Chapter VI
A Squire of High Degree

The Challoners claimed direct descent from that Sieur de Challonier who escorted Coeur de Lion to the crusade against Saladin.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that a De Challonier figures in the Domesday Book, as owning considerable property in the neighbourhood of the Peak.

That they had been very influential and wealthy people at one time, there could be no doubt. There was a room at Old Hartington Manor where James I had slept for seven nights, a gracious guest of Mr. Ilbert Challoner, in the year 1612. The baronetcy then conferred upon the family dates from that same year, probably as an act of recognition to his host on the part of the royal guest.

Since that memorable time, however, the Challoners have not made history. They took no part whatever in the great turmoil which, in the middle of the seventeenth century, shook the country to its very foundations, lighting the lurid torch of civil war, setting brother against brother, friend against friend, threatening a constitution and murdering a king.

The Challoners had held aloof throughout all that time, intent on preserving their property and in amassing wealth. The later conflict between a Catholic King and his Protestant people touched them even less. Neither Pretender could boast of a Challoner for an adherent. They remained people of substance, even of importance, in their own county, but nothing more.

Sir Humphrey Challoner was about this time not more than thirty-five years of age. Hale, hearty, boisterous, he might have been described as a typical example of an English squire of those days, but for a certain taint of parsimoniousness, of greed and love of money in his constitution, which had gained for him a not too enviable reputation in the Midlands.

He was thought to be wealthy. No doubt he was, but at the cost of a good deal of harshness towards the tenants of his estates, and he was famed throughout Staffordshire for driving a harder bargain than any one else in this country-side.

Any traveller ­ let alone one of such consequence as the Squire of Hartington ­ was indeed rare in these out-of-the-way parts, that were on the way to nowhere. Sir Humphrey himself was but a little known in the neighbourhood of Aldwark and Wirksworth, and only from time to time passed through the latter village on his way to Derby.

John Stich, the blacksmith, however, knew every one of consequence for a great many miles around, and undoubtedly next to the Earls of Stretton the Challoners were the most important family in the sister counties. Therefore when Sir Humphrey's coach stopped at the cross-roads, and the Squire himself alighted therefrom and walked towards the smith's cottage, the latter came forward with all the deference due to a personage of such consequence, and asked respectfully what he might do for his Honour.

"Only repair this pistol for me, master smith," said Sir Humphrey; "you might also examine the lock of its fellow. One needs them in these parts."

He laughed a not unpleasant boisterous laugh as he handed a pair of silver-mounted pistols to John Stich.

"Will your Honour wait while I get them done?" asked John, with some hesitation. "They won't take long."

"Nay! I'll be down this way again to-morrow," replied his Honour. "I am putting up at Aldwark for the night."

John said nothing. Probably he mistrusted the language which rose to his lips at this announcement of Sir Humphrey's plans. In a moment he remembered Lady Patience's look of terror when the squire's coach first came into view on the crest of the distant hill, and his faithful, honest heart quivered with apprehension at the thought that a man whom she so obviously mistrusted was so close upon her track.

"I suppose there is a decent inn in that God-fosaken hole, eh?" asked the Squire, jovially. "I've arranged to meet my man of business there, that old scarecrow, Mittachip, but I'd wish to spend the night."

"There's only a small wayside inn, your Honour" murmured John.

"Better than this abode of cut-throats, this Brassing Moor, anyway," laughed his Honour. "Begad! night overtook me some ten miles from Hartington, and I was attacked by a damned rascal who robbed me of fifty guineas. My men were a pair of cowards, and I was helpless inside my coach."

John tried to repress a smile. The story of Sir Humphrey Challoner's midnight adventure had culminated in fifty guineas being found in the poorbox at Brassington court-house, and Mr. Inch, the beadle, had brought the news of it even as far as the cross-roads.

"I must see Squire West about this business," muttered Sir Humphrey, whilst John stood silent, apparently intent on examining the pistols. "'Tis a scandal to the whole country, this constant highway robbery on Brassing Moor. The impudent rascal who attacked me was dressed like a prince and rode a horse worth eighty guineas at the least. I suspect him to be the man they call Beau Brocade."

"Did your Honour see him plainly?" asked John, somewhat anxiously.

"See him?" laughed Sir Humphrey. "Does one ever see these rascals? Begad! he had stopped my coach, plundered me and had galloped off ere I could shout 'Damn you' thrice. Just for one moment, though, one of my lanterns flashed upon the impudent thief. He was masked, of course, but I tell thee, honest friend, he had on a coat the Prince of Wales might envy; as for his horse, 'twas a thoroughbred I'd have given eighty guineas to possess."

"And every one knows your Honour is clever at a bargain," said John, with a suspicion of malice.

"Humph!" grunted the Squire. "By Gad!" he added, with his usual jovial laugh, "the rogue does not belie his name-'Beau Brocade' forsooth! Faith! he dresses like a lord and cuts your purse with an air of gallantry, an he were doing you a favour."

It was difficult to tell what went on in Sir Humphrey Challoner's mind behind that handsome, somewhat florid face of his. The task was in any case quite beyond the powers of honest John Stich, though he would have given quite a good deal of his worldly wealth to know for certain whether his Honour's journey across Brassing Moor and on to Aldwark had anything to do with that of Lady Patience along the same road.

Nothing the Squire said, however, helped John towards making a guess in that direction. Just as Sir Humphrey, having left the pistols in the smith's hands, turned to go back to his coach, he said quite casually, --

"Whose was the coach that passed here about half an hour before mine?"

"The coach, your Honour?"

"Aye! when we reached the crest of the hill my man told me he could see a coach standing at the cross-roads, whose was it?"

For one moment John hesitated. The situation was just a little too delicate for the worthy smith to handle. But he felt, as Sir Humphrey was going to Aldwark and therefore would surely meet Lady Patience , that lying would be worse than useless, and might even arouse unpleasant suspicions.

"'Twas Lady Patience Gascoyne's coach," he said at last.

"Ah!" said the Squire, with the same obvious indifference. "Whither did she go?"

"I was at work in my forge, your Honour, and her ladyship did not stop. I fancy she drove down Wirksworth way, but I did not see or hear for I was very busy."

"Hm!" commented his Honour, whilst a shrewd and somewhat sarcastic smile played round the corners of his full lips.

"I'll stay the night at Aldwark," he said, nodding to the smith. "Faith! no more travelling after dark for me on this unhallowed Moor; and for sure my horses could not reach Wirksworth now before nightfall. So have the pistols ready for me by seven o'clock to-morrow morning, eh, mine honest friend?"

Then he entered his carriage, and slowly, with many a creak and a groan, the cumbersome vehicle turned down the road to Aldwark, whilst John Stich with a dubious, anxious sigh, went back into his forge.

©Blakeney Manor, 2002