The commands of the sergeant of the guard could be heard as sentries were changed. Durwent rose to his feet and tried to look from the window, but the night was as black as the grave which had already been dug for him. Once more there was no sound but the wind moaning about the deserted fields.
Dick’s body grew rigid. Was it a prank of his mind, or had he really heard the words?
The door had opened an inch. His heart beat wildly, and he crouched close to the crevice.
‘Mathews!’ he gasped.
‘Sh-sh.’ An admonishing hand touched him. ’Come close, sir. This is a dirty business, Mas’r Dick. If you hear me cough noticeable, get back and pretend like you’re asleep.’
‘But—but, in God’s name, what are you doing there?’
‘I’m a-guardin’ you, sir. Sh-sh.’
The old groom moved a couple of paces away from the door, humming a song about a coachman who loved a turnkey’s daughter. Almost mad with excitement, Dick stood in the darkness of the hut with his outstretched arms shaking and quivering. He was afraid he would shout, and bit his finger-nails to help to repress the wild desire.
In an instant he was crouching again by the door.
‘There’ll be a orficer’s inspection,’ whispered the sentry, ’a minute or two arter midnight. When that there little ceremony has took place, you and me is goin’ for a walk.’
‘Anywheres, Mas’r Dick.’
‘You mean—to escape?’
‘Precisely so, sir.’
For a moment his pulses beat furiously with hope; but the realisation of what it meant for the old groom killed it like a sudden frost. ’No, Mathews,’ he whispered. ’It isn’t fair to you. I am not going to try to escape. Give me your hand; I want to say good-bye.’
For answer, the imperturbable Mathews moved off again, and, in a soft but most unmusical bass, sang the second verse about the amorous coachman and the susceptible turnkey’s daughter. Dick listened, hanging greedily on every little sound with its atmosphere of Roselawn.
‘Mas’r Dick.’ Mathews had returned. ‘No argifyin’ won’t get you nowhere. If I have to knock you atwixt the ears and drag you out by the ‘eels, you’re comin’ out o’ that there stall to-night. I ain’t goin’ for to see a Durwent made a target of. No, sir; not if I have to blow the whole army up, and them frog-eaters along with ’em. Close that door, Mas’r Dick. I’ve got a contrary temper, and can’t stand no argifyin’ like. Close that door, sir.’
Almost crazed with excitement, Dick strode about the hut. Even if he were to get away, the chances of capture were overwhelming. But—to be shot in an open fight for freedom! That would be a thousand times better than death by an open grave. Freedom! The word was intoxication. To breathe the air of heaven once again—to feel the canopy of the stars—to smell the musk of flowers and new grass! If only for an hour; yet, what an hour!