Didn't I pass you near the turnpike in the Oxford Road?'
'It's like you may. I don't know.'
'Come, come, master,' cried the fellow, urged on by the looks of his comrades, and slapping him on the shoulder; 'be more companionable and communicative. Be more the gentleman in this good company. There are tales among us that you have sold yourself to the devil, and I know not what.'
'We all have, have we not?' returned the stranger, looking up. 'If we were fewer in number, perhaps he would give better wages.'
'It goes rather hard with you, indeed,' said the fellow, as the stranger disclosed his haggard unwashed face, and torn clothes. 'What of that? Be merry, master. A stave of a roaring song now'--
'Sing you, if you desire to hear one,' replied the other, shaking him roughly off; 'and don't touch me if you're a prudent man; I carry arms which go off easily--they have done so, before now--and make it dangerous for strangers who don't know the trick of them, to lay hands upon me.'
'Do you threaten?' said the fellow.
'Yes,' returned the other, rising and turning upon him, and looking fiercely round as if in apprehension of a general attack.
His voice, and look, and bearing--all expressive of the wildest recklessness and desperation--daunted while they repelled the bystanders. Although in a very different sphere of action now, they were not without much of the effect they had wrought at the Maypole Inn.
'I am what you all are, and live as you all do,' said the man sternly, after a short silence. 'I am in hiding here like the rest, and if we were surprised would perhaps do my part with the best of ye. If it's my humour to be left to myself, let me have it. Otherwise,'--and here he swore a tremendous oath--'there'll be mischief done in this place, though there ARE odds of a score against me.'
A low murmur, having its origin perhaps in a dread of the man and the mystery that surrounded him, or perhaps in a sincere opinion on the part of some of those present, that it would be an inconvenient precedent to meddle too curiously with a gentleman's private affairs if he saw reason to conceal them, warned the fellow who had occasioned this discussion that he had best pursue it no further. After a short time the strange man lay down upon a bench to sleep, and when they thought of him again, they found he was gone.
Next night, as soon as it was dark, he was abroad again and traversing the streets; he was before the locksmith's house more than once, but the family were out, and it was close shut. This night he crossed London Bridge and passed into Southwark. As he glided down a bye street, a woman with a little basket on her arm, turned into it at the other end. Directly he observed her, he sought the shelter of an archway, and stood aside until she had passed. Then he emerged cautiously from his hiding-place, and followed.
She went into several shops to purchase various kinds of household necessaries, and round every place at which she stopped he hovered like her evil spirit; following her when she reappeared. It was nigh eleven o'clock, and the passengers in the streets were thinning fast, when she turned, doubtless to go home. The phantom still followed her.
She turned into the same bye street in which he had seen her first, which, being free from shops, and narrow, was extremely dark. She quickened her pace here, as though distrustful of being stopped, and robbed of such trifling property as she carried with her. He crept along on the other side of the road. Had she been gifted with the speed of wind, it seemed as if his terrible shadow would have tracked her down.
At length the widow--for she it was--reached her own door, and, panting for breath, paused to take the key from her basket. In a flush and glow, with the haste she had made, and the pleasure of being safe at home, she stooped to draw it out, when, raising her head, she saw him standing silently beside her: the apparition of a dream.
His hand was on her mouth, but that was needless, for her tongue clove to its roof, and her power of utterance was gone.