“Drunk, surely,” said one of these to another; “that proclamation was not unnecessary.”
“Some poor straggler, sir; picked him up insensible and fetched him along,” said one of the ostlers.
Ralph walked past the group to the threshold of the inn.
“Loosen his neckcloth!—here, take my brandy,” said a passenger.
“Came from the North, seemingly, sir. Looks weak from want and a long journey.”
“From the North?” asked the coachman; “I’ll give him a seat in the coach to-night and take him home.”
Ralph stepped back and looked over some of the people.
A man was lying on the ground, his head in a woman’s lap.
It was Simeon Stagg.
ROBBIE’S QUEST BEGUN.
When Robbie Anderson left Wythburn, his principal and immediate purpose was to overtake Simeon Stagg. It was of less consequence that he should trace and discover Ralph Ray. Clearly it had been Ralph’s object on leaving home to keep out of reach of the authorities who were in pursuit of him. But there was no saying what course a man such as he might take in order to insure the safety of the people who were dear to him, and to whom he was dear. The family at Shoulthwaite Moss had been threatened with eviction. The ransom was Ralph’s liberty. Sim had been sent to say so. But a graver issue lay close behind. This shadow of a great crime lay over Ralph’s life. If Robbie could overtake Sim before Sim had time to overtake Ralph, he might prevent a terrible catastrophe. Even so fearless a man as Ralph was would surely hesitate if he knew, though but on hearsay, that perhaps a horrible accusation awaited him at Carlisle.
That accusation might be false—it must be false. Robbie believed he could swear that it was a lie if he stood before the Throne of Grace. But of what avail was the innocence of the accused in days when an indictment was equal to a conviction!
Sim was an old man, or at least he was past his best. He was a frail creature, unable to travel fast. There was little doubt in the mind of the lusty young dalesman as he took his “lang stroke o’ the ground” that before many hours had gone by Sim would be overtaken and brought back.
It was Sunday morning when little Liza Branthwaite ferreted Robbie out of the Red Lion, and it was no later than noon of the same day when Robbie began his journey. During the first few miles he could discover no trace of Sim. This troubled him a little, until he reflected that it was late at night when Sim started away, and that consequently the tailor would pass the little wayside villages unobserved. After nine or ten miles had been covered, Robbie met with persons who had encountered Sim. The accounts given of him were as painful as they were in harmony with his character. Sim had shrunk from the salutations of those who knew him, and avoided with equal timidity the gaze of those by whom he was not known. The suspicion of being everywhere suspected was with the poor outcast abroad as well as at home.