"Be ye at home, Master Stich?"
A curious, wizened little figure stood in the doorway peering cautiously into the forge.
In a moment John Stich was on the alert.
"Sh!" he whispered quickly, "have no fear, my lord, 'tis only some fool from the village."
"Did ye say ye baint at home, Master Stich?" queried the same tremulous voice again. "I didn't quite hear ye."
"Yes, yes, I'm here all right, Jock Miggs," said the smith, heartily. "Come in!"
Jock Miggs came in, making as little noise, and taking up as little room as possible. Dressed in a well-worn smock and shabby corduroy breeches, he had a curious shrunken, timid air about his whole personality, as he removed his soft felt hat and began scratching his scanty tow-colored locks: he was a youngish man too, probably not much more than thirty, yet his brown face was a mass of ruts and wrinkles like a furrowed path on Brassing Moor.
"Morning, Mr. Stich. . .morning," he said with a certain air of vagueness and apology, as with obvious admiration he stopped to watch the broad back of the smith and his strong arms wielding the heavy hammer.
"Morning, Miggs," retorted John, not looking up from his work, "how's the old woman?"
"I dunno, Mr. Stich," replied Miggs, with a dubious shake of the head. "Badly, I expec'. . .same as yesterday," he added in a more cheerful spirit.
"Why! what's the matter?"
"I dunno, Mr. Stich, that there's anything the matter," explained Jock Miggs with slow and sad deliberation, "but she's dead. . .same as yesterday."
Involuntarily Philip laughed at the quaint fatalistic statement.
"Hello!" said Miggs, looking at him with the same apathetic wonder, "who be yon lad?"
"That's my nephew Jim, out o' Nottingham," said John, "come to give me a hand."
"Morning, lad," piped Miggs, in his high treble, as he extended a wrinkled, bony hand to Stretton.
"Lud, John Stich," he exclaimed, "and one'd know he was one o' your family from the muscle he's got."
And gently, meditatively, he rubbed one shriveled hand against the other, looking with awe at the fine figure of a man before him.
"A banging lad your nephew too," he added with a chuckle; "he'll be turning the heads of all the girls this side o' Brassington, maybe."
"Oh! I'll warrant he's got a sweetheart at home, eh, Jim lad?--or maybe more than one. But what brings ye here this day, friend Miggs?"
The wizened little face assumed a puzzled expression.
"I dunno. . ." he said vaguely, "maybe I wanted to tell ye about the soldiers I seed at the Royal George over Brassington way."
"What about 'em, Miggs?"
"I dunno. . .I see a corporal and lots of fellers in red. . .some say there's more o' them. . .I dunno."
"Ha!" said Stich, carelessly. "What are they after?"
"I dunno," commented Miggs, imperturbably. "Some say they're after that Chap Beau Brocade. There was a coach stopped on the Heath 'gain last night. Fifty guineas he took out of it, he did. . ." And Jock Miggs chuckled feebly with apparent but irresponsible delight. "Some folk say it were Sir Humphrey Chanlloner's coach over from Hartington, and no one's going to break their hearts over that! he! he! he!. . .but I dunno," he added with sudden frightened vagueness.
"Be they cavalry soldiers over at the Royal George, Miggs?" asked John.
"I dunno. . .I seed no horses. . .looks more like foot soldiers. . .but I dunno. The Corporal he read out something just now about our getting twenty guineas if we shoot one o' them rebels. I'd be mighty glad to get twenty guineas, Master Stich," he said reflectively, "but I dunno as how I could handle a musket rightly. . .and folks say them traitors are mighty desperate fellows. . .but I dunno. . ."
Then with sudden resolution Jock Miggs turned to the doorway.
"Morning, Master Stich," he said decisively. "Morning, lad!. . .morning."
However, it seemed that Jock Miggs's visit to the forge was not so purposeless as it at first appeared to be.
"He! he! he!" he chuckled, as if suddenly recollecting his errand. "I'd almost forgot why I came. Farmer Crabtree wanted to know, Master Stich, if you'm got the wether's collar mended yet?"
"Oh, yes, to be sure," replied the smith, pointing to a rough bench on which lay a number of metal articles. "You'll find it on that there bench, Jock. Farmer Crabtree sold his sheep yet?"
Jock toddled up to the bench and picked up the wether's collar.
"Noa!" he muttered, "not yet, worse luck! And his temper is that hot! So don't 'ee charge him too much for that collar, Master Stich, or it's me that'll have to suffer."
And Miggs rubbed his shoulder significantly. Stich laughed. Philip himself, in spite of his anxiety, could not help being amused at the quaint figure of the little shepherd with his wizened face and gentle, vaguely fatalistic manner.
Thus it was that no one in the forge had perceived the patter of small feet on the mud outside, and when Jock Miggs, with more elaborate "Mornings" and final leave-takings, once more reached the doorway, he came in violent collision with a short, be-cloaked and closely-hooded figure that was picking its way on very small, very high-heeled shoes, through the maze of puddles which guarded the entrance to the forge.
The impact sent Jock Miggs, scared and apologetic, stumbling in one direction, whilst the grey hood flew off the head of its wearer and disclosed in the setting of its shell-pink lining a merry, pretty, impudent little face, with brown eyes sparkling and red lips pouting in obvious irritation.
"Lud, man!" said the dainty young damsel, withering the unfortunate shepherd with a scornful glance, "why don't you look where you're going?"
"I dunno," replied Jock Miggs, with his usual humble vagueness. "Morning, miss. . .morning, Master Stich. . .morning."
And still scared, still in obvious apology for his existence, he pulled at his forelock, re-adjusted his hat over his tow-coloured locks, took his final leave, and presently began to wend his way slowly back towards the Heath.
But within the forge, at first sound of the young girl's voice, Stretton had started in uncontrollable excitement.
"Betty!" he whispered, eagerly clutching John Stich's arm.
"Aye! aye!" replied the cautious smith, "but I beg you, my lord, keep in the background until I find out if all is safe."
Mistress Betty's saucy brown eyes followed Jock Miggs's quaint, retreating figure.
"Well! you're a pretty bit of sheep's wool, ain't ye?" she shouted after him, with a laugh and a shrug of her plump shoulders.
Then she peered into the forge.
"Lud love you, Master Stich!" she said, "how goes it with you?"
In obedience to the counsels of prudence, Stretton had retired into the remote corner of the forge. John Stich too was masking the entrance with his burly figure.
"All the better, Mistress Betty," he said, "for a sight of your pretty face."
He had become very red, had honest John, and his rough manner seemed completely to have deserted him. In fact, not to put too fine a point upon it, the worthy smith looked distinctly shy and sheepish.
She looked up at him and laughed a pleased, coquettish little laugh, the laugh of a woman who has oft been told that she is pretty, and has not got tired of the hearing. John Stich, moreover, was so big and burly, folks called him hard and rough, and it vastly entertained the young damsel to see him standing there before her, as awkward and uncomfortable as Jock Miggs himself.
"Am I not to step inside, Master Stich?" she asked.
"Yes, yes, Mistress Betty," murmured John, who seemed to have lost himself in admiration of a pair of tiny buckled shoes muddy to the ankles--such ankles!--which showed to great advantage beneath Betty's short green kirtle.
An angry, impatient movement behind him, however, quickly recalled his scattered senses.
"Did her ladyship receive a letter, mistress?" he asked eagerly.
"Oh, yes! a stranger brought it," replied Betty, with a pout, for she preferred John's mute appreciation of her small person to his interest in other matters. However, the demon of mischief no doubt whispered something in her ear for the further undoing of the worthy smith, for she put on an arch, mysterious little air, turned up her brown eyes, sighed with affection, and murmured ecstatically,--
"Oh! such a stranger! the fine eyes of him, Master Stich! and such an air, and oh!" added little madam with unction, "such clothes!"
But though no doubt all these fine airs and graces wrought deadly havoc in poor John's heart, he concealed it well enough under a show of eager impatience.
"Yes! yes! the stranger," he said, casting a furtive glance behind him, "he gave you a letter for my lady?"
"La! but you needn't be in such a hurry, Master Stich!" retorted Mistress Betty, adding with all the artifice of which she was capable, "the stranger wasn't."
But this was too much for John. There had been such a wealth of meaning in Betty's brown eyes.
"Oh! he wasn't, wasn't he?" he asked with a jealous frown, "and pray what had he to say to you? There was no message except the letter."
But the demon of mischief was satisfied and Betty was disposed to be kind, even if slightly mysterious.
"Oh, never mind!" she rejoined archly, "he gave me the letter which I gave to my lady. That was early this morning."
"Well?. . .and?"
But matters were progressing too slowly at any rate for one feverish, anxious heart. Philip had tried to hold himself in check, though he was literally hanging on pretty Mistress Betty's lips. Now he could contain himself no longer. Lady Patience had had his letter. The mysterious highwayman had not failed his trust, and the news Betty had brought meant life or death to him.
Throwing prudence to the winds, he pushed John Stich aside, and seizing the young girl by the writs, he asked excitedly, -
"Yes? this morning, Betty?. . .then. . .then. . .what did her ladyship do?"
Betty was frightened, and like a child was ready to drown her fright in tears. She had not recognized my lord in those dirty clothes.
"Don't you know me, Betty?" asked Philip, a little more quietly.
Betty cast a timid glance at the two men before her, and smiled through the coming tears.
"Of course, my lord. . .I. . ." she murmured shyly.
"'Tis my nephew out o' Nottingham, mistress," said John sternly, "try and remember that: and now tell us what did her ladyship do?"
"She had the horses put to, not an hour after the stranger had been. Thomas is driving and Timothy is our only other escort. But we've not drawn rein since we left the Hall!"
"Yes! yes!" came from the two pairs of eager lips.
"And my lady stopped the coach about two hundred yards from here," continued Betty with great volubility, "and she told me to run on here, to see that the coast was clear. She knew I could find my way, and she wouldn't trust Timothy as she trusts me," added the young girl with a pretty touch of pride.
"But where is she, Betty? where is she?"
Betty pointed to the clump of first, which stood in ghostly sentinel on the crest of the hill, just where the road turns sharply to the east.
"Just beyond those trees, my lord, and she made Timothy watch until I came round the bend and in sight of the forge. But la! the mud on the roads! 'tis fit to drown you."
But already John Stich was outside, beckoning to Mistress Betty.
"Come, mistress, quick!" he said excitedly, "her ladyship must be nigh crazy with impatience. By your leave, my lord, I'll help Mistress Betty on her way, and I'll keep this place in sight. I'll go no further. . ."
"Yes, yes," rejoined Philip, feverishly, "go, go, fly if you can! I'll be safe! I'll not show myself. God give you both wings, for I'll not live now till I see my sister."
Eager, boyish, full of wild gaiety, he seemed to have thrown off his morbid anxiety as he would a mantle. He even laughed whole-heartedly as he watched Betty, with many airs and graces, "Luds!" and "I vows!" making great pretence at being unable to walk in the mud, and leaning heavily on honest Stich's arm.
He watched them as they picked their way up the so-called road, a perfect quagmire after the heavy September rains.
The air seemed so different now, the Heath smelt good, there was vigour and life in the keen nor'-wester; how green the bracken looked, and how harmoniously it seemed to blend with the purple shoots of the bramble laden with ripening fruit! how delicate the more tender green of the gorse, and there that vivid patch of mauve, the first glimpse of opening heather! the heavy clouds too were rolling away; the September sun was going to have his own way after all and spread his kingdom of blue and gold over the distant Derbyshire hills.
Hope had come like the divine magician to chase away all that was grey and sad and dreary, and Hope had met Youth and shaken him by the hand: they are such friends, such inseparable companions, these two!
What mattered it that some few yards away the old gallows, like some eerie witch, still spread its gaunt arm over that fluttering bit of parchment: the Proclamation of His Majesty's Parliament? What though it spoke of death, of treachery, of bills of attainder, of Tower Hill?
Did not the good nor'-wester from the Moor flutter round it, and in wanton frolic attack it now with madcap fury and a shrill whistle, and now with a long-drawn-out sigh. The parchment resisted with vigour, it bore the onslaught of the wind twice, thrice, and once again. But the nor'-wester was not to be outdone, and again it renewed the attack, took the parchment by the corner, pulled and twisted at it, until at last with one terrific blast it tore the Royal Proclamation off the old gallows, and sent it whirling in a mad gallop across the Moor, far, very far away on to Derby, to London, to the place where all winds go.