Captain Prothero

Time passed slowly for the corporal as he crouched wearily at his post.

The garden remained deserted. Late in the afternoon three maid-servants
chattering gaily, he supposed at the prospect of an evening holiday,
came out and set off for the village, calling back saucy messages to
Phoebe Marlow, who, from the doorway disconsolately watched them depart.
Then again all was silent.

The bright promise of the early morning hours was not fulfilled. The
evening sky was heavy with clouds and dusk fell early. The corporal had
changed his position a hundred times, had yawned and sighed, and even
nodded once or twice before the longed-for hour arrived.

But at length, about ten o’clock, a light twinkled in one of the windows
of the dark and silent house, and presently the soft swish of a paddle
up the stream was audible.

The corporal held his breath and craned forward, looking and listening
eagerly. He heard the dull thud of the boat against the bank, a paddle
drop, soft footfalls on the lawn, and presently the dark figure of a man
loomed into sight, and passed quickly toward the house.

But ere he reached the building, the door was flung wide and a woman
appeared on the lintel with outstretched arms, crying loud, “Rupert! At
last! At last!”

For an instant the figures stood revealed in the glare of light from the
doorway, and the corporal noted a tall, slender youth with bright
complexion and dark, curling hair, falling in love-locks to his
shoulders, as Barbara had described him, herself in form and feature.
Taking the woman into his arms, they passed into the house together, and
the door was closed.

For a few moments the corporal waited cautiously, then as all remained
quiet, he crept from his hiding-place and, cracking his fingers with
delight at the success of his enterprise, gave the signal for his men to
surround the house.

In five minutes they were posted to his satisfaction, so carefully that
not a cat could escape unobserved, and having ordered them to let any
enter who would (for he had as lief catch a dozen rebels as one), but to
allow none to leave the building without his express command, he
approached the entrance and delivered a thundering blow upon the door.

There was no answer. The echoes died away in the distance and the house
remained silent as night.

He raised his arm for a second blow, when a light touch on the shoulder
caused him to spring round in astonishment and fear, for his heart was
already in his mouth with excitement and self-importance.

Behind him stood Captain Protheroe, regarding him grimly.

“How now, corporal?” demanded the captain sharply, “What is the meaning
of this? I came riding down the lane when I find three troopers
crouching by the gate yonder, for all the world like conies in their
burrow, and I learn, forsooth, that you have surrounded this house and
were even about to force an entrance. What warrant have you for this,
and why was I not informed sooner of the matter? Must I again teach
you, sirrah, that you take too much upon yourself?”

The corporal regarded him sulkily.

“There is a traitor within, captain,” he muttered.

“Bah! another of your mare’s nests, I make no doubt. What proof have
you?”

“Proof enough and to spare,” answered the corporal stoutly. “Witness my
own eyes and ears,” and he rapidly reported all that had passed. The
captain’s face hardened as he listened and he glanced sharply up at the
house.

“Ah! it seems you are on the right track for once. But zounds, fool,” he
continued angrily, “why, in Heaven’s name, didn’t you trap him before he
entered the house and leave the women-folk in peace? I warrant we’ll
have a bad business now. Dolt! Well, there is no other way now. Knock
again and on with the work. ’Twill be a wretched business,” he muttered
with a shrug and a wry smile.

The corporal again knocked loudly, and after a considerable interval,
footsteps were heard inside, and a voice demanded timidly who was there.

“Open at once, i’ the King’s name,” roared the corporal.

“Marry, then, which king?” answered the voice, “there be so many kings
nowadays.”

“Open in the name of King James,” was the angry answer.

“Now wherefore King James? King Monmouth was far better favoured,”
answered the voice.

“Zounds, fellow!” interrupted the captain angrily, “wouldest parley all
day?” Then dealing a furious blow on the door, he shouted angrily:

“An ye open not instantly, I must break in the door.”

“Beshrew me! Here’s a gentle visitor!” was the answer, and then the
door yielded to their pressure and the captain, followed by the corporal
and three troopers, entered the house.

They paused, however, on the threshold, and Captain Protheroe muttered a
despairing exclamation, for the hall was empty save for Mistress
Barbara, who, dropping them a mocking curtsey, demanded gravely to what
cause she owed the honour of such a visit.

Captain Protheroe quickly recovered his composure and bowed politely,
mentally observing that never before had he done full justice to the
girl’s beauty, or fully realised the fascination that may lurk in soft
dark curls trailing over a snowy forehead and nestling into the nape of
a beautifully formed neck.

“It grieves me to be thus forced to intrude upon your privacy, Mistress
Winslow,” he began gently, “but I must obey orders. Methinks you need
scarcely pretend ignorance as to the reason of my presence.”

“Bless the man!” exclaimed Barbara cheerfully, “does he think his
business is writ large on his brow? I assure you, sir, I know nothing
whatever of the cause of such a visit.”

Captain Protheroe raised his eyebrows.

“In that case, madame, I must inform you. I have certain knowledge that
a fugitive has taken refuge in this house, and it is my intention not to
leave the place until I have found him.”

“A most laudable intention, sir, though I fear me it means that you will
remain here for the rest of your natural life. But pray tell me, how
long has it been the custom for an honourable gentleman to turn
man-hunter?”

The captain reddened angrily.

“It is not a task I would gladly choose, madame, as you might know. But
I am not here to discuss the virtue of my orders, I am here to search
for this rebel.”

“Then in Heaven’s name go and search for him elsewhere. I assure you he
is not here,” exclaimed Barbara petulantly.

Captain Protheroe looked at her for a moment questioningly.

“Will you swear to me that such is the truth, madame?” he asked.

Barbara hesitated for a moment. Then she turned away impatiently and
walked back into the room.

“Nay, an my word be not enough, I will swear nothing. Yet I assure you
the man you seek is not here.”

But even as she spoke the words, she stopped with a stifled cry, for in
the centre of the floor lay a man’s hat, stained and draggled, but
serving, with its long plume and jewelled clasp, as an outspoken traitor
to its master.

The captain’s glance fell on the hat at the same moment, and he turned
to Barbara with a questioning smile. But she had recovered herself in
an instant. Walking coolly forward, she concealed the treacherous hat
beneath her skirt, until with a dexterous movement she swept it out of
sight under the table, while at the same time she unconcernedly (though
a trifle breathlessly) repeated her former statement that the man they
sought was not in the house.

Captain Protheroe, marvelling greatly at a woman’s strangely
discriminating sense of honour, which will permit her to assert a fact
but not to swear to it, smiled at her statement and bowed politely.

“So be it, madame. Then nought remains save for me to order my men to
commence the search at once, since you so resolutely refuse to give up
the traitor. I am distressed to disturb you, but search I must.”

“Marry! sir, then search,” cried Barbara, with a sudden suspiciously
hysterical laugh. “Perchance he lurks behind this curtain, or cowers
beneath the table. Think you he is concealed in yonder snuff-box, or is
hid beneath my petticoats? Prithee, search well, for there is no
telling where the rogue may lie,” and assuming a mock air of importance
closely resembling that of the corporal, she commenced a solemn
burlesque of the search, hurrying about the room, and carefully
examining the most impossible hiding-places, while the captain bit his
lip to prevent a smile, and the troopers watched her mimicry of their
efforts with embarrassed indignation.

When she had concluded her tour of the room, Barbara turned to the
astonished soldiers and remarked with mock solemnity:

“You see, I am correct, he cannot be here.”

“We are deeply indebted to you for this entertainment, madame,”
interrupted the captain with grave politeness. “Now we will commence
the search in earnest.”

The laughter died from Barbara’s face, and a strange hunted look crept
into her eyes. She glanced round helplessly, as though seeking means of
escape, then casting a pleading glance at the captain, she said in a
trembling voice:

“If you still persist in your error, you must e’en do as you list,” and
with a low sigh she turned away and sank wearily into a chair.

Captain Protheroe gave the necessary orders and the corporal and
troopers departed on their errand. Then he turned doubtfully towards
the girl.

“I am very sorry for this intrusion, Mistress Barbara,” he said gently.
“My corporal, who is but a blundering fellow, made these dispositions
while I was away, otherwise, be assured, I should have taken the fellow
before he entered your house.”

“Yes, that would have been far easier for you,” she answered calmly.

“For you, madame,” he corrected her, smiling. “May I hope I am forgiven
for thus doing my duty?”

Barbara directed upon him a beaming smile.

“Why, as to that, sir, ’tis I who must crave forgiveness for my
inhospitality. I’ faith, seeing he is not here, I know not why I should
be so angry at your visit, I should rather pity such a wild-goose chase.
Is it not so?”

“_If_ he were not here, Mistress Barbara, we should deserve no pity, our
intrusion would be quite unpardonable.”

“But I have told you that he is not here,” she answered eagerly.

“True. And I have told you that he is.”

Her lips trembled at his resolute tone, and she turned away her head.
But in a moment she answered brightly:

“’Tis clear, sir, this is a most unprofitable subject for discussion,
seeing we shall never agree. Time must show who is in the right. In
the meantime we will conclude the matter thus: If he be here, the worse
for him; if he be not here—why, the worse for you. What say you now?”

“Madame, your argument is unanswerable.”

“Then hence with argument, hither with supper. Come, captain, we’ll sign
a truce for the nonce. If I mistake not, you have had a long ride and
spare rations this evening. You are well come. I was about to sup when
you interrupted me, so while your men search the house, you shall bear
me company. You refuse? Why, what fear you? The house is surrounded,
not a creature can escape,” she continued bitterly, “and you need not
fear lest the wine be drugged or the meat poisoned, for I, too, intend
to partake of them.”

“Ah, madame, those are not the dangers I fear.” He shook his head, with
a smile.

“What, then?”

“Look in your mirror, Mistress Barbara, perchance you will understand.”

Barbara gave a sudden, laugh of pleased amusement.

“Nay, sir, I protest I have no desire to bewitch you,” she answered with
a bright blush.

“Then, madame, why do you look at me?” asked the captain, and his eyes
said more.

Again the dimple deepened and again the lips curved into a smile.
Captain Protheroe detected himself watching for that dimple with a quite
inexplicable and, considering his errand, inexcusable eagerness.

“Methinks the conversation is astray upon a bye-path,” she answered
demurely; “let us return to the high-road. I am dying of hunger, and
’tis but dreary to sup alone. Will you not join me?”

As Captain Protheroe had tasted no food since early morning, the offer
was too tempting to be refused.

“Madame, you overwhelm me with kindness,” he answered.

She led him to the upper end of the hall, where a table was already laid
with three covers.

“Do you always sup in company with two empty chairs, madame?” he asked
quizzically.

Barbara flushed crimson and hesitated.

“I—I expected friends, sir,” she stammered. Then recovering, she darted
a bright glance at him and continued. “And you see my expectations have
been fulfilled, for are you not come?”

“Does not another lady dwell here with you?” he queried indifferently.

“Yes—my cousin, Lady Cicely Winslow. But she—she is out,” stammered
Barbara again nervously.

“Ah! so she is sharing the fellow’s hiding-place,” muttered the captain
to himself. “A piece of folly only possible in a couple of lovers.”

Throughout the meal Barbara laughed and chatted gaily, evidently
exerting all her efforts to entertain her guest. She led him on to tell
strange stories of his adventures and his travels, to which she listened
with that eager interest and open admiration of his doings, so dear to
the heart of man; she made him laugh heartily at her quick jests and
saucy answers, and ever and anon as she talked she raised her dark
lashes, and turned upon him the full depths of her wonderful eyes.

But Captain Protheroe was not altogether unversed in the ways of women,
and though he enjoyed to the full the pleasant companionship of her
manner, and drank deep of her beauty, he was in no wise mindful to allow
her charms to turn his thoughts from the matter in hand.

And as he watched her carefully, he noted how from time to time she
would break off abruptly in the middle of a sentence and listen
anxiously to some distant sound in the house, while the smile died from
her face, and her eyes widened with fear. She twisted her fingers
nervously together as she talked, and her laugh was high and shrill.

“She plays her part admirably,” he muttered to himself, “but she should
not show her eyes.”

“’Tis strange how falsely that base churl Rumour reports,” he began,
when Barbara paused once to listen anxiously to the movements of the
searchers overhead. “Now concerning you, madame, methinks he hath
totally misspoken.”

“Why, what saith Rumour concerning me?” questioned Barbara with
interest.

“In the first place,” he continued, eyeing her steadily, “he reports
that you are fearless both of men, mice, and devils.”

“And what then?” she asked, her eyes flashing proudly.

“Why, I say he is a lying fellow, for I see you are as timid as—as a
woman.”

“I, sir, timid!” she cried indignantly.

“Aye, madame, you start and tremble at every sound.”

“Nay—I assure you—I—I do not so,” she stammered, trembling with
eagerness. “Why, wherefore should I tremble.”

“Nay, I know not, madame. Save as the poet saith—’A guilty
conscience——’”

“I thank you for the suggestion, sir,” she answered with a faint smile.
“I will consult my conscience.”

There was a pause, the silence broken only by the distant movements of
the searchers.

“Is there a ghost in the room, madame,” asked Captain Protheroe
suddenly.

Barbara started violently.

“A ghost, sir?” she exclaimed.

“Aye, a ghost. I saw you staring at the wall behind me with so
horrified an expression, methought you beheld an apparition at least,
peeping over my shoulder.”

Barbara dropped her head and bit her lip.

“’Twas but my own thoughts. There is nothing else.”

Captain Protheroe wheeled round in his chair, and stared thoughtfully at
the full-length portrait of an old Winslow knight in armour which
confronted him.

“Now what is there in this same old gentleman (for I trust ’twas not my
appearance that had such a horrifying effect upon you), what is there
here to terrify you?”

“Nothing, sir, I assure you,” repeated Barbara faintly.

“Yet there is certainly a strange look about this portrait,” he mused.
“There is a glint in his eye that mislikes me. One might almost
believe,” he continued, turning towards her, “that he hid some secret
behind that fixed countenance.”

Barbara stared at him a moment with terrified face, then she rose
abruptly from the table.

“I—I wish you would leave me, sir,” she answered curtly.

“That is a hard saying, madame,” he exclaimed in mock astonishment.
“Did not yourself bid me to supper?”

“Yes. But I am weary of you and now I bid you go.”

He laughed quietly.

“That is easily said, madame, but not so easily answered. I may not——”

He was interrupted by a hurried knock at the outer door.

Barbara gave a slight scream and ran across the hall, but Captain
Protheroe was at the door before her.

“Pardon me, madame, I must see to this,” he said sternly.

He flung the door wide, standing himself in its shadow, and Peter Drew,
the smith, rushed quickly into the hall.

“Ah, Mistress Barbara,” he exclaimed breathlessly, not noticing her sign
to him to be cautious, “the villain hath escaäped me, and I can’t faind
no traäce of un anywhere.”

“Very much my case, my friend,” interrupted the captain, shutting the
door quickly, and confronting the astonished smith with a quiet smile.
“But what may be the name of this same escaped villain?”

Peter gasped at him stupidly.

“Come, fellow, out with it,” cried the captain sharply.

The smith glanced at Barbara and shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he muttered sulkily.

Captain Protheroe turned to Barbara.

“May I—er—advise you, madame, to order this reluctant henchman of yours
to be more speedy in his replies.”

“You may tell the captain all you know, Peter,” she said after a
moment’s hesitation. “Methinks ’twill not greatly enlighten him.”

“’Tweren’t nobbut a certain hawker, your honour. Her ladyship bid me
keep un zaäfe till marnin’ zo I fastened un oop zafe i’ my farge. But
when I were awai—er—awai on my biznez thicey marnin’ my waife, plague on
a meddlezome fingers, zay I, muzt needs oppen door, to zee, forzooth,
whai it were zhut, and zo the fellow hath vled.”

“Good! Why was this hawker to be thus secured?”

“He had angered me, sir,” interrupted Barbara haughtily.

“Ah! summary justice, madame,” answered the captain, laughing. “But
hardly, methinks, within the measure of the law.”

“I care nought for the law.”

“So I can well believe. But come, I must know a little more concerning
this hawker.”

“That you cannot, sir,” answered Barbara calmly. “For the simple reason
that Peter knows no more, and I, who do know, do not purpose to tell
you.”

Captain Protheroe hesitated a moment. Then he continued lightly, but
eyeing Barbara steadily the while:

“Ah, well! ’Tis of small import. Doubtless it will not be difficult to
find the fellow himself and learn all I wish from his own lips.”

Barbara’s face grew suddenly white.

“Yet another man to search for,” she exclaimed lightly, but with a
strange hoarseness in her voice. “I’ faith, captain, yours is no easy
post. It must indeed be a wearisome life to seek and seek for that
which like the philosopher’s stone, is never to be found.”

They were startled by a sudden clamour which arose in a distant part of
the building, the clatter of pans and dishes, the angry shouts of the
men, and above all the shrill voice of a woman pouring forth a torrent
of furious abuse.

“What in the devil’s name——” began the captain, striding across the
room.

“Oh! ’tis nothing,” interrupted Barbara coolly. “Your men have doubtless
encountered my waiting-woman, Phoebe. She is somewhat hot and hasty in
her humour and—I am sorry for them.”

As she spoke the door was flung open and the corporal rushed angrily
into the room. He was a miserable sight to behold. His head was
saturated with greasy broth which dripped from the ends of his scrubby
hair and beard and trickled down his rubicund countenance; he was
covered from head to foot with flour and dust, and he held his hand
pitiably to his temple where a large bump, the size of an egg, was
rapidly rising, to embellish his appearance.

Behind him marched Phoebe, weaponed with a besom, her face blazing with
anger, her hair dishevelled, and her sleeves rolled up to her shoulders,
showing the brawny arms of this amazon.

At sight of this couple, Barbara fell back into a chair, and laughed
till her eyes filled with tears.

“My poor Sir Knight of the Whipcord,” she gasped. “What hath befallen
thee? Ah me, Phoebe, but thou art a very dragon!”

“A very devil,” spluttered the corporal.

“Devil in thy teeth, fellow!” cried the enraged waiting-woman.
“Mistress Barbara, what think ye? this fellow hath tramped through every
hole and corner of the house; he hath rent the hangings, broken the
chiny, forced open the closets, and made the place a very desolation.
And then—then he was for trapesing into my kitchen, my kitchen that I
had but just redd up, with his great muddy boots, to poke his nose into
all my places, because, forsooth, he swears I have a man hid among the
pots and pans! A man, indeed! The meddlesome fool! I warrant me ’tis
no man, but the victuals that he is in search of.”

“Patience, good Phoebe, patience,” laughed Barbara. “As thou sayest
ever, men are but fools and know no better.”

“Humph! Mayhap they knew no better, but they know better now, I
warrant. Though it repents me that I wasted the whole of a good basin
of broth and a bag of flour i’ the teaching of it.”

Meanwhile Corporal Crutch, having mopped his brow, and beaten off much
of his outer covering of flour, made shift to resume his customary air
of pompous dignity.

“This woman, sir,” he explained with a wave of the hand in the direction
of Phoebe, “withstood us in the doorway of her kitchen, powerfully
ammunitioned with pannikins. ’Twas, indeed, a post of some vantage,
therefore I deemed it wisdom to lead her off, as you behold, by a
feigned retreat, while the men make a flank attack, and secure the
position by entering through the window.”

On hearing this Phoebe set up a howl of rage, and disappeared speedily
in the direction of the kitchen, to oust the intruders from the spot.
The sounds of battle which presently arose proved the success of the
corporal’s manoeuvre.

Captain Protheroe drew the corporal aside.

“Well! You have searched?”

“Aye, sir, every nook and cranny in the place. Not a rat’s hole has
escaped us. He must be hid somewhere in this room, for there’s no other
place unsearched.”

“’Tis very like, and I think I can put my finger on the place,” answered
the captain softly.

Barbara looked up.

“Well, captain, if you are satisfied that I have spoken the truth,
perhaps you will take your leave, for I protest I am weary of you.”

“One moment, madame,” he answered, “I will but examine into the secret
of this same cross-eyed ancestor of thine, and then you shall be no
further troubled.”

He turned, as he spoke, towards the picture, but Barbara sprang to her
feet with a sharp cry, and darting past him, placed her back against the
frame and turned to him full of defiance.

“Nay, sir, that you shall not,” she cried resolutely.

Corporal Crutch paused in his search, and gazed at her in open-mouthed
astonishment, but Captain Protheroe strode quickly to her side with a
sharp frown.

“Come, madame,” he began impatiently, “this is sheer folly. We must
proceed with our work. I do, indeed, regret the painful business, but
by your leave we will not prolong it. Be so good as to show me the
secret of the spring.”

“I will not.”

“Then, madame, we must open it by force.”

“You shall not pass me,” she cried defiantly. “I will not move aside.”

Captain Protheroe swore in desperation.

“Come, Mistress Barbara, be reasonable,” he urged. “You know well that
resistance is quite useless. I were loth to use violence, but an it
must be so, methinks it were possible to move you without much injury to
either of us.”

Suddenly Barbara began to cry, leaning her head back against the frame
and sobbing bitterly. But she did not cover her face with her hands as
is the manner of most women.

“Oh, go away, I beseech you,” she pleaded, clasping her hands in
entreaty, and raising tearful eyes to his face. “Rupert hath done you
no injury, suffer him to escape this once, and I will be your debtor
forever.”

Captain Protheroe stared down at her, wondering vaguely whether her eyes
looked more lovely when bright with merriment, or when wide and soft
with welling tears, and why he had never before noticed how inviting was
a full quivering lip. Then suddenly recollecting the unprofitableness
of such considerations, he glanced indignantly at the corporal and swore
at him beneath his breath.

“You are making my duty very hard for me, madame,” he pleaded gently.

“I—I want to,” she sobbed. “Please go away.”

“No, Mistress Barbara, I cannot,” he answered firmly.

Barbara stopped her sobs and stared at him for a moment in astonishment.
Then she suddenly turned on him furiously.

“You will not? You will not?” she cried. “Then have your way. See
what lies concealed.”

She pressed a small button cunningly hidden amid the carving of the
frame, and the portrait slipped back, revealing a large recess in the
wall, deep enough to hold three men.

The recess was empty.

The two men stared at each other in utter astonishment, but Barbara
flung herself into a chair, clapped her hands, and burst into a paroxysm
of laughter.

“Fooled! Fooled!” she cried, pointing at them mockingly. “Was ever
man, since the days of Adam, so bravely fooled. Oh! I shall die of
laughter,” and again the room rang with her merriment.

Captain Protheroe turned to her grimly.

“Pardon my dulness, madame,” he said harshly, “and be so kind as to
explain what this means.”

“Means! Why, marry, it means that I have spoken truly. Rupert is not
here, moreover, he never has been. Have I not said so throughout.”

“Not here? Impossible! Then these tremblings, entreaties, tears were
all——”

“All a comedy, sir, which I trust you enjoyed as greatly as did I. Oh!
tell me, sir, should I not make a brave player?” She danced a few steps
towards him and dropped a mocking curtsey. “I await your applause,
signors,” she cried with a saucy laugh.

Captain Protheroe strode the length of the room and swore to himself
heartily, but Corporal Crutch was not so easily convinced.

“’Tis false, sir,” he cried. “She is fooling us again. Why I saw the
fellow enter, myself.”

“That you did not, corporal, an I may make so bold as to contradict
you,” laughed Barbara. “Though I wouldn’t deny,” she added solemnly,
“the possibility of your having seen someone enter.”

“Aye, someone hailed by the name of ’Rupert,’” sneered the corporal.

“What’s in a name?” quoted Barbara, laughing.

“Whom did he see, then?” demanded Captain Protheroe sharply.

“How should I know?” she retorted cheerfully. “’Twas not I who saw him.
Ask the corporal.”

“An ’twere not Sir Rupert, ’twas the devil himself in his likeness. I
saw him as plain as I see you. He is the very counterpart of yon wench,
his sister.”

“That is true enough,” answered Barbara calmly. “We be so alike that
times have been known when we were mistaken for each other. And yet I
will swear ’twas not Rupert whom you saw.”

“Will you have the goodness to explain the matter, madame?” interrupted
the Captain impatiently.

“With all my heart, sir, though ’tis a somewhat lengthy tale. Know
then, it commences with a stout corporal but half concealed behind a
large laurel bush. Ah, ha! Sir Whipcord, you look guilty! Now this
same corporal was a spy and an eavesdropper, and eavesdroppers must not
be surprised if at times they overhear that which _is_ intended for
their ears. ’Twas so in this case. The corporal, who bore a strange
resemblance to this gentleman, overheard a pretty little plot, discussed
especially for his edification, he stole and read a cunning little note,
written for his eyes alone. Being a gentleman of extraordinary
blindness, he walked into the trap as prettily as a bird. The rest was
simple. It remained but to send a messenger, whom your soldiers kindly
permitted to pass, to inform Rupert of our arrangements. Cicely and I,
disguised but in linsey petticoats and woollen hoods (’tis passing
strange how dress can make or mar a man) went down to the village this
afternoon, and later I—I returned, alone. Perchance—I say perchance,
’twas I whom your corporal saw enter; and yet, sure, how could it be?”

“And your cousin?”

“Cicely? Oh, she is away passing the evening with Rupert, who, thanks
to the corporal’s kind thoughtfulness, in withdrawing all his men from
the roads and the village, was enabled to visit her with perfect safety
at a certain house we wot of. But, indeed, the time has passed so
quickly while you have been here, that he will by now have returned
whence he came, and I fear—I greatly fear you have missed him.”

Then at last Corporal Crutch, convinced of the truth of her statement,
opened his mouth and commenced to swear; to swear so roundly that
Barbara covered her ears, and Captain Protheroe curtly bade him be
silent.

“’Tis thine own doing, thou blundering fool,” he said angrily.
“Wherefore didst not follow the messenger and trap the fellow in his
hiding-place?”

“Nay, captain, give me some credit for the business,” interposed Barbara
cheerily. “’Twas a most excellently conceived plan. And yet,” she
mused, “I doubt if ever men were more easily fooled.”

“And may I ask, madame, what part in the plot this evening’s
entertainment served?”

“Oh that! Well, I cannot say that was altogether necessary, though I
desired to keep you here till Rupert was safe away. But,” she added
roguishly, “’twas vastly amusing. And besides, methinks you deserved no
better treatment after forcing your way thus churlishly into a lone
woman’s house.”

Captain Protheroe turned brusquely on his heel.

“There is nothing further to be gained by remaining here, corporal,” he
said. “Call up the men and march them back to quarters. And as for
this fellow,” he added, pointing to the smith, who had watched the scene
with deep enjoyment, “keep him safe till morning; we may have need of
him.”

“And what of the wench, captain? Can’t we lay hands on her for aiding
and abetting?”

Captain Protheroe scowled.

“Leave me to deal with her, sirrah. I will follow you anon. And
harkee. There is a certain hawker wandering in or near the village.
Yon fellow can describe him. If we can lay hands on him, I doubt not he
can tell us what may prove useful.”

Corporal Crutch started guiltily.

“A hawker, captain? Why, I know the fellow. I have him safe under—that
is—er—I doubt not I can speedily lay hands on him.”

“Do so. See to it to-night, and we may yet catch our hare. Now
begone.”

The corporal saluted and went out.

Captain Protheroe glanced at Barbara, and he saw that no trace of her
triumphant merriment remained.

He turned and walked to the window and stood for some time in silence
gazing out into the darkness while the last echoes of the retreating
footsteps died away. Then all was still.