"How do you know?"
"Old Jimmy Harris only shoed her last week, and I'd swear to his make among ten thousand."
"The rest of the gipsies must ha' gone on earlier, or some other way," said Oak. "You saw there were no other tracks?"
"True." They rode along silently for a long weary time. Coggan carried an old pinchbeck repeater which he had inherited from some genius in his family; and it now struck one. He lighted another match, and examined the ground again.
"'Tis a canter now," he said, throwing away the light. "A twisty, rickety pace for a gig. The fact is, they over-drove her at starting; we shall catch 'em yet."
Again they hastened on, and entered Blackmore Vale. Coggan's watch struck one. When they looked again the hoof-marks were so spaced as to form a sort of zigzag if united, like the lamps along a street.
"That's a trot, I know," said Gabriel.
"Only a trot now," said Coggan, cheerfully. "We shall overtake him in time."
They pushed rapidly on for yet two or three miles. "Ah! a moment," said Jan. "Let's see how she was driven up this hill. 'Twill help us." A light was promptly struck upon his gaiters as before, and the examination made.
"Hurrah!" said Coggan. "She walked up here — and well she might. We shall get them in two miles, for a crown."
They rode three, and listened. No sound was to be heard save a millpond trickling hoarsely through a hatch, and suggesting gloomy possibilities of drowning by jumping in. Gabriel dismounted when they came to a turning. The tracks were absolutely the only guide as to the direction that they now had, and great caution was necessary to avoid confusing them with some others which had made their appearance lately.
"What does this mean? — though I guess," said Gabriel, looking up at Coggan as he moved the match over the ground about the turning. Coggan, who, no less than the panting horses, had latterly shown signs of weariness, again scrutinized the mystic characters. This time only three were of the regular horseshoe shape. Every fourth was a dot.
He screwed up his face and emitted a long "Whew-w-w!"
"Lame," said Oak.
"Yes. Dainty is lamed; the near-foot-afore," said Coggan slowly, staring still at the footprints.
"We'll push on," said Gabriel, remounting his humid steed.
Although the road along its greater part had been as good as any turnpike-road in the country, it was nominally only a byway. The last turning had brought them into the high road leading to Bath. Coggan recollected himself.
"We shall have him now!" he exclaimed.
"Sherton Turnpike. The keeper of that gate is the sleepiest man between here and London — Dan Randall, that's his name — knowed en for years, when he was at Casterbridge gate. Between the lameness and the gate 'tis a done job."
They now advanced with extreme caution. Nothing was said until, against a shady background of foliage, five white bars were visible, crossing their route a little way ahead.
"Hush — we are almost close!" said Gabriel.
"Amble on upon the grass," said Coggan.
The white bars were blotted out in the midst by a dark shape in front of them. The silence of this lonely time was pierced by an exclamation from that quarter.
It appeared that there had been a previous call which they had not noticed, for on their close approach the door of the turnpike-house opened, and the keeper came out half-dressed, with a candle in his hand. The rays illumined the whole group.
"Keep the gate close!" shouted Gabriel. "He has stolen the horse!"
"Who?" said the turnpike-man.
Gabriel looked at the driver of the gig, and saw a woman — Bathsheba, his mistress.
On hearing his voice she had turned her face away from the light. Coggan had, however, caught sight of her in the meanwhile.
"Why, 'tis mistress — I'll take my oath!" he said, amazed.
Bathsheba it certainly was, and she had by this time done the trick she could do so well in crises not of love, namely, mask a surprise by coolness of manner.
"Well, Gabriel," she inquired quietly, "where are you going?"
"We thought — " began Gabriel.
"I am driving to Bath," she said, taking for her own use the assurance that Gabriel lacked. "An important matter made it necessary for me to give up my visit to Liddy, and go off at once. What, then, were you following me?"
"We thought the horse was stole."
"Well — what a thing! How very foolish of you not to know that I had taken the trap and horse. I could neither wake Maryann nor get into the house, though I hammered for ten minutes against her window-sill. Fortunately, I could get the key of the coach-house, so I troubled no one further. Didn't you think it might be me?"
"Why should we, miss?"
"Perhaps not. Why, those are never Farmer Boldwood's horses! Goodness mercy! what have you been doing — bringing trouble upon me in this way? What! mustn't a lady move an inch from her door without being dogged like a thief?"
"But how was we to know, if you left no account of your doings?" expostulated Coggan, "and ladies don't drive at these hours, miss, as a jineral rule of society."
"I did leave an account — and you would have seen it in the morning. I wrote in chalk on the coach-house doors that I had come back for the horse and gig, and driven off; that I could arouse nobody, and should return soon."
"But you'll consider, ma'am, that we couldn't see that till it got daylight."