Mr. Inch, beadle of the parish of Brassington, was altogether in his element.
Dressed in his gold-laced coat, bob-tail wig and three-cornered hat, his fine calves encased in the whitest of cotton stockings, his buckled shoes veritable mirrors of shiny brilliancy, he was standing, wand of office in hand, outside the door of the tiny Court House, where Colonel West, Squire of Brassington, was sitting in judgement on the poachers and footpads of the neighbourhood.
Before Mr. Inch stood no less a person than Master Mittachip, attorney-at-law. Master Mittachip desired to speak with Squire West, and the pompous beadle was in the proud position of standing between this presumptuous desire and the supreme Majesty of the Law.
"Them's my orders, sir," he said, with all the solemnity which this extraordinary event demanded. "Them's my orders. Squire West's own orders. 'Inch," he says to me--my name being Jeremiah Inch, sir--'Inch,' he says, 'the odours which perambulate the court-room'--and mind ye, sir, he didn't use such polite language either--'the odours, is more than I can endurate this hot morning!' As a matter of fact, sir, truth compellates me to state that squire West's own words were: 'Inch, this room stinks like hell! too many sweating yokels about!' Then he gave me his orders: 'The room is too full as it is, don't admit any one else, on any pretext or cause whatsoever.'"
Master Mittachip had made various misguided efforts to interrupt Mr. Inch's wonderful flow of eloquence. It was only when the worthy beadle paused to take breath, that the attorney got in a word edgewise.
"Harkee, my good man. . . ." he began impatiently.
"I am extra-ordinarily grieved, sir," interrupted Master Inch, who had not nearly finished, "taking into consideration that I am somewhat dubersome, whether what his Honour said about the odours could apply individually to you, but orders is orders, sir, and the Squire as a legal luminosity must be obeyed in all things."
Mr. Inch heaved a deep sigh of satisfaction. It was not often that he had the opportunity of showing off his marvellous eloquence and wonderful flow of language before so distinguished a gentleman as Master Mittachip, attorney-at-law. But the latter seemed not to appreciate the elegance of the worthy beadle's diction; on the contrary, he had throughout shown signs of the greatest impatience, and now, directly Mr. Inch heaved this one sigh, Master Mittachip produced a silver half-crown, and toying with it, in apparent indifference, said significantly,--
"I am sure, friend Beadle, that if you were to acquaint Squire West that his Honour, Sir Humphrey Challoner, desired to speak with him. . ."
Mr. Inch stroked his fat, clean-shaven chin, and eyed the silver half-crown with an anxious air.
"Ah! perhaps!" he suggested with as much dignity as the new circumstance allowed, "perhaps if I did so far contravene my orders. . ."
"I feel sure that Sir Humphrey would see fit to reward you," suggested the attorney, still idly fingering that tempting half-crown.
But Master Inch was still "dubersome."
"But then, you understand," he said, "it is against the regulations that I should vacuate my post until after the sitting is over . . .so . . ."
"Sir Humphrey Challoner is partaking of breakfast at the Royal George, Master Inch, he would with Squire West to know that he'll attend on him here in half an hour."
Master Inch closed one eye, and with the other keenly watched Master Mittachip's movements. The attorney turned the half-crown over in his lean hand once or twice, then he made as if he would put it back in his pocket.
This decided the beadle.
"I'll go and reconnoitre-ate," he said, "and perhaps I can despatch a menial to impart to the Squire, Sir Humphrey's wishes and cognomen."
Thus the majestic beadle felt that his dignity had not been impaired. With a magnificent turn of his portly person, and an imposing flourish of his wand of office, he disappeared within the precincts of the Court.
Master Mittachip slipped the half-crown back in his pocket, and did not wait for the beadle's return. He was quite satisfied that Sir Humphrey's wishes would be acceded to. He turned his back on the Court House and slowly crossed the green.
Opposite to him was the Royal George, where he and Master Duffy had put up for the night. In the small hours of the morning he had been aroused from peaceful slumbers by a great disturbance at the inn. Sir Humphrey Challoner, booted and spurred, but alone, on foot, and covered with mud, was peremptorily demanding admittance.
Since then Master Mittachip had had an interview with his employer, wherein his Honour had expressed the desire to speak with Squire West after he, himself, had partaken of late breakfast. That interview had been a very brief one, but it had sufficed to show to the lean attorney that Sir Humphrey's temper was none of the best this morning.
His Honour had desired Master Mittachip's presence again, and the latter was now making his way slowly back to the Royal George, his knees quaking under him, his throat dry, and his tongue parched with terror. Sir Humphrey Challoner was not pleasant to deal with when his temper was up.
The attorney found his Honour installed at breakfast in the private parlour of the inn, and consuming large mugs full of ale and several rashers of fried bacon.
"Well?" queried Sir Humphrey, impatiently, as soon as the attorney's lean, bird-like face appeared in the doorway.
"I sent word to his Honour, Squire West," explained the latter, coming forward timidly, "saying that you would wish to see him at the Court House in half an hour. And, unless your Honour would wish me to speak to the Squire for you . . ."
"No!" rejoined his Honour, curtly. "'Sdeath! don't stand there fidgeting before me," he added. "Sit down!"
Master Mittachip meekly obeyed. He selected the straightest chair in the room, placed it as far away from his Honour as he could, and sat down on the extreme edge of it.
"Well! you lean-faced coward," began his Honour, whose temper did not seem to have improved after his substantial breakfast, "you allowed yourself to be robbed of my money last night, eh?"
Thus much Sir Humphrey knew already, for his first inquiry on meeting Mittachip at the inn had been after his rents. Since then the attorney had had half an hour in which to reflect on what he would say when his Honour once more broached the subject. Therefore he began to protest with a certain degree of assurance.
"On my honour, Sir Humphrey, you misjudge me," he said deliberately. "As my clerk and I passed the loneliest spot on the Heath, and without any previous warning, two masked men leapt into the path in front of us, and presented pistols. A third man called to us to stand."
Here Master Mittachip made an effective pause, the better to watch the impression which his narrative was making on his employer. The latter was quietly picking his teeth, and merely remarked quietly,--
"Well? and what did you do?"
Thus encouraged Mittachip waxed more bold.
"In a flash I drew a pistol," he continued glibly, "and so did Duffy. . . for I must say he bore himself bravely. We both fired, and my ball knocked the hat off the fellow nearest to me, but Master Duffy's ball unfortunately missed. I was drawing my other pistol, determined to make a desperate fight, and I believe Duffy did as much . . . I was amazed that the fellows did not fire upon us in return. . ."
He was distinctly warming up to his subject. But here he was interrupted by a loud guffaw. Sir Humphrey was evidently vastly amused at the thrilling tale, and his boisterous laugh went echoing along the blackened rafter of the old village inn.
"Odd's my life! 'tis perfect! marvellous, I call it! And tell me, Master Mittachip," added his Honour, whose eyes were streaming and whose sides were shaking with laughter, "tell me, why did they not fire? Eh?"
From past experience Master Mittachip should have known that when Sir Humphrey Challoner laughed his loudest, then was he mostly to be dreaded. Yet in this instance the attorney's delight at his own realistic story drowned the wiser counsels of prudence. He took his Honour's hilarity as a compliment to his own valour, and continued proudly,--
"The reason was not far to seek, for at that very moment we were both seized upon from behind by two big fellows. Then all five of them fell upon us and dragged us aside into the darkness; they tied scarves about our mouths, so that we could not cry out. . . Aye! and had some difficulty in doing it, for believe me, Sir Humphrey, I fought like mad! Then they rifled us of everything. . . despoiled us absolutely. . ."
At this point it struck Master Mittachip that his Honour's continued gaiety was somewhat out of place. The narrative had become thrilling surely, exciting and blood-curdling too, and yet Sir Humphrey was laughing more lustily than ever.
"Go on, man! go on," he gasped between his paroxysms of merriment. "Odd's life! but 'tis the best story I've heard for many a day!"
"I will swear to the truth o' it in any court of law," protested the attorney with somewhat less assurance.
"The fifth man was Beau Brocade. I heard the others address him so, while I was lying gagged and bound."
"Aye! you would lie anywhere," commented his Honour, "gagged and bound or not."
"From your observation, Sir Humphrey, I gather that you somewhat. . . er. . .doubt my story!" murmured Master Mittachip in a quavering voice.
"Doubt it, man? . . . doubt it?" laughed his Honour, holding his sides, "nay! how can I doubt it? I saw it all. . ."
"You, Sir Humphrey?"
"I was there, man, on the Heath. I saw it all . . . your vigorous defence, your noble valour, your. . . your. . ."
Master Mittachip's sallow face had assumed a parchment-like hue. He passed his dry tongue over his parched lips, great drops of moisture appeared beneath his wig. That his fears were not unfounded was presently proved by Sir Humphrey's sudden change of manner.
The hilarious laugh died down in his Honour's throat, an ugly frown gathered above his deep-set eyes, and with a violent curse he brought his heavy fist down crashing upon the table.
"And now, you lying, lumbering poltroon, where's my money?"
"B. . . b. . . but, Sir Humphrey. . ." stammered the attorney, now pallid with terror.
"There's no 'but' about it. You collected some rents for me, thirty guineas in all, that money must lie to my account in the bank at Wirksworth tomorrow, or by G-- I'll have you clapped in jail like the thief that you are."
"B. . .b. . .but, your Honour. . ."
"Silence! I've said my last word. If that money is not in the bank by noon to-morrow, I'll denounce you to the Wirksworth magistrate as a fraudulent agent. Now hold your tongue about that. I've said my last word. The rest is your affair, not mine. I've more important matters to think on."
Master Mittachip, half dead with fear, dared not offer further argument or pleading. He knew his employer well enough to realise that his honour meant every word he said, and that he himself had nothing more to hope for in the matter of the money. The deficiency extracted from him by that rascal Beau Brocade would have to be made good somehow, and Master Mittachip bethought him ruefully of his own savings, made up of sundry little commissions extorted from his Honour's tenants.
No wonder the attorney felt none too kindly disposed towards the highwayman. He watched Sir Humphrey's face as a hungry dog does his master's, and noted with growing satisfaction that his Honour's anger was cooling down gradually, and giving place to harder and more cruel determination. As he watched, the look of terror died out of his bony, sallow face, and his pale, watery eyes began to twinkle with keen and vengeful malice.