That moment was brief, as all such great and happy moments are.
But a few seconds had passed since both her hands had rested in his, and he forgot the world in that one kiss upon her finger-tips.
The next instant a fast-approaching noise of hurrying footsteps, accompanied by much shouting, roused them from their dream.
Both through the back and the front door a crowd of excited soldiers had pushed their way into the inn, whilst the folk in the bar-parlour, attracted by the sudden noise, pressed out into the narrow passage to see what was happening.
John Stich, foremost amongst these, made a rush for Patience's side. She found herself suddenly pressed back towards the foot of the stairs, and face to face with a noisy group of village folk, through which the Sergeant and some half-dozen soldiers were roughly pushing their way.
She looked round her, helpless and bewildered, Jack Bathurst had disappeared.
The whole thing had occurred in the brief space of a few seconds, even before Patience had had time to realise that anything was amiss.
The narrow staircase, at the foot of which she now stood, led straight up to the private parlour, where Philip was even now awaiting her return.
"Out of the way, you rascals," the Sergeant was shouting, whilst elbowing his way through the small group of gaping yokels, and pressing forward towards the stairs.
"Will your ladyship allow me the privilege of conducting you out of this crowd?" said a suave voice at Patience's elbow.
Sir Humphrey Challoner, closely followed by the obsequious Mittachip, had pushed his way into the inn, in the wake of the soldiers, and was now standing between her and the crowd, bowing very deferentially and offering her his arm, to conduct her upstairs.
But a few moments ago he had heard the startling news that Jock Miggs had been captured on the Heath, in mistake for Beau Brocade. As far as Sir Humphrey could ascertain nothing of importance had been found on the shepherd's person, and in a moment he realised that, through almost supernatural cunning, the highwayman must have succeeded in filching the letters, and by now had no doubt once more restored them to Lady Patience.
All the scheming, the lying, the treachery of the past few days had therefore been in vain; but Sir Humphrey Challoner was not the man to give up a definite purpose after the first material check to his plans. If her ladyship was once more in possession of the letters, they must be got away from her again. That was all. And if that cursed highwayman was still free to-day, 'sdeath but he'll have to hang on the morrow.
In the meanwhile Philip's momentary safety was a matter of the greatest moment to Sir Humphrey Challoner. If that clumsy lout of a Sergeant got hold of the lad, all Sir Humphrey's schemes for forcing Lady Patience's acceptance of his suit by means of the precious letters would necessarily fall to the ground.
But instinctively Patience recoiled from him; his suave words, his presence near her at this terrible crisis, frightened her more effectually than the Sergeant's threatening attitude. She drew close to John Stich, who had interposed his burly figure between the soldiers and the foot of the stairs.
"Out of the way, John Stich," shouted the Sergeant, peremptorily, "this is not your forge, remember, and by G--- I'll not be tricked again."
"Those are her ladyship's private rooms," retorted the smith, without yielding one inch of the ground. "Landlord," he shouted at the top of his voice, "I call upon you to protect her ladyship from these ruffians."
"You insult His Majesty's uniform," quoth the Sergeant, briefly, "and do yourself no good, smith. As for the landlord of this inn, he interferes 'tween me and my duty at his peril."
"But by what right do you interfere with me, Master Sergeant?" here interposed Lady Patience, trying to assume an indifferent air of calm haughtiness. "Do you know who I am?"
"Aye! that I do, my lady!" responded the Sergeant gruffly, "and that's what's brought me here this morning. Not half an hour ago I heard that Lady Patience Gascoyne was staying at the Packhorse, and now the folks say that a new servingman came to give a helping hand here. He arrived in the middle of the night, it seems. Strange time for a serving-man to turn up, ain't it?"
"I know nothing of any servant at this inn, and I order you at once to withdraw your men, and not to dare further to molest me."
"Your pardon, my lady, but my orders is my orders: I have been sent here by His Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland hisself to hunt out all the rebels who are in hiding in these parts. I've strict orders to be on the lookout for Philip James Gascoyne, Earl of Stretton, who, I understand, is your ladyship's own brother, and as I've a right o'search, I mean to see who else is staying in those rooms upstairs besides your ladyship."
"This is an outrage, Sergeant!"
"Maybe, my lady," he retorted drily, "but with us soldiers orders is orders, saving your presence. I was tricked at the smithy, and again on the Heath. My belief is that we were hunting a bogey last night. There may or mayn't be any highwayman called Beau Brocade, but there was a fine young gallant at the forge the day afore yesterday, who did for me and my men, and I'll take my oath that he was none other than the rebel, Philip Gascoyne, Earl of Stretton."
"'Tis false and you talk like a madman, Sergeant."
"Maybe! but your ladyship'll please stand aside until I've searched those rooms upstairs, or I'll have to order my men to lay hands on your ladyship. Now then, John Stich, stand aside in the name of the King!"
John Stich did not move, and Lady Patience still stood defiant and haughty at the foot of the stairs. The villagers, stolid and stupid, were staring open-mouthed, not daring to interfere. But of course it was only a question of seconds, the worthy smith could not guard the staircase for long against the Sergeant and a dozen soldiers, and in any case nothing would be of any avail. Philip in the room upstairs was trapped like a fox in its lair, and nothing could save him now from falling into the soldiers' hands.
In vain she sought for Bathurst among the crowd: with wild, unreasoning agony she longed for him in this moment of her greatest need, and he was not there. She felt sure that if only he were near her he would think of something, do something, to avert the appalling catastrophe.
"I give your ladyship one minute's time to stand quietly aside," said the Sergeant, roughly. "After that I give my men orders to lay hands on you, and on any one who dares to interfere."
"Give me the letters," whispered Sir Humphrey Challoner, insinuatingly, in her ear. "I can yet save your brother."
"How?" she murmured involuntarily.
He looked up towards the top of the stairs.
"Then he *is* up there?"
She did not reply. It was useless to deny it, the next few moments would bring the inevitable.
"Stand back, Sergeant," quoth John Stich, defiantly. "I have the honour to protect her ladyship's person against any outrage from you."
"Good words, smith," retorted the Sergeant, "but I tell ye I've been tricked twice by you and I mean to know the reason why. Let her ladyship allow me to search the room upstairs and I'll not lay hands on her."
"Ye shall not pass," repeated the smith, obstinately.
"The letters," whispered Sir Humphrey, "give me the letters and I pledge you my honour that I can save him yet."
But half mad with terror and misery, scornful, defiant, she turned on him.
"Your honour!" she said with infinite contempt.
But in her inmost heart she murmured in agonised despair,--
"What's to be done? Oh, God, protect him!"
"Stand back, John Stich," repeated the Sergeant, for the third time, "or I give my men the order to charge. Now then, my men!"
"Ye shall not pass!" was the smith's persistent, obstinate answer to the challenge.
"Forward!" shouted the soldier in a loud voice. "Into it, my men! Use your bayonets if any one interferes with ye!"
The soldiers, nothing loth, were ready for the attack: there had already been too much parleying to suit their taste. They had been baffled too often in the last few days to be in the mood to daily with a woman, be she her ladyship or no.
With a loud cry they made a dash for the stairway, which behind Stich and Lady Patience lost itself in the gloom above.
And it was from out this darkness that at this moment a light-hearted, fresh young voice struck upon the astonished ears of all those present.
"Nay! too much zeal, friend Stich. Stand aside, I pray you. Faith! it'll give me great pleasure to converse with these gallant lobsters."
And Jack Bathurst, pushing the bewildered smith gently to one side, came down the stairs with a smile upon his face, clam, debonnair, dressed as for a feast.
He had discarded Jock Migg's long smock, broad-brimmed hat and kerchief, and appeared in all the gorgeous finery of the beautiful lavender-scented clothes, he had donned at the forge with the kindly aid of Mistress Stich. He was still very pale and there were a few lines of weariness and of bodily pain round the firm, sensitive mouth, but his grey eyes, deep-sunk and magnetic, glowed with the keen fire of intense excitement. The coat of fine blue cloth set off his tall, trim figure to perfection. His left hand was tucked into the opening of his exquisitely embroidered waistcoat, and dainty ruffles of delicate Mechlin lace adorned his neckcloth and wrists. As he appeared there, handsome, foppish and smiling, 'twas no wonder that the country-side had nicknamed him Beau Brocade.
"Well! my gallant friend!" he said, addressing the Sergeant, since the latter seemed too astonished to speak, "what is it you want with me, eh?"
The Sergeant was gradually recovering his breath. Fate apparently was playing into his hands. It was almost too bewildering for any bluff soldier to realise, but it certainly seemed pretty clear that the rebel Earl of Stretton and Beau Brocade the highwayman were one and the same person.
"You are Philip Gascoyne, Earl of Stretton?" he asked at last.
"Faith! you've guessed that, have you?" responded Bathurst, gaily. "Odd's life, 'tis marvellous how much penetration lies hidden beneath that becoming coat of yours."
"Then, Philip Gascoyne, Earl of Stretton, you are attainted by Parliament for high treason, and I arrest you in the name of the King!"
There were indeed many conflicting emotions raging in the hearts of all those present whilst this brief colloquy was going on.
John Stich, accustomed to implicit obedience where his Captain's actions were concerned, had not dared to speak or stir. Sir Humphrey Challoner, completely thrown off his mental balance by the unexpected appearance of Bathurst, was hastily trying to make up his bewildered mind as to what was now best to be done.
As to Patience herself, at first a great, an overwhelming joy and pride had seized her at the thought that he was near her now, that he had not deserted her in the hour of her greatest need, that once again he had interposed his magnetic, powerful personality between her and the danger which threatened her and Philip.
It was only when the Sergeant's momentous words, "I arrest you in the name of the King!" rang out clearly and decisively above the loud tumult which was beating in her heart, that she became aware of the deadly peril which threatened the man she loved.
True, he had come once more between her and danger, but once again he had done it at risk of his life, and was like at last to lay it down for her.
She had been standing a little to one side, turning, as all had done, toward the elegant, foppish figure in the fine clothes and dainty ruffles of lace, but now she stepped forward with mad, unreasoning impulse, thrusting herself between him and the Sergeant, and trying to shield him behind the folds of her cloak.
"No! no! no! no!" she said excitedly, "Sergeant, 'tis all a mistake! . . .I swear . . ."
But already Jack Bathurst had bent forward, and had contrived to whisper, unheard by all save her,--
"Hush--sh--your brother . . .remember his danger . . ."
"Your pardon, lady," said the Sergeant, seeing that she paused, irresolute, not knowing what to do in face of this terrible alternative which was confronting her. "Your pardon, lady, but this gentleman is Philip, Earl of Stretton, is he not?"
"For your brother's sake," whispered Bathurst once more.
"No . . .yes . . .Oh! my God!" murmured Patience, in the agony of this appalling misery.
Her brother or the man she loved. One or the other betrayed by one word from her, now at this moment, with no time to pray to God for help or guidance, no chance of giving her own life for both!
"Out on you, friend," said Bathurst, lightly, "do you not see her ladyship is upset. Nay! have no fear, I'll follow you quietly!" he added, seeing that the Sergeant and soldiers were making a motion to surround him, "but you'll grant me leave to say farewell to my sister?"
The Sergeant could not very well refuse. He was at heart a humane man, and now that he was sure of this important capture, he would have done a good deal to ingratiate himself, through little acts of courtesy, with Lady Patience Gascoyne.
However, he had no mind to be tricked again, and in face of an almost immediate execution for high treason, the prisoner seemed extraordinarily self-possessed and cheerful. But for her ladyship's obvious despair and sorrow, the worthy Sergeant might even now have had some misgivings.
As it was, he told off three men to mount the stairs, and to stand on guard at the top of them, in case the prisoner made a dash that way, in the hopes of reaching the roof. The Sergeant still kept an idea in his mind that some supernatural agency was at work in favour of this extraordinary man, who up to now had seemed to bear a charmed life. He had the little narrow passage and hall of the inn cleared of the gaping yokels, who went off one by one, scratching their addled polls, wondering what it all meant, and who was Beau Brocade. Was he the Earl of Stretton? was he the highwayman? or some pixie from the Heath with power to change himself at will?
Sir Humphrey Challoner retired within the shadow of the stairway. On the whole he preferred to leave the events to shape their own course. In one way Fate had befriended him. Whether hanged in his own name or in that of the Earl of Stretton, the highwayman would within the next few hours be safely out of the way, and then it would be easier no doubt to obtain possession of the letters once again.
He too like the Sergeant and soldiers, felt an instinctive dread of supernatural agency in connection with Beau Brocade. In these days there existed still a deeply-rooted belief in witchcraft, and the educated classes were not altogether proof against the popular superstitions.
Sir Humphrey had a curious, intense hatred for the man who had so chivalrously championed Lady Patience's cause. His own love for her was so selfish and lustful that overpowering jealousy formed its chief characteristic. He was frantically, madly jealous of Jack Bathurst, for with the keen eyes of the scorned suitor, he had noted the look of joy and pride in her face when the young man first appeared on the stairs, and he alone of all those present knew how to interpret her obvious despair, her terrible misery, when brought face to face with the awful alternative of giving up her brother or the man she loved.
Sir Humphrey swore some heavy oaths under his breath at thought of the scorn with which she had rejected him. Womanlike, she had yielded to the blandishments of that thief, and proud Lady Patience Gascoyne had fallen in love with a highwayman!
But now Fate meant to be kind to Sir Humphrey. With that chivalrous coxcomb out of the way, Lady Patience would be once more at his mercy. Philip was still a fugitive under the ban of attainder, and the letters could be got hold of once again, unless indeed the devil, with an army of witches and evil sprites, came to the assistance of that rascal Beau Brocade.