She bent and kissed him.
"I am a Cochrane, my father."
Early next morning, before the world was up, Grizel Cochrane was mounted on horseback and riding towards the border. She had dressed herself--this girl of eighteen--as a young serving-woman, and when she drew rein at a wayside cottage for food and drink, professed herself journeying on a borrowed horse to visit her mother's house across the Tweed.
By noon Edinburgh was some leagues behind, but she pressed on through that day and most of the following night.
On the second day after leaving Edinburgh she crossed the Tweed, and came in safety to the home of an old nurse, on the English side, four miles beyond the town of Berwick.
"Gude sakes!" cried the old woman, who was standing at her cottage door and was rather astonished to find the horsewoman draw rein, leap to the ground, and plant a kiss on either cheek--"Gude sakes!
if it isna Miss Grizel!"
"Quickly, into the house!" commanded her young mistress; "I have somewhat to tell that will not wait an hour."
She knew the old nurse was to be trusted, and therefore told her story and her secret. "Even now," she said at the end of her story, "the postman is riding from London with the warrant in his bag. I must stop him and make him give it up to me, or my father's head is the penalty.
"But what use to talk o' this, when the postman is a stout rider, and armed to boot? How is a mere girl, saving your presence, to do this at all?"
Grizel unrolled a bundle which she had brought on her saddle-crutch from Edinburgh; it held a horseman's cloak and a brace of pistols.
"Now," said she, "where are the clothes of Donald, my foster-brother?
He was a slight lad in times syne, and little doubt they'll fit me."
For this was indeed the brave girl's plan:--In those times the mail from London took eight days on its journey to Edinburgh; by possessing herself of the warrant for her father's death and detaining it, she could count on the delay of sixteen or seventeen days at least before application could be made for a second, and that signed and sent to the Scotch capital. By this delay, time enough would be won for her friends in London to use all their influence to quash the sentence.
It was a mad scheme; but, as she had said, nothing is impossible to a true heart. She had possessed herself, too, of the minutest information with regard to the places where the postmen rested on their journey. One of these places, she knew, was a small inn kept by a widow on the outskirts of the little town of Belford. There the man who received the bag at Durham was accustomed to arrive at about six in the morning, and take a few hours' sleep before going on with his journey. And at Belford, Grizel Cochrane had determined to meet him.
Taking leave of her faithful nurse, she rode southwards again, and, timing her pace, drew up before the inn at Belford just an hour after the postman had come in from the south and disposed himself to sleep.
The mistress of the inn had no ostler, so Grizel stabled her horse with her own hands, and striding into the inn-parlor, demanded food and drink.
"Sit ye down, then," answered the old woman, "at the end of yon table, for the best I have to give you is there already. And be pleased, my bonny man, to make as little noise as may be; for there's one asleep in that bed that I like ill to disturb."
She pointed to the victuals on the board, which were indeed the remains of the sleeping man's meal. Grizel sat down before them, considered to herself while she played with a mouthful or two, and then asked--
"Can I have a drink of water?"
"'Deed," answered the hostess, "and are ye a water-drinker? 'Tis but an ill-custom for a change-house."
"Why, that I know; and so, when I put up at an inn, 'tis my custom always to pay for it the price of stronger drink, which I cannot take."
"Indeed--well, that's fairly spoken; and, come to think of it, 'tis but just." The landlady brought a jug of water and set it on the board.
"Is the well where you got this water near at hand?" said Grizel, pouring out a glass and sipping at it; "for if 'tis no trouble to fetch some fresh for me, I will tell you this is rather over-warm and flat. Your trouble shall be considered in the dawing," added she.
"'Tis a good step off," answered the dame; "but I cannot refuse to fetch for so civil, discreet a lad--and a well-favored one, besides.
So bide ye here, and I'll be as quick as I maun. But for any sake take care and don't meddle with the man's pistols there, for they are loaded, the both; and every time I set eyes on them they scare me out of my senses, almost."
She took up a pitcher and went out to draw the water. No sooner was Grizel left alone than, starting up, she waited for a moment, listening to the footsteps as they died away in the distance, and then crept swiftly across the floor to the place where the postman lay asleep. He lay in one of those close wooden bedsteads, like cupboards, which were then common in the houses of the poor, and to this day may be seen in many a house in Brittany. The door of it was left half-open to give the sleeper air, and from this aperture the noise of his snoring issued in a way that shook the house.
Nevertheless, it seemed to the girl that he must be awakened by the creaking of the floor under her light footfall. With heart in mouth she stole up to the bedstead, and gently pulling the door still wider ajar, peeped in, in the hope of seeing the mail-bag and being able to pounce upon it.
She saw it, indeed; but to her dismay, it lay beneath the shaggy head of its guardian--a giant in size. The postman used his charge as a pillow, and had flung himself so heavily across it as to give not the faintest hope that any one could pull it away without disturbing its keeper from his nap. Nothing could be done now. In those few bitter moments, during which she stood helplessly looking from the bag which contained the fatal warrant to the unconscious face of the man before her, Grizel made up her mind to another plan.
She turned to the table, caught up the postman's holsters, and pulled out the pistols of which the old woman had professed herself in such terror. Quickly drawing and secreting the charges, she returned them to their cases, with many an anxious look over her shoulder towards the bedstead, and took her seat again at the foot of the table.
Hardly had she done so when she heard the old woman returning with the pitcher. Grizel took a draught, for her throat felt like a lime-kiln, and having settled her bill, much to the landlady's satisfaction, by paying for the water the price of a pot of beer, prepared to set off. She carelessly asked and ascertained how much longer the other guest was likely to sleep.
"By the noise he makes he intends sleeping till Doomsday," she said, laughing.
"Ay, poor man! his is a hard life," said the hostess; "and little more than half an hour more before he must be on the highway again."
Grizel laughed once more, and, mounting her horse, set off at a trot along the road southward, as if continuing her journey in that direction.
Hardly had she got beyond the town, however, when turning the horse's head she galloped back, making a circuit around Belford and striking into the high road again between that place and Berwick.
Having gained it, she walked the horse gently on, awaiting the coming up of the postman.
Though all her mind was now set on the enterprise before her, she could not help a shiver of terror as she thought on the chance of her tampering with the pistols being discovered, and their loading replaced. But she had chosen her course, and now she must go through with it. She was a woman, after all; and it cannot be wondered that her heart began to beat quickly as her ear caught the sound of hoofs on the road behind her, and, turning, she saw the man on whose face she had been gazing not an hour before, trotting briskly towards her--the mail-bags (there were two--one containing the letters direct from London, the other those taken up at the different post-offices on the road) strapped one on each side of his saddle in front, close to the holsters.
At the last moment her nerve came back, and as he drew near she saluted him civilly and with perfect calmness, put her horse into the same pace with his, and rode on for some way in his company.
The postman was a burly, thick-set man, with a good-humored face.
You may be sure that Miss Cochrane inspected it anxiously enough, and was relieved to find that it did not contain any vast amount of hardy courage.
The man was well enough inclined for conversation, too, and as they rode had a heap of chat, which it seemed a pity to interrupt.
At length, however, when they were about half-way between Belford and Berwick, Grizel judged now or never was the time. Pulling her horse's rein gently so as to bring her close to her company, she said in a low but perfectly determined voice--
"Friend, I have taken a fancy for those mail-bags of yours, and I must have them: therefore take my advice, and deliver them up quietly, for I am provided for all hazards. I am mounted, as you see, on a fleet horse; I carry fire-arms; and, moreover, I am allied with those who are stronger, though not bolder, than I. You see that wood, yonder?" she continued, pointing to one about a mile off, with an accent and air meant to corroborate her bold words. "Then take my advice: give me up your bags, and speed back the road you came for the present, nor dare to approach that wood for at least two or three hours to come."
The postman, whose eyes had been growing rounder and rounder during this speech from the stripling beside him, pulled up and looked at her in dumb amazement for some moments.
"If," said he, as soon as he found his tongue, "you mean, young master, to make yourself merry at my expense, you are heartily welcome. I can see a joke, I trust, as well as another man; so have your laugh out, and don't think I'm one to take offence at the words of a foolish boy. But if," and here he whipped a pistol from his holster and turned the muzzle on her face--"if y'are mad enough to think seriously of such a business, then I am ready for you."
They had come to a stand now, in the middle of the road; and Grizel felt an ugly sinking at the heart as she looked at the mouth of the pistol, now not a yard from her cheek. Nevertheless she answered, very quietly and cooly--
"If you have a doubt, dismiss it; I am quite in earnest."
The postman, with his hand on the trigger, hesitated.
"Methinks my lad, you seem of an age when robbing a garden or an old woman's fruit-stall would befit you better, if so be you must turn thief, than taking his Majesty's mails upon his highway from a stout and grown man. So be thankful, then, you have met with one who will not shed blood if he can help it, and go your way before I am provoked to fire."
"Sir," said Grizel, "you are a worthy man; nor am I fonder of bloodshed than you; but if you will not be persuaded, what shall I do? For I have said--and it is truth--that mail I must and will have. Choose, then;" and with this she pulled out a pistol from under her cloak, and, cocking it, presented it in his face.
"Nay, then, your blood be on your own head," cried the postman, and raising his pistol again he pulled the trigger; it flashed in the pan. Dashing the weapon to the ground, he pulled out the other in a moment, and aiming it in Grizel's face, fired--with the same result. In a furious passion he flung down this pistol, too, sprang from his horse, and dashed forward to seize her. She dug her spurs into her horse's flank and just eluded his grasp. Meanwhile the postman's horse, frightened at the noise and the struggle, had moved forward a pace or two. The girl saw her opportunity, and seized it in the same instant. Another dig with the spurs, and her own horse was level with the other; leaning forward she caught at the bridle, and calling to the pair, in an instant was galloping off along the highway, leaving the postman helplessly staring.
She had gone about a hundred yards with her prize, when she pulled up to look back. Her discomfited antagonist was still standing in the middle of the road, apparently stupefied with amazement at the unlooked-for turn which affairs had taken. Shouting to him to remember her advice about the wood, she put both the horses to their speed, and on looking back once more was gratified to find that the postman, impressed with the truth of her mysterious threat, had turned and was making the best of his way back to Belford.