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.
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?
‘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.