Master Mittachip had tried to utter one or two feeble protests, but Sir Humphrey had interrupted him emphatically,--
"The rascal may hope to win his pardon through the Gascoyne influence, by rendering her ladyship this service. Where'er he may be at this moment, I am quite sure that his eye is upon me and my doings."
Mittachip shuddered and closed his eyes: he dared not peer into the dark scrub beside him, and drew his horse in as close to Sir Humphrey's as he could.
"If you're afraid, you lumbering old coward," added his honour, "go back and leave me in peace. I'll arrange my own affairs as I think best."
But the prospect of returning to Brassington alone across this awful Heath sent Master Mittachip into a renewed agony of terror: though his noble patron seemed suddenly to have become uncanny in this inordinate lust for revenge, he preferred his Honour's company to his own, and therefore made a violent effort to silence his worst fears. The Moor just now was comparatively calm: the shouts of the hunters and the yelping of the hound had altogether ceased; perhaps they had lost the scent.
Another half-hour's silent ride brought them to the spur of the hill, along the top of which ran the Wirksworth Road, and as they left the steep declivity behind them, their ears were pleasantly tickled by the welcome and bucolic sound of the bleating of sheep.
"Your friend the shepherd seems to be at his post," quoth Sir Humphrey with a sigh of satisfaction.
They were close to the point where on the previous night Lady Patience's coach had come to a halt, and the next moment brought them in sight of the shepherd's hut, with the pen beyond it, vaguely discernible in the gloom.
Sir Humphrey gave the order to dismount. Master Mittachip, feeling more dead than alive, had perforce to obey. They tied their horses loosely to a clump of blackthorn by the roadside and then crept cautiously towards the hut.
It suited their purpose well that the night was a dark one. The moon was not yet high in the heavens, and was still half-veiled by a thin film of fleecy clouds, leaving the whole vista of the Moor wrapped in mysterious grey-blue semitones.
"You have brought the lanthorn," whispered Sir Humphrey, hurriedly.
"Y. . .y. . .y. . . yes, your Honour," stammered Mittachip.
"Then quick's the word," said his Honour, pointing to a thick clump of gorse and bramble quite close to the shed. "The letters are in the very centre of that clump, and only just below the surface. Do you creep in there and get them."
There was nothing for Master Mittachip to do but to obey, and that with as much alacrity as his terror would allow. His teeth were chattering in his head, and his hands were trembling so violently that he was some time in striking a light for the lanthorn.
Sir Humphrey suppressed an oath of angry impatience.
"Lud preserve me," murmured the poor attorney, "if that highwayman should come upon me whilst I am engaged in the task! . . .You . . .you'll not leave me, Sir Humphrey? . . ."
"I'll lay my stick across your cowardly shoulders if you don't hurry," was his Honour's only comment.
He watched Mittachip crawling on his hands and knees underneath the bramble, and his deep stertorous breathing testified to teh anxiety which was raging within him. A few moments of intense suspense, and then Master Mittachip reappeared from beneath the scrub, covered with wet earth, still trembling, but holding a packet of letters triumphantly in his hand.
Sir Humphrey snatched it from him.
"Quick! find the shepherd now! Don't waste time!" he whispered, pushing the cowering attorney roughly before him. "One feels as if every blade of grass had a pair of ears on this damned Heath!" he muttered under his breath.
Jock Miggs, the shepherd, had counted over his sheep, closed the gate of the pen, and was just turning into the hut for the night, when he was hailed by Master Mittachip.
"Shepherd! hey! shepherd!"
Miggs looked about him, vaguely astonished.
Since his adventure of the previous night, when he had been made to play a tune for mad folks to dance to, he felt that nothing would seriously surprise him.
When therefore he felt himself seized by the arm without more ado and dragged into the darkest corner of the hut, he did not even protest.
"Did you wish to speak with me, sir?" he asked plaintively, rubbing his arm, for Sir Humphrey's impatient grip had been very strong and hard.
"Yes!" said the latter, speaking in a rapid whisper, "here's Master Mittachip, attorney-at-law, whom you know well, eh?"
"Aye, aye," murmured Jock Miggs, pulling at his forelock, "t'sheep belong to his Honour Oi believe."
"Exactly, Miggs," interposed Master Mittachip, spurred to activity by a vigorous kick from Sir Humphrey, "and I have come out here on purpose to see you, for it is very important that you should go at once on to Wirksworth for me, with a packet and a note for Master Duffy, my clerk."
"What, now? This time o' night?" quoth Jock, vaguely.
"Aye, aye, Miggs . . .you are not afraid, are you?"
Sir Humphrey had taken up his stand outside the hut, leaving Mittachip to arrange this matter with the shepherd. He had leaned his powerful frame against the wall of the shed, and was grasping his heavily-weighted riding-crop, ready and alert in case of attack. The darkness round him at this moment was intense, and his sharp eyes vainly tried to pierce the gloom, which seemed to be closing in upon him, but his ears were keenly alive to every sound which came to him out of the blackness of the night.
And all the while he tried not to lose one word of the conversation between Mittachip and the shepherd.
"That's true, Jock," the attorney was saying. "Well! then if you'll go to Wirksworth for me, now, at once, there'll be a guinea for you."
"A guinea!" came in bewildered accents from the worthy shepherd, "Lordy! Lordy! but these be 'mazing times!"
"All I want you to do, Jock, is to take a packet for me to my house in Fulsome Street. You understand?"
But here there was a pause. Miggs was evidently hesitating.
"Well?" queried Mittachip.
"Oi'm thinking, sir. . ."
"How can Oi go on your errand when Oi've got to guard this 'ere sheep for you?"
"Oh, damn the sheep!" quoth Master Mittachip, emphatically.
"Well, sir! if you be satisfied. . ."
"You know my house at Wirksworth?"
"Aye, aye, sir."
"I'll give you a packet. You are to take it to Wirksworth now at once, and to give it to my clerk, Master Duffy, at my house in Fulsome Street. You are quite sure you understand?"
"I dunno as I do!" quoth Jock, vaguely.
But with an impatient oath Sir Humphrey turned into the hut: matters were progressing much too slowly for his impatient temperament. He pushed Mittachip aside, and said peremptorily,--
"Look here, shepherd, you want to earn a guinea, don't you?"
"Aye, sir, that I do."
"Well, here's the packet, and here's a letter for Master Duffy at Master Mittachip's house in Fulsome Street. When Master Duffy has the packet and reads the letter he will give you a guinea. Is that clear?"
And he handed the packet of letters, and also a small note, to Jock Miggs, who seemed to have done with hesitation, for he took them with alacrity.
"Oh! aye! that's clear enough," he said, "'tis writ in this paper that I'm to get the guinea?"
"In Master Mittachip's own hand. But mind! no gossiping, and no loitering. You must get to Wirksworth before cock-crow."
Jock Miggs slipped the packet and the note into the pocket of his smock. The matter of the guinea having been satisfactorily explained to him, he was quite ready to start.
"Noa, for sure!" he said, patting the papers affectionately. "Mum's the word! I'll do your bidding, sir, and the papers'll be safe with me, seeing it's writ on them that I'm to get a guinea."
"Exactly. So you mustn't lose them, you know."
"Noa! noa! I bain't afeeard o' that, nor of the highwaymen; and Beau Brocade wouldn't touch the loikes o' me, bless 'im. But Lordy! Lordy! these be 'mazing times!"
Already Sir Humphrey was pushing him impatiently out of the hut.
"And here," added his Honour, pressing a piece of money into the shepherd's hand, "here's half-a-crown to keep you on the go."
"Thank 'ee, sir, and if you think t' sheep will be all right. . ."
"Oh, hang the sheep!. . ."
"All right, sir . . .if Master Mittachip be satisfied . . . and I'll leave t' dog to look after t' sheep."
He took up his long, knotted stick, and still shaking his head and muttering "Lordy! Lordy!" the worthy shepherd slowly began to wend his way along the footpath, which from this point leads straight to Wirksworth.
Sir Humphrey watched the quaint, wizened figure for a few seconds, until it disappeared in the gloom, then he listened for awhile.
All round him the Heath was silent and at peace, the plaintive bleating of the sheep in the pen added a note of subdued melancholy to the vast and impressive stillness. Only from afar there came the weird echo of hound and men on the hut.
His Honour swore a round oath.
"Zounds!" he muttered, "the rogue must be hard pressed, and he's not like to give us further trouble. Even if he come on us now, eh, you old scarecrow?" . . . the letters are safe at last! What?"
"Lud preserve me!" sighed the attorney, "but I hope so."
"Back to Brassington then," quoth Sir Humphrey, lustily. "Beau Brocade can attack us now, eh? Ha! ha! ha!" he laughed in his wonted boisterous way, "methinks we have outwitted that gallant highwayman after all."
"For sure, Sir Humphrey," echoed Mittachip, who was meekly following his Honour's lead across the road to where their horses were in readiness for them.
"As for my Lady Patience! . . . Ha!" said his Honour, jovially, "her brother's life is. . . well! . . .in my hands, to save or to destroy, according as she will frown on me or smile. But meseems her ladyship will have to smile, eh?"
He laughed pleasantly, for he was in exceedingly good temper just now.
"As for that chivalrous Beau Brocade," he added as he hoisted himself into the saddle, "he shall, an I mistake not, dangle on a gibbet before another nightfall."
"Hark!" he added, as the yelping of the blood-hound once more woke the silent Moor with its eerie echo.
Mittachip's scanty locks literally stood up beneath his bob-tail wig. Even Sir Humphrey could not altogether repress a shudder as he listened to the shouts, the cries, the snarls, which were rapidly drawing nearer.
"We should have waited to be in at the death," he said, with enforced gaiety. "Meseems our fox is being run to earth at last."
He tried to laugh, but his laughter sounded eerie and unnatural, and suddenly it was interrupted by the loud report of a pistol shot, followed by what seemed like prolonged yells of triumph.
Master Mittachip could bear it no longer; with the desperation of intense and unreasoning terror he dug his spurs into his horse's flanks, and like a madman, galloped at breakneck speed down the hillside into the valley below.
Sir Humphrey followed more leisurely. He had gained his end and was satisfied.