet quickly dying away, as they wound their way slowly up the muddy path which leads across the Heath to Aldwark village.