About half an hour ago, when Jack Bathurst suddenly burst in upon Lord Stretton in the dingy little parlour upstairs, he gave the lad no inkling of what was happening down below. He had hastily discarded Jock Migg's smock and hat and extracted a solemn promise from Philip not to stir from the parlour, whatever might be the tumult downstairs.
Then he had left the boy chafing like a wild beast in its cage. The heavy oak doors and thick walls of the old-fashioned inn deadened all the sounds from below, and Bathurst had taken the precaution of locking the door behind him. But for this, no doubt Philip would have broken his word, sooner than allow his chivalrous friend once more to risk his life for him.
As the noise below grew louder and louder, Stretton became more and more convinced that some such scene as had been enacted a day or two ago at the forge was being repeated in teh hall of the Packhorse. He tried with all his might to force open the door which held him imprisoned, and threw his full weight against it once or twice, in a vain endeavour to break the thick oaken panels.
But the old door, fashioned of stout, well-seasoned wood, resisted all his efforts, whilst the noise he made thereby never reached the ears of the excited throng.
Like a fettered lion he paced up and down the narrow floor of the dingy inn parlour, chafing under restraint, humiliated at the thought of being unable to join in the fight, that was being made for his safety.
His sister's cry came toim in this agonising moment like the most joyful, the most welcome call to arms.
"The door!. . .quick! . . ." he shouted as loudly as he could, "it is locked!"
She found the bolt and tore open the door, and the next instant he was running downstairs, closely followed by Patience.
The Sergeant and soldiers had been not a little puzzled at hearing her ladyship suddenly calling in mad exultation on her brother, whom they believed they were even now holding prisoner.
The appearance of Philip at the foot of the stairs, and dressed in a serving-man's suit, further enhanced their bewilderment.
But already Patience stood proud, defiant, and almost feverish in her excitement, confronting the astonished group of soldiers.
"This, Sergeant!" she said, taking hold of her brother's hand, "is Philip Gascoyne, Earl of Stretton, my brother. Arrest him if you wish, he surrenders to you willingly, but I call upon you to let your prisoner go free."
The Sergeant was sorely perplexed. The affair was certainly getting too complicated for his stolid, unimaginative brain. He would have given much to relinquish command of this puzzling business altogether.
"Then you, sir," he said, addressing Philip, "you are the Earl of Stretton?"
"I am Philip James Gascoyne, Earl of Stretton, your prisoner, Sergeant," replied the lad, proudly.
"But then, saving your ladyship's presence," said the soldier, in hopeless bewilderment, "who the devil is my prisoner?"
"Surely, Sergeant," quoth Sir Humphrey, with a malicious sneer, "you've guessed that already?"
Jack Bathurst, exhausted and faint after his long fight and victory, had listened motionless and silent to what was going on around him. With the letters safely bestowed in the Sergeant's wallet and about to be placed before His Royal Highness the Duke of Cumberland himself, he felt that indeed his task was accomplished.
Fate had allowed him the infinite happiness of having served his beautiful white rose to some purpose. Philip now would be practically safe; what happened to himself after that he cared but little.
At sound of Sir Humphrey's malicious taunt, an amused smile played round the corners of his quivering mouth; but Patience, with a rapid movement, had interposed herself between Sir Humphrey and the Sergeant.
"Your silence, Sir Humphrey," she commanded excitedly, "an you've any chivalry left in you."
"Aye!" he replied in her ear, "my silence now . . .at a price."
So low and quick had been questions and answers that the bewildered Sergeant and his soldiers had not succeeded in catching the meaning of the words, but Sir Humphrey's final eager whisper, "Your hand!" reached Jack Bathurst's sensitive ear. The look too in the Squire of Hartington's face had already enabled him to guess the purport of the brief colloquy.
"Nay, Sir Humphrey Challoner," he said loudly, "but 'tis not a marketable commodity you are offering to this lady for sale. I'll break your silence for you. What is the information that you would impart to these gallant lobsters? . . .That besides being my mother's son I am also the highwayman, Beau Brocade!"
"No! no! no!" protested Patience, excitedly.
"Odd's my life!" quoth the Sergeant, "but methought. . ."
"Aye, Beau Brocade," said Sir Humphrey, with a sneer, "robber, vagabond and thief, that's what this . . . gentleman means."
"Faith! is that what I meant?" retorted Jack Bathurst, lightly. "I didn't know it for sure!"
But with a wild cry Patience had turned to the Sergeant.
"It's a lie, Sergeant!" she repeated, "a lie, I tell you. This gentleman is. . . my friend . . .my . . ."
"Well, whichever you are, sir," quoth the Sergeant, turning to Beau Brocade decisively, "rebel, lord or highwayman, you ae my prisoner, and," he added roughly, for many bitter remembrances of the past two days had surged up in his stolid mind, "and either way you hang for it."
"Aye! hang for it!" continued Sir Humphrey, savagely. "So, now methinks, my chivalrous young friend, that we can cry quits at last. And now, Sergeant," said his Honour, peremptorily, "that you've found out the true character of your interesting prisoner, you can restore me my letters, which he caused you to filch from me."
But the Sergeant was not prepared to do that. He had been tricked and hoodwinked so often, that he would not yield one iota of the advantage which he had contrived to gain.
"Your pardon, sir," he said deferentially yet firmly, "I don't exactly know the right o' that. I think I'd best show them to His Royal Highness, and you, sir, will be good enough to explain yourself before his Honour, Squire West."
"You'll suffer for this insolence, Sergeant," retorted Sir Humphrey, purple with rage. "I command you to return me those letters, and I warn you that if you dare lay hands on me or hinder me in any way, I'll have you degraded and publicly whipped along with that ape the beadle."
But the Sergeant merely shrugged his shoulders and ordered off three of his men to surround Sir Humphrey Challoner and to secure his hands if he attempted to resist. His Honour's wild threats of revenge did not in the least frighten the soldier, now that he felt himself on safe ground at last.
The rapid approach of the army gave him a sense of security; he knew that if he had erred through excess of zeal, a reprimand would be the only punishment meted out to him, whilst he risked being degraded if he neglected his duty. Whether the Squire of Hartington had or had not been a party to the late rebellion, he neither knew nor cared, but certainly he was not going to give up a packet of letters over which there had been so much heated discussion on both sides.
The fast-approaching tumult in the street confirmed him in his resolve. He turned a deaf ear to all Sir Humphrey's protestations, and only laughed at his threats.
Already the soldiers were chafing with eagerness to see the entry of His Royal Highness with his staff: the village folk one by one had gone out to see the more joyful proceedings, and left the Sergeant and his prisoners to continue their animated discussion.
"Are you ready, my lord?" asked the Sergeant, turning to Philip.
"Quite ready!" replied the lad, cheerfully, as he prepared to follow the soldiers. He gave his sister a look of joy and hope, for he was going to temporary imprisonment only; within a few moments perhaps his safety would be assured. Lady Patience Gascoyne, in virtue of her rank and position, could easily obtain an audience of the Duke of Cumberland, and in the meanwhile the letters proving Philip's innocence would have been laid before His Royal Highness. No wonder that as the lad, marching light-heartedly between two soldiers, passed close to Jack Bathurst, he held out his hand to his brave rescuer in gratitude too deep for words.
"Are you ready, sir?" quoth the Sergeant now, as he turned to Beau Brocade.
But here there was no question of either joy or hope: no defence, no proofs of innocence. The daring outlaw had chosen his path in life, and being conquered at the last, had to pay the extreme penalty which his country demanded of him for having defied its laws.
As he too prepared to follow the soldiers out into the open, Patience, heedless of the men around her, clung passionately, desparingly to the man who had sacrificed his brave life in her service, and whom she had rewarded with the intensity, the magnitude of her love.
"They shall not take you," she sobbed, throwing her protecting arms round the dearly-loved form, "they shall not. . . they shall not . . ."
The cry had been so bitter, so terribly pathetic in its despair, that instinctively the soldiers stood aside, awed in spite of their stolid hearts at the majesty of this great sorrow; they turned respectfully away, leaving a clear space round Patience and Bathurst.
Thus for a moment he had her all to himself, passive in her despair, half crazed with her grief, clinging to him with all the passionate abandonment of her great love for him.
"What? . . .tears?" he whispered gently, as with a tender hand he pressed back the graceful drooping head, and looked into her eyes, "one. . .two . . three . . four glittering diamonds . . . and for me! . . .My sweet dream!" he added, the intensity of his passion causing his low, tender voice to quiver in his throat, "my beautiful white rose, but yesterday for one of those glittering tears I'd gladly have endured hell's worst tortures, and to-day they flow freely for me. . . Why! I would not change places with a king!"
"Your life . . .your brave, noble life . . .thus sacrificed for me. . . Oh, why did I ever cross your path?"
"Nay, my dear," he said with an infinity of tenderness, and an infinity of joy. "Faith! it must have been because God's angels took pity on a poor vagabond and let him get this early glimpse of paradise."
His fingers wandered lovingly over her soft golden hair, he held her close, very close to his heart, drinking in every line of her exquisite loveliness, rendered almost ethereal through the magnitude of her sorrow: her eyes shining with passion through her tears, the delicate curve of throat and chin, the sensitive, quivering nostrils, the moist lips on which anon he would dare to imprint a kiss.
"And life now to me," she whispered 'twixt heart-broken sobs, "what will it be? . . .how shall I live but in one long memory?"
"My life, my saint," he murmured. "Nay! lift your dear face up to me again! let me take away as a last memory the radiant vision of your eyes . . .your hair . . .your lips . . ."
His arms tightened round her, her head fell back as if in a swoon, she closed her eyes and her soul went out to him in the ecstasy of that first kiss.
"Ah! it is a lovely dream I dreamt," he whispered, "and 'tis meet that the awakening shall be only in death!"
He tried to let her go but she clung to him passionately, her arms round him, in the agony of her despair.
"Take me with you," she sobbed, half fainting. "I cannot bear it . . . I cannot. . ."
Gently he took hold of both her hands, and again and again pressed them to his lips.
"Farewell, sweet dream!" he said. "There! dry those lovely tears! . . .If you only knew how happy I am, you would not mourn for me. . .I have spun the one thread in life which was worth the spinning, the thread which binds me to your memory. . . Farewell!"
The Sergeant stepped forward again. It was time to go.
"Are you ready, sir?" he asked kindly.
"Quite ready, Sergeant."
She slid out of his arms, her eyes quite dry now, her hands pressed to her mouth to smother her screams of misery. She watched the soldiers fall into line, with their prisoner in their midst, and turn to the doorway of the inn, through which the golden sunshine came gaily peeping in.
Outside a roll of drums was heard and shouts of "The Duke! The Duke!" The excitement had become electrical. His Royal Highness, mounted on a magnificent white charger, was making his entry into the village at the head of his general staff, and followed at some distance by the bulk of his army corps, who would camp on the Heath for the night.
Squire West, his stiff old spine doubled in two, was in attendance on the green, holding a parchment in his hand, which contained his loyal address and that of the inhabitants of Brassington: the beadle, more pompous than ever, and resplendent in blue cloth and gold lace, stood immediately behind his Honour.
In the midst of all this gaiety and joyful excitement the silent group, composed of the soldiers with their three prisoners, appeared in strange and melancholy contrast. Philip and Bathurst were to be confined in the Court House, under a strong guard, pending his Honour the Squire's decision and as the little squad emerged upon the green, 'twas small wonder that they caught His Royal Highness's eye.
He had been somewhat bored by Squire West's long-winded harangue, and was quite glad of an excuse for cutting it short.
"Odd's buds!" he said, "and what have we here? Eh?"
The Sergeant and soldiers stood still at attention, some twenty yards away from the brilliant group of His Highness's general staff. The little diversion had caused Squire West to lose the thread of his speech, and much relieved, the Duke beckoned the Sergeant to draw nearer.
"Who are your prisoners, Sergeant?" queried His Highness, looking with some interest at the two young men, one of whom was a mere lad, whilst the other had a strange look of joy and pride in his pale face, an air of aloofness and detachment from all his surroundings, which puzzled and interested the Duke not a little.
"'Tis a bit difficult to explain, your Royal Highness," replied the Sergeant, making the stiff military salute.
"Difficult to explain who your prisoners are?" laughed the Duke, incredulously.
"Saving your Highness's presence," responded the Sergeant, "one of these gentlemen is Philip Gascoyne, Earl of Stretton."
"Oho! the young reprobate rebel who was hand-in-glove with the Pretender! I mind his case well, Sergeant, and the capture does your zeal great credit. Which of your prisoners is the Earl of Stretton?"
"That's just my trouble, your Royal Highness. But I hope that these papers will explain."
And the Sergeant drew from his wallet the precious packet of letters and handed them respectfully to the Duke.
"What are these letters?"
"They were found on the person of that gentleman, sir," replied the Sergeant, indicating Sir Humphrey Challoner, who stood behind the two younger men, silent and sulky, and nursing desperate thoughts of revenge. "He is said to be an accomplice, and I thought 'twas my duty to bring him before a magistrate. If I've done wrong. . ."
"You've done quite right, Sergeant," said the Duke, firmly. "You were sent here to rid the country of rebels, whom an Act of Parliament has convicted of high treason, and it had been gross neglect of duty not to refer such a case to the nearest magistrate. Give me the papers, I'll look through them anon. See your prisoners safely under guard, then come back to my quarters."
"Damnation!" muttered Sir Humphrey, as he saw the Duke take the packet of letters from the Sergeant's hand, and then turn away to listen to the fag end of Squire West's loyal address.
Throughout his chagrin, however, the Squire of Hartington was able to gloat over one comforting idea. He had now lost all chance of pressing his suit on Lady Patience, his actions in the past three days would inevitably cause her to look upon him with utter hatred and contempt, but the man who was the cause of his failure, the chivalrous and meddlesome highwayman, Beau Brocade, would, as sure as the sun would set this night, dangle on the nearest gibbet to-morrow.