Nothing loth

“Truly, Sir Peter; ’tis a great honour you do me. Yet bethink you; if
every fugitive felt it a duty to offer his hand to each maid who had
favoured his escape, there would be busy doings in these troublous
times.”

“Duty, Mistress Barbara, i’ faith! ’Tis no thought of duty your
presence inspires.”

There was an ominous glint in the speaker’s eyes which caused his
companion to interrupt him quickly with a nervous laugh.

“In that case, sir, ’twere best I should leave you; ’twere small good
urging upon you the duty of saving your life by instant departure, if my
presence play traitor to my words by bidding you stay. So fare thee
well; I wish you a safe journey.”

“Alas, madame, and will you indeed send me away without one word of
hope? I will die an you do. What is life to me without your favour? I
entreat you, have pity.”

Sir Peter’s protestations were eager, nay ardent, but they tripped too
glibly from his tongue, they smacked too much of experience in the art
of wooing and moved Mistress Barbara to naught save amusement.

“Nay, but listen to me, sir,” she answered with mock solemnity. “As you
well know, there are many who since the rising have been in hiding like
yourself. For Rupert’s sake, I will give help and shelter to all who
need it, but it were too much to expect me to give to all such
unfortunates what now you seek. Bethink you what complications might
arise hereafter.”

“But, madame, ’tis possible all will not adore you as devotedly as do
I.”

“’Twere scarcely worth my while to consider such a remote possibility,
sir,” she answered demurely. “Nor do I see reason why you should prove
an exception.”

A man and a maid seated together on a bank of moss in the moonlight have
been seen oft in England; nor, if the maid were fair and not unwilling
to listen (and what maid ever refused?), was it ever matter for surprise
if the man has made wise use of the opportunities the Fates had given to
him to perfect a romantic harmony of time and place by pouring forth
protestations of undying devotion and of admiration for the incomparable
charms of his companion; for moonlight is in truth a marvellous loosener
of tongues; the greatest matchmaker of the universe is the pale witch
queen of the night.

But natural though the affair may at first sight appear, in the present
case it was attended by certain untoward circumstances which would have
rendered the conventional occupation of Sir Peter and the lady
productive of astonishment to an onlooker.

For it was but a week since the disastrous engagement at Sedgemoor where
Sir Peter had commanded one of the foot regiments in Monmouth’s
ill-fated army. And though the ardour of his wooing for a time almost
led him to forget the fact, he was nevertheless a condemned rebel with a
price upon his head and little hope of life unless by some means he
could reach the coast and so compass his escape from the country.
Within a mile of where he sat there were those who were seeking high and
low to take his person, dead or alive; yet despite his danger he seemed
oblivious to everything beyond his immediate surroundings. He devoted
himself to the wooing of his companion’s favour with the same passionate
assiduity which he had ever displayed in more peaceful days in the calm
precincts of Whitehall, or even in the perhaps less reputable regions of
Old Drury.

Three days after the rout at Sedgemoor, after experiencing the miseries
of starvation and despair which fall to the lot of a hunted man, Sir
Peter Dare had reached the village of Durford, hoping thence to escape
to the coast. Driven by hunger and distress to desperate ventures, he
had presented himself at the Manor House, trusting to his ready tongue,
his handsome face and his large experience in the management of the sex
to gain the sympathy and assistance at least of the women of the
household. He met with a welcome even more kindly than he had dared to
hope for. Mistress Barbara Winslow had a tender heart for all rebels,
her own brother, Rupert, having also ridden with Monmouth, and being
himself even then in hiding, she knew not where. Therefore, she and her
cousin Lady Cicely gave shelter to Sir Peter gladly, and for some days
he remained at the Manor House, lauding the Fates for directing him to
such a pleasant haven, and employing his time, having nought else to do,
in losing his heart to his fair hostess, who, being a woman, thought no
worse of him for his obvious admiration, which, to do her justice, she
considered but her due.

But not many days could the wanderer remain in safety at Durford. The
country was closely patrolled by those searching every hole and corner
for fugitives from Monmouth’s army, and a small search party had their
headquarters in the village itself. The Manor House was suspected, and
the Winslows could not hope longer to conceal the presence of their
guest, especially as their household consisted exclusively of
women—creatures of unquestioned loyalty but irresponsible tongues.

In the meantime, however, news had been received of a fishing vessel
lying off the coast, some three miles from Listoke, and with the help of
one Peter Drew, a smith by trade, and a devoted admirer of Mistress
Barbara, arrangements had been made with the skipper to take the
fugitive on board.

Four days, therefore, after his arrival, Sir Peter reluctantly bade
farewell to his hostess, and prepared to ride away once more upon his
wanderings.

But ere he started finally on his journey, Mistress Barbara, moved
either by the beauty of the evening, or by pity for his somewhat forlorn
condition, proposed to accompany him to the end of the narrow lane,
leading from the Manor House to the high road, and so set him on his
way.

Now at the side of this lane ran a mossy bank, and the night being warm,
and the moonlight inspiring, it befell that an hour after his departure
from the house, Sir Peter was still seated on the bank at the feet of
Mistress Barbara, oblivious alike to her repeated assertions that if he
would not depart she at least could remain no longer, and to her warning
that each moment’s delay meant additional danger.

Still they sat there, until Sir Peter, moved by the sweet tones of his
companion’s voice, by the gleam of her eyes in the moonlight, and by
gloomy reflections on their approaching separation, threw prudence to
the winds, and burst forth into desperate, and for the time being
heartfelt, protestations of devotion, mingled with entreaties that she
would at least give him hope of one day winning her favour.

But Mistress Barbara, though she had found satisfaction in Sir Peter’s
open admiration, was in no wise pleased at so serious a turn to the
conversation. She shrewdly suspected that it was by no means the first
time such vows had passed his lips, and was consequently quite unmoved
by his despair; but this unexpected change from moonlight dreams in the
present to practical discussions of the future brought back her mind to
realities with a sudden shock. She had no inclination to enter into a
serious discussion of the matter, so she put a sudden end to the affair
by springing to her feet and insisting upon her companion taking his
departure forthwith, lest he miss the tide.

Sir Peter, recognising that further pleading would be useless, heaved a
forlorn sigh, at which Mistress Barbara smiled under cover of the
darkness and they walked to the end of the lane in silence. Here they
paused and Barbara gave her final directions.

“I can go with you no further. I would we could have kept you with us
longer, but indeed it is not safe; they have traced you here and are
hunting high and low for you. Your only hope is to cross the water. I
have told you the road; two hours’ riding should bring you to the place.
Pray Heaven you fall not in with Captain Protheroe and his men. But if
you do you should soon outstrip them, for their horses will be weary;
they have been out seeking you since daylight, though thanks to their
belief in their own intelligence they have sought diligently in the
wrong direction. But they will come back to quarters presently and you
must be gone. Farewell, my friend, and a pleasant ride.”

Sir Peter stooped to kiss her hand and mounted his horse reluctantly.

“Farewell, madame. It were useless to try to thank you. But at least I
shall hope for some future occasion of repaying my debt.”

“I shall deem it well repaid if you can contrive to send me word of
Rupert’s safety,” answered the girl with a sigh. “That he will escape I
am assured; Rupert could never come to harm; but the waiting for news is
weary, and on some days hope is only a duty, not a consolation.”

“See what it is to be a brother,” exclaimed Sir Peter mournfully. “You
care more for his little finger than you do for the offer of my heart.”

“Well, sir, and is not the rarer commodity ever the more precious?” she
answered saucily. “Rupert hath but two little fingers, whereas——”

“I have but one heart, madame.”

“True, sir; but what limit to the times it may be offered?”

“Ah! Mistress Barbara, you know naught of the matter, for you yourself
have no heart at all.”

“And I marvel that you should still have one, considering how frequently
you have lost it.”

“I vow——”

“Hush!”

The jingle of accoutrements sounded round the corner of the road, and at
the same moment they became aware of horses slowly approaching, a sound
which hitherto they had been too much engrossed in their conversation to
heed.

“Alack! ’Tis the troopers,” whispered Barbara. “Back, ere it be too
late.”

But the time for escape had passed; for even as she spoke, and before
Sir Peter had fully grasped the situation, the troopers had rounded the
corner of the road, and were face to face with the fugitive.

They could scarcely be described as an imposing-looking force. Since
daybreak they had been out scouring the country for rebels, beating the
woods, ransacking the barns, following a wild-goose chase after false
information extracted from the sullen country-folk, and were now
returning to the village, worn out, dejected, and mud-stained. It would
have been difficult to find a more forlorn-looking crew, even among the
unfortunate men whom they hunted.

But at sight of the couple before them their dejection instantly
vanished. The man’s rich dress, handsome still, despite its draggled
appearance, his presence on the road at this hour, and the horrified
exclamation of the girl, all tended to prove that this was the man whom
they sought. With a quick exclamation, the leader sprang from his horse
and striding up to Sir Peter seized his horse’s bridle, crying sharply,
“I arrest you in the King’s name. Surrender like a wise man, or take
the consequences.”

Sir Peter reined his horse back abruptly, and glanced round at his
enemies with a muttered curse. But in Mistress Barbara the danger only
roused a spirit of excitement and mischief. She flung up her head and
laughed.

“Cock-a-doodle-do! Who is afraid of you?” she sang saucily.

Captain Protheroe was somewhat discomfited by this unexpected answer.
He threw an angry glance in the direction of the girl, and otherwise
ignoring her presence, turned again to his prisoner.

“Come, sir, I ask you again, do you surrender, or must I order my men to
seize you?”

“And I repeat,” remarked the girl again, “that you crow too loudly,
noble sir.”

One of the troopers in the background laughed, and the captain turned
furiously on Barbara.

“Peace, wench,” he began sharply. But at that moment, when all eyes
were turned on the girl, Sir Peter dealt a furious blow in the captain’s
chest, driving him back against the bank, and at the same time wrenched
the reins from his grasp and dug his spurs into the horse’s flanks. The
animal leaped forward suddenly, and before the men could recover from
the confusion and make a further move to stop him, the prisoner was
clear of the surrounding circle and galloping rapidly down the road,
while Mistress Barbara clapped her hands and laughed delightedly at
their discomfiture.

Captain Protheroe sprang to his feet in an instant, furious with rage,
but quickly realising that it would be vain with their wearied horses to
attempt to overtake the fugitive, he opened his lips to give the order
to fire, that the man might be stopped, dead or alive. But ere he could
speak the word, two arms were flung round his neck, and two soft hands
were pressed tightly over his lips, while again the girl’s mischievous
laugh rang in his ears.

For a moment the captain was too much astonished to move, then
astonishment gave place to anger.

Roughly seizing the girl’s wrists, he pulled away her hands and shouted
to the men to fire at once. But it was already too late, the fugitive
was out of sight, and though several troopers presently set out in
pursuit, it was obvious that the hope of recapture was very slight,
seeing he rode a fresh horse, and the moon, already low in the sky,
promised soon to give the pursued the protection of darkness.

Then, balked of his prisoner, Captain Protheroe turned furiously upon
the cause of his failure.

“You hussy,” he exclaimed harshly, “I will teach you——”

He stopped abruptly, for the girl’s hood had fallen back, and he found
himself gazing into the most wonderful eyes he had ever beheld.

Then a soft voice drawled in sympathetic tones, “’Deed, captain, hath he
really escaped thee? How vastly annoying. For, an I mistake not, the
orders were to take him at all costs, dead or alive, and now, being but
few miles from the coast, and being well mounted, ’tis very like he may
be altogether quit of the country by to-morrow morn. I vow ’tis too
bad. But sure, you are eager to pursue him, so I will no longer delay
you. I wish you a very good even.”

She dropped him a sedate curtsey and turned to walk back to the house.

But by this time Captain Protheroe had recovered from the effect of her
eyes. He seized her roughly by the wrist and dragged her back.

“Not so fast, my girl. I must have some information from you first
concerning this same rebel.”

Barbara eyed him in grave astonishment.

“You are hurting my wrist,” she complained reproachfully.

The captain dropped her wrist instantly, and she held it out to him
gravely, that he might see the red marks of his fingers on the white
flesh.

“Come,” he began, somewhat abashed, “tell me but this: Was that Sir
Peter Dare who hath escaped us, and if so, where and how did you fall in
with him?”

“Indeed, sir,” answered the girl demurely, “you are surely forgetful of
the place and hour. Bethink you, ’tis scarce meet that I remain here
alone, parleying thus with strangers.”

“Tut! girl,” answered the captain, laughing, “that excuse will not
avail. You thought it no shame ten minutes since to remain here
parleying with one man. There is safety in numbers.”

“Ah! That is a different matter, sir,” she answered with a most
innocent glance. “He was a gentleman.”

“A gentleman! Well! What then?”

“Such do not mishandle women, sir,” she said and pointed again
reproachfully to her injured wrist.

“Peste!” muttered the captain angrily. In truth he was somewhat puzzled
as to whom the girl might be. She wore a rough scarlet cloak and hood
common to all the country maids, and he could not see her dress beneath.
Furthermore she spoke with a slight Somersetshire accent, and this,
together with her saucy manner, had at first led him to suppose her to
be merely a simple country wench. But now the suspicion grew that she
was but masquerading in the part.

The only thing of which he felt certain was that she had the sweetest
voice and the most bewitching dimple in the corner of her mouth of any
woman he had ever met.

“Come now,” he continued more gently, “I am sorry I hurt thee, girl, but
an answer I must have. Who was the fellow?”

She looked at him gravely.

“Well, sir, an you will have it, he was—he was a certain Captain Miles
Protheroe.”

Captain Protheroe laughed unwillingly at her coolness.

“Come, you must give a better account of him than that, mistress.”

“Nay, is that no good account?” she exclaimed with elaborate
astonishment. “Marry! How one may be deceived. I have ever heard
Captain Protheroe spoken of as passably honest, though perchance not
overwise, and decidedly hard-featured.”

But this was too much, and Captain Protheroe lost all patience. Yet if
the girl persisted in her saucy masquerade, he resolved at least to play
up to her, and let her see how she enjoyed the part.

“A truce of this fooling, girl,” he began harshly.

“Faith, sir, an my conversation please you not, I will e’en take my
leave,” she interposed quickly, and again turned to leave him.

But Captain Protheroe seized her cloak and held her fast.

“Listen to me, my girl,” he said sharply, “and bridle your saucy tongue.
Give me the information I require or, by Heaven, I’ll march you back to
the village and keep you prisoner till you learn to obey. Make up your
mind. Which shall it be?”

Barbara turned and regarded him gravely from head to foot.

“I like you not,” she remarked coolly, as the result of her critical
survey.

“That may well be,” he answered, smiling scornfully. “But an you answer
not my questions, and that speedily, I must find means to make you do
so. Now speak; which shall it be?”

Barbara glanced round eagerly for a way of escape, her mouth drooped,
her eyes opened wide with fear, her hands were clasped convulsively at
her throat, the fingers fidgeting with the ribbons of her cloak. She
shook her head once or twice helplessly, casting at the captain glances
of indignation, pleading, and reproach.

But he remained resolute. Then she began in a trembling voice:

“Well, sir, if there be no other way of escape, I must—I must e’en——I
must run!” And as she spoke the word, with a quick movement she twisted
herself free from the cloak which she had previously unfastened, leaving
it in the captain’s hands, and darting up the bank by the roadside,
disappeared into the plantation beyond.

One or two of the troopers made a motion to pursue her, but the captain
called them back.

“Let her go. You would never find her in the dark.” And added,
laughing, “The wench deserves her freedom. Fall in, men, and back to
quarters; we can do no more to-night.”

Nothing loth, the troopers resumed their way back to the village; but
ere he departed, Captain Protheroe stooped and tore a ribbon from the
discarded cloak, and with a short, half-shamed laugh twisted it round
his wrist.