At the time in which the events that we have undertaken to record took place, there stood at the southern extremity of the city, near the point at which Camden Street now terminates, a small, old-fashioned building, something between an ale-house and an inn. It occupied the roadside by no means unpicturesquely; one gable jutted into the road, with a
p.45projecting window, which stood out from the building like a glass box held together by a massive frame of wood; and commanded by this projecting gable, and a few yards in retreat, but facing the road, was the inn door, over which hung a painted panel, representing a white horse, out of whose neck there spouted a crimson cascade, and underneath, in large letters, the traveller was informed that this was the genuine old Bleeding Horse. Old enough, in all conscience, it appeared to be, for the tiled roof, except where the ivy clustered over it, was crowded with weeds of many kinds, and the boughs of the huge trees which embowered it had cracked and shattered one of the cumbrous chimney-stacks, and in many places it was evident that but for the timely interposition of the saw and the axe, the giant limbs of the old timber would, in the gradual increase of years, have forced their way through the roof and the masonry itselfa tendency sufficiently indicated by sundry indentures and rude repairs in those parts of the building most exposed to such casualties. Upon the night in which the events that are recorded in the immediately preceding chapters occurred, two horsemen rode up to this inn, and leisurely entering the stable yard, dismounted, and gave their horses in charge to a ragged boy who acted as hostler, directing him with a few very impressive figures of rhetoric, on no account to loosen girth or bridle, or to suffer the beasts to stir one yard from the spot where they stood. This matter settled, they entered the house. Both were muffled; the onea large, shambling fellowwore a capacious riding-coat; the othera small, wiry manwas wrapped in a cloak; both wore their hats pressed down over their brows, and had drawn their mufflers up, so as to conceal the lower part of the face. The lesser of the two men, leaving his companion in the passage, opened a door, within which were a few fellows drowsily toping, and one or two asleep. In a chair by the fire sat Tony Bligh, the proprietor of the Bleeding Horse, a middle-aged man, rather corpulent, as pale as tallow, and with a sly, ugly squint. The little man in the cloak merely introduced his head and shoulders, and beckoned with his thumb. The signal, though scarcely observed by one other of the occupants of the room, was instantly and in silence obeyed by the landlord, who, casting one uneasy glance round, glided across the floor, and was in the passage almost as soon as the gentleman in the cloak.
Here, Tony, boy, whispered the man, as the innkeeper approached, fetch us a pint of Hollands, a couple of pipes, and a glim; but first turn the key in this door here, and come yourself, do ye mind?
Tony squeezed the speaker's arm in token of acquiescence, and turning a key gently in the lock, he noiselessly opened
p.46the door which Brimstone Bill had indicated, and the two cavaliers strode into the dark and vacant chamber. Brimstone walked to the window, pushed open the casement, and leaned out. The beautiful moon was shining above the old and tufted trees which lined the quiet road; he looked up and down the shaded avenue, but nothing was moving upon it, save the varying shadows as the night wind swung the branches to and fro. He listened, but no sound reached his ears, excepting the rustling and moaning of the boughs, through which the breeze was fitfully soughing.
Scarcely had he drawn back again into the room, when Tony returned with the refreshments which the gentleman had ordered, and with a dark lantern enclosing a lighted candle.
Right, old cove, said Bill. I see you hav'n't forgot the trick of the trade. Who are your pals inside?
Three of them sleep here to-night, replied Tony. They're all quiet coves enough, such as doesn't hear nor see any more than they ought.
The two fellows filled a pipe each, and lighted them at the lantern.
What mischief are you after now, Bill? inquired the host, with a peculiar leer.
Why should I be after any mischief, replied Brimstone jocularly, any more than a sucking dove, eh? Do I look like mischief to-night, old tickle-pitcherdo I?
He accompanied the question with a peculiar grin, which mine host answered by a prolonged wink of no less peculiar significance.
Well, Tony boy, rejoined Bill, maybe I am and maybe I ain'tthat's the way: but mind, you did not see a stim of me, nor of him, to-night (glancing at his comrade), nor ever, for that matter. But you did see two ill-looking fellows not a bit like us; and I have a notion that these two chaps will manage to get into a sort of shindy before an hour's over, and then mizzle at once; and if all goes well, your hand shall be crossed with gold to-night.
Bill, Bill, said the landlord, with a smile of exquisite relish, and drawing his hand coaxingly over the man's forehead, so as to smooth the curls of his periwig nearly into his eyes, you're just the same old dodgeryou are the devil's own birdyou have not cast a feather.
It is hard to say how long this tender scene might have continued, had not the other ruffian knocked his knuckles sharply on the table, and cried
Hist! brotherchise itenough foolingI hear a horse-shoe on the road.
All held their breath, and remained motionless for a time. The fellow was, however, mistaken. Bill again advanced to the window, and gazed intently through the long vista of trees.
There's not a bat stirring, said he, returning to the table, and filling out successively two glasses of spirits, he emptied them both. Meanwhile, Tony, continued he, get back to your company. Some of the fellows may be poking their noses into this place. If you don't hear from me, at all events you'll hear of me before an hour. Hop the twig, boy, and keep all hard in for a bitskip.
With a roguish grin and a shake of the fist, honest Tony, not caring to dispute the commands of his friend, of whose temper he happened to know something, stealthily withdrew from the room, where we, too, shall for a time leave these worthy gentlemen of the road vigilantly awaiting the approach of their victim.
Larry Toole had no sooner recovered his senseswhich was in less than a minutethan he at once betook himself to the Cock and Anchor, resolved, as the last resource, to inform O'Connor of the fact that an attack was meditated. Accordingly, he hastened with very little ceremony into the presence of his master, told him that young Ashwoode was to be waylaid upon the road, near the Bleeding Horse, and implored him, without the loss of a moment, to ride in that direction, with a view, if indeed it might not already be too late, to intercept his passage, and forewarn him of the danger which awaited him.
Without waiting to ask one useless question, O'Connor, before five minutes were passed, was mounted on his trusty horse, and riding at a hard pace through the dark streets towards the point of danger.
Meanwhile, young Ashwoode, followed by his mounted attendant, proceeded at a brisk trot in the direction of the manor; his brain filled with a thousand busy thoughts and schemes, among which, not the least important, were sundry floating calculations as to the probable and possible amount of Lady Stukely's jointure, as well as some conjectures respecting the maximum duration of her ladyship's life. Involved in these pleasing ruminations, sometimes crossed by no less agreeable recollections, in which the triumphs of vanity and the successes of the gaming-table had their share, he had now reached that shadowy and silent part of the road at which stood the little inn, embowered in the great old trees, and peeping forth with a sort of humble and friendly aspect, but ill-according with the dangerous designs it served to shelter.
Here the servant, falling somewhat further behind, brought his horse close under the projecting window of the inn as he passed, and with a sharp cut of his whip gave the concerted signal. Before sixty seconds had elapsed, two well-mounted cavaliers were riding at a hard gallop in their wake. At this
p.48headlong pace, the foremost of the two horsemen had passed Ashwoode by some dozen yards, when, checking his horse so suddenly as to throw him back upon his haunches, he wheeled him round, and plunging the spurs deep into his flanks, with two headlong springs, he dashed him madly upon the young man's steed, hurling the beast and his rider to the earth. Tremendous as was the fall, young Ashwoode, remarkable alike for personal courage and activity, was in a moment upon his feet, with his sword drawn, ready to receive the assault of the ruffian.
Let go your skiverdrop it, you greenhorn, cried the fellow, hoarsely, as he wheeled round his plunging horse, and drew a pistol from the holster, or, by the eternal I'll blow your head into dust!
Young Ashwoode attempted to seize the reins of the fellow's horse, and made a desperate pass at the rider.
Take it, then, cried the fellow, thrusting the muzzle of the pistol into Ashwoode's face and drawing the trigger. Fortunately for Ashwoode, the pistol missed fire, and almost at the same moment the rapid clang of a horse's hoofs, accompanied by the loud shout of menace, broke startlingly upon his ear. Happy was this interruption for Henry Ashwoode, for, stunned and dizzy from the shock, he at that moment tottered, and in the next was prostrate upon the ground. Blowed, by ! cried the villain, furiously, as the unwelcome sounds reached his ears, and dashing the spurs into his horse, he rode at a furious gallop down the road towards the country. This scene occupied scarce six seconds in the acting. Brimstone Bill, who had but a moment before come up to the succour of his comrade, also heard the rapid approach of the galloping hoofs upon the road; he knew that before he could count fifty seconds the new comer would have arrived. A few moments, however, he thought he could spareimportant moments they turned out to be to one of the party. Bill kept his eye steadily fixed upon the point some three or four hundred yards distant at which he knew the horseman whose approach was announced must first appear.
In that brief moment, the cool-headed villain had rapidly calculated the danger of the groom's committing his accomplices through want of coolness and presence of mind, should he himself, as was not unlikely, become suspected. The groom's pistols were still loaded, and he had taken no part in the conflict. Brimstone Bill fixed a stern glance upon his companion while all these and other thoughts flashed like lightning across his brain.
Darby, said he, hurriedly, to the man who sat half-stupefied in the saddle close beside him, blaze off the lead towelscrack them off, I say.
Bill impatiently leaned forward, and himself drew the pistols from the groom's saddle-bow; he fired one of them in the airhe cocked the other. This dolt will play the devil with us all, thought he, looking with a peculiar expression at the bewildered servant. With one hand he grasped him by the collar to steady his aim, and with the other, suddenly thrusting the pistol to his ear, and drawing the trigger, he blew the wretched man's head into fragments like a potsherd; and wheeling his horse's head about, he followed his comrade pell-mell, beating the sparks in showers from the stony road at every plunge.
All this occurred in fewer moments than it has taken us lines
p.50to describe it; and before our friend Brimstone Bill had secured the odds which his safety required, O'Connor was thundering at a furious gallop within less than a hundred yards of him. Bill saw that his pursuer was better mounted than heto escape, therefore, by a fair race was out of the question. His resolution was quickly taken. By a sudden and powerful effort he reined in his horse at a single pull, and, with one rearing wheel, brought him round upon his antagonist; at the same time, drawing one of the large pistols from the saddle-bow, he rested it deliberately upon his bridle-arm, and fired at his pursuer, now within twenty yards of him. The ball passed so close to O'Connor's head that his ear rang shrilly with the sound of it for hours after. They had now closed; the highwayman drew his second pistol from the holster, and each fired at the same instant. O'Connor's shot was well directedit struck his opponent in the bridle-arm, a little below the shoulder, shattering the bone to splinters. With a hoarse shriek of agony, the fellow, scarce knowing what he did, forced the spurs into his horse's sides; and the animal reared, wheeled, and bore its rider at a reckless speed in the direction which his companion had followed.
It was well for him that the shot, which at the same moment he had discharged, had not been altogether misdirected. O'Connor, indeed, escaped unscathed, but the ball struck his horse between the eyes, and piercing the brain, the poor beast reared upright and fell dead upon the road. Extricating himself from the saddle, O'Connor returned to the spot where young Ashwoode and the servant still lay. Stunned and dizzy with the fall which he had had, the excitement of actual conflict was no sooner over, than Ashwoode sank back into a state of insensibility. In this condition O'Connor found him, pale as death, and apparently lifeless. Raising him against the grassy bank at the roadside, and having cast some water from a pool close by into his face, he saw him speedily recover.
Mr. O'Connor, said Ashwoode, as soon as he was sufficiently restored, you have saved my lifehow can I thank you?
Spare your thanks, sir, replied O'Connor, haughtily; for any man I would have done as muchfor anyone bearing your name I would do much more. Are you hurt, sir?
O'Connor, I have done you much injustice, said the young man, betrayed for the moment into something like genuine feeling. You must forget and forgive itI know your feelings respecting others of my familyhenceforward I will be your frienddo not refuse my hand.
Henry Ashwoode, replied O'Connor, I take your handgladly forgetting all past causes of resentmentbut I want no
p.51vows of friendship, which to-morrow you may regret. Act with regard to me henceforward as if this night had not beenfor I tell you truly again, that I would have done as much for the meanest peasant breathing as I have done to-night for you; and once more I pray you tell me, are you much hurt?
Nothing, nothing, replied Ashwoodemerely a fall such as I have had a thousand times after the hounds. It has made my head swim confoundedly; but I'll soon be steady. What, in the meantime, has become of honest Darby? If I mistake not, I see his horse browsing there by the roadside.
A few steps showed them what seemed a bundle of clothes lying heaped upon the road; they approached itit was the body of the servant.
Get up, Darbyget up, man, cried Ashwoode, at the same time pressing the prostrate figure with his boot. It had been lying with the back uppermost, and in a half-kneeling attitude; it now, however, rolled round, and disclosed, in the bright moonlight, the hideous aspect of the murdered manthe head a mere mass of ragged flesh and bone, shapeless and blackened, and hollow as a shell. Horror-struck at the sight, they turned in silence away, and having secured the two horses, they both mounted and rode together back to the little inn, where, having procured assistance, the body of the wretched servant was deposited. Young Ashwoode and O'Connor then parted, each each on his respective way.