Awhile ago, in an agony of longing, he had cried out for a moment's respite! for a disguise! and now there stood before him Jock Miggs in smock and broad-brimmed hat, with pipe and shepherd's staff. His pursuers, headed by the yelping dog, were still a quarter of a mile away. Five minutes in which to do battle for his life, for his freedom, for the power to keep his oath! The plan of action had surged in his mind at first sight of the wizened little figure of the shepherd beside the further approach of the clearing.
Beau Brocade drew himself up to his full height, sought and found in the pocket of his coat the black mask which he habitually wore; this he fixed to his face, then drawing a pistol from his belt, he overtook Jock Miggs, clapped him vigorously on the shoulder, and shouted lustily,--
"Stand and deliver!"
Jock Miggs, aroused from his pleasant meditations, threw up his hands in terror.
"The Lud have mercy on my soul!" he ejaculated as he fell on his knees.
"Stand and deliver!" repeated Beau Brocade, in as gruff a voice as he could command.
Jock Miggs was trying to collect his scattered wits.
"B. . .b. . .but . . . kind sir!" he murmured, "y. . . y . . .you wouldn't harm Jock Miggs, the shepherd . . . would you?"
"Quick's the word! Now then. . ."
"But, good sir. . . Oi. . . Oi. . .Oi've got nowt to deliver . . ."
Jock Miggs was pitiful to behold: at any other moment of his life Bathurst would have felt very sorry for the poor, scared creature, but that yelping hound was drawing desperately near and he had only a few minutes at his command.
"Naught to deliver?" he said with a great show of roughness, and seizing poor Jock by the collar.
"Look at your smock!"
"My smock, kind sir? . . ."
"Aye! I've a fancy for your smock . . . so off with it . . . quick!"
Jock Migs struggled up to his feet, he was beginning to gather a small modicum of courage. He had lived all his life on Brassing Moor and it was his first serious encounter with an armed gentleman of the road. Whether 'twas Beau Brocade or no he was too scared to conjecture, but he had enough experience of the Heath to know that poor folk like himself had little bodily hurt to fear from highwaymen.
But of course it was always wisest to obey. As to his old smock. . .
"He! he! he! my old smock, sir!" he laughed vaguely and nervously, "why. . ."
"I don't want to knock the poor old cuckoo down," murmured Bathurst to himself, "but I've got three minutes before that cur reaches the top of the clearing and . . .Off with your smock, man, or I fire," he added peremptorily, and pointing the muzzle of his pistol at the trembling shepherd.
Miggs had in the meanwhile fully realised that the masked stranger was in deadly earnest. Why he should want the old smock was more than any shepherd could conceive, but that he meant to have it was very clear. Jock uttered a final plaintive word of protest.
"Kind sir. . . but if Oi take off my smock . . .I shan't be quite d. . .d . . .decent. . . sir. . . wi' only my shirt."
"You shall have my coat," replied Bathurst, decisively.
"Lud preserve me! . . . Your coat, sir!"
"Yes! it's old and shabby, and my waistcoat too. . . Now off with that smock, or . . ."
Once more the muzzle of the pistol gleamed close to Jock Migg's head. Without further protest he began to divest himself of his smock. The process was slow and laborious, and Jack set his teeth not to scream with the agony of the suspense.
He himself had had little difficulty in taking off his own coat and waistcoat, for earlier in the day, before he had been so hard pressed, the pain in his shoulder had caused him to slip his left arm out of its sleeve.
Moreover, the excitement of these last fateful moments kept him at fever pitch: he was absolutely unconscious of aught save of the rapid flight of the seconds and the steady approach of dog and men towards the clearing.
Even Jock Miggs, who up to now had been too intent on his own adventure to take much heed of what went on in the gloom beyond, even he perceived that something unusual was happening on the Moor.
"What's that?" he asked with renewed terror.
"A posse of soldiers at my heels," said Beau Brocade, decisively, "that's why I want your smock, my man, and if I don't get it there'll be just time to blow out your dull brains before I fall into their hands."
This last argument was sufficiently convincing. Miggs thought it decidedly best to obey; he helped his mysterious assailant on with his own smock, cap and kerchief, and not unwilling attired himself in Beau Brocade's discarded coat and waistcoat.
"A pistol in your belt in case you need it, friend," whispered Bathurst, rapidly, as he slipped one of the weapons in Migg's belt, keeping the other firmly grasped in his own hand.
There was no doubt that the hound was on the scent now: the men had ceased shouting but their rapid footsteps could be heard following closely upon the dog, whose master was muttering a few words of encouragement.
Anon there came a whisper, louder than the rest,--
"This way!. . ."
"There's a path here!"
"By gy! this confounded darkness!"
"Steady, Roy! steady, old man! Eh? What?"
"Can't you find the trail, old Roy?"
And the gorse was crackling beneath rapid and stealthy footsteps. There was now just the width of the clearing between Beau Brocade and his pursuers.
"This way, Sergeant. Roy's got the trail again."
Neither Jock Miggs nor yet Beau Brocade could see what was going on at the further end of the clearing. The dog, wildly straining against the leash, was quivering with intense excitement, his master hanging on to him with all his might.
Miggs, scared like some sheep lost among a herd of cows, was standing half-dazed, smoothing down with appreciative fingers the fine cloth of his new apparel, terrified every time his hand came in contact with the pistol in his belt.
But Beau Brocade had crept underneath a heavy clump of gorse and bramble, and with his finger on the trigger of his weapon he cowered there, ready for action, his eyes fixed upon the blackness before him.
The next moment the outline of the hound's head and shoulder became faintly discernible in the gloom. With nose close to the ground, powerful jaws dropping and parched tongue hanging out of its mouth, it was heading straight for the clump of gorse where cowered the hunted man.
Beau Brocade took rapid aim and fired. The dog, without a howl, rolled over on its side, whilst Jock Miggs uttered a cry of terror.
Then there was an instant's pause. The pursuers, silenced and awed, had stopped dead, for they had been taken wholly unawares, and for a second or two waited, expecting and dreading yet another shot.
Then a mild, trembling voice came to them from the darkness.
"There 'e is, Sergeant! Just afore you--standing. . . See! . . ."
The Sergeant and soldiers had no need to be told twice. Their pause had only been momentary and already they had perceived the outline of Jock Migg's figure, standing motionless not far from the body of the dead dog.
With a shout of triumph Sergeant and soldiers fell on the astonished shepherd, whilst the same mild, trembling voice continued to pipe excitedly,--
"Hold 'un tight, Sergeant! Jump on 'im! Tie 'is legs! Sure, an' 'tis he, the rascal!"
Jock Miggs had had no chance of uttering one word of protest, for one of the soldiers, remembering a lesson learnt the day before at the smithy, had thrown his own heavy coat right over the poor fellow's head, effectually smothering his screams. Another man had picked up the still smoking pistol from the ground close to Migg's feet.
"Pistols!" said the Sergeant, excitedly. "The pair o' them too," he added, pulling the other silver-mounted weapon out of Migg's belt, and the black mask out of the pocket of his coat: "and silver-mounted, by gy! . . .And his mask! . . . Now, my men, off with him. . . Tie his legs together--off with your belts, quick! . . . and you, Corporal, keep that coat tied well over his head . . .the rascal's like an eel, and'll wriggle out of your hands if you don't hold him tight . . . Remember there's a hundred guineas' reward for the capture of Beau Brocade."
Poor old Miggs, smothered within the thick folds of the soldier's coat, could scarce manage to breathe. The men were fastening his knees and ankles together with their leather belts, his arms too were pinioned behind his back. Thus trussed and spitted like a goose ready for roasting, he felt himself being hauled up on the shoulders of some of the men and then borne triumphantly away.
"We've gotten Beau Brocade!"
"Hip! hip! hurray!"
And so they marched away, shouting lustily, whilst Beau Brocade remained alone on the Heath.
The excitement was over now. He was safe for the moment and free. But the hour of victory seemed like the hour of death; as the last shouts of triumph, the last cry of "Hurrah!" died away in the distance, he fell back against the wet earth; his senses were reeling, the very ground seemed to be giving way beneath his feet, a lurid, red film to be rising before his closing lids, blotting out of the darkness of the Moor, and that faint, very faint, streak of grey which had just appeared in the east.
God, to whom he had cried out in his agony, had given him the respite for which he had craved. He was safe and free to think . . .to think of her . . .and yet now his one longing seemed to be to lie down and rest . . and rest . . .and sleep . . .
Many a night he had lain thus on the open Moor, with the soft, sweet-scented earth for his bed, and the tender buds of heather as a pillow for his head. But to-night he was only conscious of infinite peace, and his trembling hands drew the worthy shepherd's smock closer round him.
His wandering spirit paused awhile to dwell on poor Miggs in his sorry plight. . . Ah, well! the morning would see Jock free again, but in the meanwhile. . .
Then all of a sudden the spirit was back on earth, back to life and to a mad, scarce understandable hope. His hand had come in contact with a packet of letters in the pocket of Migg's smock.
Far away in the sky the eastern stars had paled before the morning light. One by one the distant peaks of the Derbyshire hills emerged from the black mantle of the night, and peeped down on the valley below, blushing a rosy red. Upon the Heath animal life began to be astir--in the morass beyond a lazy frog started to croak.
Beau Brocade had clasped the letters with cold numb fingers: he drew them forth and held them before his dimmed eyes.
"The letters! . . .' he murmured, trembling with the agony of this great unlooked-for joy. "The letters!. . ."
How they came there, he could not tell. He was too weary, too ill to guess. But that they were her letters he could not for a moment doubt. He had found them! God and His angels had placed them in his hands!
Ah, Fortune! fickle Fortune! the wilful jade and the poor outlaw were to be even then after all. And 'twas Beau Brocade, highwayman, theif, who was destined in a few hours to bring her this great happiness.
"Will she. . .will she smile, I wonder . . ."
He loved to see her smile, and to watch the soft tell-tale blush slowly mounting to her cheek. Ah! now he was dreaming . . .dreams that never, never could be. He would bring her back the letters, for he had sworn to her that she should have them ere the sun had risen twice o'er yon green-clad hills. And then all would be over, and she would pass out of his life like a beautiful comet gliding across the firmament of his destiny.
A moment but not to stay.
In the east, far away, rose had changed to gold. From Moor and Heath and Bogland came the sound of innumerable bird-throats singing the great and wonderful hymn of praise, hosanna to awakening Nature.
The outlaw had kept his oath; he turned to where the first rays of the rising sun shed their shimmering mantle over the distant Tors, and in one great uplifting of his soul to his Maker he prayed that sweet death might kiss him when he placed the letters at her feet.