As the sunlight died away, and evening fell upon the wood, he entered it. Moving, here and there a bramble or a drooping bough which stretched across his path, he slowly disappeared. At intervals a narrow opening showed him passing on, or the sharp cracking of some tender branch denoted where he went; then, he was seen or heard no more.
Never more beheld by mortal eye or heard by mortal ear; one man excepted. That man, parting the leaves and branches on the other side, near where the path emerged again, came leaping out soon afterwards.
What had he left within the wood, that he sprang out of it as if it were a hell!
The body of a murdered man. In one thick solitary spot, it lay among the last year's leaves of oak and beech, just as it had fallen headlong down. Sopping and soaking in among the leaves that formed its pillow; oozing down into the boggy ground, as if to cover itself from human sight; forcing its way between and through the curling leaves, as if those senseless things rejected and forswore it and were coiled up in abhorrence; went a dark, dark stain that dyed the whole summer night from earth to heaven.
The doer of this deed came leaping from the wood so fiercely, that he cast into the air a shower of fragments of young boughs, torn away in his passage, and fell with violence upon the grass. But he quickly gained his feet again, and keeping underneath a hedge with his body bent, went running on towards the road. The road once reached, he fell into a rapid walk, and set on toward London.
And he was not sorry for what he had done. He was frightened when he thought of it--when did he not think of it!--but he was not sorry. He had had a terror and dread of the wood when he was in it; but being out of it, and having committed the crime, his fears were now diverted, strangely, to the dark room he had left shut up at home. He had a greater horror, infinitely greater, of that room than of the wood. Now that he was on his return to it, it seemed beyond comparison more dismal and more dreadful than the wood. His hideous secret was shut up in the room, and all its terrors were there; to his thinking it was not in the wood at all.
He walked on for ten miles; and then stopped at an ale-house for a coach, which he knew would pass through, on its way to London, before long; and which he also knew was not the coach he had travelled down by, for it came from another place. He sat down outside the door here, on a bench, beside a man who was smoking his pipe. Having called for some beer, and drunk, he offered it to this companion, who thanked him, and took a draught. He could not help thinking that, if the man had known all, he might scarcely have relished drinking out of the same cup with him.
'A fine night, master!' said this person. 'And a rare sunset.'
'I didn't see it,' was his hasty answer.
'Didn't see it?' returned the man.
'How the devil could I see it, if I was asleep?'
'Asleep! Aye, aye.' The man appeared surprised by his unexpected irritability, and saying no more, smoked his pipe in silence. They had not sat very long, when there was a knocking within.
'What's that?' cried Jonas.
'Can't say, I'm sure,' replied the man.
He made no further inquiry, for the last question had escaped him in spite of himself. But he was thinking, at the moment, of the closed-up room; of the possibility of their knocking at the door on some special occasion; of their being alarmed at receiving no answer; of their bursting it open; of their finding the room empty; of their fastening the door into the court, and rendering it impossible for him to get into the house without showing himself in the garb he wore, which would lead to rumour, rumour to detection, detection to death. At that instant, as if by some design and order of circumstances, the knocking had come.
It still continued; like a warning echo of the dread reality he had conjured up. As he could not sit and hear it, he paid for his beer and walked on again. And having slunk about, in places unknown to him all day; and being out at night, in a lonely road, in an unusual dress and in that wandering and unsettled frame of mind; he stopped more than once to look about him, hoping he might be in a dream.