Mistress Pottage, sad-eyed, melancholy, and for ever sighing, had been patiently waiting to receive Sir Humphrey Challoner's orders. She had understood from his man that his Honour meant to spend the night, and she stood anxiously in the passage, wondering if he would consider her best bedroom good enough, or condescend to eat the meals she would have to cook for him.
It was really quite fortunate that Lady Patience had gone, leaving the smaller parlour, which was Mistress Pottage's own private sanctum, ready for the use of his Honour.
Sir Humphrey's mind, however, was far too busy with thoughts and plans to dwell on the melancholy landlady and her meagre fare, but he was glad of the private room, and was gracious enough to express himself quite satisfied with the prospect of the best bedroom.
Some ten minutes after his brief interview with Lady Patience he was closeted in the same little dingy room where she had been spending such weary hours. With the healthy appetite of a burly English squire, he was consuming large slabs of meat and innumerable tankards of small ale, whilst opposite to him, poised on the extreme edge of a very hard oak chair, his watery, colourless eyes fixed upon his employer, sat Master Mittachip, attorney-at-law and man of business to sundry of the quality who owned property on or about the Moor.
Master Mittachip's voice was thin, he was thin, his coat looked thin: there was in fact a general air of attenuation about the man's whole personality.
Just now he was fixing a pair of very pale, but very shrewd eyes upon the heavy, somewhat coarse person of his distinguished patron.
"Her ladyship passed me quite close," he explaimed, speaking in a low, somewhat apologetic voice. "I was standing in the door of--er--the parlour, and graciously nodded to me as she passed."
"Yes! yes! get on, man," quoth Sir Humphrey, impatiently.
"The door was open, your Honour," continued Master Mittachip in a weak voice, "there was a draught; her ladyship's cloak flew open."
He paused a moment, noting with evident satisfaction the increasing interest in Sir Humphrey's face.
"Beneath her cloak," he continued, speaking very slowly, like an actor measuring his effects, "beneath her cloak her ladyship was holding a bundle of letters, tightly clutched in her hand."
"Letters, eh?" commented Sir Humphrey, eagerly.
"A bundle of them, your Honour. One of them had a large seal attached to it. I might almost have seen the device: it was that of..."
"Charles Edward Stuart, the Pretender?"
"Well! I could not say for certain, your Honour," murmured Master Mittachip, humbly.
There was silence for a few moments. Sir Humphrey Challoner had produced a silver toothpick, and was using it as an adjunct to deep meditation. Master Mittachip was contemplating the floor with rapt attention.
"Harkee, Master Mittachip," said Sir Humphrey at last. "Lady Patience is taking those letters to London."
"That was the impression created in my mind, your Honour."
"And why does she take those letters to London?" said Sir Humphrey, bringing his heavey fist crashing down upon the table, and causing glasses and dishes to rattle, whilst Master Mittachip almost lost his balance. "Why does she take them to London, I say? Because they are the proofs of her brother's innocence. It is easy to guess their contents. Requests, admonitions, upbraidings on the part of the disappointed rebels, obvious proof that Philip had held aloof."
He pushed his chair noisily away from the table, and began pacing the narrow room with great, impatient strides.
But while he spoke Master Mittachip began to lose his placid air of apologetic deference, and a look of alarm suddenly lighted his meek, colourless eyes.
"Good lack," he murmured, "then my Lord Stretton is no rebel?"
"Rebe?--not he!" asserted Sir Humphrey. "His sympathies were thought to be with the Stuarts, but he went south during the rebellion--'twas I who adviced him--that he might avoid being drawn within its net."
But at this Master Mittachip's terror became more tangible.
"But your Honour," he stammered, whilst his thin cheeks assumed a leaden hue, and his eyes sought appealingly those of his employer, "your Honour laid sworn information against Lord Stretton...and...and...I drew up the papers....and signed them with my name as your Honour commanded...."
"Well! I paid you well for it, didn't I?" said Sir Humphrey, roughly.
"But if the accusation was false, Sir Humphrey...I shall be disgraced...struck off the rolls...perhaps hanged..."
Sir Humphrey laughed; one of those loud jovial laughs which those in his employ soon learnt to dread.
"Adsbud!" he said, "an one of us is to hang, old scarecrow, I prefer it shall be you."
And he gave Master Mittachip a vigorous slap on the shoulder, which nearly precipitated the lean-shanked attorney on the floor.
"Good Sir Humphrey..." he murmured piteously, "b...b...b...but what was the reason of the information against Lord Stretton, since the letters can so easily prove it to be false?"
"Silence, you fool!" said his Honour, impatiently. "I did not know of the letters then. I wished to place Lord Stretton in a perilous position, then hoped to succeed in establishing his innocence in certain ways I had in my mind. I wished to be the one to save him," he added, muttering a curse of angry disappointment, "and gain her gratitude thereby. I was journeying to London for the purpose, and now..."
His language became such that it wholly disconcerted Master Mittachip, accustomed though he was to the somewhat uncertain tempers of the great folk he had to deal with. Moreover, the worthy attorney was fully conscious of his own precarious position in this matter.
"And now you've gained nothing," he moaned; "whilst I...oh! oh! I..."
His condition was pitiable. His Honour viewed him with no small measure of contempt. Then suddenly Sir Humphrey's face lighted up with animation. The scowl disappeared, and a shrewd, almost triumphant smile parted the jovial, somewhat sensuous lips.
"Easy! easy! you old coward," he said pleasantly, "things are not so bad as that...Adsbud! you're not hanged yet, are you? and," he added significantly, "Lord Stretton is still attainted and in peril of his life."
"Can't you see, you fool," said Sir Humphrey with sudden earnestness, drawing a chair opposite the attorney, and sitting astride upon it, he viewed the meagre little creature before him steadfastly and seriously; "can't you see that if I can only get hold of those letters now, I could force Lady Patience into accepting my suit?"
"With them in my possession I can go to her and say, 'An you marry me, those proofs of your brother's innocence shall be laid before the King: an you refuse they shall be destroyed.'"
"Oh!" was Master Mittachip's involuntary comment: a mere gasp of amazement, of terror at the enormity of the proposal.
He ventured to raise his timid eyes to the strong florid face before him, and in it saw such a firm will, such unbendable determination, that he thought it prudent for the moment to refrain from adverse comment.
"Truly," he murmured vaguely, as his Honour seemed to be waiting for him to speak, "truly those letters mean the lady's fortune to your Honour."
"And on the day of my marriage with her, two hundred guineas for you, Master Mittachip," said Challoner, very slowly and significantly, looking his man of business squarely in the face.
Master Mittachip literally lost his head. Two hundred guineas! 'twas more than he earned in four years, and that at the cost of hard work, many kicks and constant abuse. A receiver of rents has from time immemorial never been a popular figure. Master Mittachip found life hard, and in those days two hundred guineas was quite a comfortable little fortune. The attorney passed his moist tongue over his thin, parched lips.
The visions which these imaginary two hundred guineas had conjured up in his mind almost made his attenuated senses reel. There was that bit of freehold property at Wirksworth which he had long coveted, aye, or perhaps that partnership with Master Lutworth at Derby, or...
"'Twere worth your while, Master Mittachip, to get those letters for me, eh?"
His Honour's pleasant words brought the poor man back from the land of dreams.
"I? I, Sir Humphrey?" he murmured dejectedly, "how can I, a poor attorney-at-law...?"
"Zounds! but that's your affair," said his Honour with a careless shrug of his broad shoulders, "Methought you'd gladly earn two hundred guineas, and I offer you a way to do it."
"But how, Sir Humphrey, how?"
"That's for you to think on, my man. Two hundred guineas is a tidy sum. What? I have it," he said, slapping his own broad thigh and laughing heartily. "You shall play the daring highwayman! put on a mask and stop her ladyship's coach, shout lustily: 'Stand and deliver!' take the letters from her and 'tis done in a trice!"
The idea of that meagre little creature playing the highwayman greatly tickled Sir Humphrey's fancy; for the moment he even forgot the grave issues he himself had at stake, and his boisterous laugh went echoing through the old silent building.
But as his Honour spoke this pleasant conceit, Master Mittachip's thin, bloodless face assumed an air of deep thought, immediately followed by one of eager excitement.
"The idea of the highwayman is not a bad one, Sir Humphrey," he said with a quiet chuckle, as soon as his patron's hilarity had somewhat subsided, "but I am not happy astride a horse, and I know naught of pistols, but there's no reason why we should not get a footpad to steal those letters for you. 'Tis their trade after all."
"What do you mean? I was but jesting."
"But I was not, Sir Humphrey. I was thinking of Beau Brocade."
"Why not? He lives by robbery and hates all the quality, whom he plunders whene'er he has a chance. Your Honour has had experience, only last night...eh?"
"Well? What of it? Curse you, man, for a dotard! Why don't you explain?"
"'Tis simple enough, your Honour. You give him the news that her ladyship's coach will cross the Heath to-night, tell him of her money and her jewels, offer him a hundred guineas more for the packet of letters.... He! he! he! He'll do the rest, never fear!"
Master Mittachip rubbed his bony hands together, his colourless eyes were twinkling, his thin lips quivering with excitement, dreams of that freehold bit of property became tangible once more.
Sir Humphrey looked at him quitely for a moment or two: the little man's excitement was contagious and his Honour had a great deal at stake: a beautiful woman whom he loved and her large fortune to boot. But reason and common-sense--not chivalry--were still fighting their battle against his daring spirit of adventure.
"Tush, man!" he said after awhile, with the calmness of intense excitement, "you talk arrant nonsense when you say I'm to give a highwayman news of her ladyship's coach and offer him money for the letters. Where am I to find him? How speak with him?"
Mittachip chuckled inwardly. His Honour then was not averse to the plan. Already he was prepared to discuss the means of carrying it out.
"'Tis a lawyer's business to ferret out what goes on around him, Sir Humphrey. You can send any news you please to Beau Brocade within an hour from now."
"John Stich, the blacksmith over at the crossroads, is his ally and his friend. Most folk think 'tis he always gives news to the fogue whene'er a coach happen to cross the Moor. But that's as it may be. If your Honour will call at the forge just before sunset, you'll mayhap see a chestnut horse tethered there and there'll be a stranger talking to John Stich; a stranger young and well-looking. He's oft to be seen at the forge. The folk about here never ask who the stranger is, for all have heard of the chivalrous highwayman who robs the rich and gives to the poor. He! he! he! Do you call at the forge, Sir Humphrey, you can arrange this little matter there...Your news and offer of money will get to Beau Brocade, never fear."
Sir Humphrey was silent. All the boisterous jollity had gone out of his face, leaving only a dark scowl behind, which made the ruddy face look almost evil in its ugliness. Mittachip viewed him with ill-concealed satisfaction. The plan had indeed found favour with his Honour; it was quick, daring, sure: the fortune of a lifetime upon one throw. Sir Humphrey, even before the attorney had finished speaking, had resolved to take the risk. He himself was safe in any case, nothing could connect his name with that of the notorious highwayman who had cut his purse but the night before.
"I'd not have her hurt," was the first comment he made after a few minutes' silent cogitation.
"Hurt?" rejoined Mittachip. "Why should she be hurt? Beau Brocade would not hurt a pretty woman. He'll get the letters from her, I'll stake my oath on that."
"Aye! and blackmail me after that to the end of my days. My good name would be at the mercy of so damned a rascal."
"What matter, Sir Humphrey, once Lady Patience is your wife and her fortune in your pocket? Everything is fair in love, so I've been told."
Sir Humphrey ceased to argue. Chivalry and honour had long been on the losing side.
"Moreover, Sir Humphrey," added the crafty attorney, slily, "once you have the letters, you can denounce the rogue yourself, and get him hanged safely out of your way."
"He'd denounce me."
"And who'd believe the rascal's word against your Honour's flat denial? Not Squire West, for sure, before whom he'd be tried, and your Honour can have him kept in prison until after your marriage with Lady Patience."
It seemed as if even reason would range herself on the side of this daring plan. There seemed practically no risks as far as Sir Humphrey himself was concerned, and every chance of success, an that rascal Beau Brocade would but consent.
"He would," asserted Mittachip, "an your Honour told him that the coach, the money, and the letters belonged to Lady Rounce, and the young lady travelling in the coach but a niece of her ladyship. Lady Rounce is a hard woman who takes no excuse from a debtor. He! he! he! she has the worst reputation in the two counties, save your Honour!"
The lawyer chuckled at this little joke, but Sir Humphrey was too absorbed to note the impertinence. He was pacing up and down the narrow room in a last agony of indecision.
Mittachip evidently was satisfied with his day's work. The two hundred guineas he looked upon as a certainty already. After a while, noting the look of stern determination upon his Honour's face, he turned the conversation to matters of business. He had been collecting some rents for Sir Humphrey and also for Squire West and Lady Rounce, and would have to return to Wirksworth to bank the money.
Since Sir Humphrey Challoner was occupying the only available bedroom at the Moorhen, there would be no room for Master Mittachip and Master Duffy, his clerk. He hoped to reach Brassington by the bridle path before the footpads were astir, thence at dawn on to Wirksworth.
He had shot his poisonous arrow and did not stop to ascertain how far it had gone home. He bade farewell to his employer, with all the deference which many years of intercourse with the quality had taught him, and never mentioned Beau Brocade, Lady Patience or John Stich's forge again. But when he had bowed and scraped himself out of his Honour's presence, and was sitting once more beside Master Duffy in the bar-parlour, there was a world of satisfaction in his pale, watery eyes.