John Stich could scarce contain himself for joy. Fate indeed and all the angels in heaven had ranged themselves on the side of his Captain.
That Beau Brocade should have emerged unconquered after all out of the terrible position in which he was placed last night, seemed to the worthy smith nothing short of miraculous, and only accomplished through the special agency of heaven, whose most cherished child the gallant highwayman most undoubtedly was, in his friend's enthusiastic estimation.
For the moment, therefore, the kindly smith felt tolerably happy about his friend. The presence of His Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland with his army corps in this part of the country would do much towards keeping the Sergeant and soldiers' attention away from the Heath, at any rate for a day or two. Perhaps the squad now quartered at Brassington would be drafted to one of the regiments, and a fresh contingent, composed of men who'd have no special bone to pick with the highwayman, left behind for the still active hunt against the rebels.
But this train of thought brought the faithful smith's mind back to the Earl of Stretton and the stolen letters. Reassured momentarily as to his friend, he was still aware of the grave peril which threatened his young lord.
Neither he nor Lady Patience could conjecture what had become of the letters. Sir Humphrey Challoner, after his woeful adventure in Brassington, had condescended to accept Squire West's hospitality for the nonce. Stich had spied him in the course of the morning, walking in the direction of the village in close conversation with his familiar, Master Mittachip, attorney-at-law. In spite of the momentary respite in his anxiety, the smith felt that there lay still the real danger to Beau Brocade and to Lord Stretton. Moreover, by now he longed to see his friend and to learn how he'd fared. Vaguely in his honest heart he feared that the young man had succumbed on the Heath to pain and fatigue, and mayhap had failed to reach the forge.
When he saw the entire population of Brassington busy with Jock Miggs, and the soldiers intent on the news from the Duke of Cumberland's advance guard, he determined to set out for the cross-roads, in the hopes of finding the Captain at the forge.
He had just crossed the green and turned into the narrow bridle path which led straight to his smithy, when he spied a yokel, dressed in a long smock and wearing a broad-brimmed hat, coming slowly towards him. The man was leaning heavily on a thick knotted stick and seemed to be walking with obvious pain and fatigue.
Some unexplainable instinct caused the smith to wait awhile until the yokel came a little nearer. This corner of the village was quite deserted; the laughter of the folk assembled round the Royal George could be heard only as a distant echo from across the green. The next moment the smith uttered a quickly-suppressed cry of astonishment as he recognised Bathurst's face underneath the broad-rimmed hat.
"Sh! . . .sh . . .sh!" whispered the young man hurriedly,--"her ladyship? . . .can I see her?"
"Yes! yes!" replied John, whose honest eyes were resting anxiously on his friend's pallid face, "but you, Captain? . . .you? . . ."
He did not like to formulate the question, and Bathurst interrupted him quickly.
"I've rested awhile at the forge, John. . .you mother was an angel . . .and now I want to see her ladyship."
John's honest heart misgave him. His friend's fresh young voice sounded hoarse and unnatural, there was a restless, feverish glitter in his eyes, and the slender, tapering hand which rested on the stick trembled visibly.
"You ought to be in bed, Captain," he muttered gruffly, "and well nursed too; you are ill. . ."
"I am sufficiently alive, friend, at any rate to serve Lady Patience to the end."
"I'll go tell her ladyship," said the smith, with a sigh.
"Say a man from the village would wish to speak with her . . .Don't mention my name, John. . .she'll not know me, I think . . .'Tis best that she should not . . .And I look a miserable object enough, don't I?" he added with a feeble laugh.
"Her ladyship would command you to rest if she knew. . ."
"I don't wish her to know, friend," said Jack, smiling in spite of himself at the good fellow's vehemence, "her tender pity would try to wean me from my purpose, which is to serve her with the last breath left in me. And now, quick, John. . .Don't worry about me, old friend . . .I am only a little tired after that scramble on the Heath . . .and the wound that limb of Satan dealt me is at times rather troublesome. . . But I am very tough, you know. . . All my plans are made, and I'll follow you at a little distance. Beg her ladyship to speak with me in the passage of the inn . . . 'twould excite too much attention if I went up to her parlour . . .No one'll know me, never fear."
John knew of old how useless it was to argue with the Captain once he had set his mind on a definite course of action. Without further protest, therefore, and yet with a heavy heart, he turned and quickly walked back through the village to the Packhorse, followed at some little distance by Bathurst.
In order to arouse as little suspicion as possible, it had been necessary for the young Earl of Stretton to mix from time to time with the servant and the barman of the inn. He was supposed to be an additional serving-man, come to help at the Packhorse in view of her ladyship's unexpected stay there. In this out-of-the-way village of Brassington no one knew him by sight, and he was in comparative safety here, until nightfall, when he meant to strike up country again for shelter.
He was standing in the shadow behind the bar, when John Stich entered the parlour, bearing the message from Beau Brocade. The room was dark and narrow, over-filled with heavy clouds of tobacco smoke and with the deafening clamour of loud discussions and exciting narratives carried on by two or three soldiers and some half-dozen villagers over profuse tankards of ale.
John Stich managed to reach Philip's ear without exciting attention. The young man at once slipped out of the room, in order to tell his sister that a yokel bearing important news would wish to speak with her privately.
Her heart beating with eagerness and apprehension, Patience hurried down the narrow stairs, and in the passage found herself face to face with a man dressed in a long, dingy smock, and whose features she could not distinguish beneath the broad brim of his hat.
He raised a respectful hand to his forelock as soon as he was in her ladyship's presence, but did not remove his hat.
"You wished to speak with me, my man?" asked Lady Patience, eagerly.
"I have a message for to deliver to Lady Patience Gascoyne," said Bathurst, whose voice, hoarse and quavering with fatigue, needed no assumption of disguise. He kept his head well bent, and the passage was very dark.
Patience, with her thoughts fixed on the gallant upright figure she had last seen so full of vitality and joy in the little inn-parlour upstairs, scarce gave more than a passing glance to the stooping form, leaning heavily on a stick before her.
"Yes, yes," she said impatiently, "You have a message? From whom?"
"I don't rightly know, my lady . . . a gentleman 'twas . . .on the Heath this morning . . .he give me this letter for your ladyship."
Burying his tell-tale, slender hand well inside the capacious sleeve of Jock Migg's smock, Bathurst handed Patience a note written by himself. She took it from him with a glad little cry, and when he turned to go she put a restraining hand on his arm.
"Wait till I've read the letter," she said, "I may wish to send an answer."
She unfolded the letter slowly, very slowly, he standing close beside her and watching the tears gathering in her eyes as she began to read, murmuring the words half audibly to herself:--
"Have no fear. I have the letters, and with your permission will take them straight to London. I have a powerful friend there who will help me to place them before the King and Council without delay. To carry this safely through it is important that I should not be seen again in Brassington, as Sir Humphrey Challoner luckily has lost track of me for the moment, and I can be at Wirksworth before nightfall, and on my way to London before another dawn. Your enemy will keep watch on you, so I entreat you to stay in Brassington so as to engage his attention, whilst I go to London with the letters. His lordship would be safest, I think, in the cottage of old Widow Coggins at Aldwark. It has been my good fortune to do her some small service; she'll befriend his lordship for my sake. John Stich will convey him thither as soon as maybe. I entreat you to be of good cheer. A few days will see your brother a free man, and rid you for ever of your enemy. Believe me, the plan I have had the honour to set forth is safe and quick, and on my knees I beg you to allow me to carry it through in your service."
She folded the letter and then slipped it into the folds of her gown.
Through the open doorway behind her a ray of sunshine came shyly peeping in, framing her graceful figure with a narrow fillet of gold. They were alone in the passage, and she, intent upon the precious letter, was taking no notice of him: thus he could feast his eyes once more upon his dream, his beautiful white rose, drooping with dew, the graceful silhouette outlined against the sunlit picture beyond, the queenly head, with its wealth of soft golden hair, bent with rapt attention on the letter which trembled in her hand.
His whole being ached with mad passionate longing for her, his lips burned with a desire to cover her neck and throat with kisses, yet he would have knelt on the flagstones before her and worshipped as did the saints before Our Lady's shrine. In his heart was a great joy that he could do her service, and a strange, wild hope that he might die for her.
"The gentleman who gave you this letter . . ." she said with a slight catch in her low, melodious voice. "You saw him? . . . He was well?. . . How did he look? . . ."
Her eyes now were swimming in tears, and Bathurst had much ado to still the mad beating of his heart, and to force his voice to a natural tone.
"Lud, my lady," he said, "but he was just like any other body Oi thought."
"Noa! noa! not that Oi could see."
"Go back to him, friend," she said, with sudden eagerness, "tell him that he must come to me at once . . .I . . .I would speak with him."
It required all Bathurst's firm strength of will not to betray himself before her. The tender pleading in her eyes, the gentle, womanly sympathy in her voice, set all his pulses beating. But he had made up his mind that she should not know him just then. A look, a cry, might give him away, and there was but one chance now to be of useful service to her, and that was to take the letters at once to London, whilst their joint enemy had for the nonce no thought of him.
Therefore he contrived to say quite stolidly,--
"Noa, noa, the gentleman said to Oi, 'You can bring a message, but th'lady mustn't come nigh me!'"
She gave a quick little sigh of disappointment.
"Then, my good fellow," she said, "try to remember. . . tell him . . .tell him . . I would wish to thank him. . .tell him . . .Nay! nay!" she suddenly added, pulling a faded white rose from her belt, "tell him nothing . . .but give him the flower . . .in token that I have received his letter . . .and will act as he bids me . . .You'll remember?"
He dared not trust himself to speak, but as she held out the rose to him he took it from her hand and involuntarily his finger-tips came in contact with hers just for a second . . .long enough for the divine magnetism of his great love to pass from him to her.
She seized hold of his hand, for in that one magnetic touch she had recognised him. Her heart gave a great leap of joy, the joy of being near him once more, of again feeling the tender, grey eyes resting with passionate longing on her face. But she uttered neither cry nor word, for it was a great, silent and godlike moment--when at last she understood.
He had stopped still lower and rested his burning lips upon her cool fingers, and upon the rose which she had worn at her breast.
Neither of them spoke, for their hearts were in perfect unison, their whole being thrilled with the wild, jubilant echo of a divine hosanna, and around them the legions of God's angels made a rampart of snow-white wings, to shut out all the universe from them, leaving them alone with their love.