They were soon on the coach-top and rolling along the road.
It went round by the Maypole, and stopped at the door. Joe was from home, and Hugh came sluggishly out to hand up the parcel that it called for. There was no fear of old John coming out. They could see him from the coach-roof fast asleep in his cosy bar. It was a part of John's character. He made a point of going to sleep at the coach's time. He despised gadding about; he looked upon coaches as things that ought to be indicted; as disturbers of the peace of mankind; as restless, bustling, busy, horn-blowing contrivances, quite beneath the dignity of men, and only suited to giddy girls that did nothing but chatter and go a-shopping. 'We know nothing about coaches here, sir,' John would say, if any unlucky stranger made inquiry touching the offensive vehicles; 'we don't book for 'em; we'd rather not; they're more trouble than they're worth, with their noise and rattle. If you like to wait for 'em you can; but we don't know anything about 'em; they may call and they may not--there's a carrier--he was looked upon as quite good enough for us, when I was a boy.'
She dropped her veil as Hugh climbed up, and while he hung behind, and talked to Barnaby in whispers. But neither he nor any other person spoke to her, or noticed her, or had any curiosity about her; and so, an alien, she visited and left the village where she had been born, and had lived a merry child, a comely girl, a happy wife--where she had known all her enjoyment of life, and had entered on its hardest sorrows.
'And you're not surprised to hear this, Varden?' said Mr Haredale. 'Well! You and she have always been the best friends, and you should understand her if anybody does.'
'I ask your pardon, sir,' rejoined the locksmith. 'I didn't say I understood her. I wouldn't have the presumption to say that of any woman. It's not so easily done. But I am not so much surprised, sir, as you expected me to be, certainly.'
'May I ask why not, my good friend?'
'I have seen, sir,' returned the locksmith with evident reluctance, 'I have seen in connection with her, something that has filled me with distrust and uneasiness. She has made bad friends, how, or when, I don't know; but that her house is a refuge for one robber and cut-throat at least, I am certain. There, sir! Now it's out.'
'My own eyes, sir, are my witnesses, and for her sake I would be willingly half-blind, if I could but have the pleasure of mistrusting 'em. I have kept the secret till now, and it will go no further than yourself, I know; but I tell you that with my own eyes--broad awake--I saw, in the passage of her house one evening after dark, the highwayman who robbed and wounded Mr Edward Chester, and on the same night threatened me.'
'And you made no effort to detain him?' said Mr Haredale quickly.
'Sir,' returned the locksmith, 'she herself prevented me--held me, with all her strength, and hung about me until he had got clear off.' And having gone so far, he related circumstantially all that had passed upon the night in question.
This dialogue was held in a low tone in the locksmith's little parlour, into which honest Gabriel had shown his visitor on his arrival. Mr Haredale had called upon him to entreat his company to the widow's, that he might have the assistance of his persuasion and influence; and out of this circumstance the conversation had arisen.
'I forbore,' said Gabriel, 'from repeating one word of this to anybody, as it could do her no good and might do her great harm. I thought and hoped, to say the truth, that she would come to me, and talk to me about it, and tell me how it was; but though I have purposely put myself in her way more than once or twice, she has never touched upon the subject--except by a look. And indeed,' said the good-natured locksmith, 'there was a good deal in the look, more than could have been put into a great many words. It said among other matters "Don't ask me anything" so imploringly, that I didn't ask her anything.