Chapter Five

"There's None Like Her, None!"

There was something more than ordinary affection between Philip, Earl of Stretton, and his sister, Lady Patience Gascoyne. Those who knew them in the days of their happiness said they seemed more like lovers than brother and sister, so tender, so true was their clinging devotion to one another.

But those who knew them both intimately said that they were more like mother and son together; though Philip was only a year or two younger than Patience, she had all a mother's fondness, a mother's indulgence and sweet pity for him, he, all a son's deference, a son's trust in her.

Even now, as he instinctively felt her dear presence nigh, hope took a more firm, more lasting hold upon him. He knew that she would act wisely and prudently for him. For the first time for many days and weeks he felt safe, less morbidly afraid of treachery, more ready to fight adverse fate.

The heavy coach came lumbering along the quaggy road, the old coachman's "Whoa! whoa! there! there!" as he tried to encourage his horses in the heavy task of pulling the cumbersome vehicle through the morass, sounded like sweetest music in Philip's ear.

He did not dare go to meet them, but he watched the coach as it drew nearer and nearer, very slowly, the horses going step by step urged on by the coachman and by Timothy, who rode close at their heads, spurring them with the whip and kind words, the wheels creaking as they slowly turned on their mud-laden axles.

Thus Patience had travelled since dawn, ever since the stranger had brought her the letter which told her that her brother had succeeded in reaching this secluded corner of Derbyshire, and was now in hiding with faithful John Stich, waiting for her guidance and help to establish his innocence.

Leaning back against the cushions of the coach, she had sat with eyes closed and hands tightly clutched. Anxious, wearied, at times hopeful, she had borne the terrible fatigue of this lumbering journey from Stretton Hall, along the unmade roads of Brassing Moor, with all the fortitude the Gascoynes had always shown for any cause they had at heart.

At the cross-roads Thomas, the driver, brought his horses to a standstill. Already, as the coach had passed some fifty yards from the forge, Patience had leaned out of the window trying to get a glimpse of the dear face which she knew would be on the look-out for her.

John Stich had escorted Betty as far as the bend in the road, and within sight of Timothy waiting some hundred yards further on, then he had retraced his steps, and was now back at the cross-roads ready to help Lady Patience to alight.

"Let the coach wait here," she said to the driver, "we may sleep at Wirksworth to-night."

"Ah! My good Stich," she added, grasping the smith's hand eagerly, "my brother, how is he?"

"All the better since he knows your ladyship has come," replied Stich.

A few moments later brother and sister were locked in each other's arms.

"My sweet sister! My dear, dear Patience!" was all Philip could say at first.

But she placed one hand on his shoulder and with a gentle motherly gesture brushed with the other the unruly curls from the white, moist forehead. He looked haggard and careworn, although his eyes now gleamed with feverish hope, and hers, in spite of herself, began to fill with tears.

"Dear, dear one," she murmured, trying to look cheerful, to push back the tears. All would be well now that she could get to him, that they could talk things over, that she could do something for him and with him, instead of sitting ­ weary and inactive ­ alone at Stretton Hall, without news, a prey to devouring anxiety.

"That awful Proclamation," he said at last ­ "you have heard of it?"

"Aye!" she replied sadly, "even before you did, I think. Sir Humphrey Challoner sent a courier across to tell me of it."

 

"And my name amongst those attainted by Act of Parliament!"

She nodded, her lips were quivering, and she would not break down, now that he needed all her courage as well as his own.

"But I am innocent, dear," he said, taking both her tiny hands in his own, and looking firmly, steadfastly into her face. "You believe me, don't you?"

"Of course, Philip, I believe you. But it is all so hard, so horrible, and 'tis Heaven alone who knows which was the just cause."

"There is no doubt as to which was the stronger cause, at any rate in England," said Stretton, with some bitterness. "Charles Edward was very ill-advised to cross the border at all, and in the Midlands no one cares about the Stuarts now. But that's all ancient history," he added with a weary sigh, "it's no use dwelling over all the wretched mistakes that were committed last year, 'tis only the misery that has abided until now."

"Why did you run away, Philip?" she asked gently.

"Because I was a fool. . . and a coward," he added, while a blush of shame darkened his young Saxon face.

"No, no."

"I thought if I remained at Stretton Charles Edward would demand my help and you know," he said with a quaint boyish smile, "I was never very good at saying 'Nay!' I knew they would presuade me. Lovat and Kilmarnock were such friends, and "

"So you preferred to run away?"

"It was cowardly, wasn't it?"

"I am afraid it was," she said reluctantly, her tenderness and her conviction fighting an even battle in her heart. "But why wouldn't you tell me, dear?"

"Because I was a fool," he said, cursing himself for that same folly. "You were away in London just then, you remember?"

She nodded.

"And there was no one to advise me, except Challoner."

"Sir Humphrey? Then it was he?."

Philip looked at her in astonishment. There was such a strange quiver in her voice; a note of deep anxiety, of almost hysterical alarm. But she checked herself quickly, and said more calmly, --

"What did Sir Humphrey Challoner advise you to do?"

"He said that Charles Edward would surely persuade me to join his standard, that he would demand shelter at Stretton Hall, and claim my allegiance."

"Yes, yes?"

"And he thought that it would be wiser for me to put two or three counties between myself and the temptation of becoming a rebel."

"He thought!"

There was a word of bitter contempt in those two words she uttered. Even Philip, absorbed as he was in his own affairs, could not fail to notice it.

"Challoner has always been my friend," he said almost reproachfully. "I fancy, little sister," he added with his boyish smile, "that it rests with you that he should become my brother."

"Hush, dear, don't speak of that."

"Why not?"

She did not reply, and there was a moment's silence between them. She was evidently hesitating whether to tell him of the fears, the suspicions which the mention of Sir Humphrey Challoner's name had aroused in her heart, or to leave the subject alone. At last she said quite gently, --

"But when I came home, dear, and found you had left the Hall without a message, without a word for me, why did you not tell me then?"

The boy hung his head. He felt the tender reproach, and there was nothing to be said.

"I would have stood by you," she continued softly. "I think I might have helped you. There was no disgrace in refusing to join a doomed cause, and you were a mere child when you made friends with Lovat."

"I know all that now, dear," he said with some impatience. "Heaven knows I am paying dearly enough for my cowardice and my folly. But even now I cannot understand how my name became mixed up with those of the rebels. Somebody must have sworn false information against me. But who? I haven't an enemy in the world, have I, dear?"

"No, no," she said quickly, but even as she spoke the look of involuntary alarm in her face belied the assurance of her lips.

But this was not the moment to add to his anxiety by futile, worrying conjectures. He had sent for her because he wanted her, and she was here to do for him, to help and support him in every way that her strength of will and her energy would dictate.

"You sent for me, Philip," she said with a cheerful, hopeful smile.

Her look seemed to put fresh life into his veins. In a moment he tried to conquer his despondency, and with a quick gesture he tore open the rought, woollen shirt he wore, and from beneath it drew a packet of letters. Not only his hand now, but his whole figure seemed to quiver with excitement as he gazed at this packet with glowing eyes.

"These letters, dear," he said in a whisper, "are my one hope of safety. They have not left my body day or night ever since I first understood my position and realised my danger, and now, with them, I place my life in your hands."

"Yes, Philip?"

"They prove my innocence," he continued, as nervously he pulled at the string that held the letters together. "Here is one from Lovat," he added, handing one of these to Patience, "read it, dear, quickly. You will see he begs me to join the Pretender's standard. Here's another from Kilmarnock ­ that was after the retreat from Derby ­ he upbraids me for holding aloof. I was in hiding at Nottingham then, but they knew where I was, and would not leave me alone. They would have followed me if they could. And here better still is one from Charles Edward himself, just before he fled to France, calling me a traitor for my loyalty to King George."

Feverishly he tore open letter after letter, thrusting them into her hand, scanning them with burning, eager eyes. She took them from him one by one, glanced at them, then quietly folded each precious piece of paper, and tied the packet together again. Her hand did not shake, but beneath her cloak she pressed the letters to her heart, the letters that meant the safety of her dear one's life.

"Oh! If I had known all this sooner!" she sighed involuntarily.

But that was the only reproach that escaped her lips for his want of confidence in her.

"I nearly yielded to Lovat's letter," said the boy, hesitatingly.

"I know, I know, dear," she said with an infinity of indulgence in her gentle smile. "We won't speak of the past any more. Now let us arrange the future."

He tried to master his excitement, throwing off with an effort of will his feverishness and his morbid self-condemnation.

He had done a foolish and a cowardly thing; he knew that well enough. Fate had dealth him one of those cruel blows with which she sometimes strikes the venial offender, letting so often the more hardened criminal go scatheless.

For months now Philip had been a fugitive, disguised in rough clothes, hiding in barns and inns of doubtful fame, knowing no one whom he could really trust, to whom he dared disclose his place of temporary refuge, or confide a message for his sister. Treachery was in the air; he suspected every one. The bill of attainder had condemned so many men to death, and rebel-hunting and swift executions were in that year of grace the order of the day.

"I could do nothing without you, dear," he said more quietly. "I must hide now like a hunted beast, and must be grateful for the sheltering roof of honest Stich. I have been branded as a traitor by Act of Parliament, my life is forfeit, and it is even a crime for any man to give me food and shelter. The lowest footpad who haunts the Moor has the right to shoot me like a mad dog."

"Don't! don't, dear!" she pleaded.

"I only wished you to understand that I was not such an abject coward as I seemed. I could not get to you or reach the Hall."

"I quite understood that, dear. Now, tell me, you wish me to take these letters to London?"

"At once. The sooner they are laid before the King and Council the better. I must get to the fountain head as quickly as possible. Once I am caught they will give me no chance of proving my innocence. I have been tried by Act of Parliament, found guilty, and condemned to death. You realise that, dear, don't you?"

"Yes, Philip, I do," she replied very quietly.

"Once in London, who do you think can best help you?"

"Lady Edbrooke, of course. Her husband has just been appointed equerry to the King."

"Ah! That's well! Aunt Charlotte was always fond of me. She'll be kind to you, I know."

"I think you should write to her. I'd take that letter too."

"When can you start?"

"Not for a few hours unfortunately. The horses must be put up. We have been on the road since dawn."

They were both quite calm now, and discussed these few details as if life or death were not the outcome of the journey.

Patience was glad to see that the boy had entirely shaken off the almost hysterical horror he had of his unfortunate position.

They were suddenly interrupted by John Stich's cautious voice at the entrance of the shed.

"Your ladyship's pardon," said John, respectfully, "but there's a coach coming up the road from Hartington way. I thought perhaps it might be more prudent"

"Hartington!"

Brother and sister had uttered the exclamation simultaneously. He in astonishment, she in obvious alarm.

"Who can it be, John, think you?" she asked with quivering lips.

"Well, it couldn't very well be any one except Sir Humphrey Challoner, my lady. No one else'd have occasion to come down these God-forsaken roads. But they are some way off yet," he added reassuringly, "I saw them first on the crest of the further hill. Maybe his Honour is on his way to Derby."

Patience was trying to conquer her agitation, but it was her turn now to seem nervous and excited.

"Oh! I didn't want him to find me here!" she said quickly. "I I mistrust that man, Philip.foolishly perhaps, and. if he sees me he might guess he might suspect"

"Nay, my lady, there's not much fear of that, craving your pardon," hazarded John Stich, cheerfully. "If 'tis Sir Humphrey 'twill take his driver some time yet to walk down the incline, and then up again to the cross-roads. 'Tis a mile and a half for sure, and the horse'll have to go foot pace. There's plenty of time for your ladyship to be well on your way before they get here."

She felt reassured evidently, for she said more calmly, --

"I'll have to put up somewhere, John, for a few hours, for the sake of the horses. Where had that best be?"

"Up at Aldwark, I should say, my lady, at the Moorhen."

"Perhaps I could get fresh horses there, and make a start at once."

"Nay, my lady, they have no horses at the Moorhen fit for your ladyship to drive. 'Tis only a country inn. But they'd give your horses and men a feed and rest, and if your ladyship'll pardon the liberty, you'll need both yourself."

"Yes, yes," said Philip, anxiously regarding the beautiful face which looked so pale and weary. "You must rest, dear. The journey to London will be long and tedious"

"But Aldwark is not on my way," she said with a slight frown of impatience.

"The inn is but a mile from here, your ladyship," rejoined Stich, "and your horses could never reach Wirksworth without a long rest. 'Tis the best plan, an your ladyship would trust me!"

"Trust you, John!" she said with a sweet smile, as she extended one tiny hand to the faithful smith. "I trust you implicitly, and you shall give me your advice. What is it?"

"To put up at the Moorhen for the night, your ladyship," explained John, whose kindly eyes had dropped a tear over the gracious hand held out to him, "then to start for London to-morrow morning."

"No, no! I must start to-night. I could not bear to wait even until dawn."

"But the footpads on the Heath, your ladyship." Hazarded John.

"Nay, I fear no footpads. They're welcome to what money I have, and they'd not care to rob me of my letters," she said eagerly. "But I'll put up at the Moorhen, John. We all need a rest. I suppose there's no way across the Heath from thence to Wirksworth."

"None, your ladyship. This is the only possible way. Back here to the cross-roads and on to Wirksworth from here."

"Then I'll see you again, dear," she said tenderly, clinging to Stretton, "at sunset mayhap. I'll start as soon as I can. You may be sure of that."

"And guard the letters, little sister," he said as he held her closely, closely to his heart. "Guard them jealously, they are my only hope."

"You'll write the letter to Lady Edbrooke," she added. "Have it ready when I return, and perhaps write out your own petition to the King-I'll use that or not as Lord Edbrooke advises."

Then once more, womanlike, she clung to him, hating to part from him even for a few hours.

"In the meanwhile you will be prudent, Philip," she pleaded tenderly. "Trust nobody but John Stich. Any man may prove an enemy," she added with earnest emphasis, "and if you were found before I could reach the King"

She tore herself away from him. Her eyes now were swimming in tears, and she meant to seem brave to the end. Stich was urging her to hurry. After all she would see Philip again before sunset, before she started on the long journey which would mean life and safety to him.

Two minutes later, having parted from her brother, Lady Patience Gascoyne entered her coach at the cross-roads, where Mistress Betty had been waiting for her ladyship with as much patience as she could muster.

By the time Sir Humphrey Challoner's coach had reached the bottom of the decline on the Hartington Road, and begun the weary ascent up to the blacksmith's forge, Lady Patience's carriage was well out of sight beyond the bend that led eastward to Aldwark village.

©Blakeney Manor, 2002