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Chapter 10

  • It was on one of those mornings, common in early spring, when the year, fickl_nd changeable in its youth like all other created things, is undecide_hether to step backward into winter or forward into summer, and in it_ncertainty inclines now to the one and now to the other, and now to both a_nce—wooing summer in the sunshine, and lingering still with winter in th_hade—it was, in short, on one of those mornings, when it is hot and cold, we_nd dry, bright and lowering, sad and cheerful, withering and genial, in th_ompass of one short hour, that old John Willet, who was dropping asleep ove_he copper boiler, was roused by the sound of a horse’s feet, and glancing ou_t window, beheld a traveller of goodly promise, checking his bridle at th_aypole door.
  • He was none of your flippant young fellows, who would call for a tankard o_ulled ale, and make themselves as much at home as if they had ordered _ogshead of wine; none of your audacious young swaggerers, who would eve_enetrate into the bar—that solemn sanctuary—and, smiting old John upon th_ack, inquire if there was never a pretty girl in the house, and where he hi_is little chambermaids, with a hundred other impertinences of that nature; none of your free-and-easy companions, who would scrape their boots upon th_iredogs in the common room, and be not at all particular on the subject o_pittoons; none of your unconscionable blades, requiring impossible chops, an_aking unheard-of pickles for granted. He was a staid, grave, placi_entleman, something past the prime of life, yet upright in his carriage, fo_ll that, and slim as a greyhound. He was well-mounted upon a sturdy chestnu_ob, and had the graceful seat of an experienced horseman; while his ridin_ear, though free from such fopperies as were then in vogue, was handsome an_ell chosen. He wore a riding-coat of a somewhat brighter green than migh_ave been expected to suit the taste of a gentleman of his years, with _hort, black velvet cape, and laced pocket-holes and cuffs, all of a jaunt_ashion; his linen, too, was of the finest kind, worked in a rich pattern a_he wrists and throat, and scrupulously white. Although he seemed, judgin_rom the mud he had picked up on the way, to have come from London, his hors_as as smooth and cool as his own iron-grey periwig and pigtail. Neither ma_or beast had turned a single hair; and saving for his soiled skirts an_patter-dashes, this gentleman, with his blooming face, white teeth, exactly- ordered dress, and perfect calmness, might have come from making an elaborat_nd leisurely toilet, to sit for an equestrian portrait at old John Willet’_ate.
  • It must not be supposed that John observed these several characteristics b_ther than very slow degrees, or that he took in more than half a one at _ime, or that he even made up his mind upon that, without a great deal of ver_erious consideration. Indeed, if he had been distracted in the first instanc_y questionings and orders, it would have taken him at the least a fortnigh_o have noted what is here set down; but it happened that the gentleman, bein_truck with the old house, or with the plump pigeons which were skimming an_urtseying about it, or with the tall maypole, on the top of which _eathercock, which had been out of order for fifteen years, performed _erpetual walk to the music of its own creaking, sat for some little tim_ooking round in silence. Hence John, standing with his hand upon the horse’_ridle, and his great eyes on the rider, and with nothing passing to diver_is thoughts, had really got some of these little circumstances into his brai_y the time he was called upon to speak.
  • ‘A quaint place this,’ said the gentleman—and his voice was as rich as hi_ress. ‘Are you the landlord?’
  • ‘At your service, sir,’ replied John Willet.
  • ‘You can give my horse good stabling, can you, and me an early dinner (I a_ot particular what, so that it be cleanly served), and a decent room of whic_here seems to be no lack in this great mansion,’ said the stranger, agai_unning his eyes over the exterior.
  • ‘You can have, sir,’ returned John with a readiness quite surprising, ‘anything you please.’
  • ‘It’s well I am easily satisfied,’ returned the other with a smile, ‘or tha_ight prove a hardy pledge, my friend.’ And saying so, he dismounted, with th_id of the block before the door, in a twinkling.
  • ‘Halloa there! Hugh!’ roared John. ‘I ask your pardon, sir, for keeping yo_tanding in the porch; but my son has gone to town on business, and the bo_eing, as I may say, of a kind of use to me, I’m rather put out when he’_way. Hugh!—a dreadful idle vagrant fellow, sir, half a gipsy, as _hink—always sleeping in the sun in summer, and in the straw in winter time, sir—Hugh! Dear Lord, to keep a gentleman a waiting here through him!—Hugh! _ish that chap was dead, I do indeed.’
  • ‘Possibly he is,’ returned the other. ‘I should think if he were living, h_ould have heard you by this time.’
  • ‘In his fits of laziness, he sleeps so desperate hard,’ said the distracte_ost, ‘that if you were to fire off cannon-balls into his ears, it wouldn’_ake him, sir.’
  • The guest made no remark upon this novel cure for drowsiness, and recipe fo_aking people lively, but, with his hands clasped behind him, stood in th_orch, very much amused to see old John, with the bridle in his hand, waverin_etween a strong impulse to abandon the animal to his fate, and a hal_isposition to lead him into the house, and shut him up in the parlour, whil_e waited on his master.
  • ‘Pillory the fellow, here he is at last!’ cried John, in the very height an_enith of his distress. ‘Did you hear me a calling, villain?’
  • The figure he addressed made no answer, but putting his hand upon the saddle, sprung into it at a bound, turned the horse’s head towards the stable, and wa_one in an instant.
  • ‘Brisk enough when he is awake,’ said the guest.
  • ‘Brisk enough, sir!’ replied John, looking at the place where the horse ha_een, as if not yet understanding quite, what had become of him. ‘He melts, _hink. He goes like a drop of froth. You look at him, and there he is. Yo_ook at him again, and—there he isn’t.’
  • Having, in the absence of any more words, put this sudden climax to what h_ad faintly intended should be a long explanation of the whole life an_haracter of his man, the oracular John Willet led the gentleman up his wid_ismantled staircase into the Maypole’s best apartment.
  • It was spacious enough in all conscience, occupying the whole depth of th_ouse, and having at either end a great bay window, as large as many moder_ooms; in which some few panes of stained glass, emblazoned with fragments o_rmorial bearings, though cracked, and patched, and shattered, yet remained; attesting, by their presence, that the former owner had made the very ligh_ubservient to his state, and pressed the sun itself into his list o_latterers; bidding it, when it shone into his chamber, reflect the badges o_is ancient family, and take new hues and colours from their pride.
  • But those were old days, and now every little ray came and went as it would; telling the plain, bare, searching truth. Although the best room of the inn, it had the melancholy aspect of grandeur in decay, and was much too vast fo_omfort. Rich rustling hangings, waving on the walls; and, better far, th_ustling of youth and beauty’s dress; the light of women’s eyes, outshinin_he tapers and their own rich jewels; the sound of gentle tongues, and music, and the tread of maiden feet, had once been there, and filled it with delight.
  • But they were gone, and with them all its gladness. It was no longer a home; children were never born and bred there; the fireside had become mercenary—_omething to be bought and sold—a very courtezan: let who would die, or si_eside, or leave it, it was still the same—it missed nobody, cared for nobody, had equal warmth and smiles for all. God help the man whose heart ever change_ith the world, as an old mansion when it becomes an inn!
  • No effort had been made to furnish this chilly waste, but before the broa_himney a colony of chairs and tables had been planted on a square of carpet, flanked by a ghostly screen, enriched with figures, grinning and grotesque.
  • After lighting with his own hands the faggots which were heaped upon th_earth, old John withdrew to hold grave council with his cook, touching th_tranger’s entertainment; while the guest himself, seeing small comfort in th_et unkindled wood, opened a lattice in the distant window, and basked in _ickly gleam of cold March sun.
  • Leaving the window now and then, to rake the crackling logs together, or pac_he echoing room from end to end, he closed it when the fire was quite burn_p, and having wheeled the easiest chair into the warmest corner, summone_ohn Willet.
  • ‘Sir,’ said John.
  • He wanted pen, ink, and paper. There was an old standish on the mantelshel_ontaining a dusty apology for all three. Having set this before him, th_andlord was retiring, when he motioned him to stay.
  • ‘There’s a house not far from here,’ said the guest when he had written a fe_ines, ‘which you call the Warren, I believe?’
  • As this was said in the tone of one who knew the fact, and asked the questio_s a thing of course, John contented himself with nodding his head in th_ffirmative; at the same time taking one hand out of his pockets to coug_ehind, and then putting it in again.
  • ‘I want this note’—said the guest, glancing on what he had written, an_olding it, ‘conveyed there without loss of time, and an answer brought bac_ere. Have you a messenger at hand?’
  • John was thoughtful for a minute or thereabouts, and then said Yes.
  • ‘Let me see him,’ said the guest.
  • This was disconcerting; for Joe being out, and Hugh engaged in rubbing dow_he chestnut cob, he designed sending on the errand, Barnaby, who had jus_hen arrived in one of his rambles, and who, so that he thought himsel_mployed on a grave and serious business, would go anywhere.
  • ‘Why the truth is,’ said John after a long pause, ‘that the person who’d g_uickest, is a sort of natural, as one may say, sir; and though quick of foot, and as much to be trusted as the post itself, he’s not good at talking, bein_ouched and flighty, sir.’
  • ‘You don’t,’ said the guest, raising his eyes to John’s fat face, ‘you don’_ean—what’s the fellow’s name—you don’t mean Barnaby?’
  • ‘Yes, I do,’ returned the landlord, his features turning quite expressive wit_urprise.
  • ‘How comes he to be here?’ inquired the guest, leaning back in his chair; speaking in the bland, even tone, from which he never varied; and with th_ame soft, courteous, never-changing smile upon his face. ‘I saw him in Londo_ast night.’
  • ‘He’s, for ever, here one hour, and there the next,’ returned old John, afte_he usual pause to get the question in his mind. ‘Sometimes he walks, an_ometimes runs. He’s known along the road by everybody, and sometimes come_ere in a cart or chaise, and sometimes riding double. He comes and goes, through wind, rain, snow, and hail, and on the darkest nights. Nothing hurt_im.’
  • ‘He goes often to the Warren, does he not?’ said the guest carelessly. ‘I see_o remember his mother telling me something to that effect yesterday. But _as not attending to the good woman much.’
  • ‘You’re right, sir,’ John made answer, ‘he does. His father, sir, was murdere_n that house.’
  • ‘So I have heard,’ returned the guest, taking a gold toothpick from his pocke_ith the same sweet smile. ‘A very disagreeable circumstance for the family.’
  • ‘Very,’ said John with a puzzled look, as if it occurred to him, dimly an_far off, that this might by possibility be a cool way of treating th_ubject.
  • ‘All the circumstances after a murder,’ said the guest soliloquising, ‘must b_readfully unpleasant—so much bustle and disturbance—no repose—a constan_welling upon one subject—and the running in and out, and up and down stairs, intolerable. I wouldn’t have such a thing happen to anybody I was nearl_nterested in, on any account. ‘Twould be enough to wear one’s life out.—Yo_ere going to say, friend—’ he added, turning to John again.
  • ‘Only that Mrs Rudge lives on a little pension from the family, and tha_arnaby’s as free of the house as any cat or dog about it,’ answered John.
  • ‘Shall he do your errand, sir?’
  • ‘Oh yes,’ replied the guest. ‘Oh certainly. Let him do it by all means. Pleas_o bring him here that I may charge him to be quick. If he objects to come yo_ay tell him it’s Mr Chester. He will remember my name, I dare say.’
  • John was so very much astonished to find who his visitor was, that he coul_xpress no astonishment at all, by looks or otherwise, but left the room as i_e were in the most placid and imperturbable of all possible conditions. I_as been reported that when he got downstairs, he looked steadily at th_oiler for ten minutes by the clock, and all that time never once left of_haking his head; for which statement there would seem to be some ground o_ruth and feasibility, inasmuch as that interval of time did certainly elapse, before he returned with Barnaby to the guest’s apartment.
  • ‘Come hither, lad,’ said Mr Chester. ‘You know Mr Geoffrey Haredale?’
  • Barnaby laughed, and looked at the landlord as though he would say, ‘You hea_im?’ John, who was greatly shocked at this breach of decorum, clapped hi_inger to his nose, and shook his head in mute remonstrance.
  • ‘He knows him, sir,’ said John, frowning aside at Barnaby, ‘as well as you o_ do.’
  • ‘I haven’t the pleasure of much acquaintance with the gentleman,’ returned hi_uest. ‘You may have. Limit the comparison to yourself, my friend.’
  • Although this was said with the same easy affability, and the same smile, Joh_elt himself put down, and laying the indignity at Barnaby’s door, determine_o kick his raven, on the very first opportunity.
  • ‘Give that,’ said the guest, who had by this time sealed the note, and wh_eckoned his messenger towards him as he spoke, ‘into Mr Haredale’s own hands.
  • Wait for an answer, and bring it back to me here. If you should find that M_aredale is engaged just now, tell him—can he remember a message, landlord?’
  • ‘When he chooses, sir,’ replied John. ‘He won’t forget this one.’
  • ‘How are you sure of that?’
  • John merely pointed to him as he stood with his head bent forward, and hi_arnest gaze fixed closely on his questioner’s face; and nodded sagely.
  • ‘Tell him then, Barnaby, should he be engaged,’ said Mr Chester, ‘that I shal_e glad to wait his convenience here, and to see him (if he will call) at an_ime this evening.—At the worst I can have a bed here, Willet, I suppose?’
  • Old John, immensely flattered by the personal notoriety implied in thi_amiliar form of address, answered, with something like a knowing look, ‘_hould believe you could, sir,’ and was turning over in his mind various form_f eulogium, with the view of selecting one appropriate to the qualities o_is best bed, when his ideas were put to flight by Mr Chester giving Barnab_he letter, and bidding him make all speed away.
  • ‘Speed!’ said Barnaby, folding the little packet in his breast, ‘Speed! If yo_ant to see hurry and mystery, come here. Here!’
  • With that, he put his hand, very much to John Willet’s horror, on the guest’_ine broadcloth sleeve, and led him stealthily to the back window.
  • ‘Look down there,’ he said softly; ‘do you mark how they whisper in eac_ther’s ears; then dance and leap, to make believe they are in sport? Do yo_ee how they stop for a moment, when they think there is no one looking, an_utter among themselves again; and then how they roll and gambol, delighte_ith the mischief they’ve been plotting? Look at ’em now. See how they whir_nd plunge. And now they stop again, and whisper, cautiously together—littl_hinking, mind, how often I have lain upon the grass and watched them. I sa_hat is it that they plot and hatch? Do you know?’
  • ‘They are only clothes,’ returned the guest, ‘such as we wear; hanging o_hose lines to dry, and fluttering in the wind.’
  • ‘Clothes!’ echoed Barnaby, looking close into his face, and falling quickl_ack. ‘Ha ha! Why, how much better to be silly, than as wise as you! You don’_ee shadowy people there, like those that live in sleep—not you. Nor eyes i_he knotted panes of glass, nor swift ghosts when it blows hard, nor do yo_ear voices in the air, nor see men stalking in the sky—not you! I lead _errier life than you, with all your cleverness. You’re the dull men. We’r_he bright ones. Ha! ha! I’ll not change with you, clever as you are,—not I!’
  • With that, he waved his hat above his head, and darted off.
  • ‘A strange creature, upon my word!’ said the guest, pulling out a handsom_ox, and taking a pinch of snuff.
  • ‘He wants imagination,’ said Mr Willet, very slowly, and after a long silence; ‘that’s what he wants. I’ve tried to instil it into him, many and many’s th_ime; but’—John added this in confidence— ‘he an’t made for it; that’s th_act.’
  • To record that Mr Chester smiled at John’s remark would be little to th_urpose, for he preserved the same conciliatory and pleasant look at al_imes. He drew his chair nearer to the fire though, as a kind of hint that h_ould prefer to be alone, and John, having no reasonable excuse for remaining, left him to himself.
  • Very thoughtful old John Willet was, while the dinner was preparing; and i_is brain were ever less clear at one time than another, it is but reasonabl_o suppose that he addled it in no slight degree by shaking his head so muc_hat day. That Mr Chester, between whom and Mr Haredale, it was notorious t_ll the neighbourhood, a deep and bitter animosity existed, should come dow_here for the sole purpose, as it seemed, of seeing him, and should choose th_aypole for their place of meeting, and should send to him express, wer_tumbling blocks John could not overcome. The only resource he had, was t_onsult the boiler, and wait impatiently for Barnaby’s return.
  • But Barnaby delayed beyond all precedent. The visitor’s dinner was served, removed, his wine was set, the fire replenished, the hearth clean swept; th_ight waned without, it grew dusk, became quite dark, and still no Barnab_ppeared. Yet, though John Willet was full of wonder and misgiving, his gues_at cross-legged in the easy-chair, to all appearance as little ruffled in hi_houghts as in his dress—the same calm, easy, cool gentleman, without a car_r thought beyond his golden toothpick.
  • ‘Barnaby’s late,’ John ventured to observe, as he placed a pair of tarnishe_andlesticks, some three feet high, upon the table, and snuffed the light_hey held.
  • ‘He is rather so,’ replied the guest, sipping his wine. ‘He will not be muc_onger, I dare say.’
  • John coughed and raked the fire together.
  • ‘As your roads bear no very good character, if I may judge from my son’_ishap, though,’ said Mr Chester, ‘and as I have no fancy to be knocked on th_ead—which is not only disconcerting at the moment, but places one, besides, in a ridiculous position with respect to the people who chance to pick on_p—I shall stop here to-night. I think you said you had a bed to spare.’
  • ‘Such a bed, sir,’ returned John Willet; ‘ay, such a bed as few, even of th_entry’s houses, own. A fixter here, sir. I’ve heard say that bedstead is nig_wo hundred years of age. Your noble son—a fine young gentleman—slept in i_ast, sir, half a year ago.’
  • ‘Upon my life, a recommendation!’ said the guest, shrugging his shoulders an_heeling his chair nearer to the fire. ‘See that it be well aired, Mr Willet, and let a blazing fire be lighted there at once. This house is something dam_nd chilly.’
  • John raked the faggots up again, more from habit than presence of mind, or an_eference to this remark, and was about to withdraw, when a bounding step wa_eard upon the stair, and Barnaby came panting in.
  • ‘He’ll have his foot in the stirrup in an hour’s time,’ he cried, advancing.
  • ‘He has been riding hard all day—has just come home— but will be in the saddl_gain as soon as he has eat and drank, to meet his loving friend.’
  • ‘Was that his message?’ asked the visitor, looking up, but without th_mallest discomposure—or at least without the show of any.
  • ‘All but the last words,’ Barnaby rejoined. ‘He meant those. I saw that, i_is face.’
  • ‘This for your pains,’ said the other, putting money in his hand, and glancin_t him steadfastly.’ This for your pains, sharp Barnaby.’
  • ‘For Grip, and me, and Hugh, to share among us,’ he rejoined, putting it up, and nodding, as he counted it on his fingers. ‘Grip one, me two, Hugh three; the dog, the goat, the cats—well, we shall spend it pretty soon, I warn you.
  • Stay.—Look. Do you wise men see nothing there, now?’
  • He bent eagerly down on one knee, and gazed intently at the smoke, which wa_olling up the chimney in a thick black cloud. John Willet, who appeared t_onsider himself particularly and chiefly referred to under the term wise men, looked that way likewise, and with great solidity of feature.
  • ‘Now, where do they go to, when they spring so fast up there,’ asked Barnaby; ‘eh? Why do they tread so closely on each other’s heels, and why are the_lways in a hurry—which is what you blame me for, when I only take pattern b_hese busy folk about me? More of ’em! catching to each other’s skirts; and a_ast as they go, others come! What a merry dance it is! I would that Grip an_ could frisk like that!’
  • ‘What has he in that basket at his back?’ asked the guest after a few moments, during which Barnaby was still bending down to look higher up the chimney, an_arnestly watching the smoke.
  • ‘In this?’ he answered, jumping up, before John Willet could reply— shaking i_s he spoke, and stooping his head to listen. ‘In this! What is there here?
  • Tell him!’
  • ‘A devil, a devil, a devil!’ cried a hoarse voice.
  • ‘Here’s money!’ said Barnaby, chinking it in his hand, ‘money for a treat, Grip!’
  • ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!’ replied the raven, ‘keep up your spirits. Never sa_ie. Bow, wow, wow!’
  • Mr Willet, who appeared to entertain strong doubts whether a customer in _aced coat and fine linen could be supposed to have any acquaintance even wit_he existence of such unpolite gentry as the bird claimed to belong to, too_arnaby off at this juncture, with the view of preventing any other imprope_eclarations, and quitted the room with his very best bow.