'And then,' said Solomon, looking from face to face, 'then we shall have one of those stains upon the floor that never come out. If Mr Haredale wins, depend upon it, it'll be a deep one; or if he loses, it will perhaps be deeper still, for he'll never give in unless he's beaten down. We know him better, eh?'
'Better indeed!' they whispered all together.
'As to its ever being got out again,' said Solomon, 'I tell you it never will, or can be. Why, do you know that it has been tried, at a certain house we are acquainted with?'
'The Warren!' cried John. 'No, sure!'
'Yes, sure--yes. It's only known by very few. It has been whispered about though, for all that. They planed the board away, but there it was. They went deep, but it went deeper. They put new boards down, but there was one great spot that came through still, and showed itself in the old place. And--harkye--draw nearer--Mr Geoffrey made that room his study, and sits there, always, with his foot (as I have heard) upon it; and he believes, through thinking of it long and very much, that it will never fade until he finds the man who did the deed.'
As this recital ended, and they all drew closer round the fire, the tramp of a horse was heard without.
'The very man!' cried John, starting up. 'Hugh! Hugh!'
The sleeper staggered to his feet, and hurried after him. John quickly returned, ushering in with great attention and deference (for Mr Haredale was his landlord) the long-expected visitor, who strode into the room clanking his heavy boots upon the floor; and looking keenly round upon the bowing group, raised his hat in acknowledgment of their profound respect.
'You have a stranger here, Willet, who sent to me,' he said, in a voice which sounded naturally stern and deep. 'Where is he?'
'In the great room upstairs, sir,' answered John.
'Show the way. Your staircase is dark, I know. Gentlemen, good night.'
With that, he signed to the landlord to go on before; and went clanking out, and up the stairs; old John, in his agitation, ingeniously lighting everything but the way, and making a stumble at every second step.
'Stop!' he said, when they reached the landing. 'I can announce myself. Don't wait.'
He laid his hand upon the door, entered, and shut it heavily. Mr Willet was by no means disposed to stand there listening by himself, especially as the walls were very thick; so descended, with much greater alacrity than he had come up, and joined his friends below.
There was a brief pause in the state-room of the Maypole, as Mr Haredale tried the lock to satisfy himself that he had shut the door securely, and, striding up the dark chamber to where the screen inclosed a little patch of light and warmth, presented himself, abruptly and in silence, before the smiling guest.
If the two had no greater sympathy in their inward thoughts than in their outward bearing and appearance, the meeting did not seem likely to prove a very calm or pleasant one. With no great disparity between them in point of years, they were, in every other respect, as unlike and far removed from each other as two men could well be. The one was soft-spoken, delicately made, precise, and elegant; the other, a burly square-built man, negligently dressed, rough and abrupt in manner, stern, and, in his present mood, forbidding both in look and speech. The one preserved a calm and placid smile; the other, a distrustful frown. The new-comer, indeed, appeared bent on showing by his every tone and gesture his determined opposition and hostility to the man he had come to meet. The guest who received him, on the other hand, seemed to feel that the contrast between them was all in his favour, and to derive a quiet exultation from it which put him more at his ease than ever.
'Haredale,' said this gentleman, without the least appearance of embarrassment or reserve, 'I am very glad to see you.'
'Let us dispense with compliments. They are misplaced between us,' returned the other, waving his hand, 'and say plainly what we have to say.