So Captain Protheroe

Captain Protheroe strode thoughtfully up and down his room at the Inn,
puffing furiously at his pipe and staring at the floor.

On his return from his interview with Barbara he had found awaiting him
an order to proceed at once to Taunton, and in the yard without he could
hear his men still busy with preparations for their early start on the
morrow. But though wearied in body with his long day’s work the captain
felt no inclination for sleep, and, his thoughts still busily occupied
with the events of the past few hours, he passed the time pacing his
room. His promise once given, he was not the man to waste many regrets
upon what was passed, yet as he thought over the affair his brows
puckered into a frown, and he ground the stem of his pipe savagely
between his teeth. To wink at the escape of a rebel was indeed no great
matter in those days. He knew well to what extent corruption and
bribery were rife among his fellow officers and how few would hesitate
to allow a rebel to slip through their hands could they thereby help to
line their pockets. From the Lord Chief Justice downwards the custom
was openly practised. Even the Queen’s maids of honour, delicate women
whose sensibilities were wrung by the death of a beetle, and who would
have swooned at the idea of crushing a moth, even they openly trafficked
in pardons, and complained bitterly when the life ransoms extracted from
the impoverished friends of the prisoners failed to satisfy their
demands. But hitherto Captain Protheroe had prided himself upon keeping
his fingers clean amid such general corruption, and it enraged him to
feel that at last he too had succumbed. Not indeed for a bribe’s sake,
but because a woman believed him worthy of her trust and his pride would
not allow him to betray it.

But was it in truth for that reason alone? Might not it also be because
the woman was possessed of a pair of wonderful eyes and knew how to use
them?

“Bah!” he muttered angrily, pausing to knock the ashes from his pipe.
“How a woman may play the deuce with a man’s work!” Then drawing from
his pocket a small bow of scarlet ribbon, he gazed at it for a few
moments with a strange expression on his face, and with a short laugh
flung it from him into a corner of the room and resumed his promenade.

He was interrupted at length by a loud knock at the door, and at his
summons Corporal Crutch entered to say that after diligent search he had
discovered the missing pedlar, and that the fellow confessed to having
certain matters of import to make known to the captain alone. The
corporal had no desire that Captain Protheroe should hear of his first
interview with Simon, feeling that his customary acuteness had slightly
failed him on that occasion, and after a vain attempt to extract some
information on his own account from the sulky pedlar, he was at length
forced to hand the man over to his superior officer, threatening him
first, however, with dire penalties should he breathe a word concerning
their previous encounter.

“Bring the fellow in, I will see him,” answered the captain, on learning
that the pedlar was without.

The order was obeyed and the hawker, glancing furtively from side to
side, was pushed rather than ushered into the room.

“Well, my man,” Began Captain Protheroe, eyeing him sharply, “what is
your business with me?”

“An it please your honour, I have information to sell to your honour
concerning the hiding-place of a certain rebel.”

“To sell to me!” answered the captain sternly. “It is not for a loyal
subject of his Majesty to drive bargains with his officers. We do not
buy information, we exact it.”

The manner in which these words were uttered caused the hawker to modify
his tone.

“May it please your honour,” he whimpered, “is there no reward for the
arrest of a rebel?”

“If your information be correct, and above all of value (which I greatly
doubt), you shall have such money for your services as they deserve.
Now for your story, and waste no more of my time.”

Thus driven to a corner and moved as much by desire of vengeance as by
greed of gold, the hawker related how he had received the letter from
Sir Rupert Winslow, and the information it contained.

“Then the ladies know nought of the matter as yet?” enquired the
captain.

“Nothing whatever, your honour.”

“But this letter—where is it?”

“I—I have mislaid it, sir—but——”

“You are lying to me, knave,” interrupted the captain coldly. “By
Heaven! an I find you trying to deceive me you shall taste o’ the rope’s
end before an hour is passed.”

The hawker cowered before such a prospect, and discovering after much
protestation and evasion that the captain evidently knew more of the
matter than he had expected, he decided to tell the truth. Thereupon he
gave a full account of the transaction, up to the time of his escape
from the smithy, omitting only (out of respect for the Corporal’s
threats) to refer to his interview with that worthy.

Captain Protheroe listened attentively to the narrative, smiling
slightly at the complaint of Barbara’s treatment. When it was ended he
turned coldly on Simon.

“That will do. You can go.”

“But the reward, your honour,” began the hawker nervously.

The captain eyed him sternly.

“An I had my will with you, fellow, you should to the pillory as a thief
and extortioner. But as, in this world, a rogue must be paid for his
roguery, take your liberty and deem it meet reward for information which
I received an hour since. Be off with you.”

The hawker, with a deep, heartfelt curse, shuffled out of the room.

“I would that I had seen her braving the fellow,” muttered the captain
as he recharged his pipe.

So engrossed was he in his meditations that he paid no heed to a sudden
clamour in the yard without, and he sprang to his feet with an oath of
astonishment when the door was flung wide open, and the corporal burst
violently into the room.

“We have him, captain!” he cried, almost dancing with eagerness, “we
have him at last, the very fellow himself. Caught as clean as a bird in
a net.”

“What means this, sirrah?” interrupted the captain sharply. “Art mad,
or drunk; or both together?”

The corporal’s face fell. He pulled himself together and saluted in a
somewhat crestfallen fashion.

“Your pardon, captain,” he continued more calmly. “But an it please you,
we have taken Sir Rupert Winslow himself.”

It was now Captain Protheroe’s turn to betray excitement.

“Taken Sir Rupert Winslow! Why, fellow, ’tis impossible. You are
dreaming.”

“Dreaming or no,” answered the corporal sulkily, “he is without. We
spied him skulking round the stables to the back o’ the Inn. I doubt
not wi’ intent to steal a fresh horse. There we ambushed him. He made
a fierce resistance, but,” with an air of supreme complaisance, “I soon
overpowered him.”

“The devil take the rash fool!” muttered the captain. “Well, bring him
in, corporal. And do you see that the men get to rest, we must be off
at daybreak to-morrow. I will see to the security of the prisoner.”

The corporal saluted, and a moment later ushered his prisoner into the
room.

Captain Protheroe looked up curiously at his entrance, and for some
minutes silently surveyed him, until the prisoner, weary of such intent
scrutiny, tossed his hat on to the table, and flung himself back into a
chair with a half-embarrassed, half-reckless air.

The captain broke the silence.

“This is a strange ending, sir, to so lengthy a chase,” he said gravely.

“Ah, well! ’twas bound to end sooner or later, and as well this way as
another,” he answered with a short laugh. “In truth, ’twas a hole and
corner business, and I am weary of it.”

“You have been to visit your sister at the Manor House?” queried the
captain.

The prisoner looked up haughtily.

“My past movements are my own affairs, sir; you and I are concerned with
the present alone.”

“I take you, sir,” answered the captain quietly. “Moreover, I understand
the reason of your presence here, and I honour you for it. It is
irregular, of course, but under the circumstances, I cannot refuse to
give you every satisfaction.”

“Satisfaction!” exclaimed the prisoner in astonishment.

“Aye, sir. You doubtless understand me.”

“Not I. I have no personal quarrel with you, that I know of.”

“No quarrel! Then am I wrong in supposing you to be the brother of
Mistress Barbara Winslow?”

“And what then, sir,” demanded the prisoner sharply. “What of her?”

Captain Protheroe shrugged his shoulders.

“Ah! I see I am mistaken,” he replied. “I deemed, sir, you had
ventured hither in order to seek me and to demand satisfaction for my
behaviour towards your sister. But since——”

“Will you have the goodness to explain, sir,” interrupted the prisoner
fiercely.

The captain smiled calmly.

“Egad! I confess ’twas a somewhat low piece of work. But the wench was
so exasperating and withal so pretty. And I give you my word,” he added
with a cynical laugh, “she showed no over-great reluctance to my
kisses.”

The prisoner sprang to his feet, his fists clenched, his eyes blazing
with passion.

“May Heaven have mercy on you, sir, but ’tis a most dastardly lie.”

“Heaven will need have mercy on you my friend, if you give the lie so
freely,” answered the captain coldly. “But perchance you are willing to
fight now, sir, unless”—with a laugh—”you have smaller regard for your
sister’s reputation than I surmised.”

“Now, by Heaven! you shall swallow your words,” cried the youth, white
with fury.

Captain Protheroe rose.

“I am at your service,” he answered coolly. “I have two rapiers handy,
there is no time like the present, and as for place, why this chamber
will serve as well as anywhere.”

The prisoner bowed assent, and after a moment’s hesitation flung off his
cloak and turned to take his rapier.

“One moment, sir,” continued the captain. “Seeing that I am in no
manner bound to grant you, my prisoner, this satisfaction, before I
indulge you there is one stipulation I would make.”

“Name it.”

“That the encounter be _à entrance_.” Then seeing his opponent
hesitate, he continued:

“Mark me, sir. An the advantage be mine, you shall have your choice of
meeting death by my hand presently, or on the gallows some few weeks
hence. If, on the other hand, the victory fall to you, you will
doubtless use the opportunity to regain your freedom, and since my life
must go bail for your safe-keeping, I claim the right to a similar
choice. If you refuse these conditions I must withdraw the privilege I
would confer.”

“Have it as you will.” cried the prisoner impatiently.

“Draw then, and defend yourself.”

They took their positions and the blades crossed.

After the first few passes a look of surprise crept into Captain
Protheroe’s eyes as he realised his adversary’s skill. He, himself, had
studied the art in many countries, and knew that few swordsmen in
England were his equal, yet he found this youth no mean opponent. From
the outset he felt no doubt of the result—a skilled swordsman soon
gauges the extent of his adversary’s powers.

As for the prisoner, after the first fierce attack his fury subsided,
and he steadied himself to parry with eager watchfulness the captain’s
point. His eye was quick, his wrist supple, and he was well practised
in the art. But he lacked strength. Slowly he was driven backward,
backward, across the room, till at length he was fighting with his foot
pressed against the wall. Even then he showed no fear, nor relaxed for
an instant his resolute defence. Suddenly the captain’s wrist seemed to
relax its merciless strain and with a quick movement the prisoner had
twisted the blade from his grasp and it flew with a clatter among the
furniture of the room.

Captain Protheroe clasped his hands behind his back, and fixing his eyes
full on his opponent’s face waited what should follow.

The prisoner stood for a space staring at him in silence, the expression
of his face changing from astonishment to triumph, from triumph to deep
dismay. Then he dropped the point of his rapier and turned away.

[Illustration: “HE DROPPED THE POINT OF HIS RAPIER AND TURNED AWAY”]

“’Tis enough, I am satisfied.”

“But pardon me, sir, I am not,” answered Captain Protheroe drily.
“Methinks you have forgotten my stipulation.”

The prisoner bit his lip and answered coldly: “I do not choose to comply
with it; nor do I hold with such folly.”

“’Tis a pity you did not express that opinion before, sir. Yet there
remains no choice for you. I prefer death by the sword to death by the
scaffold. I am ready. You will therefore carry out our contract at
once, or forfeit all claim to be counted a man of honour.”

The prisoner flushed angrily and once more raised his rapier. But
meeting the quiet smile and steady gaze of his opponent he dropped the
weapon upon the table and turned away.

“You must wait. I cannot kill you now.”

“Your reason, sir?”

“I—I am not in a killing humour.”

Captain Protheroe’s lips twitched, but he answered gravely:

“Then may I beg you, sir, to overcome your humour without delay.”

The prisoner breathed quickly and was silent.

Then Captain Protheroe laughed quietly. “Ah, well! from time immemorial
women have loved to delay their _coup-de-grâce_. You but carry out the
traditions of your sex, madame.”

The prisoner turned to the captain a pair of wide blue eyes filled with
horrified amazement.

“Ah! I thought I could not be mistaken, Mistress Barbara,” continued
the captain, smiling. “Pray be seated, you must be worn out with
fatigue.”

Barbara sank unresisting into the chair he pushed forward, and drooped
her head in silence.

“May I ask, madame, to what cause I owe the honour of this visit?”
queried the captain politely.

“Cicely said—we thought——” she began. Then recovering herself she
continued firmly. “I had a suspicion that you might play me false, and
might even now be about to set out to arrest Rupert.”

“Indeed! So you affected this—er—disguise to prevent our departure. Is
it so, madame?”

“I knew no other way,” muttered Barbara.

“I gave you my word.”

“Aye, but I liked not the manner in which you gave it. You—you angered
me.”

“That is a pity,” he answered quietly. Then seating himself on the edge
of the table beside her, he eyed her coolly, and continued with a slight
drawl. “Ah, well! the resemblance is certainly a strong one. Sir
Rupert, methinks, is a trifle broader in the chest, and—there be one or
two more details,” he added, slowly surveying her figure.

Barbara drooped her head still lower, and flushed angrily at the veiled
insolence of his tone.

“You will wonder how I noted the difference,” continued the captain.
“The fact is, as I was riding home alone, after my visit to the Manor
House, I chanced to encounter the real Sir Rupert, and we had some
conversation together.”

“You met Rupert!” cried Barbara, forgetting all in her astonishment.
“Oh! where is he?”

“He should by this well-nigh have reached the coast.”

“Alone?”

“Alone, madame.”

“So you have kept your promise?” she cried in amazement.

“Yes, Mistress Barbara, strange though it may seem to you, I have. It
is a pity you did not trust me, you would have spared yourself the
inconvenience of this—masquerade.”

The covert sneer in his tone stung her to a sudden anger.

“And why should I trust you?” she cried haughtily. “You are my enemy.”

“I was your enemy, madame, but I had believed myself now to have some
claim upon your trust and friendship.”

“I see not upon what you base such a belief,” she answered still in
anger.

“Why else, madame, think you, did I set your brother free?”

“I have but your word concerning that transaction,” she answered
scornfully. “You were alone when you encountered Rupert.”

“Certainly. What follows?”

“My brother, Captain Protheroe, hath his sword.”

“A sword!” he laughed. “Why so have I, madame.”

“Verily, sir,” she answered with a mocking laugh, “yonder it lies.”

Captain Protheroe, in astonishment, glanced from her face of triumph to
the distant corner where lay his discarded rapier.

“Damnation!” he muttered with a short angry laugh. “I had forgot.”

“Aye, so I thought, sir,” she answered, smiling scornfully. “And my
brother is a better swordsman than I. Yet ’twas a prettily conceived
story.”

“Mistress Barbara, in good truth, I swear——”

“I have already heard more oaths this evening than I am accustomed to,”
she interrupted. “I will not trouble you to further tax your powers. I
wish you good-evening, sir.”

She rose to depart, but he stepped quickly before her, and leaned his
back against the door.

“A moment, madame, I beg,” he said, his voice harsh with anger. “Since
it has pleased you to withdraw your trust in me, I see not that I am any
longer bound to respect your confidence. ’Tis but an hour since I
parted from Sir Rupert. He can yet be overtaken.”

Barbara raised a terrified face to his.

“Oh, no! You could not do that,” she said.

“And wherefore not?”

“Oh, because—because——” she faltered.

“Well, madame, your reason?” he demanded again harshly.

Barbara flung up her head defiantly, and snatching her rapier from the
table raised the point to his breast.

“Because, sir, by your own showing,” she replied, facing him boldly,
“your life is now mine, to do with as I will. Make one motion towards
my brother’s undoing, and I swear by Heaven I will run you through as
blithely as ever I ran needle into cloth.”

For a space they stood thus, she with face alight with excitement, he
staring down with astonished admiration into her blazing eyes.

Then he laughed quietly.

“Pardon me, Mistress Barbara,” he said, eyeing her coolly. “Your
doublet is awry.”

Instantly she dropped her rapier, her hands flew to her waist, she
looked down in deep consternation. All her newborn resolution had
vanished, she was but a woman once more.

“My doublet is not your concern, sir,” she muttered.

“Your pardon, madame,” he answered pleasantly. “I should in truth have
thought a doublet rather my concern than yours; but as you will. If you
prefer to wear it thus, of course——”

“I—I knew not exactly how it should be worn,” she faltered, glancing
doubtfully at her figure. Then recollecting herself she continued
angrily. “My dress is my own affair, sir. Why should I not play the
Rosalind, an it so please me?”

“No reason whatever, Mistress Barbara,” he continued lightly. “I can
only rejoice at my good fortune in being present at the performance. By
my faith, the dress becomes you wondrous well.” And again he submitted
her to a critical survey from head to foot.

Her head drooped, her breast heaved, and turning suddenly from him she
sank into a chair and burying her face in her outstretched arms upon the
table, she burst into bitter sobs.

Captain Protheroe regarded her doubtfully.

“Woman’s last weapon?” he queried with a cynical laugh.

The sobs redoubled in force; they shook her whole body.

“Come, come!” he protested roughly, “this is useless, madame. I have
already once this evening had the pleasure of seeing your tears; I know
their value. Besides, you should bear in mind your character; tears are
ill-suited to doublet and hose.”

Still she sobbed on, unheeding.

He moved impatiently and hummed a tune which quickly wandered away into
incoherence. “I would I knew if it were counterfeit,” he muttered.

Still she wept, with quick-drawn breath, and short, gasping, helpless
sobs, very terrible to a man’s ears.

He took two steps towards her, and then paused. “No,” he muttered. “I
will not. She hath already duped me twice, I will be hanged if I let
her do so again. ’Tis but counterfeit.”

He turned from her resolutely and seating himself with his back to her
waited stolidly until she should see fit to relinquish this last design.

Minute after minute passed. Soon the sobs died away.

“Ah, good!” he thought with a smile. “So my lady has decided to try
another plan.”

He waited impatiently for her next move. There was no sound in the room
save an occasional sobbing gasp.

At last he could wait no longer, but rising quickly hurried to her side.
Her eyes were closed and she lay very still. Then he listened for the
regular breathing. There was no doubt of the matter, she was asleep,
asleep as peacefully as an infant.

“So it was no counterfeit,” he muttered slowly; “she hath sobbed herself
to sleep. What a brute she must think me! What a brute I am!”

He stood close beside her gazing down at the graceful yielding figure,
at the dark lashes curling on to the flushed, tear-stained cheeks, at
the rosy half-opened mouth, at the loose mass of hair framing her
perfect face. His breath came fast, his heart beat quickly.

Suddenly he turned from her and hurried from the room, locking the door
behind him. Away from the room, away from the Inn, away to the
river-bordered meadow behind. And there he paced the night through,
puffing unconsciously at an unlighted pipe, until the first rays of dawn
softened the sky.

Before he set out he crept once more into the room where Barbara still
lay asleep. He paused first to throw a cloak gently over the form of
the sleeping girl, then he turned to pick up his sword and collect his
papers.

But ere he left the room he hesitated once more, and turning strode into
the far corner. Here he knelt down and searched eagerly for a certain
knot of scarlet ribbon, which being found, he folded carefully and with
a short half-shamed laugh, placed in the pocket of his doublet.

So Captain Protheroe and his men rode from the village. But Barbara
slept on peacefully, while the sunbeams stole into the room and played
with her dark curls. And there an hour later Phoebe found her, when, in
answer to a message sent by the captain ere he left, she came down from
the Manor House to search for her missing lady.