'If I have taken any uncommon course to get admission to you, I hope I shall be pardoned on that account.'
'Well! we shall see; we shall see,' returned Sir John, whose face cleared up when he saw who it was, and whose prepossessing smile was now restored. 'I am sure we have met before,' he added in his winning tone, 'but really I forget your name?'
'My name is Gabriel Varden, sir.'
'Varden, of course, Varden,' returned Sir John, tapping his forehead. 'Dear me, how very defective my memory becomes! Varden to be sure--Mr Varden the locksmith. You have a charming wife, Mr Varden, and a most beautiful daughter. They are well?'
Gabriel thanked him, and said they were.
'I rejoice to hear it,' said Sir John. 'Commend me to them when you return, and say that I wished I were fortunate enough to convey, myself, the salute which I entrust you to deliver. And what,' he asked very sweetly, after a moment's pause, 'can I do for you? You may command me freely.'
'I thank you, Sir John,' said Gabriel, with some pride in his manner, 'but I have come to ask no favour of you, though I come on business.--Private,' he added, with a glance at the man who stood looking on, 'and very pressing business.'
'I cannot say you are the more welcome for being independent, and having nothing to ask of me,' returned Sir John, graciously, 'for I should have been happy to render you a service; still, you are welcome on any terms. Oblige me with some more chocolate, Peak, and don't wait.'
The man retired, and left them alone.
'Sir John,' said Gabriel, 'I am a working-man, and have been so, all my life. If I don't prepare you enough for what I have to tell; if I come to the point too abruptly; and give you a shock, which a gentleman could have spared you, or at all events lessened very much; I hope you will give me credit for meaning well. I wish to be careful and considerate, and I trust that in a straightforward person like me, you'll take the will for the deed.'
'Mr Varden,' returned the other, perfectly composed under this exordium; 'I beg you'll take a chair. Chocolate, perhaps, you don't relish? Well! it IS an acquired taste, no doubt.'
'Sir John,' said Gabriel, who had acknowledged with a bow the invitation to be seated, but had not availed himself of it. 'Sir John'--he dropped his voice and drew nearer to the bed--'I am just now come from Newgate--'
'Good Gad!' cried Sir John, hastily sitting up in bed; 'from Newgate, Mr Varden! How could you be so very imprudent as to come from Newgate! Newgate, where there are jail-fevers, and ragged people, and bare-footed men and women, and a thousand horrors! Peak, bring the camphor, quick! Heaven and earth, Mr Varden, my dear, good soul, how COULD you come from Newgate?'
Gabriel returned no answer, but looked on in silence while Peak (who had entered with the hot chocolate) ran to a drawer, and returning with a bottle, sprinkled his master's dressing-gown and the bedding; and besides moistening the locksmith himself, plentifully, described a circle round about him on the carpet. When he had done this, he again retired; and Sir John, reclining in an easy attitude upon his pillow, once more turned a smiling face towards his visitor.
'You will forgive me, Mr Varden, I am sure, for being at first a little sensitive both on your account and my own. I confess I was startled, notwithstanding your delicate exordium. Might I ask you to do me the favour not to approach any nearer?--You have really come from Newgate!'
The locksmith inclined his head.
'In-deed! And now, Mr Varden, all exaggeration and embellishment apart,' said Sir John Chester, confidentially, as he sipped his chocolate, 'what kind of place IS Newgate?'
'A strange place, Sir John,' returned the locksmith, 'of a sad and doleful kind. A strange place, where many strange things are heard and seen; but few more strange than that I come to tell you of. The case is urgent. I am sent here.'
'Not--no, no--not from the jail?'
'Yes, Sir John; from the jail.'
'And my good, credulous, open-hearted friend,' said Sir John, setting down his cup, and laughing,--'by whom?'
'By a man called Dennis--for many years the hangman, and to-morrow morning the hanged,' returned the locksmith.