Hemmed in by a compact little group of soldiers at the foot of the stairs, and with three men on guard at the head of it, Bathurst and Patience had but a few minutes in which to live these last brief moments of their love.
She clung passionately to him, throwing aside all the haughty reserve of her own proud nature: conquered by her great love: a woman only, whose very life was bound up in his.
"They shall not take you!" she moaned in the agony of her despair. "They shall not . . .I will not let you go!"
And he held her in his arms now, savouring with exquisite delight this happiest moment of his life, the joy of feeling her tender form clinging to him in passionate sorrow, to see the tears gathering in her blue eyes, one by one, for him and to know that her love--her great, measureless, divine love--was at last wholly his.
But the moments were brief, and the Sergeant below was already waxing impatient. He drew her gently into a dark angle of the stairs, up against the banisters, and taking the packet of letters from his pocket, he pressed them into her hand.
"The letters! quick!" he whispered. "God guard you and him!"
"The letters?" she murmured mechanically.
"Aye! I can do nothing now . . .but try to see the Duke of Cumberland before you go to London, show him the letters. . . He may be in this village to-day . . .if not, you can see him at Wirksworth . . .He has power to stay execution even if your brother is arrested . . .he might use it if he had seen the letters . . ."
"Yes! yes!" she murmured.
Sorrow seemed to have dazed her, she did not quite know what she was doing, but her left hand closed instinctively over the precious packet then dropped listlessly by her side.
Neither she nor Bathurst had perceived a thin, attenuated figure hoisting itself monkey-wise over the dark portion of the banisters.
"Try and hear what those two are saying," Sir Humphrey had whispered, and the attorney, obedient and obsequious, had made a desperate effort to do as he was bid. The staircase was but partially lighted by a glimmer of daylight, which came slanting round the corner from the passage. The banisters were in complete shadow, and the Sergeant and soldiers were too intent on watching their prisoner to notice Master Mittachip or Sir Humphrey.
The next moment Patience felt a terrific wrench on all her fingers; even as she uttered a cry of pain and alarm, the packet of letters was torn out of her hand from behind, and she was dimly conscious of a dark figure clambering over the banister and disappearing into the darkness below.
But with a mad cry of rage Jack Bathurst had bounded after that retreating figure; wholly taken by surprise, he only saw the dim outline of Mittachip's attenuated form, as the latter hastily dropped the packet of letters at Sir Humphrey Challoner's feet, who stooped to pick them up. Like an infuriated wild beast Jack fell on Sir Humphrey.
"You limb of Satan!" he gasped. "You . . .you . . .give me back those letters! . . .Stich! Stich! quick! . . ."
The force of the impact had thrown both men to the ground. Bathurst was gripping his antagonist by the throat with fingers of steel. But already the Sergeant and his men had come to the rescue, dragging Jack away from the prostrate figure of Sir Humphrey, whilst the soldiers from above had run down and were forcibly keeping John Stich in check.
freed from his powerful antagonist, his Honour quietly picked himself up, readjusted his crumpled neckcloth and flicked the dust from off his coat. He was calmly thrusting the packet of letters in his pocket, whilst the Sergeant was giving orders to his men to bind their prisoner securely, if he offered further resistance.
"Sergeant!" said Bathurst, despairingly, "that miscreant has just stolen some letters belonging to her ladyship."
"Silence, prisoner!" commented the Sergeant. "You do yourself no good by this violence."
It seemed as if Fate meant to underline this terrible situation with a final stroke of her ironical pen, for just then the quiet village street beyond suddenly became alive with repeated joyous shouts and noise of trampling feet. In a moment the dull, monotonous air of Brassington was filled with a magnetic excitement which seemed to pervade all its inhabitants at once, and even penetrated within the small dingy inn, where the last act of a momentous drama was at this moment being played.
"It must be the Duke of Cumberland's army!" quoth the Sergeant, straining his ears to catch the sound of a fast-approaching cavalcade.
"Then you'll please His Royal Highness with the smart capture you've made, Sergeant," said Sir Humphrey, with easy condescension.
This was indeed Fate's most bitter irony. "The Duke has power to stay execution, and would use it if you showed him the letters!" These were the last words of counsel Bathurst had given Patience, and now with freedom for her brother almost within her grasp, she was powerless to do aught to save him.
"The letters, Sir Humphrey!" she murmured imploringly, "an you've a spark of honour left in you."
"Nay!" he retorted under his breath, with truly savage triumph, "an you don't close your lover's mouth, I'll hand your brother over to these soldiers too, and then destroy the letters before your eyes."
He turned, and for a moment regarded with an almost devilish sneer the spectacle of his enemy rendered helpless at last. Bathurst, like some fettered lion caught in a trap, was still making frantic efforts to free himself, until a violent wrench on his wounded shoulder threw him half unconscious on his knees.
"Ha! ha! ha!" laughed Sir Humphrey, "I think, my chivalrous friend, you and I are even at last."
"Come, prisoner, you'd best follow me quietly now," said the Sergeant, touched in spite of himself by Patience's terrible sorrow.
But at Sir Humphrey's final taunt Jack Bathurst had shaken off the deadly feeling of sickness which was beginning to conquer him. He threw back his head, and with the help of the soldiers struggled again to his feet. The clamour outside was beginning to be louder and more continuous: through it all came the inspiriting sound of a fast-approaching regimental band.
"The Duke of Cumberland, is it, Sergeant?" he said suddenly.
"Marching through the village on his way to the north," assented the Sergeant. "Now then, prisoner. . ."
"Nay, then, Sergeant," shouted Jack in a loud voice, as, wrenching his right arm from the grasp of the soldiers who held him, he pointed to Sir Humphrey Challoner, "detain that man! . . . An I am the rebel Earl of Stretton, he was my accomplice, and has all the papers relating to our great conspiracy at this moment about his person . . .the door!--the door!" he added excitedly, "take care! . . .he'll escape you! . . . and he has papers on him now that would astonish the King."
Instinctively the soldiers had rushed for both the doorways, and when Sir Humphrey, with a shrug of the shoulders, made a movement as if to go, the Sergeant barred the way and said,--
"One moment, sir."
"You would dare?" retorted Sir Humphrey, haughtily. "Are you such a consummate fool as not to see that that man is raving mad?"
"Search him, Sergeant!" continued Bathurst, excitedly, "you'll find the truth of what I say. . .Search him . . .her ladyship knows he was my accomplice . . .Search him!--the loss of those papers'd cost you your stripes."
The Sergeant was not a little perplexed. Already, the day before, the seizure of Sir Humphrey Challoner's person had been attended with disastrous consequences for the beadle of Brassington, and now . . .
No doubt the Sergeant would never have ventured, but the near approach of the Duke of Cumberland's army, and of his own superior officers, gave the worthy soldier a certain amount of confidence. He had full rights and powers of search, and had been sent to this part of the country to hunt for rebels. He had been tricked and hoodwinked more often than he cared to remember, and he knew that his superior officers would never blame him for following up a clue, even if thereby he was somewhat over-stepping his powers.
"The papers," continued Bathurst, "the papers which'll prove his guilt . ..the papers! or he'll destroy them."
The Sergeant gave a last look at his prisoner. He seemed secure enough guarded by three men, who were even now strapping his hands behind his back. The accusation therefore could be no trick to save his own skin, and who knows? if the Earl of Stretton was a rebel lord, then why not the Squire of Hartington?
"Seize him, and search him!" commanded the Sergeant, "in the name of the King!"
"Your pardon, sir," he added deferentially, "but the Duke of Cumberland is within earshot almost, and I should be cashiered if I neglected my duty."
"This is an outrage!" cried Sir Humphrey, who had become purple with rage.
"It's doing your Honour no harm! and if I've done wrong no doubt I shall be punished. Search him, my men!"
It was Sir Humphrey's turn now to be helpless in the hands of the soldiers. He knew quite well that the Sergeant was within his duty and would certainly not get punished for this. Worse outrages than this attempt on his august person had been committed in the Midlands on important personages, on women and even children, during this terrible campaign against fugitive rebels.
Less than five seconds had elapsed when the soldier drew the packet of letters from Sir Humphrey's pocket and handed it to his Sergeant.
"They'd best be for His Royal Highness's own inspection," said the latter, quietly, as he slipped them inside his scarlet coat.
"Aye! for His Royal Highness!" quoth Jack Bathurst in mad, wild, feverish glee. "Oh, now is it that your Honour thought you could be even with me? What?"
Sir Humphrey was speechless with the hopelessness of his baffled rage. But Patience, almost hysterical with the intensity of her relief after the terrible suspense which she had just endured, had fallen back half fainting against the stairs, and murmuring,--
"The letters! . . .Before His Royal Highness!. . .Thank God! . . .Thank God! . . ."
Then suddenly she drew herself up, and laughing, crying, joyous, happy, she flew upstairs shouting,--
"Philip!--Philip!--come down!--come down!. . . you are safe! . . ."