{tocify}

Barnaby Rudge

Chapter

Book

first_page
play_arrow
last_page
00:00
00:00
volume_down_alt volume_up


Chapter 16

A series of pictures representing the streets of London in the night, even at the comparatively recent date of this tale, would present to the eye something so very different in character from the reality which is witnessed in these times, that it would be difficult for the beholder to recognise his most familiar walks in the altered aspect of little more than half a century ago.

They were, one and all, from the broadest and best to the narrowest and least frequented, very dark. The oil and cotton lamps, though regularly trimmed twice or thrice in the long winter nights, burnt feebly at the best; and at a late hour, when they were unassisted by the lamps and candles in the shops, cast but a narrow track of doubtful light upon the footway, leaving the projecting doors and house-fronts in the deepest gloom. Many of the courts and lanes were left in total darkness; those of the meaner sort, where one glimmering light twinkled for a score of houses, being favoured in no slight degree. Even in these places, the inhabitants had often good reason for extinguishing their lamp as soon as it was lighted; and the watch being utterly inefficient and powerless to prevent them, they did so at their pleasure. Thus, in the lightest thoroughfares, there was at every turn some obscure and dangerous spot whither a thief might fly or shelter, and few would care to follow; and the city being belted round by fields, green lanes, waste grounds, and lonely roads, dividing it at that time from the suburbs that have joined it since, escape, even where the pursuit was hot, was rendered easy.

It is no wonder that with these favouring circumstances in full and constant operation, street robberies, often accompanied by cruel wounds, and not unfrequently by loss of life, should have been of nightly occurrence in the very heart of London, or that quiet folks should have had great dread of traversing its streets after the shops were closed. It was not unusual for those who wended home alone at midnight, to keep the middle of the road, the better to guard against surprise from lurking footpads; few would venture to repair at a late hour to Kentish Town or Hampstead, or even to Kensington or Chelsea, unarmed and unattended; while he who had been loudest and most valiant at the supper-table or the tavern, and had but a mile or so to go, was glad to fee a link-boy to escort him home.

There were many other characteristics—not quite so disagreeable—about the thoroughfares of London then, with which they had been long familiar. Some of the shops, especially those to the eastward of Temple Bar, still adhered to the old practice of hanging out a sign; and the creaking and swinging of these boards in their iron frames on windy nights, formed a strange and mournful concert for the ears of those who lay awake in bed or hurried through the streets. Long stands of hackney-chairs and groups of chairmen, compared with whom the coachmen of our day are gentle and polite, obstructed the way and filled the air with clamour; night-cellars, indicated by a little stream of light crossing the pavement, and stretching out half-way into the road, and by the stifled roar of voices from below, yawned for the reception and entertainment of the most abandoned of both sexes; under every shed and bulk small groups of link-boys gamed away the earnings of the day; or one more weary than the rest, gave way to sleep, and let the fragment of his torch fall hissing on the puddled ground.

Then there was the watch with staff and lantern crying the hour, and the kind of weather; and those who woke up at his voice and turned them round in bed, were glad to hear it rained, or snowed, or blew, or froze, for very comfort’s sake. The solitary passenger was startled by the chairmen’s cry of ‘By your leave there!’ as two came trotting past him with their empty vehicle—carried backwards to show its being disengaged—and hurried to the nearest stand. Many a private chair, too, inclosing some fine lady, monstrously hooped and furbelowed, and preceded by running-footmen bearing flambeaux—for which extinguishers are yet suspended before the doors of a few houses of the better sort—made the way gay and light as it danced along, and darker and more dismal when it had passed. It was not unusual for these running gentry, who carried it with a very high hand, to quarrel in the servants’ hall while waiting for their masters and mistresses; and, falling to blows either there or in the street without, to strew the place of skirmish with hair-powder, fragments of bag-wigs, and scattered nosegays. Gaming, the vice which ran so high among all classes (the fashion being of course set by the upper), was generally the cause of these disputes; for cards and dice were as openly used, and worked as much mischief, and yielded as much excitement below stairs, as above. While incidents like these, arising out of drums and masquerades and parties at quadrille, were passing at the west end of the town, heavy stagecoaches and scarce heavier waggons were lumbering slowly towards the city, the coachmen, guard, and passengers, armed to the teeth, and the coach—a day or so perhaps behind its time, but that was nothing—despoiled by highwaymen; who made no scruple to attack, alone and single-handed, a whole caravan of goods and men, and sometimes shot a passenger or two, and were sometimes shot themselves, as the case might be. On the morrow, rumours of this new act of daring on the road yielded matter for a few hours’ conversation through the town, and a Public Progress of some fine gentleman (half-drunk) to Tyburn, dressed in the newest fashion, and damning the ordinary with unspeakable gallantry and grace, furnished to the populace, at once a pleasant excitement and a wholesome and profound example.

Among all the dangerous characters who, in such a state of society, prowled and skulked in the metropolis at night, there was one man from whom many as uncouth and fierce as he, shrunk with an involuntary dread. Who he was, or whence he came, was a question often asked, but which none could answer. His name was unknown, he had never been seen until within about eight days or thereabouts, and was equally a stranger to the old ruffians, upon whose haunts he ventured fearlessly, as to the young. He could be no spy, for he never removed his slouched hat to look about him, entered into conversation with no man, heeded nothing that passed, listened to no discourse, regarded nobody that came or went. But so surely as the dead of night set in, so surely this man was in the midst of the loose concourse in the night-cellar where outcasts of every grade resorted; and there he sat till morning.

He was not only a spectre at their licentious feasts; a something in the midst of their revelry and riot that chilled and haunted them; but out of doors he was the same. Directly it was dark, he was abroad—never in company with any one, but always alone; never lingering or loitering, but always walking swiftly; and looking (so they said who had seen him) over his shoulder from time to time, and as he did so quickening his pace. In the fields, the lanes, the roads, in all quarters of the town—east, west, north, and south—that man was seen gliding on like a shadow. He was always hurrying away. Those who encountered him, saw him steal past, caught sight of the backward glance, and so lost him in the darkness.

This constant restlessness, and flitting to and fro, gave rise to strange stories. He was seen in such distant and remote places, at times so nearly tallying with each other, that some doubted whether there were not two of them, or more—some, whether he had not unearthly means of travelling from spot to spot. The footpad hiding in a ditch had marked him passing like a ghost along its brink; the vagrant had met him on the dark high-road; the beggar had seen him pause upon the bridge to look down at the water, and then sweep on again; they who dealt in bodies with the surgeons could swear he slept in churchyards, and that they had beheld him glide away among the tombs on their approach. And as they told these stories to each other, one who had looked about him would pull his neighbour by the sleeve, and there he would be among them.

At last, one man—he was one of those whose commerce lay among the graves—resolved to question this strange companion. Next night, when he had eat his poor meal voraciously (he was accustomed to do that, they had observed, as though he had no other in the day), this fellow sat down at his elbow.

‘A black night, master!’

‘It is a black night.’

‘Blacker than last, though that was pitchy too. Didn’t I pass you near the turnpike in the Oxford Road?’

‘It’s like you may. I don’t know.’

‘Come, come, master,’ cried the fellow, urged on by the looks of his comrades, and slapping him on the shoulder; ‘be more companionable and communicative. Be more the gentleman in this good company. There are tales among us that you have sold yourself to the devil, and I know not what.’

‘We all have, have we not?’ returned the stranger, looking up. ‘If we were fewer in number, perhaps he would give better wages.’

‘It goes rather hard with you, indeed,’ said the fellow, as the stranger disclosed his haggard unwashed face, and torn clothes. ‘What of that? Be merry, master. A stave of a roaring song now’—

‘Sing you, if you desire to hear one,’ replied the other, shaking him roughly off; ‘and don’t touch me if you’re a prudent man; I carry arms which go off easily—they have done so, before now—and make it dangerous for strangers who don’t know the trick of them, to lay hands upon me.’

‘Do you threaten?’ said the fellow.

‘Yes,’ returned the other, rising and turning upon him, and looking fiercely round as if in apprehension of a general attack.

His voice, and look, and bearing—all expressive of the wildest recklessness and desperation—daunted while they repelled the bystanders. Although in a very different sphere of action now, they were not without much of the effect they had wrought at the Maypole Inn.

‘I am what you all are, and live as you all do,’ said the man sternly, after a short silence. ‘I am in hiding here like the rest, and if we were surprised would perhaps do my part with the best of ye. If it’s my humour to be left to myself, let me have it. Otherwise,’—and here he swore a tremendous oath—‘there’ll be mischief done in this place, though there ARE odds of a score against me.’

A low murmur, having its origin perhaps in a dread of the man and the mystery that surrounded him, or perhaps in a sincere opinion on the part of some of those present, that it would be an inconvenient precedent to meddle too curiously with a gentleman’s private affairs if he saw reason to conceal them, warned the fellow who had occasioned this discussion that he had best pursue it no further. After a short time the strange man lay down upon a bench to sleep, and when they thought of him again, they found he was gone.

Next night, as soon as it was dark, he was abroad again and traversing the streets; he was before the locksmith’s house more than once, but the family were out, and it was close shut. This night he crossed London Bridge and passed into Southwark. As he glided down a bye street, a woman with a little basket on her arm, turned into it at the other end. Directly he observed her, he sought the shelter of an archway, and stood aside until she had passed. Then he emerged cautiously from his hiding-place, and followed.

She went into several shops to purchase various kinds of household necessaries, and round every place at which she stopped he hovered like her evil spirit; following her when she reappeared. It was nigh eleven o’clock, and the passengers in the streets were thinning fast, when she turned, doubtless to go home. The phantom still followed her.

She turned into the same bye street in which he had seen her first, which, being free from shops, and narrow, was extremely dark. She quickened her pace here, as though distrustful of being stopped, and robbed of such trifling property as she carried with her. He crept along on the other side of the road. Had she been gifted with the speed of wind, it seemed as if his terrible shadow would have tracked her down.

At length the widow—for she it was—reached her own door, and, panting for breath, paused to take the key from her basket. In a flush and glow, with the haste she had made, and the pleasure of being safe at home, she stooped to draw it out, when, raising her head, she saw him standing silently beside her: the apparition of a dream.

His hand was on her mouth, but that was needless, for her tongue clove to its roof, and her power of utterance was gone. ‘I have been looking for you many nights. Is the house empty? Answer me. Is any one inside?’

She could only answer by a rattle in her throat.

‘Make me a sign.’

She seemed to indicate that there was no one there. He took the key, unlocked the door, carried her in, and secured it carefully behind them.






Chapter 17

It was a chilly night, and the fire in the widow’s parlour had burnt low. Her strange companion placed her in a chair, and stooping down before the half-extinguished ashes, raked them together and fanned them with his hat. From time to time he glanced at her over his shoulder, as though to assure himself of her remaining quiet and making no effort to depart; and that done, busied himself about the fire again.

It was not without reason that he took these pains, for his dress was dank and drenched with wet, his jaws rattled with cold, and he shivered from head to foot. It had rained hard during the previous night and for some hours in the morning, but since noon it had been fine. Wheresoever he had passed the hours of darkness, his condition sufficiently betokened that many of them had been spent beneath the open sky. Besmeared with mire; his saturated clothes clinging with a damp embrace about his limbs; his beard unshaven, his face unwashed, his meagre cheeks worn into deep hollows,—a more miserable wretch could hardly be, than this man who now cowered down upon the widow’s hearth, and watched the struggling flame with bloodshot eyes.

She had covered her face with her hands, fearing, as it seemed, to look towards him. So they remained for some short time in silence. Glancing round again, he asked at length:

‘Is this your house?’

‘It is. Why, in the name of Heaven, do you darken it?’

‘Give me meat and drink,’ he answered sullenly, ‘or I dare do more than that. The very marrow in my bones is cold, with wet and hunger. I must have warmth and food, and I will have them here.’

‘You were the robber on the Chigwell road.’

‘I was.’

‘And nearly a murderer then.’

‘The will was not wanting. There was one came upon me and raised the hue-and-cry, that it would have gone hard with, but for his nimbleness. I made a thrust at him.’

‘You thrust your sword at HIM!’ cried the widow, looking upwards. ‘You hear this man! you hear and saw!’

He looked at her, as, with her head thrown back, and her hands tight clenched together, she uttered these words in an agony of appeal. Then, starting to his feet as she had done, he advanced towards her.

‘Beware!’ she cried in a suppressed voice, whose firmness stopped him midway. ‘Do not so much as touch me with a finger, or you are lost; body and soul, you are lost.’

‘Hear me,’ he replied, menacing her with his hand. ‘I, that in the form of a man live the life of a hunted beast; that in the body am a spirit, a ghost upon the earth, a thing from which all creatures shrink, save those curst beings of another world, who will not leave me;—I am, in my desperation of this night, past all fear but that of the hell in which I exist from day to day. Give the alarm, cry out, refuse to shelter me. I will not hurt you. But I will not be taken alive; and so surely as you threaten me above your breath, I fall a dead man on this floor. The blood with which I sprinkle it, be on you and yours, in the name of the Evil Spirit that tempts men to their ruin!’

As he spoke, he took a pistol from his breast, and firmly clutched it in his hand.

‘Remove this man from me, good Heaven!’ cried the widow. ‘In thy grace and mercy, give him one minute’s penitence, and strike him dead!’

‘It has no such purpose,’ he said, confronting her. ‘It is deaf. Give me to eat and drink, lest I do that it cannot help my doing, and will not do for you.’

‘Will you leave me, if I do thus much? Will you leave me and return no more?’

‘I will promise nothing,’ he rejoined, seating himself at the table, ‘nothing but this—I will execute my threat if you betray me.’

She rose at length, and going to a closet or pantry in the room, brought out some fragments of cold meat and bread and put them on the table. He asked for brandy, and for water. These she produced likewise; and he ate and drank with the voracity of a famished hound. All the time he was so engaged she kept at the uttermost distance of the chamber, and sat there shuddering, but with her face towards him. She never turned her back upon him once; and although when she passed him (as she was obliged to do in going to and from the cupboard) she gathered the skirts of her garment about her, as if even its touching his by chance were horrible to think of, still, in the midst of all this dread and terror, she kept her face towards his own, and watched his every movement.

His repast ended—if that can be called one, which was a mere ravenous satisfying of the calls of hunger—he moved his chair towards the fire again, and warming himself before the blaze which had now sprung brightly up, accosted her once more.

‘I am an outcast, to whom a roof above his head is often an uncommon luxury, and the food a beggar would reject is delicate fare. You live here at your ease. Do you live alone?’

‘I do not,’ she made answer with an effort.

‘Who dwells here besides?’

‘One—it is no matter who. You had best begone, or he may find you here. Why do you linger?’

‘For warmth,’ he replied, spreading out his hands before the fire. ‘For warmth. You are rich, perhaps?’

‘Very,’ she said faintly. ‘Very rich. No doubt I am very rich.’

‘At least you are not penniless. You have some money. You were making purchases to-night.’

‘I have a little left. It is but a few shillings.’

‘Give me your purse. You had it in your hand at the door. Give it to me.’

She stepped to the table and laid it down. He reached across, took it up, and told the contents into his hand. As he was counting them, she listened for a moment, and sprung towards him.

‘Take what there is, take all, take more if more were there, but go before it is too late. I have heard a wayward step without, I know full well. It will return directly. Begone.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Do not stop to ask. I will not answer. Much as I dread to touch you, I would drag you to the door if I possessed the strength, rather than you should lose an instant. Miserable wretch! fly from this place.’

‘If there are spies without, I am safer here,’ replied the man, standing aghast. ‘I will remain here, and will not fly till the danger is past.’

‘It is too late!’ cried the widow, who had listened for the step, and not to him. ‘Hark to that foot upon the ground. Do you tremble to hear it! It is my son, my idiot son!’

As she said this wildly, there came a heavy knocking at the door. He looked at her, and she at him.

‘Let him come in,’ said the man, hoarsely. ‘I fear him less than the dark, houseless night. He knocks again. Let him come in!’

‘The dread of this hour,’ returned the widow, ‘has been upon me all my life, and I will not. Evil will fall upon him, if you stand eye to eye. My blighted boy! Oh! all good angels who know the truth—hear a poor mother’s prayer, and spare my boy from knowledge of this man!’

‘He rattles at the shutters!’ cried the man. ‘He calls you. That voice and cry! It was he who grappled with me in the road. Was it he?’

She had sunk upon her knees, and so knelt down, moving her lips, but uttering no sound. As he gazed upon her, uncertain what to do or where to turn, the shutters flew open. He had barely time to catch a knife from the table, sheathe it in the loose sleeve of his coat, hide in the closet, and do all with the lightning’s speed, when Barnaby tapped at the bare glass, and raised the sash exultingly.

‘Why, who can keep out Grip and me!’ he cried, thrusting in his head, and staring round the room. ‘Are you there, mother? How long you keep us from the fire and light.’

She stammered some excuse and tendered him her hand. But Barnaby sprung lightly in without assistance, and putting his arms about her neck, kissed her a hundred times.

‘We have been afield, mother—leaping ditches, scrambling through hedges, running down steep banks, up and away, and hurrying on. The wind has been blowing, and the rushes and young plants bowing and bending to it, lest it should do them harm, the cowards—and Grip—ha ha ha!—brave Grip, who cares for nothing, and when the wind rolls him over in the dust, turns manfully to bite it—Grip, bold Grip, has quarrelled with every little bowing twig—thinking, he told me, that it mocked him—and has worried it like a bulldog. Ha ha ha!’

The raven, in his little basket at his master’s back, hearing this frequent mention of his name in a tone of exultation, expressed his sympathy by crowing like a cock, and afterwards running over his various phrases of speech with such rapidity, and in so many varieties of hoarseness, that they sounded like the murmurs of a crowd of people.

‘He takes such care of me besides!’ said Barnaby. ‘Such care, mother! He watches all the time I sleep, and when I shut my eyes and make-believe to slumber, he practises new learning softly; but he keeps his eye on me the while, and if he sees me laugh, though never so little, stops directly. He won’t surprise me till he’s perfect.’

The raven crowed again in a rapturous manner which plainly said, ‘Those are certainly some of my characteristics, and I glory in them.’ In the meantime, Barnaby closed the window and secured it, and coming to the fireplace, prepared to sit down with his face to the closet. But his mother prevented this, by hastily taking that side herself, and motioning him towards the other.

‘How pale you are to-night!’ said Barnaby, leaning on his stick. ‘We have been cruel, Grip, and made her anxious!’

Anxious in good truth, and sick at heart! The listener held the door of his hiding-place open with his hand, and closely watched her son. Grip—alive to everything his master was unconscious of—had his head out of the basket, and in return was watching him intently with his glistening eye.

‘He flaps his wings,’ said Barnaby, turning almost quickly enough to catch the retreating form and closing door, ‘as if there were strangers here, but Grip is wiser than to fancy that. Jump then!’

Accepting this invitation with a dignity peculiar to himself, the bird hopped up on his master’s shoulder, from that to his extended hand, and so to the ground. Barnaby unstrapping the basket and putting it down in a corner with the lid open, Grip’s first care was to shut it down with all possible despatch, and then to stand upon it. Believing, no doubt, that he had now rendered it utterly impossible, and beyond the power of mortal man, to shut him up in it any more, he drew a great many corks in triumph, and uttered a corresponding number of hurrahs.

‘Mother!’ said Barnaby, laying aside his hat and stick, and returning to the chair from which he had risen, ‘I’ll tell you where we have been to-day, and what we have been doing,—shall I?’

She took his hand in hers, and holding it, nodded the word she could not speak.

‘You mustn’t tell,’ said Barnaby, holding up his finger, ‘for it’s a secret, mind, and only known to me, and Grip, and Hugh. We had the dog with us, but he’s not like Grip, clever as he is, and doesn’t guess it yet, I’ll wager.—Why do you look behind me so?’

‘Did I?’ she answered faintly. ‘I didn’t know I did. Come nearer me.’

‘You are frightened!’ said Barnaby, changing colour. ‘Mother—you don’t see’—

‘See what?’

‘There’s—there’s none of this about, is there?’ he answered in a whisper, drawing closer to her and clasping the mark upon his wrist. ‘I am afraid there is, somewhere. You make my hair stand on end, and my flesh creep. Why do you look like that? Is it in the room as I have seen it in my dreams, dashing the ceiling and the walls with red? Tell me. Is it?’

He fell into a shivering fit as he put the question, and shutting out the light with his hands, sat shaking in every limb until it had passed away. After a time, he raised his head and looked about him.

‘Is it gone?’

‘There has been nothing here,’ rejoined his mother, soothing him. ‘Nothing indeed, dear Barnaby. Look! You see there are but you and me.’

He gazed at her vacantly, and, becoming reassured by degrees, burst into a wild laugh.

‘But let us see,’ he said, thoughtfully. ‘Were we talking? Was it you and me? Where have we been?’

‘Nowhere but here.’

‘Aye, but Hugh, and I,’ said Barnaby,—‘that’s it. Maypole Hugh, and I, you know, and Grip—we have been lying in the forest, and among the trees by the road side, with a dark lantern after night came on, and the dog in a noose ready to slip him when the man came by.’

‘What man?’

‘The robber; him that the stars winked at. We have waited for him after dark these many nights, and we shall have him. I’d know him in a thousand. Mother, see here! This is the man. Look!’

He twisted his handkerchief round his head, pulled his hat upon his brow, wrapped his coat about him, and stood up before her: so like the original he counterfeited, that the dark figure peering out behind him might have passed for his own shadow.

‘Ha ha ha! We shall have him,’ he cried, ridding himself of the semblance as hastily as he had assumed it. ‘You shall see him, mother, bound hand and foot, and brought to London at a saddle-girth; and you shall hear of him at Tyburn Tree if we have luck. So Hugh says. You’re pale again, and trembling. And why DO you look behind me so?’

‘It is nothing,’ she answered. ‘I am not quite well. Go you to bed, dear, and leave me here.’

‘To bed!’ he answered. ‘I don’t like bed. I like to lie before the fire, watching the prospects in the burning coals—the rivers, hills, and dells, in the deep, red sunset, and the wild faces. I am hungry too, and Grip has eaten nothing since broad noon. Let us to supper. Grip! To supper, lad!’

The raven flapped his wings, and, croaking his satisfaction, hopped to the feet of his master, and there held his bill open, ready for snapping up such lumps of meat as he should throw him. Of these he received about a score in rapid succession, without the smallest discomposure.

‘That’s all,’ said Barnaby.

‘More!’ cried Grip. ‘More!’

But it appearing for a certainty that no more was to be had, he retreated with his store; and disgorging the morsels one by one from his pouch, hid them in various corners—taking particular care, however, to avoid the closet, as being doubtful of the hidden man’s propensities and power of resisting temptation. When he had concluded these arrangements, he took a turn or two across the room with an elaborate assumption of having nothing on his mind (but with one eye hard upon his treasure all the time), and then, and not till then, began to drag it out, piece by piece, and eat it with the utmost relish.

Barnaby, for his part, having pressed his mother to eat in vain, made a hearty supper too. Once during the progress of his meal, he wanted more bread from the closet and rose to get it. She hurriedly interposed to prevent him, and summoning her utmost fortitude, passed into the recess, and brought it out herself.

‘Mother,’ said Barnaby, looking at her steadfastly as she sat down beside him after doing so; ‘is to-day my birthday?’

‘To-day!’ she answered. ‘Don’t you recollect it was but a week or so ago, and that summer, autumn, and winter have to pass before it comes again?’

‘I remember that it has been so till now,’ said Barnaby. ‘But I think to-day must be my birthday too, for all that.’

She asked him why? ‘I’ll tell you why,’ he said. ‘I have always seen you—I didn’t let you know it, but I have—on the evening of that day grow very sad. I have seen you cry when Grip and I were most glad; and look frightened with no reason; and I have touched your hand, and felt that it was cold—as it is now. Once, mother (on a birthday that was, also), Grip and I thought of this after we went upstairs to bed, and when it was midnight, striking one o’clock, we came down to your door to see if you were well. You were on your knees. I forget what it was you said. Grip, what was it we heard her say that night?’

‘I’m a devil!’ rejoined the raven promptly.

‘No, no,’ said Barnaby. ‘But you said something in a prayer; and when you rose and walked about, you looked (as you have done ever since, mother, towards night on my birthday) just as you do now. I have found that out, you see, though I am silly. So I say you’re wrong; and this must be my birthday—my birthday, Grip!’

The bird received this information with a crow of such duration as a cock, gifted with intelligence beyond all others of his kind, might usher in the longest day with. Then, as if he had well considered the sentiment, and regarded it as apposite to birthdays, he cried, ‘Never say die!’ a great many times, and flapped his wings for emphasis.

The widow tried to make light of Barnaby’s remark, and endeavoured to divert his attention to some new subject; too easy a task at all times, as she knew. His supper done, Barnaby, regardless of her entreaties, stretched himself on the mat before the fire; Grip perched upon his leg, and divided his time between dozing in the grateful warmth, and endeavouring (as it presently appeared) to recall a new accomplishment he had been studying all day.

A long and profound silence ensued, broken only by some change of position on the part of Barnaby, whose eyes were still wide open and intently fixed upon the fire; or by an effort of recollection on the part of Grip, who would cry in a low voice from time to time, ‘Polly put the ket—’ and there stop short, forgetting the remainder, and go off in a doze again.

After a long interval, Barnaby’s breathing grew more deep and regular, and his eyes were closed. But even then the unquiet spirit of the raven interposed. ‘Polly put the ket—’ cried Grip, and his master was broad awake again.

At length Barnaby slept soundly, and the bird with his bill sunk upon his breast, his breast itself puffed out into a comfortable alderman-like form, and his bright eye growing smaller and smaller, really seemed to be subsiding into a state of repose. Now and then he muttered in a sepulchral voice, ‘Polly put the ket—’ but very drowsily, and more like a drunken man than a reflecting raven.

The widow, scarcely venturing to breathe, rose from her seat. The man glided from the closet, and extinguished the candle.

‘—tle on,’ cried Grip, suddenly struck with an idea and very much excited. ‘—tle on. Hurrah! Polly put the ket-tle on, we’ll all have tea; Polly put the ket-tle on, we’ll all have tea. Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah! I’m a devil, I’m a devil, I’m a ket-tle on, Keep up your spirits, Never say die, Bow, wow, wow, I’m a devil, I’m a ket-tle, I’m a—Polly put the ket-tle on, we’ll all have tea.’

They stood rooted to the ground, as though it had been a voice from the grave.

But even this failed to awaken the sleeper. He turned over towards the fire, his arm fell to the ground, and his head drooped heavily upon it. The widow and her unwelcome visitor gazed at him and at each other for a moment, and then she motioned him towards the door.

‘Stay,’ he whispered. ‘You teach your son well.’

‘I have taught him nothing that you heard to-night. Depart instantly, or I will rouse him.’

‘You are free to do so. Shall I rouse him?’

‘You dare not do that.’

‘I dare do anything, I have told you. He knows me well, it seems. At least I will know him.’

‘Would you kill him in his sleep?’ cried the widow, throwing herself between them.

‘Woman,’ he returned between his teeth, as he motioned her aside, ‘I would see him nearer, and I will. If you want one of us to kill the other, wake him.’

With that he advanced, and bending down over the prostrate form, softly turned back the head and looked into the face. The light of the fire was upon it, and its every lineament was revealed distinctly. He contemplated it for a brief space, and hastily uprose.

‘Observe,’ he whispered in the widow’s ear: ‘In him, of whose existence I was ignorant until to-night, I have you in my power. Be careful how you use me. Be careful how you use me. I am destitute and starving, and a wanderer upon the earth. I may take a sure and slow revenge.’

‘There is some dreadful meaning in your words. I do not fathom it.’

‘There is a meaning in them, and I see you fathom it to its very depth. You have anticipated it for years; you have told me as much. I leave you to digest it. Do not forget my warning.’

He pointed, as he left her, to the slumbering form, and stealthily withdrawing, made his way into the street. She fell on her knees beside the sleeper, and remained like one stricken into stone, until the tears which fear had frozen so long, came tenderly to her relief.

‘Oh Thou,’ she cried, ‘who hast taught me such deep love for this one remnant of the promise of a happy life, out of whose affliction, even, perhaps the comfort springs that he is ever a relying, loving child to me—never growing old or cold at heart, but needing my care and duty in his manly strength as in his cradle-time—help him, in his darkened walk through this sad world, or he is doomed, and my poor heart is broken!’






Chapter 18

Gliding along the silent streets, and holding his course where they were darkest and most gloomy, the man who had left the widow’s house crossed London Bridge, and arriving in the City, plunged into the backways, lanes, and courts, between Cornhill and Smithfield; with no more fixedness of purpose than to lose himself among their windings, and baffle pursuit, if any one were dogging his steps.

It was the dead time of the night, and all was quiet. Now and then a drowsy watchman’s footsteps sounded on the pavement, or the lamplighter on his rounds went flashing past, leaving behind a little track of smoke mingled with glowing morsels of his hot red link. He hid himself even from these partakers of his lonely walk, and, shrinking in some arch or doorway while they passed, issued forth again when they were gone and so pursued his solitary way.

To be shelterless and alone in the open country, hearing the wind moan and watching for day through the whole long weary night; to listen to the falling rain, and crouch for warmth beneath the lee of some old barn or rick, or in the hollow of a tree; are dismal things—but not so dismal as the wandering up and down where shelter is, and beds and sleepers are by thousands; a houseless rejected creature. To pace the echoing stones from hour to hour, counting the dull chimes of the clocks; to watch the lights twinkling in chamber windows, to think what happy forgetfulness each house shuts in; that here are children coiled together in their beds, here youth, here age, here poverty, here wealth, all equal in their sleep, and all at rest; to have nothing in common with the slumbering world around, not even sleep, Heaven’s gift to all its creatures, and be akin to nothing but despair; to feel, by the wretched contrast with everything on every hand, more utterly alone and cast away than in a trackless desert; this is a kind of suffering, on which the rivers of great cities close full many a time, and which the solitude in crowds alone awakens.

The miserable man paced up and down the streets—so long, so wearisome, so like each other—and often cast a wistful look towards the east, hoping to see the first faint streaks of day. But obdurate night had yet possession of the sky, and his disturbed and restless walk found no relief.

One house in a back street was bright with the cheerful glare of lights; there was the sound of music in it too, and the tread of dancers, and there were cheerful voices, and many a burst of laughter. To this place—to be near something that was awake and glad—he returned again and again; and more than one of those who left it when the merriment was at its height, felt it a check upon their mirthful mood to see him flitting to and fro like an uneasy ghost. At last the guests departed, one and all; and then the house was close shut up, and became as dull and silent as the rest.

His wanderings brought him at one time to the city jail. Instead of hastening from it as a place of ill omen, and one he had cause to shun, he sat down on some steps hard by, and resting his chin upon his hand, gazed upon its rough and frowning walls as though even they became a refuge in his jaded eyes. He paced it round and round, came back to the same spot, and sat down again. He did this often, and once, with a hasty movement, crossed to where some men were watching in the prison lodge, and had his foot upon the steps as though determined to accost them. But looking round, he saw that the day began to break, and failing in his purpose, turned and fled.

He was soon in the quarter he had lately traversed, and pacing to and fro again as he had done before. He was passing down a mean street, when from an alley close at hand some shouts of revelry arose, and there came straggling forth a dozen madcaps, whooping and calling to each other, who, parting noisily, took different ways and dispersed in smaller groups.

Hoping that some low place of entertainment which would afford him a safe refuge might be near at hand, he turned into this court when they were all gone, and looked about for a half-opened door, or lighted window, or other indication of the place whence they had come. It was so profoundly dark, however, and so ill-favoured, that he concluded they had but turned up there, missing their way, and were pouring out again when he observed them. With this impression, and finding there was no outlet but that by which he had entered, he was about to turn, when from a grating near his feet a sudden stream of light appeared, and the sound of talking came. He retreated into a doorway to see who these talkers were, and to listen to them.

The light came to the level of the pavement as he did this, and a man ascended, bearing in his hand a torch. This figure unlocked and held open the grating as for the passage of another, who presently appeared, in the form of a young man of small stature and uncommon self-importance, dressed in an obsolete and very gaudy fashion.

‘Good night, noble captain,’ said he with the torch. ‘Farewell, commander. Good luck, illustrious general!’

In return to these compliments the other bade him hold his tongue, and keep his noise to himself, and laid upon him many similar injunctions, with great fluency of speech and sternness of manner.

‘Commend me, captain, to the stricken Miggs,’ returned the torch-bearer in a lower voice. ‘My captain flies at higher game than Miggses. Ha, ha, ha! My captain is an eagle, both as respects his eye and soaring wings. My captain breaketh hearts as other bachelors break eggs at breakfast.’

‘What a fool you are, Stagg!’ said Mr Tappertit, stepping on the pavement of the court, and brushing from his legs the dust he had contracted in his passage upward.

‘His precious limbs!’ cried Stagg, clasping one of his ankles. ‘Shall a Miggs aspire to these proportions! No, no, my captain. We will inveigle ladies fair, and wed them in our secret cavern. We will unite ourselves with blooming beauties, captain.’

‘I’ll tell you what, my buck,’ said Mr Tappertit, releasing his leg; ‘I’ll trouble you not to take liberties, and not to broach certain questions unless certain questions are broached to you. Speak when you’re spoke to on particular subjects, and not otherways. Hold the torch up till I’ve got to the end of the court, and then kennel yourself, do you hear?’

‘I hear you, noble captain.’

‘Obey then,’ said Mr Tappertit haughtily. ‘Gentlemen, lead on!’ With which word of command (addressed to an imaginary staff or retinue) he folded his arms, and walked with surpassing dignity down the court.

His obsequious follower stood holding the torch above his head, and then the observer saw for the first time, from his place of concealment, that he was blind. Some involuntary motion on his part caught the quick ear of the blind man, before he was conscious of having moved an inch towards him, for he turned suddenly and cried, ‘Who’s there?’

‘A man,’ said the other, advancing. ‘A friend.’

‘A stranger!’ rejoined the blind man. ‘Strangers are not my friends. What do you do there?’

‘I saw your company come out, and waited here till they were gone. I want a lodging.’

‘A lodging at this time!’ returned Stagg, pointing towards the dawn as though he saw it. ‘Do you know the day is breaking?’

‘I know it,’ rejoined the other, ‘to my cost. I have been traversing this iron-hearted town all night.’

‘You had better traverse it again,’ said the blind man, preparing to descend, ‘till you find some lodgings suitable to your taste. I don’t let any.’

‘Stay!’ cried the other, holding him by the arm.

‘I’ll beat this light about that hangdog face of yours (for hangdog it is, if it answers to your voice), and rouse the neighbourhood besides, if you detain me,’ said the blind man. ‘Let me go. Do you hear?’

‘Do YOU hear!’ returned the other, chinking a few shillings together, and hurriedly pressing them into his hand. ‘I beg nothing of you. I will pay for the shelter you give me. Death! Is it much to ask of such as you! I have come from the country, and desire to rest where there are none to question me. I am faint, exhausted, worn out, almost dead. Let me lie down, like a dog, before your fire. I ask no more than that. If you would be rid of me, I will depart to-morrow.’

‘If a gentleman has been unfortunate on the road,’ muttered Stagg, yielding to the other, who, pressing on him, had already gained a footing on the steps—‘and can pay for his accommodation—’

‘I will pay you with all I have. I am just now past the want of food, God knows, and wish but to purchase shelter. What companion have you below?’

‘None.’

‘Then fasten your grate there, and show me the way. Quick!’

The blind man complied after a moment’s hesitation, and they descended together. The dialogue had passed as hurriedly as the words could be spoken, and they stood in his wretched room before he had had time to recover from his first surprise.

‘May I see where that door leads to, and what is beyond?’ said the man, glancing keenly round. ‘You will not mind that?’

‘I will show you myself. Follow me, or go before. Take your choice.’

He bade him lead the way, and, by the light of the torch which his conductor held up for the purpose, inspected all three cellars narrowly. Assured that the blind man had spoken truth, and that he lived there alone, the visitor returned with him to the first, in which a fire was burning, and flung himself with a deep groan upon the ground before it.

His host pursued his usual occupation without seeming to heed him any further. But directly he fell asleep—and he noted his falling into a slumber, as readily as the keenest-sighted man could have done—he knelt down beside him, and passed his hand lightly but carefully over his face and person.

His sleep was checkered with starts and moans, and sometimes with a muttered word or two. His hands were clenched, his brow bent, and his mouth firmly set. All this, the blind man accurately marked; and as if his curiosity were strongly awakened, and he had already some inkling of his mystery, he sat watching him, if the expression may be used, and listening, until it was broad day.






Chapter 19

Dolly Varden’s pretty little head was yet bewildered by various recollections of the party, and her bright eyes were yet dazzled by a crowd of images, dancing before them like motes in the sunbeams, among which the effigy of one partner in particular did especially figure, the same being a young coachmaker (a master in his own right) who had given her to understand, when he handed her into the chair at parting, that it was his fixed resolve to neglect his business from that time, and die slowly for the love of her—Dolly’s head, and eyes, and thoughts, and seven senses, were all in a state of flutter and confusion for which the party was accountable, although it was now three days old, when, as she was sitting listlessly at breakfast, reading all manner of fortunes (that is to say, of married and flourishing fortunes) in the grounds of her teacup, a step was heard in the workshop, and Mr Edward Chester was descried through the glass door, standing among the rusty locks and keys, like love among the roses—for which apt comparison the historian may by no means take any credit to himself, the same being the invention, in a sentimental mood, of the chaste and modest Miggs, who, beholding him from the doorsteps she was then cleaning, did, in her maiden meditation, give utterance to the simile.

The locksmith, who happened at the moment to have his eyes thrown upward and his head backward, in an intense communing with Toby, did not see his visitor, until Mrs Varden, more watchful than the rest, had desired Sim Tappertit to open the glass door and give him admission—from which untoward circumstance the good lady argued (for she could deduce a precious moral from the most trifling event) that to take a draught of small ale in the morning was to observe a pernicious, irreligious, and Pagan custom, the relish whereof should be left to swine, and Satan, or at least to Popish persons, and should be shunned by the righteous as a work of sin and evil. She would no doubt have pursued her admonition much further, and would have founded on it a long list of precious precepts of inestimable value, but that the young gentleman standing by in a somewhat uncomfortable and discomfited manner while she read her spouse this lecture, occasioned her to bring it to a premature conclusion.

‘I’m sure you’ll excuse me, sir,’ said Mrs Varden, rising and curtseying. ‘Varden is so very thoughtless, and needs so much reminding—Sim, bring a chair here.’

Mr Tappertit obeyed, with a flourish implying that he did so, under protest.

‘And you can go, Sim,’ said the locksmith.

Mr Tappertit obeyed again, still under protest; and betaking himself to the workshop, began seriously to fear that he might find it necessary to poison his master, before his time was out.

In the meantime, Edward returned suitable replies to Mrs Varden’s courtesies, and that lady brightened up very much; so that when he accepted a dish of tea from the fair hands of Dolly, she was perfectly agreeable.

‘I am sure if there’s anything we can do,—Varden, or I, or Dolly either,—to serve you, sir, at any time, you have only to say it, and it shall be done,’ said Mrs V.

‘I am much obliged to you, I am sure,’ returned Edward. ‘You encourage me to say that I have come here now, to beg your good offices.’

Mrs Varden was delighted beyond measure.

‘It occurred to me that probably your fair daughter might be going to the Warren, either to-day or to-morrow,’ said Edward, glancing at Dolly; ‘and if so, and you will allow her to take charge of this letter, ma’am, you will oblige me more than I can tell you. The truth is, that while I am very anxious it should reach its destination, I have particular reasons for not trusting it to any other conveyance; so that without your help, I am wholly at a loss.’

‘She was not going that way, sir, either to-day, or to-morrow, nor indeed all next week,’ the lady graciously rejoined, ‘but we shall be very glad to put ourselves out of the way on your account, and if you wish it, you may depend upon its going to-day. You might suppose,’ said Mrs Varden, frowning at her husband, ‘from Varden’s sitting there so glum and silent, that he objected to this arrangement; but you must not mind that, sir, if you please. It’s his way at home. Out of doors, he can be cheerful and talkative enough.’

Now, the fact was, that the unfortunate locksmith, blessing his stars to find his helpmate in such good humour, had been sitting with a beaming face, hearing this discourse with a joy past all expression. Wherefore this sudden attack quite took him by surprise.

‘My dear Martha—’ he said.

‘Oh yes, I dare say,’ interrupted Mrs Varden, with a smile of mingled scorn and pleasantry. ‘Very dear! We all know that.’

‘No, but my good soul,’ said Gabriel, ‘you are quite mistaken. You are indeed. I was delighted to find you so kind and ready. I waited, my dear, anxiously, I assure you, to hear what you would say.’

‘You waited anxiously,’ repeated Mrs V. ‘Yes! Thank you, Varden. You waited, as you always do, that I might bear the blame, if any came of it. But I am used to it,’ said the lady with a kind of solemn titter, ‘and that’s my comfort!’

‘I give you my word, Martha—’ said Gabriel.

‘Let me give you MY word, my dear,’ interposed his wife with a Christian smile, ‘that such discussions as these between married people, are much better left alone. Therefore, if you please, Varden, we’ll drop the subject. I have no wish to pursue it. I could. I might say a great deal. But I would rather not. Pray don’t say any more.’

‘I don’t want to say any more,’ rejoined the goaded locksmith.

‘Well then, don’t,’ said Mrs Varden.

‘Nor did I begin it, Martha,’ added the locksmith, good-humouredly, ‘I must say that.’

‘You did not begin it, Varden!’ exclaimed his wife, opening her eyes very wide and looking round upon the company, as though she would say, You hear this man! ‘You did not begin it, Varden! But you shall not say I was out of temper. No, you did not begin it, oh dear no, not you, my dear!’

‘Well, well,’ said the locksmith. ‘That’s settled then.’

‘Oh yes,’ rejoined his wife, ‘quite. If you like to say Dolly began it, my dear, I shall not contradict you. I know my duty. I need know it, I am sure. I am often obliged to bear it in mind, when my inclination perhaps would be for the moment to forget it. Thank you, Varden.’ And so, with a mighty show of humility and forgiveness, she folded her hands, and looked round again, with a smile which plainly said, ‘If you desire to see the first and foremost among female martyrs, here she is, on view!’

This little incident, illustrative though it was of Mrs Varden’s extraordinary sweetness and amiability, had so strong a tendency to check the conversation and to disconcert all parties but that excellent lady, that only a few monosyllables were uttered until Edward withdrew; which he presently did, thanking the lady of the house a great many times for her condescension, and whispering in Dolly’s ear that he would call on the morrow, in case there should happen to be an answer to the note—which, indeed, she knew without his telling, as Barnaby and his friend Grip had dropped in on the previous night to prepare her for the visit which was then terminating.

Gabriel, who had attended Edward to the door, came back with his hands in his pockets; and, after fidgeting about the room in a very uneasy manner, and casting a great many sidelong looks at Mrs Varden (who with the calmest countenance in the world was five fathoms deep in the Protestant Manual), inquired of Dolly how she meant to go. Dolly supposed by the stage-coach, and looked at her lady mother, who finding herself silently appealed to, dived down at least another fathom into the Manual, and became unconscious of all earthly things.

‘Martha—’ said the locksmith.

‘I hear you, Varden,’ said his wife, without rising to the surface.

‘I am sorry, my dear, you have such an objection to the Maypole and old John, for otherways as it’s a very fine morning, and Saturday’s not a busy day with us, we might have all three gone to Chigwell in the chaise, and had quite a happy day of it.’

Mrs Varden immediately closed the Manual, and bursting into tears, requested to be led upstairs.

‘What is the matter now, Martha?’ inquired the locksmith.

To which Martha rejoined, ‘Oh! don’t speak to me,’ and protested in agony that if anybody had told her so, she wouldn’t have believed it.

‘But, Martha,’ said Gabriel, putting himself in the way as she was moving off with the aid of Dolly’s shoulder, ‘wouldn’t have believed what? Tell me what’s wrong now. Do tell me. Upon my soul I don’t know. Do YOU know, child? Damme!’ cried the locksmith, plucking at his wig in a kind of frenzy, ‘nobody does know, I verily believe, but Miggs!’

‘Miggs,’ said Mrs Varden faintly, and with symptoms of approaching incoherence, ‘is attached to me, and that is sufficient to draw down hatred upon her in this house. She is a comfort to me, whatever she may be to others.’

‘She’s no comfort to me,’ cried Gabriel, made bold by despair. ‘She’s the misery of my life. She’s all the plagues of Egypt in one.’

‘She’s considered so, I have no doubt,’ said Mrs Varden. ‘I was prepared for that; it’s natural; it’s of a piece with the rest. When you taunt me as you do to my face, how can I wonder that you taunt her behind her back!’ And here the incoherence coming on very strong, Mrs Varden wept, and laughed, and sobbed, and shivered, and hiccoughed, and choked; and said she knew it was very foolish but she couldn’t help it; and that when she was dead and gone, perhaps they would be sorry for it—which really under the circumstances did not appear quite so probable as she seemed to think—with a great deal more to the same effect. In a word, she passed with great decency through all the ceremonies incidental to such occasions; and being supported upstairs, was deposited in a highly spasmodic state on her own bed, where Miss Miggs shortly afterwards flung herself upon the body.

The philosophy of all this was, that Mrs Varden wanted to go to Chigwell; that she did not want to make any concession or explanation; that she would only go on being implored and entreated so to do; and that she would accept no other terms. Accordingly, after a vast amount of moaning and crying upstairs, and much damping of foreheads, and vinegaring of temples, and hartshorning of noses, and so forth; and after most pathetic adjurations from Miggs, assisted by warm brandy-and-water not over-weak, and divers other cordials, also of a stimulating quality, administered at first in teaspoonfuls and afterwards in increasing doses, and of which Miss Miggs herself partook as a preventive measure (for fainting is infectious); after all these remedies, and many more too numerous to mention, but not to take, had been applied; and many verbal consolations, moral, religious, and miscellaneous, had been super-added thereto; the locksmith humbled himself, and the end was gained.

‘If it’s only for the sake of peace and quietness, father,’ said Dolly, urging him to go upstairs.

‘Oh, Doll, Doll,’ said her good-natured father. ‘If you ever have a husband of your own—’

Dolly glanced at the glass.

‘—Well, WHEN you have,’ said the locksmith, ‘never faint, my darling. More domestic unhappiness has come of easy fainting, Doll, than from all the greater passions put together. Remember that, my dear, if you would be really happy, which you never can be, if your husband isn’t. And a word in your ear, my precious. Never have a Miggs about you!’

With this advice he kissed his blooming daughter on the cheek, and slowly repaired to Mrs Varden’s room; where that lady, lying all pale and languid on her couch, was refreshing herself with a sight of her last new bonnet, which Miggs, as a means of calming her scattered spirits, displayed to the best advantage at her bedside.

‘Here’s master, mim,’ said Miggs. ‘Oh, what a happiness it is when man and wife come round again! Oh gracious, to think that him and her should ever have a word together!’ In the energy of these sentiments, which were uttered as an apostrophe to the Heavens in general, Miss Miggs perched the bonnet on the top of her own head, and folding her hands, turned on her tears.

‘I can’t help it,’ cried Miggs. ‘I couldn’t, if I was to be drownded in ‘em. She has such a forgiving spirit! She’ll forget all that has passed, and go along with you, sir—Oh, if it was to the world’s end, she’d go along with you.’

Mrs Varden with a faint smile gently reproved her attendant for this enthusiasm, and reminded her at the same time that she was far too unwell to venture out that day.

‘Oh no, you’re not, mim, indeed you’re not,’ said Miggs; ‘I repeal to master; master knows you’re not, mim. The hair, and motion of the shay, will do you good, mim, and you must not give way, you must not raly. She must keep up, mustn’t she, sir, for all our sakes? I was a telling her that, just now. She must remember us, even if she forgets herself. Master will persuade you, mim, I’m sure. There’s Miss Dolly’s a-going you know, and master, and you, and all so happy and so comfortable. Oh!’ cried Miggs, turning on the tears again, previous to quitting the room in great emotion, ‘I never see such a blessed one as she is for the forgiveness of her spirit, I never, never, never did. Not more did master neither; no, nor no one—never!’

For five minutes or thereabouts, Mrs Varden remained mildly opposed to all her husband’s prayers that she would oblige him by taking a day’s pleasure, but relenting at length, she suffered herself to be persuaded, and granting him her free forgiveness (the merit whereof, she meekly said, rested with the Manual and not with her), desired that Miggs might come and help her dress. The handmaid attended promptly, and it is but justice to their joint exertions to record that, when the good lady came downstairs in course of time, completely decked out for the journey, she really looked as if nothing had happened, and appeared in the very best health imaginable.

As to Dolly, there she was again, the very pink and pattern of good looks, in a smart little cherry-coloured mantle, with a hood of the same drawn over her head, and upon the top of that hood, a little straw hat trimmed with cherry-coloured ribbons, and worn the merest trifle on one side—just enough in short to make it the wickedest and most provoking head-dress that ever malicious milliner devised. And not to speak of the manner in which these cherry-coloured decorations brightened her eyes, or vied with her lips, or shed a new bloom on her face, she wore such a cruel little muff, and such a heart-rending pair of shoes, and was so surrounded and hemmed in, as it were, by aggravations of all kinds, that when Mr Tappettit, holding the horse’s head, saw her come out of the house alone, such impulses came over him to decoy her into the chaise and drive off like mad, that he would unquestionably have done it, but for certain uneasy doubts besetting him as to the shortest way to Gretna Green; whether it was up the street or down, or up the right-hand turning or the left; and whether, supposing all the turnpikes to be carried by storm, the blacksmith in the end would marry them on credit; which by reason of his clerical office appeared, even to his excited imagination, so unlikely, that he hesitated. And while he stood hesitating, and looking post-chaises-and-six at Dolly, out came his master and his mistress, and the constant Miggs, and the opportunity was gone for ever. For now the chaise creaked upon its springs, and Mrs Varden was inside; and now it creaked again, and more than ever, and the locksmith was inside; and now it bounded once, as if its heart beat lightly, and Dolly was inside; and now it was gone and its place was empty, and he and that dreary Miggs were standing in the street together.

The hearty locksmith was in as good a humour as if nothing had occurred for the last twelve months to put him out of his way, Dolly was all smiles and graces, and Mrs Varden was agreeable beyond all precedent. As they jogged through the streets talking of this thing and of that, who should be descried upon the pavement but that very coachmaker, looking so genteel that nobody would have believed he had ever had anything to do with a coach but riding in it, and bowing like any nobleman. To be sure Dolly was confused when she bowed again, and to be sure the cherry-coloured ribbons trembled a little when she met his mournful eye, which seemed to say, ‘I have kept my word, I have begun, the business is going to the devil, and you’re the cause of it.’ There he stood, rooted to the ground: as Dolly said, like a statue; and as Mrs Varden said, like a pump; till they turned the corner: and when her father thought it was like his impudence, and her mother wondered what he meant by it, Dolly blushed again till her very hood was pale.

But on they went, not the less merrily for this, and there was the locksmith in the incautious fulness of his heart ‘pulling-up’ at all manner of places, and evincing a most intimate acquaintance with all the taverns on the road, and all the landlords and all the landladies, with whom, indeed, the little horse was on equally friendly terms, for he kept on stopping of his own accord. Never were people so glad to see other people as these landlords and landladies were to behold Mr Varden and Mrs Varden and Miss Varden; and wouldn’t they get out, said one; and they really must walk upstairs, said another; and she would take it ill and be quite certain they were proud if they wouldn’t have a little taste of something, said a third; and so on, that it was really quite a Progress rather than a ride, and one continued scene of hospitality from beginning to end. It was pleasant enough to be held in such esteem, not to mention the refreshments; so Mrs Varden said nothing at the time, and was all affability and delight—but such a body of evidence as she collected against the unfortunate locksmith that day, to be used thereafter as occasion might require, never was got together for matrimonial purposes.

In course of time—and in course of a pretty long time too, for these agreeable interruptions delayed them not a little,—they arrived upon the skirts of the Forest, and riding pleasantly on among the trees, came at last to the Maypole, where the locksmith’s cheerful ‘Yoho!’ speedily brought to the porch old John, and after him young Joe, both of whom were so transfixed at sight of the ladies, that for a moment they were perfectly unable to give them any welcome, and could do nothing but stare.

It was only for a moment, however, that Joe forgot himself, for speedily reviving he thrust his drowsy father aside—to Mr Willet’s mighty and inexpressible indignation—and darting out, stood ready to help them to alight. It was necessary for Dolly to get out first. Joe had her in his arms;—yes, though for a space of time no longer than you could count one in, Joe had her in his arms. Here was a glimpse of happiness!

It would be difficult to describe what a flat and commonplace affair the helping Mrs Varden out afterwards was, but Joe did it, and did it too with the best grace in the world. Then old John, who, entertaining a dull and foggy sort of idea that Mrs Varden wasn’t fond of him, had been in some doubt whether she might not have come for purposes of assault and battery, took courage, hoped she was well, and offered to conduct her into the house. This tender being amicably received, they marched in together; Joe and Dolly followed, arm-in-arm, (happiness again!) and Varden brought up the rear.

Old John would have it that they must sit in the bar, and nobody objecting, into the bar they went. All bars are snug places, but the Maypole’s was the very snuggest, cosiest, and completest bar, that ever the wit of man devised. Such amazing bottles in old oaken pigeon-holes; such gleaming tankards dangling from pegs at about the same inclination as thirsty men would hold them to their lips; such sturdy little Dutch kegs ranged in rows on shelves; so many lemons hanging in separate nets, and forming the fragrant grove already mentioned in this chronicle, suggestive, with goodly loaves of snowy sugar stowed away hard by, of punch, idealised beyond all mortal knowledge; such closets, such presses, such drawers full of pipes, such places for putting things away in hollow window-seats, all crammed to the throat with eatables, drinkables, or savoury condiments; lastly, and to crown all, as typical of the immense resources of the establishment, and its defiances to all visitors to cut and come again, such a stupendous cheese!

It is a poor heart that never rejoices—it must have been the poorest, weakest, and most watery heart that ever beat, which would not have warmed towards the Maypole bar. Mrs Varden’s did directly. She could no more have reproached John Willet among those household gods, the kegs and bottles, lemons, pipes, and cheese, than she could have stabbed him with his own bright carving-knife. The order for dinner too—it might have soothed a savage. ‘A bit of fish,’ said John to the cook, ‘and some lamb chops (breaded, with plenty of ketchup), and a good salad, and a roast spring chicken, with a dish of sausages and mashed potatoes, or something of that sort.’ Something of that sort! The resources of these inns! To talk carelessly about dishes, which in themselves were a first-rate holiday kind of dinner, suitable to one’s wedding-day, as something of that sort: meaning, if you can’t get a spring chicken, any other trifle in the way of poultry will do—such as a peacock, perhaps! The kitchen too, with its great broad cavernous chimney; the kitchen, where nothing in the way of cookery seemed impossible; where you could believe in anything to eat, they chose to tell you of. Mrs Varden returned from the contemplation of these wonders to the bar again, with a head quite dizzy and bewildered. Her housekeeping capacity was not large enough to comprehend them. She was obliged to go to sleep. Waking was pain, in the midst of such immensity.

Dolly in the meanwhile, whose gay heart and head ran upon other matters, passed out at the garden door, and glancing back now and then (but of course not wondering whether Joe saw her), tripped away by a path across the fields with which she was well acquainted, to discharge her mission at the Warren; and this deponent hath been informed and verily believes, that you might have seen many less pleasant objects than the cherry-coloured mantle and ribbons, as they went fluttering along the green meadows in the bright light of the day, like giddy things as they were.






Chapter 20

The proud consciousness of her trust, and the great importance she derived from it, might have advertised it to all the house if she had had to run the gauntlet of its inhabitants; but as Dolly had played in every dull room and passage many and many a time, when a child, and had ever since been the humble friend of Miss Haredale, whose foster-sister she was, she was as free of the building as the young lady herself. So, using no greater precaution than holding her breath and walking on tiptoe as she passed the library door, she went straight to Emma’s room as a privileged visitor.

It was the liveliest room in the building. The chamber was sombre like the rest for the matter of that, but the presence of youth and beauty would make a prison cheerful (saving alas! that confinement withers them), and lend some charms of their own to the gloomiest scene. Birds, flowers, books, drawing, music, and a hundred such graceful tokens of feminine loves and cares, filled it with more of life and human sympathy than the whole house besides seemed made to hold. There was heart in the room; and who that has a heart, ever fails to recognise the silent presence of another!

Dolly had one undoubtedly, and it was not a tough one either, though there was a little mist of coquettishness about it, such as sometimes surrounds that sun of life in its morning, and slightly dims its lustre. Thus, when Emma rose to greet her, and kissing her affectionately on the cheek, told her, in her quiet way, that she had been very unhappy, the tears stood in Dolly’s eyes, and she felt more sorry than she could tell; but next moment she happened to raise them to the glass, and really there was something there so exceedingly agreeable, that as she sighed, she smiled, and felt surprisingly consoled.

‘I have heard about it, miss,’ said Dolly, ‘and it’s very sad indeed, but when things are at the worst they are sure to mend.’

‘But are you sure they are at the worst?’ asked Emma with a smile.

‘Why, I don’t see how they can very well be more unpromising than they are; I really don’t,’ said Dolly. ‘And I bring something to begin with.’

‘Not from Edward?’

Dolly nodded and smiled, and feeling in her pockets (there were pockets in those days) with an affectation of not being able to find what she wanted, which greatly enhanced her importance, at length produced the letter. As Emma hastily broke the seal and became absorbed in its contents, Dolly’s eyes, by one of those strange accidents for which there is no accounting, wandered to the glass again. She could not help wondering whether the coach-maker suffered very much, and quite pitied the poor man.

It was a long letter—a very long letter, written close on all four sides of the sheet of paper, and crossed afterwards; but it was not a consolatory letter, for as Emma read it she stopped from time to time to put her handkerchief to her eyes. To be sure Dolly marvelled greatly to see her in so much distress, for to her thinking a love affair ought to be one of the best jokes, and the slyest, merriest kind of thing in life. But she set it down in her own mind that all this came from Miss Haredale’s being so constant, and that if she would only take on with some other young gentleman—just in the most innocent way possible, to keep her first lover up to the mark—she would find herself inexpressibly comforted.

‘I am sure that’s what I should do if it was me,’ thought Dolly. ‘To make one’s sweetheart miserable is well enough and quite right, but to be made miserable one’s self is a little too much!’

However it wouldn’t do to say so, and therefore she sat looking on in silence. She needed a pretty considerable stretch of patience, for when the long letter had been read once all through it was read again, and when it had been read twice all through it was read again. During this tedious process, Dolly beguiled the time in the most improving manner that occurred to her, by curling her hair on her fingers, with the aid of the looking-glass before mentioned, and giving it some killing twists.

Everything has an end. Even young ladies in love cannot read their letters for ever. In course of time the packet was folded up, and it only remained to write the answer.

But as this promised to be a work of time likewise, Emma said she would put it off until after dinner, and that Dolly must dine with her. As Dolly had made up her mind to do so beforehand, she required very little pressing; and when they had settled this point, they went to walk in the garden.

They strolled up and down the terrace walks, talking incessantly—at least, Dolly never left off once—and making that quarter of the sad and mournful house quite gay. Not that they talked loudly or laughed much, but they were both so very handsome, and it was such a breezy day, and their light dresses and dark curls appeared so free and joyous in their abandonment, and Emma was so fair, and Dolly so rosy, and Emma so delicately shaped, and Dolly so plump, and—in short, there are no flowers for any garden like such flowers, let horticulturists say what they may, and both house and garden seemed to know it, and to brighten up sensibly.

After this, came the dinner and the letter writing, and some more talking, in the course of which Miss Haredale took occasion to charge upon Dolly certain flirtish and inconstant propensities, which accusations Dolly seemed to think very complimentary indeed, and to be mightily amused with. Finding her quite incorrigible in this respect, Emma suffered her to depart; but not before she had confided to her that important and never-sufficiently-to-be-taken-care-of answer, and endowed her moreover with a pretty little bracelet as a keepsake. Having clasped it on her arm, and again advised her half in jest and half in earnest to amend her roguish ways, for she knew she was fond of Joe at heart (which Dolly stoutly denied, with a great many haughty protestations that she hoped she could do better than that indeed! and so forth), she bade her farewell; and after calling her back to give her more supplementary messages for Edward, than anybody with tenfold the gravity of Dolly Varden could be reasonably expected to remember, at length dismissed her.

Dolly bade her good bye, and tripping lightly down the stairs arrived at the dreaded library door, and was about to pass it again on tiptoe, when it opened, and behold! there stood Mr Haredale. Now, Dolly had from her childhood associated with this gentleman the idea of something grim and ghostly, and being at the moment conscience-stricken besides, the sight of him threw her into such a flurry that she could neither acknowledge his presence nor run away, so she gave a great start, and then with downcast eyes stood still and trembled.

‘Come here, girl,’ said Mr Haredale, taking her by the hand. ‘I want to speak to you.’

‘If you please, sir, I’m in a hurry,’ faltered Dolly, ‘and—you have frightened me by coming so suddenly upon me, sir—I would rather go, sir, if you’ll be so good as to let me.’

‘Immediately,’ said Mr Haredale, who had by this time led her into the room and closed the door. ‘You shall go directly. You have just left Emma?’

‘Yes, sir, just this minute.—Father’s waiting for me, sir, if you’ll please to have the goodness—’

‘I know. I know,’ said Mr Haredale. ‘Answer me a question. What did you bring here to-day?’

‘Bring here, sir?’ faltered Dolly.

‘You will tell me the truth, I am sure. Yes.’

Dolly hesitated for a little while, and somewhat emboldened by his manner, said at last, ‘Well then, sir. It was a letter.’

‘From Mr Edward Chester, of course. And you are the bearer of the answer?’

Dolly hesitated again, and not being able to decide upon any other course of action, burst into tears.

‘You alarm yourself without cause,’ said Mr Haredale. ‘Why are you so foolish? Surely you can answer me. You know that I have but to put the question to Emma and learn the truth directly. Have you the answer with you?’

Dolly had what is popularly called a spirit of her own, and being now fairly at bay, made the best of it.

‘Yes, sir,’ she rejoined, trembling and frightened as she was. ‘Yes, sir, I have. You may kill me if you please, sir, but I won’t give it up. I’m very sorry,—but I won’t. There, sir.’

‘I commend your firmness and your plain-speaking,’ said Mr Haredale. ‘Rest assured that I have as little desire to take your letter as your life. You are a very discreet messenger and a good girl.’

Not feeling quite certain, as she afterwards said, whether he might not be ‘coming over her’ with these compliments, Dolly kept as far from him as she could, cried again, and resolved to defend her pocket (for the letter was there) to the last extremity.

‘I have some design,’ said Mr Haredale after a short silence, during which a smile, as he regarded her, had struggled through the gloom and melancholy that was natural to his face, ‘of providing a companion for my niece; for her life is a very lonely one. Would you like the office? You are the oldest friend she has, and the best entitled to it.’

‘I don’t know, sir,’ answered Dolly, not sure but he was bantering her; ‘I can’t say. I don’t know what they might wish at home. I couldn’t give an opinion, sir.’

‘If your friends had no objection, would you have any?’ said Mr Haredale. ‘Come. There’s a plain question; and easy to answer.’

‘None at all that I know of sir,’ replied Dolly. ‘I should be very glad to be near Miss Emma of course, and always am.’

‘That’s well,’ said Mr Haredale. ‘That is all I had to say. You are anxious to go. Don’t let me detain you.’

Dolly didn’t let him, nor did she wait for him to try, for the words had no sooner passed his lips than she was out of the room, out of the house, and in the fields again.

The first thing to be done, of course, when she came to herself and considered what a flurry she had been in, was to cry afresh; and the next thing, when she reflected how well she had got over it, was to laugh heartily. The tears once banished gave place to the smiles, and at last Dolly laughed so much that she was fain to lean against a tree, and give vent to her exultation. When she could laugh no longer, and was quite tired, she put her head-dress to rights, dried her eyes, looked back very merrily and triumphantly at the Warren chimneys, which were just visible, and resumed her walk.

The twilight had come on, and it was quickly growing dusk, but the path was so familiar to her from frequent traversing that she hardly thought of this, and certainly felt no uneasiness at being left alone. Moreover, there was the bracelet to admire; and when she had given it a good rub, and held it out at arm’s length, it sparkled and glittered so beautifully on her wrist, that to look at it in every point of view and with every possible turn of the arm, was quite an absorbing business. There was the letter too, and it looked so mysterious and knowing, when she took it out of her pocket, and it held, as she knew, so much inside, that to turn it over and over, and think about it, and wonder how it began, and how it ended, and what it said all through, was another matter of constant occupation. Between the bracelet and the letter, there was quite enough to do without thinking of anything else; and admiring each by turns, Dolly went on gaily.

As she passed through a wicket-gate to where the path was narrow, and lay between two hedges garnished here and there with trees, she heard a rustling close at hand, which brought her to a sudden stop. She listened. All was very quiet, and she went on again—not absolutely frightened, but a little quicker than before perhaps, and possibly not quite so much at her ease, for a check of that kind is startling.

She had no sooner moved on again, than she was conscious of the same sound, which was like that of a person tramping stealthily among bushes and brushwood. Looking towards the spot whence it appeared to come, she almost fancied she could make out a crouching figure. She stopped again. All was quiet as before. On she went once more—decidedly faster now—and tried to sing softly to herself. It must be the wind.

But how came the wind to blow only when she walked, and cease when she stood still? She stopped involuntarily as she made the reflection, and the rustling noise stopped likewise. She was really frightened now, and was yet hesitating what to do, when the bushes crackled and snapped, and a man came plunging through them, close before her.