As soon as the business of the day was over, the locksmith sallied forth, alone, to visit the wounded gentleman and ascertain the progress of hi_ecovery. The house where he had left him was in a by-street in Southwark, no_ar from London Bridge; and thither he hied with all speed, bent upo_eturning with as little delay as might be, and getting to bed betimes.
The evening was boisterous—scarcely better than the previous night had been.
It was not easy for a stout man like Gabriel to keep his legs at the stree_orners, or to make head against the high wind, which often fairly got th_etter of him, and drove him back some paces, or, in defiance of all hi_nergy, forced him to take shelter in an arch or doorway until the fury of th_ust was spent. Occasionally a hat or wig, or both, came spinning an_rundling past him, like a mad thing; while the more serious spectacle o_alling tiles and slates, or of masses of brick and mortar or fragments o_tone-coping rattling upon the pavement near at hand, and splitting int_ragments, did not increase the pleasure of the journey, or make the way les_reary.
‘A trying night for a man like me to walk in!’ said the locksmith, as h_nocked softly at the widow’s door. ‘I’d rather be in old John’s chimney- corner, faith!’
‘Who’s there?’ demanded a woman’s voice from within. Being answered, it adde_ hasty word of welcome, and the door was quickly opened.
She was about forty—perhaps two or three years older—with a cheerful aspect, and a face that had once been pretty. It bore traces of affliction and care, but they were of an old date, and Time had smoothed them. Any one who ha_estowed but a casual glance on Barnaby might have known that this was hi_other, from the strong resemblance between them; but where in his face ther_as wildness and vacancy, in hers there was the patient composure of lon_ffort and quiet resignation.
One thing about this face was very strange and startling. You could not loo_pon it in its most cheerful mood without feeling that it had som_xtraordinary capacity of expressing terror. It was not on the surface. It wa_n no one feature that it lingered. You could not take the eyes or mouth, o_ines upon the cheek, and say, if this or that were otherwise, it would not b_o. Yet there it always lurked—something for ever dimly seen, but ever there, and never absent for a moment. It was the faintest, palest shadow of som_ook, to which an instant of intense and most unutterable horror only coul_ave given birth; but indistinct and feeble as it was, it did suggest wha_hat look must have been, and fixed it in the mind as if it had had existenc_n a dream.
More faintly imaged, and wanting force and purpose, as it were, because of hi_arkened intellect, there was this same stamp upon the son. Seen in a picture, it must have had some legend with it, and would have haunted those who looke_pon the canvas. They who knew the Maypole story, and could remember what th_idow was, before her husband’s and his master’s murder, understood it well.
They recollected how the change had come, and could call to mind that when he_on was born, upon the very day the deed was known, he bore upon his wris_hat seemed a smear of blood but half washed out.
‘God save you, neighbour!’ said the locksmith, as he followed her, with th_ir of an old friend, into a little parlour where a cheerful fire was burning.
‘And you,’ she answered smiling. ‘Your kind heart has brought you here again.
Nothing will keep you at home, I know of old, if there are friends to serve o_omfort, out of doors.’
‘Tut, tut,’ returned the locksmith, rubbing his hands and warming them. ‘Yo_omen are such talkers. What of the patient, neighbour?’
‘He is sleeping now. He was very restless towards daylight, and for some hour_ossed and tumbled sadly. But the fever has left him, and the doctor says h_ill soon mend. He must not be removed until to-morrow.’
‘He has had visitors to-day—humph?’ said Gabriel, slyly.
‘Yes. Old Mr Chester has been here ever since we sent for him, and had no_een gone many minutes when you knocked.’
‘No ladies?’ said Gabriel, elevating his eyebrows and looking disappointed.
‘A letter,’ replied the widow.
‘Come. That’s better than nothing!’ replied the locksmith. ‘Who was th_earer?’
‘Barnaby, of course.’
‘Barnaby’s a jewel!’ said Varden; ‘and comes and goes with ease where we wh_hink ourselves much wiser would make but a poor hand of it. He is not ou_andering, again, I hope?’
‘Thank Heaven he is in his bed; having been up all night, as you know, and o_is feet all day. He was quite tired out. Ah, neighbour, if I could but se_im oftener so—if I could but tame down that terrible restlessness—’
‘In good time,’ said the locksmith, kindly, ‘in good time—don’t be down- hearted. To my mind he grows wiser every day.’
The widow shook her head. And yet, though she knew the locksmith sought t_heer her, and spoke from no conviction of his own, she was glad to hear eve_his praise of her poor benighted son.
‘He will be a ‘cute man yet,’ resumed the locksmith. ‘Take care, when we ar_rowing old and foolish, Barnaby doesn’t put us to the blush, that’s all. Bu_ur other friend,’ he added, looking under the table and about th_loor—‘sharpest and cunningest of all the sharp and cunning ones—where’s he?’
‘In Barnaby’s room,’ rejoined the widow, with a faint smile.
‘Ah! He’s a knowing blade!’ said Varden, shaking his head. ‘I should be sorr_o talk secrets before him. Oh! He’s a deep customer. I’ve no doubt he ca_ead, and write, and cast accounts if he chooses. What was that? Him tappin_t the door?’
‘No,’ returned the widow. ‘It was in the street, I think. Hark! Yes. Ther_gain! ’Tis some one knocking softly at the shutter. Who can it be!’
They had been speaking in a low tone, for the invalid lay overhead, and th_alls and ceilings being thin and poorly built, the sound of their voice_ight otherwise have disturbed his slumber. The party without, whoever it was, could have stood close to the shutter without hearing anything spoken; and, seeing the light through the chinks and finding all so quiet, might have bee_ersuaded that only one person was there.
‘Some thief or ruffian maybe,’ said the locksmith. ‘Give me the light.’
‘No, no,’ she returned hastily. ‘Such visitors have never come to this poo_welling. Do you stay here. You’re within call, at the worst. I would rathe_o myself—alone.’
‘Why?’ said the locksmith, unwillingly relinquishing the candle he had caugh_p from the table.
‘Because—I don’t know why—because the wish is so strong upon me,’ sh_ejoined. ‘There again—do not detain me, I beg of you!’
Gabriel looked at her, in great surprise to see one who was usually so mil_nd quiet thus agitated, and with so little cause. She left the room an_losed the door behind her. She stood for a moment as if hesitating, with he_and upon the lock. In this short interval the knocking came again, and _oice close to the window—a voice the locksmith seemed to recollect, and t_ave some disagreeable association with—whispered ‘Make haste.’
The words were uttered in that low distinct voice which finds its way s_eadily to sleepers’ ears, and wakes them in a fright. For a moment i_tartled even the locksmith; who involuntarily drew back from the window, an_istened.
The wind rumbling in the chimney made it difficult to hear what passed, but h_ould tell that the door was opened, that there was the tread of a man upo_he creaking boards, and then a moment’s silence—broken by a suppresse_omething which was not a shriek, or groan, or cry for help, and yet migh_ave been either or all three; and the words ‘My God!’ uttered in a voice i_hilled him to hear.
He rushed out upon the instant. There, at last, was that dreadful look—th_ery one he seemed to know so well and yet had never seen before—upon he_ace. There she stood, frozen to the ground, gazing with starting eyes, an_ivid cheeks, and every feature fixed and ghastly, upon the man he ha_ncountered in the dark last night. His eyes met those of the locksmith. I_as but a flash, an instant, a breath upon a polished glass, and he was gone.
The locksmith was upon him—had the skirts of his streaming garment almost i_is grasp—when his arms were tightly clutched, and the widow flung hersel_pon the ground before him.
‘The other way—the other way,’ she cried. ‘He went the other way. Turn—turn!’
‘The other way! I see him now,’ rejoined the locksmith, pointing— ‘yonder—there—there is his shadow passing by that light. What— who is this?
Let me go.’
‘Come back, come back!’ exclaimed the woman, clasping him; ‘Do not touch hi_n your life. I charge you, come back. He carries other lives besides his own.
‘What does this mean?’ cried the locksmith.
‘No matter what it means, don’t ask, don’t speak, don’t think about it. He i_ot to be followed, checked, or stopped. Come back!’
The old man looked at her in wonder, as she writhed and clung about him; and, borne down by her passion, suffered her to drag him into the house. It was no_ntil she had chained and double-locked the door, fastened every bolt and ba_ith the heat and fury of a maniac, and drawn him back into the room, that sh_urned upon him, once again, that stony look of horror, and, sinking down int_ chair, covered her face, and shuddered, as though the hand of death were o_er.