Profiting by experience, the locksmith took advantage of this genial weather to smoke his pipe in the porch, and in consequence of this prudent management, he was fully prepared, when the glass went down again, to start homewards directly.
The horse was accordingly put in, and the chaise brought round to the door. Joe, who would on no account be dissuaded from escorting them until they had passed the most dreary and solitary part of the road, led out the grey mare at the same time; and having helped Dolly into her seat (more happiness!) sprung gaily into the saddle. Then, after many good nights, and admonitions to wrap up, and glancing of lights, and handing in of cloaks and shawls, the chaise rolled away, and Joe trotted beside it--on Dolly's side, no doubt, and pretty close to the wheel too.
It was a fine bright night, and for all her lowness of spirits Dolly kept looking up at the stars in a manner so bewitching (and SHE knew it!) that Joe was clean out of his senses, and plainly showed that if ever a man were--not to say over head and ears, but over the Monument and the top of Saint Paul's in love, that man was himself. The road was a very good one; not at all a jolting road, or an uneven one; and yet Dolly held the side of the chaise with one little hand, all the way. If there had been an executioner behind him with an uplifted axe ready to chop off his head if he touched that hand, Joe couldn't have helped doing it. From putting his own hand upon it as if by chance, and taking it away again after a minute or so, he got to riding along without taking it off at all; as if he, the escort, were bound to do that as an important part of his duty, and had come out for the purpose. The most curious circumstance about this little incident was, that Dolly didn't seem to know of it. She looked so innocent and unconscious when she turned her eyes on Joe, that it was quite provoking.
She talked though; talked about her fright, and about Joe's coming up to rescue her, and about her gratitude, and about her fear that she might not have thanked him enough, and about their always being friends from that time forth--and about all that sort of thing. And when Joe said, not friends he hoped, Dolly was quite surprised, and said not enemies she hoped; and when Joe said, couldn't they be something much better than either, Dolly all of a sudden found out a star which was brighter than all the other stars, and begged to call his attention to the same, and was ten thousand times more innocent and unconscious than ever.
In this manner they travelled along, talking very little above a whisper, and wishing the road could be stretched out to some dozen times its natural length--at least that was Joe's desire--when, as they were getting clear of the forest and emerging on the more frequented road, they heard behind them the sound of a horse's feet at a round trot, which growing rapidly louder as it drew nearer, elicited a scream from Mrs Varden, and the cry 'a friend!' from the rider, who now came panting up, and checked his horse beside them.
'This man again!' cried Dolly, shuddering.
'Hugh!' said Joe. 'What errand are you upon?'
'I come to ride back with you,' he answered, glancing covertly at the locksmith's daughter. 'HE sent me.
'My father!' said poor Joe; adding under his breath, with a very unfilial apostrophe, 'Will he never think me man enough to take care of myself!'
'Aye!' returned Hugh to the first part of the inquiry. 'The roads are not safe just now, he says, and you'd better have a companion.'
'Ride on then,' said Joe. 'I'm not going to turn yet.'
Hugh complied, and they went on again. It was his whim or humour to ride immediately before the chaise, and from this position he constantly turned his head, and looked back. Dolly felt that he looked at her, but she averted her eyes and feared to raise them once, so great was the dread with which he had inspired her.
This interruption, and the consequent wakefulness of Mrs Varden, who had been nodding in her sleep up to this point, except for a minute or two at a time, when she roused herself to scold the locksmith for audaciously taking hold of her to prevent her nodding herself out of the chaise, put a restraint upon the whispered conversation, and made it difficult of resumption.