Inside the forge all was still, whilst the last of the muffled sounds died away in the distance. John Stich had not resumed work. It was his turn now to stare moodily before him.
The young man had thrown the bellows aside, and was pacing the rough earthen floor of the forge like some caged animal.
"Tracked!" he murmured at last between clenched teeth, "tracked like some wild beast! perhaps shot anon like a dangerous cur behind a hedge!"
He sighed a long and bitter sigh, full of sorrow, anxiety, disappointment. It had come to this then! His name among the others: the traitors, the rebels! and he an innocent man!
"Nay, my lord!" said the smith, quietly, "not while John Stich owns a roof that can shelter you."
The young man paused in his feverish walk; a look of gentleness and gratitude softened the careworn expression on his face: with a boyish gesture he threw back the fair hair which fell in curly profusion over his forehead, and with a frank and winning grace he sought and grasped the wroth smith's rough brown hand.
"Honest Stich!" he said at last, whilst his voice shook a little as he spoke, "and to think that I cannot even reward your devotion!"
"Nay, my lord," retorted John Stich, drawing up his burly figure to its full height, "don't talk of reward. I would gladly give my life for you and your family."
And this was no idle talk. John Stich meant every word he said. Honest, kind, simple-hearted John! he loved those to whom he owed everything, loved them with all the devotion of his strong, faithful nature.
The late Lord Stretton had brought him up, cared for him, given him a trade, and set him up in the cottage and forge at the cross-roads, and honest Stich felt that as everything that was good in life had come from my lord and his family, so everything he could give should be theirs in return.
"Ah! I fear me!" sighed the young man, "that it is your life you risk now by sheltering me."
Yet it was all such a horrible mistake.
Philip James Cascoyne, eleventh Earl of Stretton was at this time not twenty-one years of age. There is that fine portrait of him at Brassing Hall painted by Hogarth just before this time. The artist has well caught the proud features, the fine blue eyes, the boyish, curly head, which have been the characteristics of the Gascoynes for many generations. He has also succeeded in indicating the sensitiveness of the mouth, that somewhat feminine turn of the lips, that all too-round curve of the chin and jaw, which perhaps robs the handsome face of its virile manliness. There certainly is a look of indecision, of weakness of will about the lower part of the face, but it is so frank, so young, so insouciant, that it wins all hearts, even if it does not captivate the judgment.
Of course, when he was very young, his sympathies went out to the Stuart cause. Had not the Gascoynes suffered and died for Charles Stuart but a hundred years ago? Why the change? Why this allegiance to an alien dynasty, to a king who spoke the language of his subjects with a foreign accent?
His father, the late Lord Stretton, a contented, unargumentative British nobleman of the eighteenth century, had not thought it worth his while to explain to the growing lad the religious and political questions involved in the upholding of this foreign dynasty. Perhaps he did not understand them altogether himself. The family motto is "Pour le Roi." So the Gascoynes fought for a Stuart when he was King, and against him when he was a Pretender, and old Lord Stretton expected his children to reverence the family motto, and have no opinions of their own.
And yet to the hearts of many the Staurt cause made a strong appeal. From Scotland came the fame of the "bonnie Prince" who won all hearts where'er he went. Philip was young, his father's discipline was irksome, he had some friends among the Highland lords: and while his father lived there had as yet been no occasion in the English Midlands to do anything very daring for the Stuart Pretender.
When the Earl of Stretton died, Philip, a mere boy then, succeeded to title and estates. In the first flush of new duties and new responsibilities his old enthusiasm remained half forgotten. As a peer of the realm he had registered his allegiance to King George, and with his youthful romantic nature all afire, he clung to that new oath of his, idealized it and loyally resisted the blandishments and lures held out to him from Scotland and from France.
Then came the news that Charles Edward, backed by French money and French influence, would march upon London and would stop at Derby to rally round his standard his friends in the Midlands.
Young Lord Stretton, torn between memories of his boyhood and the duties of his new position, feared to be inveigled into breaking his allegiance to King George. The malevolent fairy who at his birth had given him that weak mouth and softly rounded chin, had stamped his worst characteristic on the young handsome face. Philip's one hope at this juncture was to flee from temptation; he knew that Charles Edward, remembering his past ardour, would demand his help and his adherence, and that he, Philip, might be powerless to resist.
So he fled from the county: despising himself
as a coward, yet boyishly clinging to the idea that he would keep
the oath he had sworn to King George. He wished to put miles of
country between himself and the possible breaking
of that oath, the possible yielding to the "bonnie Prince" whom none could resist. He left his sister, Lady Patience, at Stretton Hall, well cared for by old retainers, and he, a loyal subject to his King, became a fugitive.
Then came the catastrophe: that miserable retreat from Derby, the bedraggled remains of a disappointed army; finally Culloden and complete disaster; King George's soldiers scouring the country for rebels, the bills of attainder, the quick trials and swift executions.
Soon the suspicion grew into certainty that the fugitive Earl of Stretton was one of the Pretender's foremost adherents. On his weary way from Derby Prince Charles Edward had asked and obtained a night's shelter at Stretton Hall. When Philip tried to communicate with his sister, and to return to his home, he found that she was watched, and that he was himself attainted by Act of Parliament.
Yet he felt himself guiltless and loyal. He <I>was</I> guiltless and loyal: how his name came to be included in the list of rebels was still a mystery to him: someone must have lodged sworn information against him. But who?--Surely not his old friends--the adherents of Charles Edward--out of revenge for his defection?
In the meanwhile, he, a mere lad, became an outcast, condemned to death by Act of Parliament. Presently all might be cleared, all would be well, but for the moment he was like a wild beast, hiding in hedges and ditches, with his life at the mercy of any grasping Judas willing to sell his fellow-creature for a few guineas.
It was horrible! horrible! Philip vainly tried all the days to rouse himself from his morbid reverie. At intervals he would grasp the kind smith's hand and mutter anxiously,--
"My letter to my sister, John?--You are sure she had it?"
And patient John would repeat a dozen times the day,--
"I am quite sure, my lord."
But since the Corporal's visit Philip's mood had become more feverish.
"My letter," he repeated, "has Patience had my letter? Why doesn't she come?"
And spite of John's entreaties he would go to the entrance which faced the lonely Heath, and with burning eyes look out across the wilderness of furze and bracken towards that distant horizon where lay his home, where waited his patient, loving sister.
"I beg you, my lord, come away from the door, it isn't safe, not really safe," urged John Stich again and again.
"Then why will you not tell me who took my letter to Stretton Hall?" said the boy with feverish impatience.
"My lord. . ."
"Some stupid dolt mayhap, who has lost his way. . .or. . .perchance betrayed me. . ."
"My lord," pleaded the smith, "have I not sworn that your letter went by hands as faithful, as trusty as my own?"
"But I'll not rest an you do not tell me who took it. I wish to know," he added with that sudden look of command which all the Strettons have worn for many generations past.
The old habitual deference of the retainer for his lord was strong in the heart of John. He yielded.
"Nay, my lord, and you'll not be satisfied," he said with a sigh, "I'll tell you, though Heaven knows that his safety is as dear to me as yours--and both dearer than my own."
"Well, who was it?" asked the young man, eagerly.
"I entrusted your letter for Lady Patience to Beau Brocade, the highwayman--"
In a moment Philip was on his feet: danger, amazement, horror, robbed him of speech for a few seconds, but the next he had gripped the smith's arm and like a furious, thoughtless, unreasoning child, he gasped,--
"Beau Brocade!!. . .the highwayman!!!. . .My life, my honour to a highway man!!! Are you mad or drunk, John Stich?"
"Neither, my lord," said John with great respect, but looking the young man fearlessly in the face. "You don't know Beau Brocade, and there are no safer hands than his. He knows every inch of the Moor and fears neither man nor devil."
Touched in spite of himself by the smith's earnestness, Philip's wrath abated somewhat; still he seemed dazed, not understanding, vaguely scenting danger, or treachery.
"But a highwayman!" he repeated mechanically.
"Aye! and a gentleman!" retorted John with quiet conviction. "A gentleman if ever there was one! Aye! and not the only one who has ta'en to the road these hard times," he added under his breath.
"But a thief, John! A man who might sell my letter, betray my whereabouts!. . ."
"A man, my lord, who would die in torture sooner than do that."
The smith's quiet and earnest conviction seemed to chase away the last vestige of Philip's wrath. Still he seemed unconvinced.
"A hero of romance, John, this highwayman of yours," he laughed bitterly.
Honest John scratched the back of his curly black head.
"Noa!" he said, somewhat puzzled. "I know nought about that or what's a. . .a hero of romance. But I do know that Beau Brocade is a friend of the poor, and that our village lads won't lay their hands on him, even if they could. No! not though the Government have offered a hundred guineas as the price of his head."
"Five times the value of mine, it seems," said Philip with a sigh. "But," he added, with a sudden return to feverish anxiety, "if he was caught last night, with my letter in his hands. . ."
"Caught!!! Beau Brocade caught!" laughed John Stich, "nay, all the soldiers of the Duke of Cumberland's army couldn't do that, my lord! Besides, I know he wasn't caught. I saw him on his chestnut horse just before the Corporal came. I heard him laughing, at the red coats, maybe. Nay! my lord, I beg you have no fear, your letter is in her ladyship's hand now, I'll lay my life on that."
"I had to trust someone, my lord," he said after awhile, as Lord Stretton once more relapsed into moody silence. "I could do nothing for your lordship single-handed, and you wanted that letter to reach her ladyship. I scarce knew what to do. But I did know I could trust Beau Brocade, and your secret is as safe with him as it is with me."
Philip sighed wearily.
"Ah, well! I'll believe it all, friend John. I'll trust you and your friend, and be grateful to you both: have no fear of that! Who am I but a wretched creature, whom any rascal may shoot by Act of Parliament."
But John Stich had come to the end of his power of argument. Never a man of many words, he had only become voluble when speaking of his friend. Philip tried to look cheerful and convinced, but he was chafing under this enforced inactivity and the dark, close atmosphere of the forge.
He had spent two days under the smith's roof and time seemed to creep with lead-weighted wings: yet every sound, every strange footstep, made his nerves quiver with morbid apprehension, and even now, at sound of a tremulous voice from the road, he shrank, moody and impatient, into the darkest corner of the hut.