Chapter XXIII
A Daring Plan

It was close on ten o'clock when they came back to earth once more.

A peremptory knock at the door had aroused them both from their dreams.

Bathurst rose to open, and there stood John Stich and Mistress Betty, both looking somewhat flurried and guilty, and both obviously brimming over with news.

"My lady! my lady!" cried Betty, excitedly, as soon as she caught her mistress's eye, "I have just spied Sir Humphrey Challoner at the window of the Royal George, just over the green yonder."

"Give me leave, Captain," added John Stich, who was busy rolling up his sleeves above his powerful arms, "give me leave, and I'll make the rogue disgorge those letters in a trice."

"You'd not succeed, honest friend," mused Bathurst, "and might get yourself in a devil of a hole to boot."

"Nay, Captain," asserted John, emphatically, "'tis no time now for the wearing of kid gloves. I was on the green a moment ago, and spied that ravenous scarecrow, Mittachip, conversing with the beadle outside the Court House, where Squire West is sitting."

"Well?"

"When the beadle ahd gone, Master Mittachip walked across the green and went straight to the Royal George. By gy! what does that mean, Captain?"

"Oho!" laughed Jack, much amused at the smith's earnestness, "it means that Sir Humphrey Challoner intends to lay information against one Beau Brocade, the noted highwayman, and to see how nice he'll look with a rope round his neck and dangling six foot from the ground."

An involuntary cry from Lady Patience, however, drowned the laughter on his lips.

"Tush, man!" he added seriously, "here's a mighty fine piece of work we're doing, frightening her ladyship. . ."

But John Stich was scowling more heavily than ever.

"If the scoundrel should dare . . ." he muttered, clenching his huge fists.

His attitude was so threatening, and his expression so menacing, that in the midst of her new anxiety Lady Patience herself could not help smiling. Beau Brocade laughed outright.

"Dare? . . ." he said lightly. "Why, of course he'll dare. He's eager enough in the pursuit of mischief, and must save the devil all the trouble of showing him the way. But now," he added more seriously, and turning to Mistress Betty, "tell me, child, saw you Sir Humphrey clearly?"

"Aye! clear as daylight," she retorted, "the old beast . . ."

"How was he dressed?"

"Just like he was yesterday, sir. A brown coat, embroidered waistcoat, buff breeches, riding-boots, three-cornered hat, and he had in his hand a gold-headed riding-crop."

"Child!--child!" cried Bathurst, joyfully, "an those bright eyes of yourse have no deceived you, yours'll be the glory of having saved us all."

"What are you going to do?" asked Patience, eagerly.

"Pit my poor wits against those of Sir Humphrey Challoner," he replied gaily.

"I don't quite understand."

He came up quite close to her and tried to meet her eyes.

"But you trust me?" he asked.

And she murmured,--

"Absolutely."

"May heaven bless you for that word!" he said earnestly. "Then will you deign to do as I shall direct?"

"Entirely."

"Very well! Then whilst friend Stich will fetch my hat for me, will you write out a formal plaint, signed with your full name, stating that last night on the Heath you were waylaid and robbed by a man, whom I, your courier, saw quite plainly, and whom you have desired me to denounce?"

"But. . ."

"I entreat you there's not a moment to be lost," he urged, taking pen, ink and paper from the old-fashioned desk close by, and placing them before her.

"I'll do as you wish, of course," she said, "but what is your purpose?"

"For the present to take your ladyship's plaint over to his Honour, Squire West, at the Court House."

"You'll be seen and recognised and . . ."

"Not I. One or two of the yokels may perhaps guess who I am, but they'd do me no harm. I entreat you, do as I bid you. Every second wasted may imperil our chance of safety."

He had such an air of quiet command about him that she instictively obeyed him and wrote out the plaint as he directed, then gave it in his charge. He seemed buoyant and full of hope, and though her heart misgave her, she managed to smile cheerfully when he took leave of her.

"I humbly beg of you," he said finally, as having kissed her finger-tips he prepared to go, "to wait here against my return, and on no account to take heed of anything you may see or hear for the next half-hour. An I mistake not," he added with a merry twinkle in his grey eyes, "there'll be strange doings at Brassington this noon."

"But you . . .?" she cried anxiously.

"Nay! I pray you have no fear for me. In your sweet cause I would challenge the world, and, if you desired it, would remain unscathed."

When he had gone, she sighed, and obedient to his wish, sat waiting patiently for his return in the dingy little parlour which awhile ago his presence had made so bright.

It was at this moment that Master Mittachip, after his interview with the beadle, was in close conversation with Sir Humphrey Challoner at the Royal George.

Outside the inn, Bathurst turned to John Stich, who had closely followed him.

"How's my Jack o' Lantern?" he asked quickly.

"As fresh as a daisy, Captain," replied the smith. "I've rubbed him down myself, and he has had a lovely feed."

"That's good. You have my saddle with you?"

"Oh, aye! I knew you'd want it soon enough. Jack o' Lantern carried it for you himself, bless 'is 'eart, along with her ladyship and Mistress Betty."

"Then do you see at once to his being saddled, friend, and bring him along to the Court House as soon as may be. Hold him in readiness for me, so that I may mount at a second's notice. You understand?"

"Yes, Captain. I understand that you are running your head into a d---d noose, and . . ."

"Easy, easy, friend! Remember. . ."

"Nay! I'll not forget for whose sake you do it. But you are at a disadvantage, Captain, with only one good arm."

"Nay, friend," rejoined Bathurst, lightly, "there's many a thing a man can do with one arm: he can embrace his mistress. . . or shoot his enemy."

The sleepy little village of Brassington lay silent and deserted in the warmth of the noon-day sun, as Bathurst, having parted from John Stich, hurried across its narrow streets. As he had passed quickly through the outer passage of the Packhorse he had caught sight of a few red coats at the dingy bar of the inn, and presently, when he emerged on the green, he perceived another lot of them over at the Royal George yonder.

But at this hour the worthy soldiers of His Majesty, King George, were having their midday rest and their customary glasses of ale, and were far too busy recounting their adventure with the mysterious stranger at the forge to the gaffers of Brassington, to take heed of any one hurrying along its street.

And thus Bathurst passed quickly and unperceived; the one or two yokels whom he met gave him a rapid glance. Only the women turned round, as he went along, to have another look at the handsome stranger with one arm in a sling.

Outside the Court House he came face to face with Master Inch, whose pompous dignity seemed at this moment to be severely ruffled.

"Hey, sir! Hey!" he was shouting, and craning his fat neck in search of Master Mittachip, who had incontinently disappeared, "the Court is determinating--Squire West will grant you the interview which you seek. . .Lud preserve me!" he added in noble and gigantic wrath, "I do believe the impious malapert was trying to fool me. . . sending me on a fool's errand . . .me . . .Jeremiah Inch, beadle of this parish! . . ."

Bathurst waited a moment or two until the worst of the beadle's anger had cooled down a little, then he took a silver crown from his pocket, and pushed past the worthy into the precincts of the house.

"The interview you've arranged for, friend," he said quietly, "will do equally well for her ladyship's courier."

Master Inch was somewhat taken off his balance. Mittachip's disappearance and this stranger's impertinence had taken his breath away. Before he had time to recover it, Bathurst had pressed the silver crown into his capacious palm.

"Now tell Squire West, friend," he said with that pleasant air of authority which he knew so well how to assume, "that I am here by the command of Lady Patience Gascoyne and am waiting to speak with him."

Master Inch was so astonished that he found no word either of protest or of offended dignity. He looked doubtfully at the crown for a second or two, weighed it in his mind against the problematical half-crown promised by the defaulting attorney, and then said majestically,--

"I will impart her ladyship's cognomen to his Honour myself."

The next moment Jack Bathurst found himself alone in a small private room of the Court House, looking forward with suppressed excitement to the interview with Squire West, which in a moment of dare-devil, madcap frolic, yet with absolute coolness and firm determination, he had already arranged in his mind.