Mrs. Bassat dropped her album in a flutter of distress.
"Of course you are anxious.
I have seen it all along, and tried to take your mind off it.
How terrible it is!
I am as concerned as you are, for my husband's sake.
But you cannot possibly walk back there now, alone.
Why, it would be after midnight before you arrived, and heaven knows what might not happen to you on the way.
I will order the trap, and Richards shall go with you.
He is most trustworthy and dependable, and can be armed in case of need.
If there is fighting in progress, you would see it from the bottom of the hill, and would not approach until it was over.
I would come with you myself, but my health is delicate at the moment and—"
"Of course you will do nothing of the kind," said Mary swiftly. "I am used to danger and the road by night, and you are not.
I shall be putting you to very great trouble in harnessing your horse at this hour and rousing your groom.
I assure you I'm no longer tired, and I can walk."
But Mrs. Bassat had already pulled the bell.
"Have word sent to Richards to bring the trap around immediately," she said to the astonished servant. "I will give him further orders when he arrives.
Tell him there must be as little delay as possible."
She then fitted Mary out with a heavy cloak and hood, thick rug and foot warmer, protesting all the while that only her state of health prevented her from making the journey, too, for which Mary was utterly thankful, Mrs. Bassat being hardly the ideal companion for so improvident and dangerous an escapade.
In a quarter of an hour the trap drove up to the door, with Richards in charge, Mary recognising him at once as the servant who had ridden with Mr. Bassat originally to Jamaica Inn.
His reluctance at leaving his fireside on a Sunday night was soon overcome when he learnt his mission, and with two large pistols stuck in his belt, and orders to fire at anyone who threatened the trap, he assumed at once an air of truculence and authority hitherto unknown to him.
Mary climbed in beside him, the dogs baying a chorus of farewell, and it was only when the drive twisted and the house was out of sight that Mary realised she had set out on what was probably to be a foolhardy and dangerous expedition.
Anything might have happened during the five hours she had been absent from Jamaica Inn, and even with the trap she could scarcely hope to arrive there before half past ten.
She could make no plans, and her action depended upon the moment when it came.
With the moon now high in the sky and the soft air blowing upon her she felt emboldened to face disaster when it came, and this ride to the scene of action, however dangerous, was better than sitting like a helpless child listening to the prattle of Mrs. Bassat.
This man Richards was armed, and she herself would use a gun if necessary.
He was burning with curiosity, of course, but she gave short answers to his questions and did not encourage him.
The drive was silent then, for the most part, with no other sound but the steady clopping of the horses's hoofs upon the road, and now and again an owl hooted from the still trees.
The rustle of hedgerow and the creeping country whispers were left behind when the trap came out upon the Bodmin road, and once again the dark moor stretched out on either side, lapping the road like a desert.
The ribbon of the highway shone white under the moon. It wound and was lost in the fold of the further hill, bare and untrodden.
There were no travellers but themselves upon the road tonight.
On Christmas Eve, when Mary had ridden here, the wind had lashed venomously at the carriage wheels, and the rain hammered the windows; now the air was still cold and strangely still, and the moor itself lay placid and silver in the moonlight. The dark tors held their sleeping faces to the sky, the granite features softened and smoothed by the light that bathed them.
Theirs was a peaceful mood, and the old gods slept undisturbed.
Briskly the horse and trap covered the weary miles that Mary had walked alone.
She recognised each bend in the road now, and how at times the moor encroached upon it, with high tufts of grass or twisted stem of broom.
There, beyond her in the valley, would be the lights of Altarnun, and already the Five Lanes branched out from the road like fingers from a hand.
The wild stretch to Jamaica lay before them.
Even when the night was still the wind played here, bare and open as it was to every compass point, and tonight it hummed from Rough Tor in the west, keen as a knife and cold, gathering the marsh smells as it came, over the bitter turf and the running streams.
There was still no sign of man or beast upon the road, which rose and dipped again across the moor, and, though Mary strained her eyes and her ears, she could hear nothing.
On such a night the slightest sound would be magnified, and the approach of Mr. Bassat's party, numbering, as they would, a dozen men or so, said Richards, would easily be heard two miles or more away.
"We shall find them there before us, as likely as not," he told Mary, "and the landlord, with his hands bound, breathing fire at the squire.
It will be a good thing for the neighbourhood when he's put out of harm's way, and he would have been before now, if the squire could have had his way.
It's a pity we were not here sooner; there'll have been some sport in taking him, I reckon."
"Little sport if Mr. Bassat finds that his bird has flown," said Mary quietly. "Joss Merlyn knows these moors like the back of his hand, and he'll not linger once he has the start of an hour, or less than that."
"My master was bred here, same as the landlord," said Richards; "if it comes to a chase across country, I'd lay odds on the squire every time.
He's hunted here, man and boy, for nearly fifty years, I should say, and where a fox will go the squire will follow.
But they'll catch this one before he starts to run, if I'm not mistaken."
Mary let him continue; his occasional jerky statements did not worry her as the kindly prattle of his mistress had done, and his broad back and honest rugged face gave her some confidence in this night of strain.
They were approaching the dip in the road and the narrow bridge that spanned the river Fowey; Mary could hear the ripple and play of the stream as it ran swiftly over the stones.
The steep hill to Jamaica rose in front of them, white beneath the moon, and as the dark chimneys appeared above the crest, Richards fell silent, fumbling with the pistols in his belt, and he cleared his throat with a nervous jerk of his head.
Mary's heart beat fast now, and she held tight to the side of the trap.