The wind rumbling in the chimney made it difficult to hear what passed, but he could tell that the door was opened, that there was the tread of a man upon the creaking boards, and then a moment's silence--broken by a suppressed something which was not a shriek, or groan, or cry for help, and yet might have been either or all three; and the words 'My God!' uttered in a voice it chilled him to hear.
He rushed out upon the instant. There, at last, was that dreadful look--the very one he seemed to know so well and yet had never seen before--upon her face. There she stood, frozen to the ground, gazing with starting eyes, and livid cheeks, and every feature fixed and ghastly, upon the man he had encountered in the dark last night. His eyes met those of the locksmith. It was 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 in his grasp--when his arms were tightly clutched, and the widow flung herself upon 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 him on your life. I charge you, come back. He carries other lives besides his own. Come back!'
'What does this mean?' cried the locksmith.
'No matter what it means, don't ask, don't speak, don't think about it. He is not 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 not until she had chained and double-locked the door, fastened every bolt and bar with the heat and fury of a maniac, and drawn him back into the room, that she turned upon him, once again, that stony look of horror, and, sinking down into a chair, covered her face, and shuddered, as though the hand of death were on her.
Beyond all measure astonished by the strange occurrences which had passed with so much violence and rapidity, the locksmith gazed upon the shuddering figure in the chair like one half stupefied, and would have gazed much longer, had not his tongue been loosened by compassion and humanity.
'You are ill,' said Gabriel. 'Let me call some neighbour in.'
'Not for the world,' she rejoined, motioning to him with her trembling hand, and holding her face averted. 'It is enough that you have been by, to see this.'
'Nay, more than enough--or less,' said Gabriel.
'Be it so,' she returned. 'As you like. Ask me no questions, I entreat you.'
'Neighbour,' said the locksmith, after a pause. 'Is this fair, or reasonable, or just to yourself? Is it like you, who have known me so long and sought my advice in all matters--like you, who from a girl have had a strong mind and a staunch heart?'
'I have need of them,' she replied. 'I am growing old, both in years and care. Perhaps that, and too much trial, have made them weaker than they used to be. Do not speak to me.'
'How can I see what I have seen, and hold my peace!' returned the locksmith. 'Who was that man, and why has his coming made this change in you?'
She was silent, but held to the chair as though to save herself from falling on the ground.
'I take the licence of an old acquaintance, Mary,' said the locksmith, 'who has ever had a warm regard for you, and maybe has tried to prove it when he could. Who is this ill-favoured man, and what has he to do with you? Who is this ghost, that is only seen in the black nights and bad weather? How does he know, and why does he haunt, this house, whispering through chinks and crevices, as if there was that between him and you, which neither durst so much as speak aloud of? Who is he?'
'You do well to say he haunts this house,' returned the widow, faintly.