Patience herself would have been quite unable to explain why she mistrusted, almost feared, Sir Humphrey Challoner.
The fact that the Squire of Hartington had openly declared his admiration for her, surely gave her no cause for suspecting him of enmity towards her brother. She knew that Sir Humphrey hoped to win her hand in marriage this he had intimated to her on more than one occasion, and had spoken of his love for her in no measured terms.
Lady Patience Gascoyne was one of the richest gentlewomen in the Midlands, having inherited vast wealthy from her mother, who was sister and co-heiress of the rich Grantham of Grantham Priory. No doubt her rent-roll added considerably to her attractions in the eyes of Sir Humphrey; that she was more than beautiful only helped to enhance the ardour of his suit.
Women as a rule women of all times and of every nation keep a kindly feeling in their heart for the suitor whom they reject. A certain regard for his sense of discrimination, an admiration for his constancy if he be constant make up a sum of friendship for him tempered with a gentle pity.
But in most women too there is a subtle sense which for want of a more scientific term has been called an instinct: the sense of protection over those whom they love.
In Patience Gascoyne that sense was abnormally developed: Philip was so boyish, so young, she so much older in wisdom and prudence. It made her fear Sir Humphrey, not for herself but for her brother: her baby, as in her tender motherly heart she loved to call him.
She feared and suspected him, she scarce could tell of what. Not open enmity towards Philip, since her reason told her that the Squire of Hartington had nothing to gain by actively endangering her brother's life, let alone by doing him a grievous wrong.
Yet she could not understand Sir Humphrey Challoner's motive in counselling Philip to play so cowardly and foolish a part, as the boy had done in the late rebellion. Vaguely she trembled at the idea that he should know of her journey to London, or worse still, guess its purpose. Philip, she feared, might have confided in him unbeknown to her: Sir Humphrey, for aught she knew, might know of the existence of the letters which would go to prove the boy's innocence.
Well! and what then? Surely the Squire could have no object in wishing those letters to be suppressed: he could but desire that Philip's innocence should be proved.
Thus reason and instinct fought their battle in her brain as the heavy coach went lumbering along the muddy road to the little wayside inn, which stood midway between the cross-roads and the village of Aldwark.
Here her man Timothy made arrangements for the resting and feeding of himself, the horses Thomas, the driver, whilst Lady Patience asked for a private room wherein she and her maid, Betty, could get something to eat and perhaps an hour's sleep before re-starting on their way.
The small bar-parlour at the Moorhen was full to overflowing when her ladyship's coach drove up. Already there had been a general air of excitement there throughout the day, for the Corporal in his red coat, followed by his little squad, had halted at the inn, and there once more read aloud the Proclomation of His Majesty's Parliament.
The soldiers had stayed half an hour or so, consuming large quantities of ale the while, then they had marched up to the village, read the Proclamation out on the green, and finally tramped along the bridle-path back to Brassington.
And now here was the quality putting up at the Moorhen. A most unheard-of unexpected event. Mistress Pottage, the sad-faced, weary-eyed landlady, had never known such a thing to happen before, although she had been mistress of the Moorhen for nigh on twenty years. Usually the quality from Stretton Hall or from Hartington, or even Lady Rounce from the Pike, preferred to drive a long way round to get to Derby, sooner than trust to the lonely Heath, with its roads almost impassable four days out of five.
Master Mittachip, attorney-at-law, who had ridden over from Wirksworth with his clerk, Master Duffy, recognised her ladyship as she stepped out of her coach.
"Sir Humphrey will be astonished," he whispered to Master Duffy, as he rubbed his ill-shaven chin with his long bony fingers.
"He! he! he!" echoed the clerk, submissively.
Master Mittachip, who transacted business for the Squire of Hartington, and also for old Lady Rounce and Squire West, knew the exact shade of deference due to so great a lady as Lady Patience Gascoyne. He stood at the door of the parlour and had the honour of bowing to her as she followed Mistress Pottage quickly along the passage to the inner room beyond, her long cloak flying out behind her, owing to the draught caused by the open doors.
Alone in the small, dingy room, Patience almost fell upon the sofa in a stupor of intense fatigue. When Mistress Pottage brought the meagre, ill-cooked food, she felt at first quite unable to eat. She lay back against the hard pillows with eyes closed, and hands tightly clutching that bundle of precious letters.
Betty tried to make her comfortable. She took off her mistress's shoes and stockings and began rubbing the cold, numb feet between her warm hands.
But by and by youth and health reasserted themselves. Patience, realising all the time how much depended upon her own strength and energy, roused herself with an effort of will. She tried to eat some of the food, "the mess of pottage" as she smiling termed it, but her eyes were for ever wandering to the clock which ticked the hours oh! so slowly! that separated her from her journey.
As for buxom little Betty, she had fallen to with the vigorous appetite of youth and a happy heart, and presently, like a tired child, she curled herself up at the foot of the couch and soon dropped peacefully to sleep.
After awhile, Patience too, feeling numb and drowsy with the weariness of this long afternoon, closed her eyes and fell into a kind of stupor. She lay on the sofa like a log, tired out, dreamless, her senses numbed, in a kind of wakeful sleep.
How long she lay there she could not have told, but all of a sudden she sat up, her eyes dilated, her heart beating fast; she was fully awake now.
Something had suddenly roused her. What was it? She glanced at the clock; it was just half-past three. She must have slept nearly half an hour. Betty, on the floor beside her, still slumbered peacefully.
Then all her senses woke. She knew what had aroused her: the rumbling of wheels, a coach pulling up, the shouts of the driver. And now she could hear men running, more shouting, the jingle of harness and horses being led round the house to the shed beyond.
The small lattice window gave upon the side of the house, she could not see the coach or who this latest arrival at the Moorhen was; but what mattered that? she knew well enough.
For a moment she stopped to think; forcibly conquering excitement and alarm, she called to her reason to tell her what to do.
Sir Humphrey Challoner's presence here might be a coincidence, she had no cause to suspect that he was purposely following her. But in any case she wished to avoid him. How could that best be done?
Mittachip, the lawyer, had seen and recognised her. Within the next few moments the Squire would hear of her presence at the inn. He too, obviously, had come to rest his horses here. How long would he stay?
She roused Betty.
"Betty! child!" she whispered. "Wake
up! We must leave this place at once."
Betty opened her eyes: she saw her mistress's pale, excited face bending over her, and she jumped to her feet.
"Listen, Betty," continued Patience. "Sir Humphrey Challoner has just come by coach. I want to leave this place before he knows that I am here."
"But the horses are not put to, my lady."
"Sh! don't talk so loud, child. I am going to slip out along the passage, there is a door at the end of it which must give upon the back of the house. As soon as I am gone, do you got the parlour and tell Thomas to have the horses put to directly; they have had sufficient rest, and to let the coach be at the cross-roads as soon as may be after that."
"Yes, my lady."
"Then as quickly as you can, slip out of the house and follow the road that leads to the forge. I'll be on the lookout for you. I'll not have gone far. You quite understand?"
"Oh, yes! my lady!"
"You are not afraid?"
Mistress Betty shrugged her plump shoulders.
"In broad daylight? Oh, no, my lady! and the forge is but a mile!"
Even as she spoke Patience had wrapped her dark cloak and hood round her. She listened intently for a few seconds. The sound of voices seemed to come from the more remote bar-parlour: moreover, the narrow passage at this end was quite dark: she had every chance of slipping out unperceived.
"Sh! sh!" she whispered to Betty as she opened the door.
The passage was deserted: almost holding her breath, lest it should betray her, Patience reached the door at the further end of it, Betty anxiously watching her from the inner room. Quickly she slipped the bolt, and the next instant she found herself looking out upon a dingy unfenced yard, which for the moment was hopelessly encumbered with the two huge travelling coaches: beyond these was a long wooden shed whence proceeded the noise of voices and laughter, and the stamping and snorting of horses: and far away the Moor to the right and left of her stretched out in all the majesty of its awesome loneliness.
The wind caught her cloak as she stepped out
into the yard: she clutched it tightly and held it close to her.
She hoped the two coaches, which stood between her and the shed,
would effectively hide her from view until she was past the house.
The next moment, however, she heard an exclamation behind her,
then the sound of firm steps upon the flagstones, and a second
or two later she stood face to face with Sir Humphrey Challoner.