He waited a little while, and gradually a smile of the deepest satisfaction spread over his bird-like countenance; he rubbed his meagre knees up and down with his thin hands, in obvious delight, and as soon as he saw his opportunity, he remarked slily,--
"An your Honour was on the Heath last night, you can help me to testify to highway robbery before Squire West. There are plenty of soldiers in this village. His Honour'll have out a posse or two; the rascal can't escape hanging this time."
Sir Humphrey's florid, sensual face suddenly paled with a curious intensity of hatred.
"Aye! he shall hang sure enough," he muttered, with a loud oath.
He dragged a chair forward, facing Mittachip, and sat astride on it, drumming a devil's tattoo on the back.
"Listen here, you old scarecrow," he said more quietly, "for I've not done with you yet. You don't understand, I suppose, what my presence here in Brassington means?"
"I confess that I am somewhat puzzled, your Honour," replied the attorney, meekly. "I remarked on it to Master Duffy, just before he started off for Wirksworth this morning. But he could offer no suggestion."
"Odd's life, man! couldn't you guess that having made my proposal to that rascally highwayman I could not rest at Aldwark unless I saw him carry it through?"
"I got a horse at the Moorhen, and at nightfall I rode out on the Heath. I feared to lose my way on the bridle path, and moreover, I wished to keep her ladyship's coach in view, so I kept to the road. It must have been close on midnight when I sighted it at last. It was at a standstill in the midst of a quagmire, and as I drew near I could see neither driver on the box, nor groom at the horses' heads."
"Well! that's all! there was a wench inside the coach; I threw her out and searched for the letters; I found them! That rascalling highwayman had played me false. Some distance from the road I spied him dancing a rigadoon in the moonlight with her ladyship, whilst her men, the dolts, were watching the spectacle! Ha! ha! ha! 'twas a fine sight too, I tell you! So now the sooner I get that chivalrous highwayman hanged, the better I shall like it."
"Then . . . am I to understand that your Honour has the letters?"
"Aye! I have the letters right enough!" said Sir Humphrey, with an oath between his clenched teeth, "but I fear me her ladyship has cajoled the rogue into her service. Else why this dance? I did not know what to make of it. Madness, surely, or she never would have left the letters unprotected. He bewitched her mayhap, and the devil, his master, lent him a helping hand. I'll see him hang, I tell you . . . Hang . . . Hang!"
Master Mittachip's attenuated frame quaked with terror. There was so much hatred, so much lust for revenge in Sir Humphrey's half-choked voice, that instictively the attorney cowered, as before some great and evil thing which he only half understood.
After awhile Sir Humphrey managed to control himself. He was ashamed of having allowed his agent this one peep into the darkness of his soul.
His love for Patience, though brutish and grasping, was as strong as his sensuous nature was capable of: his jealousy and hatred had been aroused by the strange scene he had witnessed on the Heath, and he was as conscious now of the longing for revenge, as of the desire to possess himself of Lady Patience and her fortune.
"'Sdeath!" he said more calmly, "Beau Brocade and that rascal John Stich were after me in a trice, and they'd have had the letters back from me, had I not put a bullet into the damned thief!"
"And wounded him, your Honour?" queried Mittachip, eagerly.
"Nay! I could not wait to see! but I hoped I had killed him, for 'twas John Stich who rode after me, fortunately. He was too big a fool to do me any harm and I quickly made him lose my track."
"And you've destroyed the letters, Sir Humphrey?"
"Destroyed them, you fool? Nay, it would ill suit my purpose if Stretton were to die. Can't you see that now," he said excitedly, "with those letters in my hand, I can force Lady Patience's acceptance of my suit? While her brother's life hangs in the balance I can offer her the letters, on condition that she consent to marry me, and threaten to destroy them if she refuse!"
"Aye! aye!" murmured the attorney, "'twere a powerful argument!"
"And remember," added his Honour, significantly, "there'll be two hundred guineas for you the day that I wed Lady Patience. That is, if you render me useful assistance to the end."
"Two hundred guineas!!! Good lack, Sir Humphrey, I hope you've got those letters safe!"
"Aye! safe enough for the present!"
"About your person?"
"Nay! you idiot! about my person? With so cunning a rascal as Beau Brocade at my heels!"
"Then in your valise, Sir Humphrey?"
"What? in a strange inn? Think you the fellow would be above breaking into my room? How do I know that mine host is not one of his boon companions? The rascal has many friends hereabouts."
"B. . .b . . . but what have you done with them, Sir Humphrey?" queried the attorney, in despair.
"In your ear, Master Mittachip," quoth his Honour, instinctively lowering his voice, lest the walls of the old inn had ears. "I thought the best plan was to hide the letters there, where Lady Patience and her chivalrous highwayman would least expect to find them."
"How so, good Sir Humphrey?"
"I was hard pressed, mind you, and had but a few seconds in which to make up my mind. I dismounted, then lashed my horse into a panic. As I expected he made straight for his own stables, at any rate, he galloped off like mad in the direction of Aldwark, whilst I remained cowering in the dense scrub, grateful for the mist, which was very dense in the hollow. There I remained hidden for about half an hour, until all sound died away on the Heath. What happened to that damned highwayman or to John Stich I know not, but I did not feel that the letters were safe whilst they were about my person. I knew that I was some distance from this village, and still further from Aldwark, and feared that I should be pursued and overtaken. At any rate, I crept out of my hiding-place, and presently found myself close to a wooden hut, not far from the roadside: and there, underneath some bramble and thorny stuff, I hid the letters well out of sight."
"Oh! but they won't be safe there, Sir Humphrey," moaned Mittachip, who seemed to see the golden vision of two hundred guineas vanishing before his eyes. "Think of it. Any moment they might be unearthed by some dolt of a shepherd!"
"'Sdeath! I know that, you fool! They're in a dry place now, but I only mean them to remain there until you can take them to your own house at Wirksworth, and put them in your strong room till I have need of them."
But this suggestion so alarmed Master Mittachip that he lost his balance and nearly fell off the edge of his chair.
"I, Sir Humphrey? . . .I . . .cross that lonely Heath again? . . . and with those letters about my person? . . ."
"Tush, man! the footpads wouldn't take letters from you, and Beau Brocade will be keeping an eye on me, and wouldn't again molest you. . ."
"Aye! but he knows I enjoy the honour of your confidence, good Sir Humphrey! Believe me, the letters would not be safe with me."
"Adsbud!" said his Honour, firmly, "then I'll have to find some one else to take care of those letters for me, and," he added significantly, "to earn the two hundred guineas."
Master Mittachip gave an anxious gasp. That two hundred guineas!!! the ultimate ambition of his sordid, miserable existence! No! he would not miss that! . . . and yet he dreaded the Heath . . .and was in terror of Beau Brocade . . . and he dreaded his Honour's anger ten thousand times more than either: that anger would be terrible if, having taken charge of the letters, he should be robbed of them.
The alternative was an awful one! He racked his tortuous brain for a likely issue. Sir Humphrey had risen, kicked his chair to one side, and made as if he would go.
"Now, harkee, friend Mittachip," he said firmly, "I want those letters placed somewhere in absolute safety, where neither Lady Patience's influence nor her chivalrous highwayman could possibly get at them. If you find a way and means of doing this for me, the two hundred guineas are yours. But if I have to manage this business myself, if I have to take the almost certain risk of being robbed of the letters, if I carry them about my own person, then you shall not get another shilling from me. Now you can think this matter over. I'll across to speak to Squire West, and see if I can't get that rascally highwayman captured and clapped into jail before the day is done."
He took up his hat, and threw his coat over his arm. The situation was getting desperate.
Then suddenly Master Mittachip had an idea.
"I have it, Sir Humphrey," he cried excitedly. "I have it! A perfectly safe way of conveying those letters to my strong room at Wirksworth!"
"Let's have it, then."
"I have bought some sheep of a farmer from over Aldwark way, for a client at Wirksworth. Here," he added, pulling a paper out of his pocket and handing it up to Sir Humphrey, "is the receipt and tally for them. Jock Miggs--Master Crabtree's shepherd--is taking the sheep of the town to-day. He'll most likely put up for the night on the Heath."
"Well?" queried Sir Humphrey.
"Well! Jock Miggs can neither read nor write."
"Of course not."
"Let us send *him* to Wirksworth and tell him to leave hte packet of letters at my house in charge of my clerk, Master Duffy, who will put it in the strong room until you want them. Duffy started for Wirksworth at daybreak this morning, and should be there by nightfall."
"Pshaw, man! would you have me trust such valuable letters to a fool of a shepherd?"
"Nay, Sir Humphrey, but that is our safeguard. Beau Brocade never touches the poor or the peasantry, and certainly would never suspect Jock Miggs of being in your Honour's confidence, whilst the ordinary footpads would take no count of him. He is worth neither powder nor shot."
"That's true enough!"
"I shall tell Miggs that the papers are accounts for the sheep, and promise him a silver crown if he delivers them safely at my door. We can put the letters in a sealed packet; no one would ever suspect him."
There was silence in the inn parlour for awhile. His Honour stood with legs apart, opposite the tiny leaded window, gazing out into vacancy, whilst Master Mittachip fixed his eyes meditatively on the broad back of his noble patron. What a deal depended on what was going on at the present moment in Sir Humphrey's active brain.
Suddenly his Honour turned on his heel.
"Odd's fish, Master Mittachip," he said, "but your plan is none so bad after all."
The attorney heaved a deep sigh of relief, and began mopping his beady forehead. The tension had been acute. This lengthy, agitating interview had been extremely trying. So much hung in the balance, and so much had depended upon that very uncertain quantity, his Honour's temper. But now the worst was over. Sir Humphrey was a man of determination, who never changed his mind once that mind was made up, and who carried any undertaking through with set purpose and unflinching will.
"Well! and when can I see that shepherd you speak of?" he asked.
"If your Honour would ride over on the Heath with me this afternoon," suggested the attorney, "I doubt not that we should come across Jock Miggs and his sheep, and in any case he would be at the hut by nightfall."
"Very good!" rejoined his Honour. "Do you see that a couple of horses be ready for us. We can start as soon as I have spoken with Squire West and laid my information against that d--d Beau Brocade. With a posse of soldiers at his heels he's less likely to worry us, eh, old scarecrow?"
"We shall not be safe, your Honour," assented worthy Master Mittachip, "until the rascal is dangling six feet above the ground. In the meanwhile," he added, seeing that Sir Humphrey was making for the door, "your Honour will be pleased to give me back that receipt and tally for the sheep I showed you just now."
But already his Honour was hurrying down the narrow passage, eager to get through the business that would lay his enemy by the heels, and render him safe in the possession of the important letters which were to secure him Lady Patience's hand and fortune.
"All right!" he shouted back lustily, "it's safe enough in my pocket. I'll give it you back on my return."
Left alone in the dingy, black-rafted parlour, Master Mittachip sat pondering for awhile, his pale, watery eyes blinking at times with the intensity of his satisfaction. Now for a little good luck--and he had no cause to fear the reverse--and that glorious vision of two hundred golden guineas would become a splendid reality. The advice he had given Sir Humphrey was undoubtedly the safest which he could offer. Beau Brocade, even with a posse of soldiers at his heels, was still a potent personality on the Heath, and it certainly looked as if her ladyship had cajoled him into her service. No one knew really who his friends and accomplices were: on and about Brassing Moor he could reckon on the help of most of the poorer villagers.
But Jock Miggs at any rate was safe, alike from the daring highwayman and the more humble footpad. The former would not suspect him, and the latter would leave a poor shepherd severely alone. The footpath from the hut by the roadside to the town of Wirksworth was but a matter of three or four miles, and for a silver crown the shepherd would be ready enough to take a sealed packet to the house of Master Mittachip in Fulsome Street.
Yes! it was all going to be for the best, in this best possible world, and as Master Mittachip thought over it all, he rubbed his thin, claw-like hands contentedly together.