Squire West was an elderly man, with a fine military presence and a pleasant countenance beneath his bob-tail wig: in his youth he had been reckoned well-favoured, and had been much petted by the ladies at the county balls. Owing to this he had retained a certain polish of manner not often met with in the English country gentry of those times.
He came forward very politely to greet the courier of Lady Patience Gascoyne.
"What hath procured to Brassington the honour of a message from Lady Patience Gascoyne?" he asked, motioning Bathurst to a chair, and seating himself behind his desk.
"Her ladyship herself is staying in the village," replied Jack, "but would desire her presence to remain unknown for awhile."
"Oh, indeed!" said the Squire, a little flurried at this unexpected event, "but . . .but there is no inn fitting to harbour her ladyship in this village, and . . . and . . .if her ladyship would honour me and my poor house . . ."
"I thank you, sir, but her ladyship only remains here for an hour or so, and has despatched me to you on an important errand which brooks of no delay."
"I am entirely at her ladyship's service."
"Lady Patience was on her way from Stretton Hall, your Honour," continued Bathurst, imperturbably, "when her coach was stopped on the Heath, not very far from here, and her jewels, money, and also certain valuable papers were stolen from her."
Squire West hemmed and hawed, and fidgeted in his chair: the matter seemed, strangely enough, to be causing him more annoyance than surprise.
"Dear! dear!" he muttered depracatingly.
"Her ladyship has written out her formal plaint," said Jack, laying the paper before his Honour. "She has sent her coach on to Wirksworth, but thought your Honour's help here at Brassington would be more useful in capturing the rogue."
"Aye!" murmured the worthy Squire, still somewhat doubtfully, and with a frown of perplexity on his jovial face. "We certainly have a posse of soldiers--a dozen or so at most--quartered in the village just now, but . . ."
"But what, your Honour?"
"But to be frank with you, sir, I fear me that 'twill be no good. An I mistake not, 'tis another exploit of that rascal, Beau Brocade, and the rogue is so cunning! . . . Ah!" he added with a sigh, "we shall have no peace in this district until we've laid him by the heels."
It was certainly quite obvious that the Squire was none too eager to send a posse of soldiers after the notorious highwayman. He had himself enjoyed immunity on the Heath up to now, and feared that it would be his turn to suffer if he started an active campaign against Beau Brocade. But Bathurst, from where he sat, had a good view through the casement window of the village green, and of the Royal George beyond it. Every moment he expected to see Sir Humphrey Challoner emerging from under the porch and entering this Court House, when certainly the situation would become distinctly critical. The Squire's hesitancy nearly drove him frantic with impatience, yet perforce he had to keep a glib tongue in his head, and not to betray more than a natural interest in the subject which he was discussing.
"Aye!" he said gaily, "an it was that rogue Beau Brocade, your honour, he's the most daring rascal I've ever met. The whole thing was done in a trice. Odd's fish! but the fellow would steal your front tooth whilst he parleyed with you. He fired at me and hit me," he added ruefully, pointing to his wounded shoulder.
'You were her ladyship's escort on the Heath, sir?"
"Aye! and would wish to be of assistance in the recovery of her property: more particularly of a packet of letters on which her ladyship sets great store. If the rogue were captured now, these might be found about his person."
"Ah! I fear me," quoth his Honour, with singular lack of enthusiasm, "that 'twill not be so easy, sir, as you imagine."
"Beau Brocade is in league with half the countryside and. . ."
"Nay! you say you have a posse of soldiers quartered here! Gadzooks! if I had the chance with these and a few lusty fellows from the village, I'd soon give an account of any highwayman on this Heath!"
"Dear! dear!" repeated Squire West, sorely puzzled, "a very regrettable incident indeed."
"Can I so far trespass on your Honour's time," queried Bathurst, with a slight show of impatience, "as to ask you at least to take note of her ladyship's plaint?"
"Certainly . . . sir, certainly . . hem! . . .er . . . Of course we must after the rogue . . . the beadle shall cry him out on the green at once, and . . ."
It was easy to see that the worthy Squire would far sooner have left the well-known hero of Brassing Moor severely alone; still, in his official capacity he was bound to take note of her ladyship's plaint, and to act as justice demanded.
"'Tis a pity, sir," he said, whilst he sat fidgeting among his papers, "that you, or perhaps her ladyship, did not see the rogue's face. I suppose he was masked as usual?"
"Faix! he'd have frightened the sheep on the Heath, maybe, if he was not. But her ladyship and I noted his hair and stature, and also the cut and colour of his clothes."
"What was he like?"
"Tall and stout of build, with dark hair turning to grey."
"Nay!" ejaculated Squire West, in obvious relief, "then it was not Beau Brocade, who is young and slim, so I'm told, though I've never seen him. You saw him plainly, sir, did you say?"
"Aye! quite plainly, your Honour! And what's more," added Jack, emphatically, "her ladyship and I both caught sight of him in Brassington this very morning."
"Outside the Royal George," asserted Bathurst, imperturbably.
"Nay, sir!" cried Squire West, who seemed to have quite lost his air of indecision, now that he no longer feared to come in direct conflict with Beau Brocade, "why did you not say this before? Here, Inch! Inch!" he added, going to the door and shouting lustily across the passage, "where is that cursed beadle? In Brassington, did you say, sir?"
"I'd almost swear to it, your Honour."
"Nay! then with a bit of good luck, we may at least lay this rascal by the heels. I would I could rid this neighbourhood of these rogues. Here, Inch," he continued, as soon as that worthy appeared in the doorway, "do you listen to what this gentleman has got to say. There's a d---d rascal in this village and you'll have to cry out his description at once, and then collar him as soon as may be."
Master Inch placed himself in a posture that was alike dignified and expectant. His Honour, Squire West, too, was listening eagerly, whilst Jack Bathurst with perfect sang-froid gave forth the description of the supposed highwayman.
"He wore a brown coat," he said calmly, "embroidered waistcoat, buff breeches, riding-boots and three-cornered hat. He is tall and stout of build, has dark hair slightly turning to grey, and was last seen carrying a gold-headed riding-crop."
"That's clear enough, Inch, is it not?" queried his Honour.
'It is marvellously pellucid, sir," replied the beadle.
"You may add, friend Beadle," continued Jack, carelessly, "that her ladyship offers a reward of twenty guineas for that person's immediate apprehension."
And Master Inch, beadle of the parish of Brassington, flew out of the door, and out of the Court House, bell in hand, for with a little bit of good luck it might be that he would be the first to lay his hands on the tall, stout rascal in a brown coat, and would be the one to earn the twenty guineas offered for his immediate apprehension.
Squire West himself was over pleased. It was indeed satisfactory to render service to so great a lady as Lady Patience Gascoyne without interfering over much with that dare-devil Beau Brocade. The depredations on Brassing Moor had long been a scandal in the county: it had oft been thought that Squire West had not been sufficiently active in trying to rid the Heath of the notorious highwayman, whose exploits now were famed far and wide. But here was a chance of laying a cursed rascal by the heels and of showing his zeal in the administration of the county.
The Squire, in the interim, busied himself with his papers, whilst Bathurst, who was vainly trying to appear serious and only casually interested, stood by the open window, watching Master Inch's progress across the green.
Outside the Court House faithful John Stich stood waiting, with Jack o' Lantern pawing the ground by his side.