Throughout the whole range of suffering which humanity is called upon to endure, there is perhaps nothing so hard to bear as suspense.
The uncertainty of what the immediate future might bring, the fast-sinking hope, the slowly-creeping despair, the agony of dull, weary hours: Patience had gone through the whole miserable gamut during that long and terrible day when, obedient to Bathurst's wishes, she had shut herself up in the dingy little parlour of the Packhorse and refused to see any one save the faithful smith.
And the news which John Stich brought to her from time to time was horrible enough to hear.
He tried to palliate as much as possible the account of that awful battue organised against Beau Brocade, but she guessed from the troubled look on the honest smith's face, and from the furtive, anxious glance of his eyes, that th eman whom she had trusted with her whole heart was now in peril, even more deadly than that which had assailed her brother.
And with the innate sympathy born of a true and loving heart, she guessed too how John Stich's simple, faithful soul went out in passionate longing tois friend, who, alone, wounded, perhaps helpless, was fighting his last battle on the Heath.
Yet the trust within her had not died out. Beau Brocade had sworn to do her service and to bring her back the letters ere the sun had risen twice o'er the green-clad hills. To her overwrought mind it seemed impossible that he should fail. He was not the type of man whom fate or adverse circumstance ever succeeded in conquering, and on his whole magnetic personality, on the intense vitality of his being, Nature had omitted to put the mark of failure.
But the hours wore on and she was without further news. Her terror for her brother increased the agony of her suspense. She could see that John Stich too had become anxious about Philip. There was no doubt that with an organised man-hunt on the Moor the lonely forge by teh cross-roads would no longer be a safe hiding-place for the Earl of Stretton. The smithy was already marked as a suspected house, and John Stich was known to be a firm adherent of the Gascoynes and a faithful friend of Beau Brocade.
During the course of this eventful day the attention of the Sergeant and soldiers had been distracted, through Bathurt's daring actions, from Stich's supposed nephew out o' Nottingham, but as the beautiful September afternoon turned to twilight and then to dusk, and band after band of hunters set out to scour the Heath, it became quite clear both to Patience and to the smith that Philip must be got away from the forge at any cost.
He could remain in temporary shelter at the Packhorse, under the guise of one of Lady Patience's serving-men, at any rate until another nightfall, when a fresh refuge could be found for him, according as the events would shape themselves within the next few hours.
Therefore, as soon as the shadows of the evening began to creep over Brassing Moor, Stich set out for the cross-roads. He walked at a brisk pace along the narrow footpath which led up to his forge, his honest heart heavy at thought of his friend, all alone out there on the Heath.
The weird echo of the man-hunt did not reach this western boundary of the Moor, but even in its stillness the vast immensity looked hard and cruel in the gloom: the outlines of gorse bush and blackthorn seemed akin to gaunt, Cassandra-like spectres foreshadowing some awful disaster.
Within the forge Philip too had waited in an agony of suspense, whilst twice the glorious sunset had clothed the Tors with gold.
Driven by hunger and cold out of the hiding-place on the Moor which Bathurst had found for him, he had returned to the smithy the first night, only to find John Stich gone and no trace of his newly-found friend. His sister, he knew, must have started for London, but he was without any news as to what had happened in the forge, and ignorant of the gallant fight made therein by the notorious highwayman.
The hour was late then, and Philip was loth to disturb old Mistress Stich, John's mother, who kept house for him at the cottage. Moreover, he had the firm belief in his heart that neither Bathurst nor Stich would have deserted him, had they thought that he was in imminent danger.
Tired out with the excitement of the day, and with a certain amount of hope renewed in his buoyant young heart, he curled himself up in a corner of the shed and forgot all his troubles in a sound sleep.
The next morning found him under the care of old Mistress Stich at the cottage. She had had no news of John, who had wandered out, so she said, about two hours after sunset, possibly to find the Captain; but she thrilled the young man's ears with the account of the daring fight in the forge.
"Nay! but they'll never get our Captain!" said the worthy dame, with a break in her gentle old voice, "and if the whole country-side was after him they'd never get him. Leastways so says my John."
"God grant he may speak truly," replied the young man, fervently; "'tis shame enough on me that a brave man should risk his life for me, whilst I have to stand idly behind a cupboard door."
The absence of definite news weighed heavily upon his spirits, and as the day wore on and neither John Stich nor Bathurst reappeared, his hopes very quickly began to give way to anxiety and then to despair. Philip always had a touch of morbid self-analysis in his nature: unlike Jack Bathurst, he was ever ready to bend the neck before untoward fate, heaping self-accusation on self-reproach, and thus allowing his spirit to bow to circumstance, rather than to attempt to defy it.
And throughout the whole of this day he sat, moody and silent, with the ever-recurring thought hammering in his brain,--
"I ought not to have allowed a stranger to risk his life for me. I should have given myself up. 'Twas unworthy a soldier and a gentleman."
By the time the shadows had lengthened on the Moor, and Jack o' Lantern covered with sweat had arrived riderless at the forge, Philip was formulating wild plans of going to Wirksworth and there surrendering himself to teh local magistrate. He worked himself up into a fever of heroic self-sacrifice, and had just resolved only to wait until dawn to carry out his purpose, when John Stich appeared in the doorway of his smithy.
One look in the honest fellow's face told the young Earl of Stretton that most things in his world were amiss just now. A few eager questions, and as briefly as possible Stich told him exactly how matters stood: the letters stolen by Sir Humphrey Challoner, Bathurst's determination to re-capture them and the organised hunt proceeding this very night against him.
"Her ladyship and I both think, my lord, that this place is not safe for you just now," added John, finally, "and she begs you to come toer at Brassington as soon as you can. The road is safe enough," added the smith, with a heavy sigh, "no one'd notice us--they are all after the Captain, and God knows but perhaps they've got him by now."
Philip could say nothing, for his miserable self-reproachment had broken his spirit of obstinacy. His boyish heart was overflowing with sympathy for the kindly smith. How gladly now would he have given his own life to save that of his gallant rescuer!
Obediently he prepared to accede to his sister's wishes. He knew what agony she must have endured when the letters were filched from her; he guessed that she would wish to have him near her, and in any case he wanted to be on the spot, hoping that yet he could offer his own life in exchange for the one which was being so nobly risked for him.
Quite quietly, therefore, and without a murmur, he prepared to accompany Stich back to Brassington. At the Packhorse a serving-man's suit could easily be found for him, and he would be safe enough there, for a little while at least.
John Stich, having tended Jack o' Lantern with loving care, took a hasty farewell of his mother. While his friend's fate and that of his young lord hung in the balance he was not like to get back quietly to his work.
"The Captain may come back here for shelter mayhap," he said, with a catch in his throat, as he kissed the old dame "good-bye"; "you'll tend to him, mother?"
"Aye! you may be sure o' that, John," replied Mistress Stich, fervently.
"He'll need a rest mayhap, and some nice warm water; he's such a dandy, mother, you know."
"And you might lay out his best clothes for him; he may need 'em mayhap."
"Aye! I've got 'em laid in lavendar for him. That nice sky-blue coat, think you, John?"
"Aye, and the fine 'broidered waistcoat, and the black silk bow for his hair, and the lace ruffles for his wrists, and . . ."
Stich broke down, a great lump had risen in his throat. Would the foppish young dandy, the handsome, light-hearted gallant, ever gladden the eyes of honest John again?