Thus it was that when Sir Humphrey Challoner, after his lengthy interview with Mittachip, stepped out of the porch of the Royal George on his way to the Court House, he found the village green singularly animated.
A number of yokels, including quite a goodly contingent of women and youngsters, were crowding round Master Inch, the beadle, who was ringing his bell violently and shouting at the top of his lusty voice,--
"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Take note that a robber, vagabond and thief is in hiding in this village."
Interested in the scene, Sir Humphrey had paused a moment, watching the pompous beadle and the crowd of gaffers and women. He still carried his riding-crop, and flicked it with a certain pleasurable satisfaction against his boot, eagerly anticipating the moment when the village crier would be giving forth in the same stentorian tones the description of Beau Brocade, the highwayman.
"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!" continued Master Inch, with ever-increasing vigour. "Take note that this vagabond is apparelled in a brown coat, embroidered waistcoat, buff nether garments and riding-boots. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! take note that he carried with him this morning a gold-headed riding-whip, that he is tall and slightly rotund in his corporation and has raven hair slightly attenuated with grey.
"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! take note that if any of you observate such a person as I have just descriptioned, you are to apprise me of this instantaneously, so that I may take him by force and violence even into the presence of his Honour.
"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!'
The gaffers were putting their heads together, whilst the young ones whispered eagerly,--
"Brown coat! . . .embroidered waistcoat! . . .a gold-headed whip!"
Nay, 'twas often enough that Master Inch had to cry out the description of some wretched vagabond in hiding in the village, but it was not usual that such an one was attired in the clothes of a gentleman.
It even struck Sir Humphrey as very strange, and he pushed through the group of yokels to hear more clearly Master Inch's renewed description of the rogue.
"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!"
At first the interest in Master Inch's pompous words was so keen that Sir Humphrey remained practically unnoticed. One or two villagers, noting that a gentleman was amongst them, respectfully made way for him, then one youngster, struck by a sudden idea, stared at him and whispered to his neighbour,--
"He's got a brown coat on . . ."
"Aye!" whispered the other in reply, "and an embroidered waistcoat too."
Some of them began crowding around Sir Humphrey, so that he raised his whip and muttered angrily,--
"What the devil are ye all staring at?"
It was at this very moment that Master Inch suddenly caught sight of him, just in the very middle of a stentorian,--
He gave one tremendous gasp, the bell dropped out of his hand, his jaw fell, his round beady eyes nearly bulged out of his head.
"'Tis him!" murmured the yokel, who stood close to his ear.
This remark brought back Master Inch to his senses and to the importance of his position. He raised his large hand above his head and brought it down with a tremendous clap on Sir Humphrey Challoner's shoulder.
"Aye! 'tis him!" he shouted lustily, "and be gy! he's got guilt writ all over his face, and 'tis a mighty ugly surface!"
Sir Humphrey, taken completely by surprise, was positively purple with rage.
"Death and hell!" he cried, clutching his riding-whip significantly. "What's the meaning of this?"
But already the younger men, full of excitement and eagerness, had closed round him, impeding his movements, whilst two more lusty fellows incontinently seized him by the collar. They felt neither respect nor sympathy for a vagabond attired in gentleman's clothes.
Sir Humphrey tried to shake himself free, whilst the beadle majestically replied,--
"You'll have it explanated to you, friend, before his Honour!"
The excitement and lust of capture was growing apace
"Got him!" shouted most of the men.
"Showin' his ugly face in broad daylight!" commented the women.
"Hold him tight, beadle," was the universal admonition.
"You rascal! you dare! . . ." gasped Sir Humphrey, struggling violently, and shaking a menacing fist in the beadle's face.
"Silence!" commanded Master Inch, with supreme dignity.
"I'll have you whipped for this!"
But this aroused the beadle's most awesome ire.
"To the stocks with him!" he ordered, "he insultates the Majesty of the Law!"
"You low-born knave! Aye! you'll hang for this!"
It was all this clamour that at last aroused Master Mittachip in the parlour of the Royal George from the happy day-dreams in which he was indulging. At first he took no count of it, then he quietly strolled up to the window and undid the casement, to ascertain what all the tumult was about.
What he did see nearly froze the thin blood within his veins. He would have cried out, but his very throat contracted with the horror of the spectacle which he beheld.
There! across the village green, he saw Sir Humphrey Challoner, his noble patron, the Squire of Hartington, being clapped into the village stocks, whilst a crowd of yokels, the clumsy, ignorant d----d louts! were actually pelting his Honour with carrots, turnips and potatoes!
Oh! was the world coming to an end? There! a peck of peas hit Sir Humphrey straight in the eye. No wonder his Honour was purple, he would have a stroke of apoplexy for sure within the next five minutes.
At last Master Mittachip recovered the use of his limbs. With one bound he was out of the inn parlour, and had pushed past mine host and hostess, who, as ignorant as were all the other villagers of their guest's name and quality, were watching the scene from the porch, and holding their sides with laughter.
Jack Bathurst had watched it all from the window of the Court House: his dare-devil, madcap scheme had succeeded beyond his most sanguine hopes. When he saw Sir Humphrey Challoner actually clapped in the village stocks, with the pompous beadle towering over him, like the sumptuous Majesty of the Law, he could have cried out in wild merry glee.
But Jack was above all a man of prompt decision and quick action. For his own life he cared not one jot, and would gladly have laid it down for the sake of the woman he loved with all the passionate ardour of his romantic temperament, but with him, as with every other human being, self-preservation was the greatest and most irresistable law. He had readily imperilled his safety in order to obtain possession of the letters, which meant so much happiness to his beautiful white rose: but this done, he was ready to do battle for his own life, and to sell his freedom as dearly as may be.
He hoped that he had effectually accomplished his purpose through the arrest of Sir Humphrey Challoner, whose pockets Master Inch was even now deliberately searching, in spite of vigorous protests and terrible language from his Honour. His heart gave a wild leap of joy when he saw the beadle presently hurrying across the green and holding a paper in his hand. It looked small enough--not a packet, only a single letter: but if it were the momentous one, then indeed would all risks, all perils seem as nothing when weighed against the happiness of having rendered her this service.
But Jack also saw Master Mittachip darting panic-stricken out of the inn opposite. He knew of course that within the next few moments--seconds perhaps--the fraud would be discovered and Sir Humphrey Challoner liberated, amidst a shower of abject apologies from the Squire and parish of Brassington combined. What the further consequences of it all would be to himself was not difficult to foresee.
He looked behind him. The Squire was sitting at his desk, apparently taking no notice of the noise and shouting outside. Down below, John Stich, who had been watching the scene on the green with the utmost delight, stood ready, holding Jack o' Lantern by the bridle. In a moment, with a few courteous words to the Squire, Bathurst had hurried out of the Court House. He met the beadle at the door, who, paper in hand, conscious of his own importance and flurried with wrath, was hurrying to report the important arrest to Squire West.
Bathurst stopped him with a quick,--
"'Twas well done, Master Inch!"
And pressing a couple of guineas into the beadle's hand, he added,--
"Her ladyship will further repay when you've found the rest of her property. In the meanwhile, these, I presume, are the letters she lost."
"Only one letter, sir," said Master Inch, as somewhat taken off his pompous guard he allowed Jack to take the paper from him.
There was not minute to be lost. Master Mittachip, having vainly tried to harangue the yokels, who were still pelting his Honour with miscellaneous vegetables, was now hurrying to the Court House as fast as his thin legs would carry him.
Bathurst took one glance at the paper which Master Inch had given him. A cry of the keenest disappointment escaped his lips.
"What is it, Captain?" asked John Stich, who had anxiously been watching his friend's face.
"Nothing, friend," replied Bathurst, "only a receipt and tally for some sheep."
John Stich uttered a violent oath.
"And the scoundrel'll escape with a shower of potatoes and no more punishment than the stocks. And you've risked your life, Captain, for nothing!"
"Nay! not for nothing, honest friend," said Jack, in a hurried whisper, as he mounted Jack o' Lantern with all the speed his helpless arm would allow. "Do you go back to her ladyship as fast as you can. Beg her from me not to give up hope, but to feign an illness and on no account speak to any one about the events of to-day until she has seen me again. You understand?"
"Aye! aye! Captain!"
At this moment there came a wild cry from the precincts of the Court House, and Master Mittachip, accompanied by Squire West himself, and closely followed by the beadle, were seen tearing across the green towards the village stocks.
"The truth is out, friend," shouted Jack, as pressing his knees against Jack o' Lantern's sides, and giving the gallant beast one cry of encouragement, he galloped away at break-neck speed out towards the Moor.