Chapter XXXVII

It was in the middle of the afternoon when His Royal Highness, having attended to other important affairs, and partaken of a hasty meal at the Royal George, finally found leisure to look through the letters handed up to him by the Sergeant.

As he read one through, and then the other, Lord Lovat's letter urging the Earl of Stretton to join the rebellion, that of Kilmarnock upbraiding the lad for holding aloof, and finally the autograph of Charles Edward himself at the end of a long string of reproaches calling Philip a traitor for his loyalty to King George,--

"There has been a terrible blunder here!" quoth His Royal Highness, emphatically. "Bring the Earl of Stretton to me at once," he added, speaking to his orderly.

Ten minutes later Philip, with Patience by his side, was in the presence of the Duke of Cumberland, who, on behalf of his country and its government, was tendering apologies to the Earl of Stretton for grievous blunders committed.

"It seems you have suffered unjustly, my lord," said His Highness, with easy graciousness. "It will be my privilege to keep you under my personal protection until these letters have been placed before the King and Council."

"I myself will guarantee your brother's safety, Lady Patience," he added, turning with a genial smile to her; "you will entrust him to my care, will you not? Your father and I were old friends, you know. In my young days I had the pleasure of staying at Stretton Hall, and the privilege of dandling you on my knees, for you were quite a baby then. I little thought I should have the honour of being of service to you in later years."

With courtly gallantry the Duke raised her cold finger-tips to his lips. He looked at her keenly, for he could not understand the almost dead look of hopeless misery in her face which she bravely, but all in vain, tried to hide from him. Evidently she was quite unable to speak. When her brother had been brought before His Highness she had begged for and easily obtained the favour of being present at the interview, but even at the Duke's most genial and encouraging words she had not smiled.

"It was lucky," added His Royal Highness, kindly patting her hand, "that so strange a Fate should have placed these letters in my hand."

But at these gentle, almost fatherly words, Patience's self-control entirely gave way. With a heart-broken sob she threw herself at the Duke's feet.

"Nay! not Fate, your Royal Highness," she moaned, "but the devotion of a brave man, who has sacrificed his life to save my brother and me. . .Save him, your Highness! . . .save him! . . he is noble, brave, loyal, and you are powerful . . .save him! . . .save him! . . ."

It was impossible to listen unmoved to the heart-rending sorrow expressed in this appeal. The Duke very gently raised her to her feet.

"Nay, fair lady . . .I pray you rise," he said respectfully. "Odd's my life! but 'tis not beauty's place to kneel. . .There! there!" he added, leading her to a chair and sitting beside her, "you know how to plead a cause; will you deign to confide somewhat more fully in your humble servant? We owe your family some reparation at any rate, and you some compensation for the sorrow you have endured."

And speaking very low at first, then gradually gaining confidence, Patience began to relate the history of the past few days, the treachery, of which she had been a victim, the heroic self-sacrifice of the man who was about to lay down his life because of his devotion to her and to her cause.

His Highness listened quietly and very attentively, whilst she, wrapped up in the bitter joy of memory, lived through these last brief and happy days all over again. Even before she had finished, he had sent word to the Sergeant to bring both his other prisoners before him at once.

Sir Humphrey and Jack Bathurst were actually in the room before Patience had quite completed her narrative. Bathurst ill and pale, but with that strange air of aloofness still clinging about his whole person. He seemed scarce to live, for his mind was far away in the land of dreams, dwelling on that last exquisite memory of his beautiful white rose lying passive in his arms, the memory of that first and last, divinely passionate kiss.

The Duke looked up when the prisoners entered the room; although he knew neither of them by sight, he had no need to ask whose cause the beautiful girl beside him had been pleading so earnestly.

"What do you wish to say, sir?" he said, addressing Sir Humphrey Challoner first. "You are no doubt aware of her ladyship's grievances against you. They are outside my province, and unfortunately outside the province of our country's justice. But I would wish to know why you should have pursued the Earl of Stretton and that gentleman, your fellow-prisoner, with so much hatred and malice."

"I have neither hatred nor malice against the Earl of Stretton," replied Sir Humphrey, with a shrug of the shoulders, "but no doubt her ladyship would wish to arouse your Royal Highness's sympathy for a notorious scoundrel. That gentleman is none other than Beau Brocade, the most noted footpad and most consummate thief that ever haunted Brassing Moor."

The Duke of Cumberland looked with some surprise, not altogether unmixed with kindliness, at the slim, youthful figure of the most notorious highwayman in England. He felt all a soldier's keen delight in the proud bearing of the man, the straight, clean limbs, the upright, gallant carriage of the head, which neither physical pain nor adverse circumstances had taught how to bend.

Then he remembered Lady Patience's enthusiastic narrative, and said, smiling indulgently,--

"Odd's my life! but I did not know gentlemen of the road were so chivalrous!"

"Your Royal Highness. . ." continued Sir Humphrey.

"Silence, sir!"

Then the Duke rose from his chair, and went up close to Bathurst, who, half-dreaming, had listened to all that was going on around him, but had scarce heard, for he was looking at Patience and thinking only of her.

"Your name, sir?" asked the Duke very kindly, for the look of love akin to worship which illumined Jack Bathurst's face ahd made a strong appeal to his own manly heart.

"Jack Bathurst," replied the young man, almost mechanically, and rousing himself with an effort in response to the Duke's kind words, "formerly captain in the White Dragoons."

"Bathurst? . . .Bathurst?" repeated the Duke, not a little puzzled. "Ah, yes!" he added after a slight pause, "who was condemned and cashiered for striking his superior officer after a quarrel."

"The same your Royal Highness."

"'Twas Colonel Otway, who, we found out afterwards, was a scoundrel, a liar, and a cheat," said His Highness with sudden eager enthusiasm, "and fully deserving the punishment you, sir, had been brave enough to give him."

"Aye! he deserved all he got," replied Jack, with a wistful sigh and smile, "I'll take my oath of that."

"But . . .I remember now," continued the Duke, "a tardy reparation was to have been offered you, sir. . .but you were nowhere to be found."

"I'd become a scoundrel myself by then, and moneyless, friendless, disgraced, had taken to the road, like many another broken gentleman."

"Then take to the field now, man," exclaimed His Highness, gaily. "We want good soldiers and gallant gentlemen such as you, and your country still owes you reparation. You shall come with me, and in the glorious future which I predict for you, England shall forget your past."

He extended a kindly hand to Bathurst, who, still dreaming, still not quite realising what had happened, instinctively bent the knee in gratitude.