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Charles Dickens > Barnaby Rudge > Chapter 55

Barnaby Rudge

Chapter 55

John Willet, left alone in his dismantled bar, continued to sit
staring about him; awake as to his eyes, certainly, but with all
his powers of reason and reflection in a sound and dreamless
sleep. He looked round upon the room which had been for years,
and was within an hour ago, the pride of his heart; and not a
muscle of his face was moved. The night, without, looked black and
cold through the dreary gaps in the casement; the precious liquids,
now nearly leaked away, dripped with a hollow sound upon the floor;
the Maypole peered ruefully in through the broken window, like the
bowsprit of a wrecked ship; the ground might have been the bottom
of the sea, it was so strewn with precious fragments. Currents of
air rushed in, as the old doors jarred and creaked upon their
hinges; the candles flickered and guttered down, and made long
winding-sheets; the cheery deep-red curtains flapped and fluttered
idly in the wind; even the stout Dutch kegs, overthrown and lying
empty in dark corners, seemed the mere husks of good fellows whose
jollity had departed, and who could kindle with a friendly glow no
more. John saw this desolation, and yet saw it not. He was
perfectly contented to sit there, staring at it, and felt no more
indignation or discomfort in his bonds than if they had been robes
of honour. So far as he was personally concerned, old Time lay
snoring, and the world stood still.

Save for the dripping from the barrels, the rustling of such light
fragments of destruction as the wind affected, and the dull
creaking of the open doors, all was profoundly quiet: indeed,
these sounds, like the ticking of the death-watch in the night,
only made the silence they invaded deeper and more apparent. But
quiet or noisy, it was all one to John. If a train of heavy
artillery could have come up and commenced ball practice outside
the window, it would have been all the same to him. He was a long
way beyond surprise. A ghost couldn't have overtaken him.

By and by he heard a footstep--a hurried, and yet cautious
footstep--coming on towards the house. It stopped, advanced again,
then seemed to go quite round it. Having done that, it came
beneath the window, and a head looked in.

It was strongly relieved against the darkness outside by the glare
of the guttering candles. A pale, worn, withered face; the eyes--
but that was owing to its gaunt condition--unnaturally large and
bright; the hair, a grizzled black. It gave a searching glance all
round the room, and a deep voice said:

'Are you alone in this house?'

John made no sign, though the question was repeated twice, and he
heard it distinctly. After a moment's pause, the man got in at the
window. John was not at all surprised at this, either. There had
been so much getting in and out of window in the course of the last
hour or so, that he had quite forgotten the door, and seemed to
have lived among such exercises from infancy.

The man wore a large, dark, faded cloak, and a slouched hat; he
walked up close to John, and looked at him. John returned the
compliment with interest.

'How long have you been sitting thus?' said the man.

John considered, but nothing came of it.

'Which way have the party gone?'

Some wandering speculations relative to the fashion of the
stranger's boots, got into Mr Willet's mind by some accident or
other, but they got out again in a hurry, and left him in his
former state.

'You would do well to speak,' said the man; 'you may keep a whole
skin, though you have nothing else left that can be hurt. Which
way have the party gone?'

'That!' said John, finding his voice all at once, and nodding with
perfect good faith--he couldn't point; he was so tightly bound--in
exactly the opposite direction to the right one.

'You lie!' said the man angrily, and with a threatening gesture.
'I came that way. You would betray me.'

It was so evident that John's imperturbability was not assumed, but
was the result of the late proceedings under his roof, that the man
stayed his hand in the very act of striking him, and turned away.

John looked after him without so much as a twitch in a single nerve
of his face. He seized a glass, and holding it under one of the
little casks until a few drops were collected, drank them greedily
off; then throwing it down upon the floor impatiently, he took the
vessel in his hands and drained it into his throat. Some scraps of
bread and meat were scattered about, and on these he fell next;
eating them with voracity, and pausing every now and then to
listen for some fancied noise outside. When he had refreshed
himself in this manner with violent haste, and raised another
barrel to his lips, he pulled his hat upon his brow as though he
were about to leave the house, and turned to John.

'Where are your servants?'

Mr Willet indistinctly remembered to have heard the rioters calling
to them to throw the key of the room in which they were, out of
window, for their keeping. He therefore replied, 'Locked up.'

'Well for them if they remain quiet, and well for you if you do the
like,' said the man. 'Now show me the way the party went.'

This time Mr Willet indicated it correctly. The man was hurrying
to the door, when suddenly there came towards them on the wind, the
loud and rapid tolling of an alarm-bell, and then a bright and
vivid glare streamed up, which illumined, not only the whole
chamber, but all the country.

It was not the sudden change from darkness to this dreadful light,
it was not the sound of distant shrieks and shouts of triumph, it
was not this dread invasion of the serenity and peace of night,
that drove the man back as though a thunderbolt had struck him. It
was the Bell. If the ghastliest shape the human mind has ever
pictured in its wildest dreams had risen up before him, he could
not have staggered backward from its touch, as he did from the
first sound of that loud iron voice. With eyes that started from
his head, his limbs convulsed, his face most horrible to see, he
raised one arm high up into the air, and holding something
visionary back and down, with his other hand, drove at it as though
he held a knife and stabbed it to the heart. He clutched his hair,
and stopped his ears, and travelled madly round and round; then
gave a frightful cry, and with it rushed away: still, still, the
Bell tolled on and seemed to follow him--louder and louder, hotter
and hotter yet. The glare grew brighter, the roar of voices
deeper; the crash of heavy bodies falling, shook the air; bright
streams of sparks rose up into the sky; but louder than them all--
rising faster far, to Heaven--a million times more fierce and
furious--pouring forth dreadful secrets after its long silence--
speaking the language of the dead--the Bell--the Bell!

What hunt of spectres could surpass that dread pursuit and flight!
Had there been a legion of them on his track, he could have better
borne it. They would have had a beginning and an end, but here all
space was full. The one pursuing voice was everywhere: it sounded
in the earth, the air; shook the long grass, and howled among the
trembling trees. The echoes caught it up, the owls hooted as it
flew upon the breeze, the nightingale was silent and hid herself
among the thickest boughs: it seemed to goad and urge the angry
fire, and lash it into madness; everything was steeped in one
prevailing red; the glow was everywhere; nature was drenched in
blood: still the remorseless crying of that awful voice--the Bell,
the Bell!

It ceased; but not in his ears. The knell was at his heart. No
work of man had ever voice like that which sounded there, and
warned him that it cried unceasingly to Heaven. Who could hear
that hell, and not know what it said! There was murder in its
every note--cruel, relentless, savage murder--the murder of a
confiding man, by one who held his every trust. Its ringing
summoned phantoms from their graves. What face was that, in which
a friendly smile changed to a look of half incredulous horror,
which stiffened for a moment into one of pain, then changed again
into an imploring glance at Heaven, and so fell idly down with
upturned eyes, like the dead stags' he had often peeped at when a
little child: shrinking and shuddering--there was a dreadful thing
to think of now!--and clinging to an apron as he looked! He sank
upon the ground, and grovelling down as if he would dig himself a
place to hide in, covered his face and ears: but no, no, no,--a
hundred walls and roofs of brass would not shut out that bell, for
in it spoke the wrathful voice of God, and from that voice, the
whole wide universe could not afford a refuge!

While he rushed up and down, not knowing where to turn, and while
he lay crouching there, the work went briskly on indeed. When
they left the Maypole, the rioters formed into a solid body, and
advanced at a quick pace towards the Warren. Rumour of their
approach having gone before, they found the garden-doors fast
closed, the windows made secure, and the house profoundly dark: not
a light being visible in any portion of the building. After some
fruitless ringing at the bells, and beating at the iron gates, they
drew off a few paces to reconnoitre, and confer upon the course it
would be best to take.

Very little conference was needed, when all were bent upon one
desperate purpose, infuriated with liquor, and flushed with
successful riot. The word being given to surround the house, some
climbed the gates, or dropped into the shallow trench and scaled
the garden wall, while others pulled down the solid iron fence, and
while they made a breach to enter by, made deadly weapons of the
bars. The house being completely encircled, a small number of men
were despatched to break open a tool-shed in the garden; and during
their absence on this errand, the remainder contented themselves
with knocking violently at the doors, and calling to those within,
to come down and open them on peril of their lives.

No answer being returned to this repeated summons, and the
detachment who had been sent away, coming back with an accession of
pickaxes, spades, and hoes, they,--together with those who had such
arms already, or carried (as many did) axes, poles, and crowbars,--
struggled into the foremost rank, ready to beset the doors and
windows. They had not at this time more than a dozen lighted
torches among them; but when these preparations were completed,
flaming links were distributed and passed from hand to hand with
such rapidity, that, in a minute's time, at least two-thirds of the
whole roaring mass bore, each man in his hand, a blazing brand.
Whirling these about their heads they raised a loud shout, and fell
to work upon the doors and windows.

Amidst the clattering of heavy blows, the rattling of broken glass,
the cries and execrations of the mob, and all the din and turmoil
of the scene, Hugh and his friends kept together at the turret-door
where Mr Haredale had last admitted him and old John Willet; and
spent their united force on that. It was a strong old oaken door,
guarded by good bolts and a heavy bar, but it soon went crashing in
upon the narrow stairs behind, and made, as it were, a platform to
facilitate their tearing up into the rooms above. Almost at the
same moment, a dozen other points were forced, and at every one the
crowd poured in like water.

A few armed servant-men were posted in the hall, and when the
rioters forced an entrance there, they fired some half-a-dozen
shots. But these taking no effect, and the concourse coming on
like an army of devils, they only thought of consulting their own
safety, and retreated, echoing their assailants' cries, and hoping
in the confusion to be taken for rioters themselves; in which
stratagem they succeeded, with the exception of one old man who was
never heard of again, and was said to have had his brains beaten
out with an iron bar (one of his fellows reported that he had seen
the old man fall), and to have been afterwards burnt in the flames.

The besiegers being now in complete possession of the house, spread
themselves over it from garret to cellar, and plied their demon
labours fiercely. While some small parties kindled bonfires
underneath the windows, others broke up the furniture and cast the
fragments down to feed the flames below; where the apertures in
the wall (windows no longer) were large enough, they threw out
tables, chests of drawers, beds, mirrors, pictures, and flung them
whole into the fire; while every fresh addition to the blazing
masses was received with shouts, and howls, and yells, which added
new and dismal terrors to the conflagration. Those who had axes
and had spent their fury on the movables, chopped and tore down the
doors and window frames, broke up the flooring, hewed away the
rafters, and buried men who lingered in the upper rooms, in heaps
of ruins. Some searched the drawers, the chests, the boxes,
writing-desks, and closets, for jewels, plate, and money; while
others, less mindful of gain and more mad for destruction, cast
their whole contents into the courtyard without examination, and
called to those below, to heap them on the blaze. Men who had
been into the cellars, and had staved the casks, rushed to and fro
stark mad, setting fire to all they saw--often to the dresses of
their own friends--and kindling the building in so many parts that
some had no time for escape, and were seen, with drooping hands and
blackened faces, hanging senseless on the window-sills to which
they had crawled, until they were sucked and drawn into the
burning gulf. The more the fire crackled and raged, the wilder and
more cruel the men grew; as though moving in that element they
became fiends, and changed their earthly nature for the qualities
that give delight in hell.

The burning pile, revealing rooms and passages red hot, through
gaps made in the crumbling walls; the tributary fires that licked
the outer bricks and stones, with their long forked tongues, and
ran up to meet the glowing mass within; the shining of the flames
upon the villains who looked on and fed them; the roaring of the
angry blaze, so bright and high that it seemed in its rapacity to
have swallowed up the very smoke; the living flakes the wind bore
rapidly away and hurried on with, like a storm of fiery snow; the
noiseless breaking of great beams of wood, which fell like feathers
on the heap of ashes, and crumbled in the very act to sparks and
powder; the lurid tinge that overspread the sky, and the darkness,
very deep by contrast, which prevailed around; the exposure to the
coarse, common gaze, of every little nook which usages of home had
made a sacred place, and the destruction by rude hands of every
little household favourite which old associations made a dear and
precious thing: all this taking place--not among pitying looks and
friendly murmurs of compassion, but brutal shouts and exultations,
which seemed to make the very rats who stood by the old house too
long, creatures with some claim upon the pity and regard of those
its roof had sheltered:--combined to form a scene never to be
forgotten by those who saw it and were not actors in the work, so
long as life endured.

And who were they? The alarm-bell rang--and it was pulled by no
faint or hesitating hands--for a long time; but not a soul was
seen. Some of the insurgents said that when it ceased, they heard
the shrieks of women, and saw some garments fluttering in the air,
as a party of men bore away no unresisting burdens. No one could
say that this was true or false, in such an uproar; but where was
Hugh? Who among them had seen him, since the forcing of the doors?
The cry spread through the body. Where was Hugh!

'Here!' he hoarsely cried, appearing from the darkness; out of
breath, and blackened with the smoke. 'We have done all we can;
the fire is burning itself out; and even the corners where it
hasn't spread, are nothing but heaps of ruins. Disperse, my lads,
while the coast's clear; get back by different ways; and meet as
usual!' With that, he disappeared again,--contrary to his wont,
for he was always first to advance, and last to go away,--leaving
them to follow homewards as they would.

It was not an easy task to draw off such a throng. If Bedlam gates
had been flung wide open, there would not have issued forth such
maniacs as the frenzy of that night had made. There were men
there, who danced and trampled on the beds of flowers as though
they trod down human enemies, and wrenched them from the stalks,
like savages who twisted human necks. There were men who cast
their lighted torches in the air, and suffered them to fall upon
their heads and faces, blistering the skin with deep unseemly
burns. There were men who rushed up to the fire, and paddled in it
with their hands as if in water; and others who were restrained by
force from plunging in, to gratify their deadly longing. On the
skull of one drunken lad--not twenty, by his looks--who lay upon
the ground with a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came
streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot; melting his
head like wax. When the scattered parties were collected, men--
living yet, but singed as with hot irons--were plucked out of the
cellars, and carried off upon the shoulders of others, who strove
to wake them as they went along, with ribald jokes, and left them,
dead, in the passages of hospitals. But of all the howling throng
not one learnt mercy from, or sickened at, these sights; nor was
the fierce, besotted, senseless rage of one man glutted.

Slowly, and in small clusters, with hoarse hurrahs and repetitions
of their usual cry, the assembly dropped away. The last few red-
eyed stragglers reeled after those who had gone before; the distant
noise of men calling to each other, and whistling for others whom
they missed, grew fainter and fainter; at length even these sounds
died away, and silence reigned alone.

Silence indeed! The glare of the flames had sunk into a fitful,
flashing light; and the gentle stars, invisible till now, looked
down upon the blackening heap. A dull smoke hung upon the ruin, as
though to hide it from those eyes of Heaven; and the wind forbore
to move it. Bare walls, roof open to the sky--chambers, where the
beloved dead had, many and many a fair day, risen to new life and
energy; where so many dear ones had been sad and merry; which were
connected with so many thoughts and hopes, regrets and changes--all
gone. Nothing left but a dull and dreary blank--a smouldering heap
of dust and ashes--the silence and solitude of utter desolation.

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Index Index

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34
Chapter 35
Chapter 36
Chapter 37
Chapter 38
Chapter 39
Chapter 40
Chapter 41
Chapter 42
Chapter 43
Chapter 44
Chapter 45
Chapter 46
Chapter 47
Chapter 48
Chapter 49
Chapter 50
Chapter 51
Chapter 52
Chapter 53
Chapter 54
Chapter 55
Chapter 56
Chapter 57
Chapter 58
Chapter 59
Chapter 60
Chapter 61
Chapter 62
Chapter 63
Chapter 64
Chapter 65
Chapter 66
Chapter 67
Chapter 68
Chapter 69
Chapter 70
Chapter 71
Chapter 72
Chapter 73
Chapter 74
Chapter 75
Chapter 76
Chapter 77
Chapter 78
Chapter 79
Chapter 80
Chapter 81
Chapter 82

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