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'A strange story!' said the man who had been the cause of the
narration.--'Stranger still if it comes about as you predict. Is
A question so unexpected, nettled Solomon Daisy not a little. By
dint of relating the story very often, and ornamenting it
(according to village report) with a few flourishes suggested by
the various hearers from time to time, he had come by degrees to
tell it with great effect; and 'Is that all?' after the climax, was
not what he was accustomed to.
'Is that all?' he repeated, 'yes, that's all, sir. And enough
too, I think.'
'I think so too. My horse, young man! He is but a hack hired from
a roadside posting house, but he must carry me to London to-
'To-night!' said Joe.
'To-night,' returned the other. 'What do you stare at? This
tavern would seem to be a house of call for all the gaping idlers
of the neighbourhood!'
At this remark, which evidently had reference to the scrutiny he
had undergone, as mentioned in the foregoing chapter, the eyes of
John Willet and his friends were diverted with marvellous rapidity
to the copper boiler again. Not so with Joe, who, being a
mettlesome fellow, returned the stranger's angry glance with a
steady look, and rejoined:
'It is not a very bold thing to wonder at your going on to-night.
Surely you have been asked such a harmless question in an inn
before, and in better weather than this. I thought you mightn't
know the way, as you seem strange to this part.'
'The way--' repeated the other, irritably.
'Yes. DO you know it?'
'I'll--humph!--I'll find it,' replied the nian, waving his hand and
turning on his heel. 'Landlord, take the reckoning here.'
John Willet did as he was desired; for on that point he was seldom
slow, except in the particulars of giving change, and testing the
goodness of any piece of coin that was proffered to him, by the
application of his teeth or his tongue, or some other test, or in
doubtful cases, by a long series of tests terminating in its
rejection. The guest then wrapped his garments about him so as to
shelter himself as effectually as he could from the rough weather,
and without any word or sign of farewell betook himself to the
stableyard. Here Joe (who had left the room on the conclusion of
their short dialogue) was protecting himself and the horse from the
rain under the shelter of an old penthouse roof.
'He's pretty much of my opinion,' said Joe, patting the horse upon
the neck. 'I'll wager that your stopping here to-night would
please him better than it would please me.'
'He and I are of different opinions, as we have been more than once
on our way here,' was the short reply.
'So I was thinking before you came out, for he has felt your spurs,
The stranger adjusted his coat-collar about his face, and made no
'You'll know me again, I see,' he said, marking the young fellow's
earnest gaze, when he had sprung into the saddle.
'The man's worth knowing, master, who travels a road he don't know,
mounted on a jaded horse, and leaves good quarters to do it on such
a night as this.'
'You have sharp eyes and a sharp tongue, I find.'
'Both I hope by nature, but the last grows rusty sometimes for
want of using.'
'Use the first less too, and keep their sharpness for your
sweethearts, boy,' said the man.
So saying he shook his hand from the bridle, struck him roughly on
the head with the butt end of his whip, and galloped away; dashing
through the mud and darkness with a headlong speed, which few badly
mounted horsemen would have cared to venture, even had they been
thoroughly acquainted with the country; and which, to one who knew
nothing of the way he rode, was attended at every step with great
hazard and danger.
The roads, even within twelve miles of London, were at that time
ill paved, seldom repaired, and very badly made. The way this
rider traversed had been ploughed up by the wheels of heavy
waggons, and rendered rotten by the frosts and thaws of the
preceding winter, or possibly of many winters. Great holes and
gaps had been worn into the soil, which, being now filled with
water from the late rains, were not easily distinguishable even by
day; and a plunge into any one of them might have brought down a
surer-footed horse than the poor beast now urged forward to the
utmost extent of his powers. Sharp flints and stones rolled from
under his hoofs continually; the rider could scarcely see beyond
the animal's head, or farther on either side than his own arm
would have extended. At that time, too, all the roads in the
neighbourhood of the metropolis were infested by footpads or
highwaymen, and it was a night, of all others, in which any evil-
disposed person of this class might have pursued his unlawful
calling with little fear of detection.
Still, the traveller dashed forward at the same reckless pace,
regardless alike of the dirt and wet which flew about his head, the
profound darkness of the night, and the probability of encountering
some desperate characters abroad. At every turn and angle, even
where a deviation from the direct course might have been least
expected, and could not possibly be seen until he was close upon
it, he guided the bridle with an unerring hand, and kept the middle
of the road. Thus he sped onward, raising himself in the stirrups,
leaning his body forward until it almost touched the horse's neck,
and flourishing his heavy whip above his head with the fervour of a
There are times when, the elements being in unusual commotion,
those who are bent on daring enterprises, or agitated by great
thoughts, whether of good or evil, feel a mysterious sympathy with
the tumult of nature, and are roused into corresponding violence.
In the midst of thunder, lightning, and storm, many tremendous
deeds have been committed; men, self-possessed before, have given
a sudden loose to passions they could no longer control. The
demons of wrath and despair have striven to emulate those who ride
the whirlwind and direct the storm; and man, lashed into madness
with the roaring winds and boiling waters, has become for the time
as wild and merciless as the elements themselves.
Whether the traveller was possessed by thoughts which the fury of
the night had heated and stimulated into a quicker current, or was
merely impelled by some strong motive to reach his journey's end,
on he swept more like a hunted phantom than a man, nor checked his
pace until, arriving at some cross roads, one of which led by a
longer route to the place whence he had lately started, he bore
down so suddenly upon a vehicle which was coming towards him, that
in the effort to avoid it he well-nigh pulled his horse upon his
haunches, and narrowly escaped being thrown.
'Yoho!' cried the voice of a man. 'What's that? Who goes there?'
'A friend!' replied the traveller.
'A friend!' repeated the voice. 'Who calls himself a friend and
rides like that, abusing Heaven's gifts in the shape of horseflesh,
and endangering, not only his own neck (which might be no great
matter) but the necks of other people?'
'You have a lantern there, I see,' said the traveller dismounting,
'lend it me for a moment. You have wounded my horse, I think, with
your shaft or wheel.'
'Wounded him!' cried the other, 'if I haven't killed him, it's no
fault of yours. What do you mean by galloping along the king's
highway like that, eh?'
'Give me the light,' returned the traveller, snatching it from his
hand, 'and don't ask idle questions of a man who is in no mood for
'If you had said you were in no mood for talking before, I should
perhaps have been in no mood for lighting,' said the voice.
'Hows'ever as it's the poor horse that's damaged and not you, one
of you is welcome to the light at all events--but it's not the
The traveller returned no answer to this speech, but holding the
light near to his panting and reeking beast, examined him in limb
and carcass. Meanwhile, the other man sat very composedly in his
vehicle, which was a kind of chaise with a depository for a large
bag of tools, and watched his proceedings with a careful eye.
The looker-on was a round, red-faced, sturdy yeoman, with a double
chin, and a voice husky with good living, good sleeping, good
humour, and good health. He was past the prime of life, but Father
Time is not always a hard parent, and, though he tarries for none
of his children, often lays his hand lightly upon those who have
used him well; making them old men and women inexorably enough, but
leaving their hearts and spirits young and in full vigour. With
such people the grey head is but the impression of the old fellow's
hand in giving them his blessing, and every wrinkle but a notch in
the quiet calendar of a well-spent life.
The person whom the traveller had so abruptly encountered was of
this kind: bluff, hale, hearty, and in a green old age: at peace
with himself, and evidently disposed to be so with all the world.
Although muffled up in divers coats and handkerchiefs--one of
which, passed over his crown, and tied in a convenient crease of
his double chin, secured his three-cornered hat and bob-wig from
blowing off his head--there was no disguising his plump and
comfortable figure; neither did certain dirty finger-marks upon
his face give it any other than an odd and comical expression,
through which its natural good humour shone with undiminished
'He is not hurt,' said the traveller at length, raising his head
and the lantern together.
'You have found that out at last, have you?' rejoined the old man.
'My eyes have seen more light than yours, but I wouldn't change
'What do you mean?'
'Mean! I could have told you he wasn't hurt, five minutes ago.
Give me the light, friend; ride forward at a gentler pace; and good
In handing up the lantern, the man necessarily cast its rays full
on the speaker's face. Their eyes met at the instant. He suddenly
dropped it and crushed it with his foot.
'Did you never see a locksmith before, that you start as if you had
come upon a ghost?' cried the old man in the chaise, 'or is this,'
he added hastily, thrusting his hand into the tool basket and
drawing out a hammer, 'a scheme for robbing me? I know these
roads, friend. When I travel them, I carry nothing but a few
shillings, and not a crown's worth of them. I tell you plainly, to
save us both trouble, that there's nothing to be got from me but a
pretty stout arm considering my years, and this tool, which, mayhap
from long acquaintance with, I can use pretty briskly. You shall
not have it all your own way, I promise you, if you play at that
game. With these words he stood upon the defensive.
'I am not what you take me for, Gabriel Varden,' replied the other.
'Then what and who are you?' returned the locksmith. 'You know my
name, it seems. Let me know yours.'
'I have not gained the information from any confidence of yours,
but from the inscription on your cart which tells it to all the
town,' replied the traveller.
'You have better eyes for that than you had for your horse, then,'
said Varden, descending nimbly from his chaise; 'who are you? Let
me see your face.'
While the locksmith alighted, the traveller had regained his
saddle, from which he now confronted the old man, who, moving as
the horse moved in chafing under the tightened rein, kept close
'Let me see your face, I say.'
'No masquerading tricks,' said the locksmith, 'and tales at the
club to-morrow, how Gabriel Varden was frightened by a surly voice
and a dark night. Stand--let me see your face.'
Finding that further resistance would only involve him in a
personal struggle with an antagonist by no means to be despised,
the traveller threw back his coat, and stooping down looked
steadily at the locksmith.
Perhaps two men more powerfully contrasted, never opposed each
other face to face. The ruddy features of the locksmith so set off
and heightened the excessive paleness of the man on horseback, that
he looked like a bloodless ghost, while the moisture, which hard
riding had brought out upon his skin, hung there in dark and heavy
drops, like dews of agony and death. The countenance of the old
locksmith lighted up with the smile of one expecting to detect in
this unpromising stranger some latent roguery of eye or lip, which
should reveal a familiar person in that arch disguise, and spoil
his jest. The face of the other, sullen and fierce, but shrinking
too, was that of a man who stood at bay; while his firmly closed
jaws, his puckered mouth, and more than all a certain stealthy
motion of the hand within his breast, seemed to announce a
desperate purpose very foreign to acting, or child's play.
Thus they regarded each other for some time, in silence.
'Humph!' he said when he had scanned his features; 'I don't know
'Don't desire to?'--returned the other, muffling himself as before.
'I don't,' said Gabriel; 'to be plain with you, friend, you don't
carry in your countenance a letter of recommendation.'
'It's not my wish,' said the traveller. 'My humour is to be
'Well,' said the locksmith bluntly, 'I think you'll have your
'I will, at any cost,' rejoined the traveller. 'In proof of it,
lay this to heart--that you were never in such peril of your life
as you have been within these few moments; when you are within
five minutes of breathing your last, you will not be nearer death
than you have been to-night!'
'Aye!' said the sturdy locksmith.
'Aye! and a violent death.'
'From whose hand?'
'From mine,' replied the traveller.
With that he put spurs to his horse, and rode away; at first
plashing heavily through the mire at a smart trot, but gradually
increasing in speed until the last sound of his horse's hoofs died
away upon the wind; when he was again hurrying on at the same
furious gallop, which had been his pace when the locksmith first
Gabriel Varden remained standing in the road with the broken
lantern in his hand, listening in stupefied silence until no sound
reached his ear but the moaning of the wind, and the fast-falling
rain; when he struck himself one or two smart blows in the breast
by way of rousing himself, and broke into an exclamation of
'What in the name of wonder can this fellow be! a madman? a
highwayman? a cut-throat? If he had not scoured off so fast, we'd
have seen who was in most danger, he or I. I never nearer death
than I have been to-night! I hope I may be no nearer to it for a
score of years to come--if so, I'll be content to be no farther
from it. My stars!--a pretty brag this to a stout man--pooh,
Gabriel resumed his seat, and looked wistfully up the road by which
the traveller had come; murmuring in a half whisper:
'The Maypole--two miles to the Maypole. I came the other road from
the Warren after a long day's work at locks and bells, on purpose
that I should not come by the Maypole and break my promise to
Martha by looking in--there's resolution! It would be dangerous to
go on to London without a light; and it's four miles, and a good
half mile besides, to the Halfway-House; and between this and that
is the very place where one needs a light most. Two miles to the
Maypole! I told Martha I wouldn't; I said I wouldn't, and I
Repeating these two last words very often, as if to compensate for
the little resolution he was going to show by piquing himself on
the great resolution he had shown, Gabriel Varden quietly turned
back, determining to get a light at the Maypole, and to take
nothing but a light.
When he got to the Maypole, however, and Joe, responding to his
well-known hail, came running out to the horse's head, leaving the
door open behind him, and disclosing a delicious perspective of
warmth and brightness--when the ruddy gleam of the fire, streaming
through the old red curtains of the common room, seemed to bring
with it, as part of itself, a pleasant hum of voices, and a
fragrant odour of steaming grog and rare tobacco, all steeped as
it were in the cheerful glow--when the shadows, flitting across the
curtain, showed that those inside had risen from their snug seats,
and were making room in the snuggest corner (how well he knew that
corner!) for the honest locksmith, and a broad glare, suddenly
streaming up, bespoke the goodness of the crackling log from which
a brilliant train of sparks was doubtless at that moment whirling
up the chimney in honour of his coming--when, superadded to these
enticements, there stole upon him from the distant kitchen a gentle
sound of frying, with a musical clatter of plates and dishes, and a
savoury smell that made even the boisterous wind a perfume--Gabriel
felt his firmness oozing rapidly away. He tried to look stoically
at the tavern, but his features would relax into a look of
fondness. He turned his head the other way, and the cold black
country seemed to frown him off, and drive him for a refuge into
its hospitable arms.
'The merciful man, Joe,' said the locksmith, 'is merciful to his
beast. I'll get out for a little while.'
And how natural it was to get out! And how unnatural it seemed for
a sober man to be plodding wearily along through miry roads,
encountering the rude buffets of the wind and pelting of the rain,
when there was a clean floor covered with crisp white sand, a well
swept hearth, a blazing fire, a table decorated with white cloth,
bright pewter flagons, and other tempting preparations for a well-
cooked meal--when there were these things, and company disposed to
make the most of them, all ready to his hand, and entreating him to