THE perfect serenity of a star-lit April night was broken by the chorus of piping frogs from a little valley. The road, winding down an abrupt hillside, lost itself in the shadow of a tangled grove and reappeared beside the stretch of marsh grass in which the peepers made merry. Now and then came the chiding "boom" of an old bullfrog, like a teacher reminding the children that this was a solemn occasion, but the impudent youngsters paid no attention.
To the man crouched behind the alder bushes the tranquility of the night seemed to mock the storm within himself. Up the hill, still out of sight, his straining ears caught the sound of a horse's hoof clattering among the loose stones of the hard dirt road. As he listened, a gust of horror at the thing he was about to do shook him and the throbbing of his heart stifled him. But he kept his eyes steadily upon the little stretch of white road that the horse and rider must pass before they entered the deep shadow of the trees beside him.
Although many times before the highwayman had thus lain in wait for some unsuspecting traveller, he never ceased to hate this means of snatching a living from the world. While a young man, with good prospects as a skilful carpenter, he had been unjustly accused of stealing a bag of money from the boss's carriage and was condemned to a year's imprisonment. With prison behind him, bitter and proud, he had tried to pick up his old trade, only to find that no one would give him employment. He tried desperately to win the confidence and friendship which he coveted, only to be met with suspicion. Finally he gave up the struggle and determined to live up to his bad reputation.
Around the bend, the horse picking its way carefully, came his victim. The glow of the stars shone upon his slightly upturned face, and the highwayman noted with the eye of an expert that the rider was about middle height, strong and thick-set, with a firm seat that would be hard to upset, and long muscular arms that could doubtless deal mighty blows. It was a point of pride with the highwayman never to allow the apparent strength of his opponent to take away his nerve, and he immediately became perfectly calm as the rider entered the shadow and clattered across the loose planks of a tiny bridge.
Two quick strides and the highwayman was at the horse's head, had seized the rein, and though the horse leaped to one side, rearing and jerking its head violently, he clung grimly, shielding his head with his left arm from the expected blow from above.
"Steady Bess steady!" commanded the rider, and the horse stood trembling.
The highwayman whipped out a pistol, crying fiercely, "Your purse, or I shoot!"
To his amazement a calm voice replied, "If thou wouldst not pull her mouth she would stand more quietly. Her mouth has always been most sensitive."
The highwayman thought rapidly a trick to gain time the man is armed unfrightened and will resist desperately. He ducked his head under the horse's neck and the animal started nervously.
"Whoa, Bess! Hush, girl! Here is my purse containing all that I have with me, except a one-pound note in the near saddle-bag. A neighbor's wife gave that to me with samples of the calico I am to buy her."
The highwayman braced himself, for the gesture of that strong arm above must certainly mean resistance. But the hand only held a fat leather wallet and he loosed the reins to snatch it. As he did so the horse's shoulder knocked the pistol from his hand.
"Get off your horse or I'll shoot it from under you!" the highwayman cried, leaping to the side of the road as the horse pranced on the spot where the weapon lay. "On the instant, I tell you!"
The rider pulled down his horse, sat motionless for a breathless moment, then swung himself down slowly, without a word. The robber darted forward, leaped into the saddle and jerked the horse about to make his escape before his uncanny victim should open fire. A hand on the reins stopped him, and to his amazement the man said:
"I have given thee what thou asked for, but thou wilt have to render an account of it before God. By the holy Light that shines within each one of us, how dost thou dare thus to ignore thy Master's voice, pleading with thee to turn aside from the paths of evil to follow him?"
The tension broke as the highwayman realized with anger that the man, instead of resisting, was preaching to him. All the bitterness of his life spoke in his snarl, "Loose the reins and hold your tongue, or I'll blow your brains out!"
"Nay, friend, thy weapon lies in the dirt. But though I would not give my life for my money or my horse, I would give it to save thy soul."
The highwayman was struck by a new and almost unbelievable thought. This man knew before he dismounted that the pistol had fallen; he had every advantage with which to either strike or flee, and yet he had quietly given what was asked with no sign of fear indeed he spoke almost with gentleness. Could it be that God, of whom the highwayman had not thought for years, was speaking to him? In a swift panic he leaped from the horse, pressed the wallet with a hurried "Take it, take it!" into the good man's hands. Turning, he plunged down the road, but as he ran he heard, "Mayst thou receive guidance from above, and if I, Leonard Fell, can do aught to aid thee " He ran on, but despair had left him. He became suddenly aware of a strange stirring in his soul that somehow seemed in harmony with the beauty of the night.