Chapter XXVI
The Man Hunt

By the time Squire West and the whole of the parish of Brassington had realised what a terrible practical joke had been perpetrated on them by the stranger, the latter was far out of sight, with not even a cloud of dust to mark the way he went.

But the hue-and-cry after him had never ceased the whole of that day. Squire West, profuse and abject in his apologies, had told off all the soldiers who were quartered in the village to scour the Heath day and night, until that rogue was found and brought before him. The Sergeant, who was in command of the squad, and the Corporal too, had a score of their own to settle with the mysterious stranger, whom the general consensus of opinion declared to have been none other than that scoundrel unhung, the notorious highwayman, Beau Brocade.

Master Inch, as soon as he had recovered his breath, distinctly recollected now seeing a beautiful chestnut horse pawing the ground outside the Court House during the course of the morning: he blamed himself severely for not having guessed the identity of the creature, so closely associated in every one's mind with the exploits of the highwayman.

The yokels, however, at this juncture, entrenched themselves behind a barrier of impenetrable density. In those days, just as even now, it is beyond human capacity to obtain information from a Derbyshire countryman if he do not choose to give it. Whether some of those who had pelted Sir Humphrey Challoner with vegetables had or had not known who his Honour was, whether some of them had or had not guessed Beau Brocade's presence in the village, remained, in spite of rigorous cross-examination a complete mystery to the perplexed Squire and to his valiant henchman, the beadle.

Promises, threats, bribes were alike ineffectual.

"I dunno!" was the stolid, perpetual reply to every question put on either subject.

Her ladyship, on the other hand, overcome with fatigue, was too ill to see any one.

The posse of soldiers, a score or so by now, had however been reinforced as the day wore on by a contingent of Squire West's own indoor and outdoor servants, also by a few loafers from Brassington itself, of the sort that are to be found in every corner of the world where there is an ale-house, the idlers, the toadies, those who had nothing to lose and something to gain by running counter to popular feeling and taking up cudgels against Beau Brocade, for the sake of the reward lavishly promised by Squire West and Sir Humphrey Challoner.

The latter's temper had not even begun to simmer down at this late hour of the day when, all arrangements for the battue after the highwayman being completed, he at last found himself on horseback, ambling along the bridle path towards the shepherd's hut, with Master Mittachip beside him.

It had been a glorious day, and the evening now gave promise of a balmy night to come, but the Heath's majestic repose was disturbed by the doing of man. Beneath the gorse and bracken lizards and toads had gone to rest in the marshy land beyond, waterhen and lapwing were asleep, but all the while on the great Moor, through the scrub and blackthorn, along path and ravine, man was hunting man and finding enjoyment in the sport.

As Sir Humphrey Challoner and the attorney rode slowly along, they could hear from time to time the rallying cry of the various parties stalking the Heath for their big game. The hunt was close on the heels of Beau Brocade. Earlier in the afternoon his horse had been seen to make its way, riderless, towards the forge of John Stich.

The quarry was on foot, he was known to be wounded, he must fall an easy prey to his trackers soon enough: sometimes in the distance there would come a shout of triumph, when the human bloodhounds had at last found a scent, then Sir Humphrey would rouse himself from his moody silence, a look of keen malice would light up his deep-set eyes, and reining in his horse, he would strain his ears to hear that shout of triumph again.

"He'll not escape this time, Sir Humphrey," whispered Mittachip, falling obsequiously into his employer's mood.

"No! curse him!" muttered his Honour with a string of violent oaths, "I shall see him hang before two days are over, unless these dolts let him escape again."

"Nay, nay, Sir Humphrey! that's not likely!" chuckled Master Mittachip. "Squire West has pressed all his own able-bodied men into the service, and the posse of soldiers were most keen for the chase. Nay, nay, he'll not escape this time."

"'Sdeath!" swore his Honour under his breath, "but I do feel stiff!"

"A dreadful indignity," moaned the attorney. "Nay! but Squire West was most distressed, and his apologies were profuse! Indeed he seemed to feel it as much as if it had happened to himself."

"Aye! but not in the same place, I'll warrant! Odd's life, I had no notion how much a turnip could hurt when flung into one's eye," added his Honour, with one of those laughs that never boded any good.

"A most painful incident, Sir Humphrey!" sighed Mittachip, brimming over with sympathy.

"'Twas not the incident that was painful! Zounds! I am bruised all over. But I'll have the law of every one of those dolts, aye! and make that fool West administer it on all of them! As for that ape, the beadle, he shall be publicly whipped. Death and hell! they'll have to pay for this!"

"Aye! aye! Sir Humphrey! your anger is quite natural, and Squire West assured me that that rascal Beau Brocade, who played you this impudent trick, cannot fail to be caught. The hunt is well organised, he cannot escape."

As if to confirm the attorney's words, there rose at this moment from afar a weird and eerie sound, which caused Master Mittachip's shrivelled flesh to creep along his bones.

"What was that?" he whispered, horror-struck.

"A blood-hound, the better to track that rascal," muttered Sir Humphrey, savagely.

The attorney shivered; there had been so much devilish malice in his Honour's voice, that suddenly his puny heart misgave him. He took to wishing himself well out of this unmanly business. The horror of it seemed to grip him by the throat: he was superstitious too, and firmly believed in a material hell; the sound of that distant snarl, followed by the significant yelping of a hound upon the scent, made him think of the cries the devils would utter at sight of the damned.

"The dog belongs to one of Squire West's grooms," remarked his Honour, carelessly, "a savage beast enough, by the look of him. Luck was in our favour, for our gallant highwayman had carried Lady Patience's plaint inside his coat for a quite a long time, and then left it on his Honour's table . . .quite enough for any self-respecting blood-hound, and this one is said to be very keen on the scent . . .Squire West tried to protest, but set a dog to catch a dog, say I."

Master Mittachip tried to shut his ears to the terrible sound. Fortunately it was getting fainter now, and Sir Humphrey did not give him time for much reflection.

His Honour had stopped for awhile listening, with a chuckle of intense satisfaction, to the yelping of the dog straining on the leash, then when the sound died away, he said abruptly,--

"Are we still far from the hut?"

"No, Sir Humphrey," stammered Mittachip, whose very soul was quaking with horror.

"We'll find the shepherd there, think you?"

"Y. . . y . . .yes, your Honour!"

"Harkee, Master Mittachip. I'll run no risk. That d----d highwayman must be desperate to-night. We'll adhere to our original plan, and let the shepherd take the letters to Wirksworth."

"You. . . you. . .you'll not let them bide to-night where they are, Sir Humphrey?"

"No, you fool, I won't. They are but just below the surface, under cover of some bramble, and once those fellows come scouring round the hut, any one of them may unearth the letters with a kick of his boot. There's been a lot of talk of a reward for the recovery of a packet of letters! . . . No, no, no! I'll not risk it."

Sir Humphrey Challoner had thought the matter well out, and knew that he ran two distinct risks in the matter of the letters. To one he had alluded just now when he spoke of the probability--remote perhaps--of the packet being accidentally unearthed by one of the scouring parties. Any man who found it would naturally at once take it to Squire West, in the hope of getting the reward promised by her ladyship for its recovery. The idea, therefore, of leaving the letters in their hiding-place for awhile did not commend itself to him. On the other hand, there was the more obvious risk of keeping them about his own person. Sir Humphrey thanked his stars that he had not done so the day before, and even now kept in his mind a certain superstitious belief that Beau Brocade--wounded, hunted and desperate--would make a final effort, which might prove successful, to wrench the letters from him on the Heath.