Some few minutes before this the hunted man had emerged upon the road.
As, worn-out, pallid, aching in every limb, he dragged himself wearily forward on hands and knees, it would have been difficult to recognise in this poor, suffering fragment of humanity the brilliant, dashing gentleman of the road, the foppish, light-hearted dandy, whom the country-side had nicknamed Beau Brocade.
The wound in his shoulder, inflamed and throbbing after the breakneck ride from the Court House to the Heath, had caused him almost unendurable agony, against which he had at first resolutely set his teeth. But now his whole body had become numb to every physical sensation. Covered with mud and grime, his hair matted against his damp forehead, the lines of pain and exhaustion strongly marked round his quivering mouth, he seemed only to live through his two senses: his sight and his hearing.
The spirit was there though, indomitable, strong, the dogged obstinacy of the man who has nothing more to lose. And with it all the memory of the oath he had sworn to her.
All else was a blank.
Hunted by men, and with a hound on his track, he had--physically--become like the beasts of the Moor, alert to every sound, keen only on eluding his pursuers, on putting off momentarily the inevitable instant of capture and of death.
Early in the day he had been forced to part from his faithful companion. Jack o' Lantern was exhausted and might have proved an additional source of danger. The gallant beast, accustomed to every bush and every corner of the Heath, knew its way well to its habitual home: the forge of John Stich. Jack Bathurst watched it out of sight, content that it would look after itself, and that being riderless it would be allowed to wend its way unmolested whither it pleased, on the Moor.
And thus he had seen the long hours of this glorious September afternoon drag on their weary course; he had seen the beautiful day turn to late, glowing afternoon, then the sun gradually set in its mantle of purple and gold, and finally the grey dusk throw its elusive and mysterious veil over Tors and Moor. And he, like the hunted beast, crept from gorse bush to scrub, hiding for his life, driven out of one stronghold into another, gasping with thirst, panting with fatigue, determined in spirit, but broken down in body at last.
By instinct and temperament Jack Bathurst was essentially a brave man. Physical fear was entirely alien to his nature: he had never known it, never felt it. During the earlier part of the afternoon, with a score of men at his heels, some soldiers, others but indifferently-equipped louts, he had really enjoyed the game of hide-and-seek on the Heath: to him, at first, it had been nothing more. It was but a part of that wild, mad life he had chosen, the easily-endured punishment for the breaking of conventional laws.
He knew every shrub and crag on this wild corner of the earth which had become his home, and could have defied a small army, when hidden in the natural strongholds known only to himself.
But when he first heard the yelping of the blood-hound set upon his track by the fiendish cunning of an avowed enemy, an icy horror seemed to creep into his very marrow: a horror born of the feeling of powerlessness, of the inevitableness of it all. His one thought now was lest his hand, trembling and numb with fatigue, would refuse him service when he would wish to turn the muzzle of his pistol against his own temple, in time to evade actual capture.
The dog would not miss him. It was practically useless to hide: flight alone, constant, ceaseless flight, might help him for awhile, but it was bound to end one way, and one way only: the scent of blood would lead the cur on his track, and his pursuers would find and seize him! bind him like a felon, and hang him! Aye! hang him like a common thief!
He had oft laughed and joked with John Stich about his ultimate probable fate. He knew that his wild, unlawful career would come to an end sooner or later, but he always carried pistols in his belt, and had not even remotely dreamt of capture.
. . . Until now!
But now he was tired, ill, half-paralysed with pain and exhaustion. His trembling hand crept longingly round the heavy silver handle of the precious weapon. Every natural instinct in him clamoured for death, now, at this very moment before that yelping cur drew nearer, before those shouts of triumph were raised over his downfall.
Only . . .after that. . . what would happen? He would be asleep and at peace . . . but she? . . .what would she think? . . .that like a coward he had deserted his post . . .like a felon he had broken his oath, whilst there was one single chance of fulfilling it. . . that he had left her at the mercy of that same enemy who had already devised so much cruel treachery.
And like a beast he crept back within his lair, and watched and listened for that one chance of serving her before the end.
He had seen Sir Humphrey Challoner and Mittachip ambling up the hillside. He tried not to lose sight of them, and, if possible, to keep within earshot, but he was driven back by a posse of his pursuers, close upon his heels, and now having succeeded in reaching the road at last, he had the terrible chagrin of seeing that he was too late; the two men were remounting their horses and turning back towards Brassington.
"Methinks we have outwitted that gallant highwayman after all," Sir Humphrey was saying with one of those boisterous outbursts of merriment, which to Bathurst's sensitive ears had a ring of the devil's own glee in it.
"What hellish mischief have those two reprobates been brewing, I wonder?" he mused. "If those fellows at my heels hadn't cut me off I might have known. . ."
He crept nearer to the two men, but they set their horses at a sharp trot down the road: Jack vainly strained his ears to hear their talk.
For the last eight hours he had practically covered every corner of the Heath, backwards and forwards, across boulders and through morass; the hound had some difficulty in finding and keeping the trail, but now it seemed suddenly to have found it, the yelping drew nearer, but the shouts had altogether ceased.
What was to be done? God in heaven, what was to be done?
It was at this moment that the plaintive bleating of one or two of the penned-up sheep suddenly aroused every instinct of vitality in him.
"The sheep! . . ." he murmured. "A receipt and tally for some sheep! . . ."
Fresh excitement had in the space of a few seconds given him a new lease of strength. He dragged himself up to his feet and walked almost upright as far as the hut.
There certainly was a flock of sheep in the pen: the dog was watching close by the gate, but the shepherd was nowhere to be seen.
"The sheep! . . .A receipt and tally for some sheep!. . .In Sir Humphrey Challoner's coat pocket!. . ."
Oh! for one calm moment in which to think . . .to think!
"The sheep! . . ." This one thought went on hammering in the poor tired brain, like the tantalising, elusive whisper of a mischievous sprite.
And with it all there was scarce a second to be lost.
The hound, yelping and straining on the leash, was not half a mile away; the next ten or perhaps fifteen minutes would see the end of this awful man-hunt on the Moor. And yet there close by, behind those clumps of gorse and the thickset hedge of bramble, was the clearing, where just twenty-four hours ago he had danced that mad rigadoon, with her almost in his arms.
Instinctively, in the wild agony of this supreme moment, Beau Brocade turned his steps thither. The clearing had but two approaches, there where the tough branches of furze had once been vigorously cut into. Last night he had led her through the one whilst Jock Miggs sat beside the other, piping the quaint sad tune.
For one moment the hunted man seemed to live that mad, merry hour again, and from out the darkness fairy fingers seemed to beckon: and her face--just for one brief second--smiled at him out of the gloom.
Surely this was not to be the end! Something would happen, something must happen, to enable him to render her the great service he had sworn to do.
Oh! if that yelping dog were not quite so close upon his track! Within the next few minutes, seconds even, he would surely think of something that would guide him towards that great goal: her service. Oh! for just a brief respite in which to think! a way to evade his captors for a short while--a means to hide! a disguise! anything.
But for once the Moor--his happy home, his friend, his mother--was silent, save for the sound of hunters on his trail, of his doom drawing nearer and nearer, whilst he stood and remembered his dream.
It was madness surely, or else a continuance of that fairy vision, but now it seemed to him, as he stood just there, where yesterday her foot had plied the dear old measure, that his ear suddenly caught once more the sound of that self-same rigadoon.
It was a dream of course. He knew that, and paused awhile, although every second now meant life or death to him.
The tune seemed to evade him. It had been close to his ear a moment ago, now it was growing fainter and fainter, gradually vanishing away: soon he could scarce hear it, yet it seemed something tangible, something belonging to her: it was the tune which she had loved, to which her foot had danced so gladsomely, so he ran after it, ran as fast as his weary body would take him, to the further end of the clearing, whither the sweet, sad tune was leading him with its tender, plaintive echo.
There, just where the clearing debouched upon the narrow path which leads to Wirksworth, he overtook Jock Miggs who was slowly wending his way along, and who just now must have passed quite close to him, blowing on his tiny pipe, as was his wont.
"The shepherd! . . . Chorus of angels in paradise lend me your aid now!"
With a supreme effort he pulled his scattered senses together: the mighty fever of self-defence was upon him, that tower of strength which some over-whelming danger will give to a brave man once perhaps in his lifetime. The veil of semi-consciousness, of utter physical prostration, was lifted from his dull brain for this short brief while. The exhausted, suffering, hunted creature had once more given place to the keen, alert son of the Moor, the mad, free child of Nature, with a resourceful head and a daring hand.
And for that same brief while the great and mighty power whom men have termed Fate, but whom saints have called God, allowed his untamed spirit to conquer his body and to hold it in bondage, chasing pain away, trampling down exhaustion, whilst disclosing to his burning eyes, amidst the dark and deadly gloom, the magic, golden vision of a newly-awakened hope.