They soon became aware that the stream of life was all pouring one way, and that a vast throng of persons were crossing the river from the Middlesex to the Surrey shore, in unusual haste and evident excitement. They were, for the most part, in knots of two or three, or sometimes half-a-dozen; they spoke little together--many of them were quite silent; and hurried on as if they had one absorbing object in view, which was common to them all.
They were surprised to see that nearly every man in this great concourse, which still came pouring past, without slackening in the least, wore in his hat a blue cockade; and that the chance passengers who were not so decorated, appeared timidly anxious to escape observation or attack, and gave them the wall as if they would conciliate them. This, however, was natural enough, considering their inferiority in point of numbers; for the proportion of those who wore blue cockades, to those who were dressed as usual, was at least forty or fifty to one. There was no quarrelling, however: the blue cockades went swarming on, passing each other when they could, and making all the speed that was possible in such a multitude; and exchanged nothing more than looks, and very often not even those, with such of the passers-by as were not of their number.
At first, the current of people had been confined to the two pathways, and but a few more eager stragglers kept the road. But after half an hour or so, the passage was completely blocked up by the great press, which, being now closely wedged together, and impeded by the carts and coaches it encountered, moved but slowly, and was sometimes at a stand for five or ten minutes together.
After the lapse of nearly two hours, the numbers began to diminish visibly, and gradually dwindling away, by little and little, left the bridge quite clear, save that, now and then, some hot and dusty man, with the cockade in his hat, and his coat thrown over his shoulder, went panting by, fearful of being too late, or stopped to ask which way his friends had taken, and being directed, hastened on again like one refreshed. In this comparative solitude, which seemed quite strange and novel after the late crowd, the widow had for the first time an opportunity of inquiring of an old man who came and sat beside them, what was the meaning of that great assemblage.
'Why, where have you come from,' he returned, 'that you haven't heard of Lord George Gordon's great association? This is the day that he presents the petition against the Catholics, God bless him!'
'What have all these men to do with that?' she said.
'What have they to do with it!' the old man replied. 'Why, how you talk! Don't you know his lordship has declared he won't present it to the house at all, unless it is attended to the door by forty thousand good and true men at least? There's a crowd for you!'
'A crowd indeed!' said Barnaby. 'Do you hear that, mother!'
'And they're mustering yonder, as I am told,' resumed the old man, 'nigh upon a hundred thousand strong. Ah! Let Lord George alone. He knows his power. There'll be a good many faces inside them three windows over there,' and he pointed to where the House of Commons overlooked the river, 'that'll turn pale when good Lord George gets up this afternoon, and with reason too! Ay, ay. Let his lordship alone. Let him alone. HE knows!' And so, with much mumbling and chuckling and shaking of his forefinger, he rose, with the assistance of his stick, and tottered off.
'Mother!' said Barnaby, 'that's a brave crowd he talks of. Come!'
'Not to join it!' cried his mother.
'Yes, yes,' he answered, plucking at her sleeve. 'Why not? Come!'
'You don't know,' she urged, 'what mischief they may do, where they may lead you, what their meaning is. Dear Barnaby, for my sake--'
'For your sake!' he cried, patting her hand. 'Well! It IS for your sake, mother. You remember what the blind man said, about the gold. Here's a brave crowd! Come! Or wait till I come back--yes, yes, wait here.'
She tried with all the earnestness her fears engendered, to turn him from his purpose, but in vain.