Chapter XXII
An Interlude

The Packhorse Inn, lower down the village, was not nearly so frequented as was the Royal George. Its meagre, dilapidated appearance frightened most customers away. A few yokels only patronised it to the extent of sipping their small ale there, in the parlour when it was wet, or outside the porch when it was fine.

The few--very few--travellers, whom accident mostly brought to Brassington, invariably preferred the more solid, substantial inn on the green, but when it was a question of finding safe shelter for his wounded friend, John Stich unhesitatingly chose the Packhorse. He had improvised a rough kind of stretcher, with the help of the cushions from Lady Patience's coach, and on this, with the aid of Timothy the groom, he had carried Bathurst all the way across two miles of Heath into Brassington. The march had been terribly wearisome: the wounded man, fevered with past excitement, had become light-headed, and during intervals of lucidity was suffering acutely from his wound.

Lady Patience could not bring herself to leave him. A feeling she could not have described seemed to keep her enchained beside this man, whom but a few hours ago she had never seen, but in whom she felt now that all her hopes had centred. He had asked her to trust him, and since then had only recovered consciousness to plead to her with mute, aching eyes not to take away that trust which she had given him.

Fortunately, the noted bad state of the roads on Brassing Moor, which at any time might prove impassable for the coach, had caused her to take her own saddle as part of her equipment for her journey to London. This John Stich had fixed for her on Jack o' Lantern's back, and the faithful beast, as if guessing the sad plight of his master, carried her ladyship, with Mistress Betty clinging on behind, with lamb-like gentleness down the narrow bridel path to Brassington.

Thomas, the driver, had been left in charge of the coach, with orders to find his way as quickly as may be along the road to Wirksworth.

It had been Bathurst's firmly expressed wish that they should put up at Brassington, at any rate for the night. Besides being the nearest point, it was also the most central, whence a sharp lookout could be kept on Sir Humphrey Challoner's movements. Everything depended now on how serious the young man's wound turned out to be.

Patience felt that without his help she was indeed powerless to fight her cunning enemy. She was never for one moment in doubt as to the motive which prompted Sir Humphrey Challoner to steal the letters. He meant to hold them as a weapon over her to enforce the acceptance of his suit; this she knew well enough. Her instincts, rendered doubly acute by hte imminence of the peril, warned her that the Squire of Hartington meant to throw all scruples to the wind, and would in wanton revenge sacrifice Philip by destroying the letters, if she fought or defied him openly.

Patience bethought her of the scene at the forge, when Bathurst's ready wit had saved her brother from the officious and rapacious soldiers: now that the terrible situation had to be met with keenness and cunning, she once more turned, with hope in her heart, to the one man who could save Philip again: but he, alas! lay helpless. And all along the weary way to Brassington she was listening with aching heart and throbbing temples to his wild, delirious words and occasional, quickly suppressed moans.

However, they reached the Packhorse at last in the small hours of the morning: money, lavishly distributed by Lady Patience, secured the one comfortable room in the inn for the wounded man.

As soon as the day broke John Stich went in quest of Master Prosser, the leech, a gentleman famed for his skill and learning. Already the rest on a good bed, and Lady Patience's cool hand and gentle words, had done much to soothe the patient. Youth and an iron constitution quickly did the rest.

The leech pronounced the wound to be neither deep nor serious, and the extraction of the ball caused the sufferer much relief.

Within an hour after the worthy man's visit, Jack Bathurst had fallen into a refreshing sleep, and at John Stich's earnest pleading, Lady Patience had thrown herself on a bed in the small room which she had secured for herself and Mistress Betty, and had at last managed to get some rest.

The sun was already well up in the heavens when Jack awoke. His eyes, as soon as they opened, sought anxiously for her dear presence in the room.

"Feel better, Captain?" asked John Stich, who had been watching faithfully by his side.

"I feel a giant, honest friend," replied the young man. "Help me up, will you?"

"The leech said you ought to keep quiet for a bit, Captain," protested the smith.

"Oho! he did, did he?" laughed Jack, gaily. "Well! go tell him, friend, from me, that he is an ass."

"Where is she, John?" he asked quietly, after a slight pause.

"In the next room, Captain."

"Resting?"

"Aye! she never left your side since you fainted on the Heath."

"I know--I know, friend," said Jack, with a short, deep sigh; "think you I could not feel her hand. . ."

He checked himself abruptly, and with the help of John Stich raised himself from the bed. He looked ruefully at his stained clothes, and a quaint, pleasant smile chased away hte last look of weariness and suffering from his face.

"Nay! what a plight for Beau Brocade in which to meet the lady of his dreams, eh, John? Here, help me to make myself presentable! Run down quickly to mine host, borrow brushes and combs, and anything you can lay hands on. I am not fit to appear before her eyes."

"Then will you keep quite still, Captain, until I return? And keep your arm quietly in the sling? The leech said. . ."

"Never mind what the leech said, run, John. . .the sight of myself in that glass there causes me more pain that this stupid scratch. Run quickly, John, for I hear her footsteps in the next room. . .I'll not move from the edge of this bed, I swear it, if you'll only run."

He kept his word and never stirred from where he sat; but he strained his ears to listen, for through the thin partition wall he could just hear her footstep on the rough wooden floor, and occasionally her voice when she spoke to Betty.

Half an hour later, when John Stich had done his best to valet and dress him, he waited upon her ladyship at breakfast in the parlour downstairs.

She came forward to greet him, her dainty hand outstretched, her eyes anxiously scanning his face.

"You should not have risen yet, sir," she said half shyly as he pressed her finger-tips to his lips, "your poor wounded shoulder. . ."

"Nay, with your pardon, madam," he said lightly, "'tis well already since your sweet hand has tended it."

"'Twas my desire to nurse you awhile longer, and not allow you to risk your life for me again."

"My life? Nay! I'll trust that to mine old enemy, Fortune: she has ta'en care of it all these years, that I might better now place it at your service."

She said nothing, for she felt unaccountably shy. She, who had had half the gilded youth of England at her feet, found no light bantering word with which to meet this man; and beneath his ardent gaze she felt herself blushing like a school miss at her first ball.

"Will you honour me, sir," she said at last, "by partaking of breakfast, with me?"

All cares and troubles seemed forgotten. He sat down at the table opposite to her, and together they drank tea, and ate eggs and bread and butter: and there was so much to talk about that often they would both become quite silent, and say all there was to say just with their eyes.

He told her about the Heath which he knew and loved so well, the beauty of the sunrise far out behind the Tors, the birds and beasts and their haunts and habits, the heron on the marshy ground, the cheeky robins on the branches of the bramble, the lizards and tiny frogs and toads: all that enchanting world which peopled the Moor and had made it a home for him.

And she listened to it all, for he had a deep, tender, caressing voice, which was always good to hear, and she was happy, for she was young, and the world in which she dwelt was very beautiful.

Yet she found this happiness which she felt, quite incomprehensible: she even chid herself for feeling it, for the outside world was still the same, and her brother still in peril. He, the man, alone knew whither he was drifting; he knew that he loved her with every fibre of his being, and that she was as immeasurably beyond him as the stars.

He knew what this happiness meant, and that it could but live a day, an hour. Therefore he drained the cup to its full measure, enjoying each fraction of a second of this one glorious hour, watching her as she smiled, as she sipped her tea, and she blushed when she met his eyes. And sometimes--for he was clumsy with his one arm in a sling--sometimes as she helped him the thousand and one little ways of which women alone possess the enchanting secret, her hand would touch his, just for one moment, like a bird on the wing, and he, the poor outlaw, saw heaven open before him, and seeing it, was content.

Outside an early September sun was flooding the little village street with its golden light. They did not dare to show themselves at the window, lest either of them should be recognised, so they had drawn the thin muslin curtain across the casement, and shut out the earth from this little kingdom of their own.

Only at times the bleating of a flock of sheep, or the melancholy lowing of cattle would come to them from afar, or from the window-sill the sweet fragrance of a pot of mignonette.