The morning arrived, and at the appointed hour Sir Henry Ashwoode dismounted in Whitefriar Street, and gave the bridle of his horse to the groom who accompanied him.
Well, thought he, as he entered the dingy, dilapidated square in which Chancey 's lodgings were situated, this matter, at all events, is arrangedI sha'n't hang, though I'm half inclined to allow I deserve to do so for my infernal folly in trying the thing at all; but no matter, it has given me a lesson I sha'n't soon forget. As to the rest, what care I now? Let ruin pounce upon me in any shape but thatluckily I have still enough to keep body and soul together left.
He paused to indulge in ruminations of no very pleasant kind, and then half muttered,
p.192I have been a foolI have walked in a dream. Only to think of a man like me, who has seen something of the world, allowing that dd hag to play him such a trick. Well, I believe it is true, after all, that we cannot have wisdom without paying for it. If my acquisitions bear any proportion to my outlay, I ought to be a Solomon by this time.
The door was opened to his summons by Gordon Chancey himself. When Ashwoode entered, Chancey carefully locked the door on the inside and placed the key in his pocket.
It's as well, Sir Henry, to be on the safe side, observed Chancey, shuffling towards the table. Dear me, dear me, there's no such thing as being too carefulis there, Sir Henry?
Well, well, well, let's to business, said young Ashwoode, hurriedly, seating himself at the end of a heavy deal table, at which was a chair, and taking from his pocket a large leathern pocket-book. You have thethe security here?
Of courseoh, dear, of course, replied the barrister; the bond and warrant of attorneythat dd forgeryit is in the next room, very safeoh, dear me, yes indeed.
It struck Ashwoode that there was something, he could not exactly say what, unusual and sinister in the manner of Mr. Chancey, as well as in his emphasis and language, and he fixed his eye upon him for a moment with a searching glance. The barrister, however, busied himself with tumbling over some papers in a drawer.
Well, why don't you get it? asked Ashwoode, impatiently.
Never mind, never mind, replied Chancey; do you reckon your money over, and be very sure the bond will come time enough. I don't wonder, though, you're eager to have it fast in our own hands againbut it will comeit will come.
Ashwoode proceeded to open the pocket-book and to turn over the notes.
They're all right, said he, they're all right. But, hush! he added, slightly changing colour I hear something stirring in the next room.
Oh, dear, dear, it's nothing but the cat, rejoined Chancey, with an ugly laugh.
Your cat treads very heavily, said Ashwoode, suspiciously. So it does, rejoined Chancey, it does tread heavy; it's a very large cat, so it is; it has wonderful great claws; it can see in the dark; it's a great cat; it never missed a rat yet; and I've seen it lure the bird off a branch with the mere power of its eye; it's a great catbut reckon your money, and I'll go in for the bond.
This strange speech was uttered in a manner at least as strange, and Chancey, without waiting for commentary or
p.193interruption, passed into the next room. The step crossed the adjoining chamber, and Ashwoode heard the rustling of papers; it then returned, the door opened, and not Gordon Chancey, but Nicholas Blarden entered the room and confronted Sir Henry Ashwoode. Personal fear in bodily conflict was a thing unknown to the young baronet, but now all courage, all strength forsook him, and he stood gazing in vacant horror upon that, to him, most tremendous apparition, with a face white as ashes, and covered with the starting dews of terror.
With that hideous combination, a smile and a scowl, stamped upon his coarse features, the wretch stood with folded arms, in an attitude of indescribable exultation, gazing with savage, gloating eyes full upon his appalled and terror-stricken victim. Fixed as statues they both remained for several minutes.
Ho, ho, ho! you look frightened, young man, exclaimed Blarden, with a horse laugh; you look as if you were going to be hangedyou look as if the hemp were round your neckyou look as if the hangman had you by the collar, you doho, ho, ho!
Ashwoode's bloodless lips moved, but utterance was gone.
It's hard to get the words out, continued Blarden, with ferocious glee. I never knew the man yet could do a last dying speech smootha sort of choking comes on, eh?the sight of the minister and the hangman makes a man feel so quare, eh?and the coffin looks so ugly, and all the crowd; it's confusing somehow, and puts a man out, eh?ho, ho, ho!
Ashwoode laid his hand upon his forehead, and gazed on in blank horror.
Why, you're not such a great man, by half, as you were in the play-house the other evening, continued Blarden; you don't look so grand, by any manner of means. Some way or other, you look a little sickish or so. I'm afraid you don't like my companyho, ho, ho!
Still Sir Henry remained locked in the same stupefied silence.
Ho, ho! you seem to think your hemp is twisted, and your boards sawed, resumed Blarden; you seem to think you're in a fix at last and so do I, by! he thundered, for I have the rope fairly round your weasand, and, by I'll make you dance upon nothing, at Gallows Hill, before you're a month older. Do you hear thatdo youyou swindler? Ehyou gaol-bird, you common forger, you robber, you crows' meatwho holds the winning cards now?
Wherewhere's the bond? said Ashwoode, scarce audibly.
Where's your precious bond, you forger, you gibbet-carrion? shouted Blarden, exultingly. Where's your
p.194forged bondthe bond that will crack your neck for youwhere is it, eh? Why, herehere in my breeches pocketthat's where it is. I hope you think it safe enougheh, you gallows-tassle?
Yielding to some confused instinctive prompting to recover the fatal instrument, Ashwoode drew his sword, and would have rushed upon his brutal and triumphant persecutor; but Blarden was not unprepared even for this. With the quickness of light, he snatched a pistol from his coat pocket, recoiling, as he did so, a hurried pace or two, and while he turned, coward as he was, pale and livid as death, he levelled it at the young man's breast, and both stood for an instant motionless, in the attitudes of deadly antagonism.
Put up your sword; I have you there, as well as everywhere elseregularly checkmated, by ! shouted Blarden, with the ferocity of half-desperate cowardice. Put up your sword, I say, and don't be a bloody idiot, along with everything else. Don't you see you're done for?there's not a chance left you. You're in the cage, and there's no need to knock yourself to pieces against the barsyou're done for, I tell you.
With a mute but expressive gesture of despair, Ashwoode grasped his sword by the slender, glittering blade, and broke it across. The fragments dropped from his hands, and he sunk almost lifeless into a chaira spectacle so ghastly, that Blarden for a moment thought that death was about to rescue his victim.
Chancey, come out here, exclaimed Blarden; the fellow has taken the staggerscome out, will you?
Oh! dear me, dear me, said Chancey, in his own quiet way, but he looks very bad.
Go over and shake him, said Blarden, still holding the pistol in his hand. What are you afraid of? He can't hurt youhe has broken his bilbo acrossthe symbol of gentility. By ! he's a good deal down in the mouth.
While they thus debated, Ashwoode rose up, looking more like a corpse endowed with motion than a living man.
Take me away at once, said he, with a sullen wildnesstake me away to gaol, or where you willanywhere were better than this place. Take me away; I am ruinedblasted. Make the most of ityour infernal scheme has succeededtake me to prison.
Oh, murder! he wants to go to gaoldo you hear him, Chancey? cried Blarden such an elegant, fine gentleman to think of such a thing: only to think of a baronet in gaoland for forgery, tooand the condemned cell such an ungentlemanly sort of a hole. Why, you'd have to use perfumes to no end, to make the place fit for the reception of your aristocratic
p.195visitorsmy Lord this, and my Lady thatfor, of course, you'll keep none but the best of company-ho, ho, ho! Perhaps the judge that's to try you may turn out to be an old acquaintance, for your luck is surprisingisn't it, Chancey? and he'll pay you a fine compliment, and express his regret when he's going to pass sentence, eh?ho, ho, ho! But, after all, I'd advise you, if the condescension is not too much to expect from such a very fine gentleman as you, to consort as much as possible with the turnkeyhe's the most useful friend you can make, under your peculiarly delicate circumstancesho, ho!eh? It's just possible he mayn't like to associate with you, for some of them fellows are rather stiff, d'ye see, and won't keep company with certain classes of the coves in quod, such as forgers or pickpockets; but if he'll allow it, you'd better get intimate with himho, ho, ho!eh?
Take me to the prison, sir, said Ashwoode, sternly I suppose you mean to do so. Let your officers remove me at onceyou have, no doubt, men for the purpose in the next room. Let them call a coach, and I will go with thembut let it be at once.
Well, you're not far out there, by ! replied Blarden. I have a broad-shouldered acquaintance or two, and a little bit of a warrantyou understand? in the next apartment. Grimes, Grimes, come in hereyou're wanted.
A huge, ill-looking fellow, with his coat buttoned up to his chin, and a short pipe protruding from the corner of his mouth, swaggered into the chamber, with that peculiar gait which seems as if contracted by habitually shouldering and jostling through mobs and all manner of riotous assemblies.
That's the bird? said the fellow, interrogatively, and pointing with his pipe carelessly at Ashwoode. You're my prisoner, he added, gruffly addressing the unfortunate young man, and at the same time planting his ponderous hand heavily upon his shoulder, he in the other exhibited a crumpled warrant.
Grimes, go call a coach, said Blarden, and don't be a brace of shakes about it, do you mind.
Grimes departed, and Blarden, after a long pause, suddenly addressing himself to Ashwoode, resumed, in a somewhat altered tone, but with intenser sternness still,
Now, I tell you what it is, my young cove, I have a sort of half a notion not to send you to gaol at all, do you hear?
Pshaw, pshaw! said Ashwoode, turning bitterly away.
I tell you I'm speaking what I mean, rejoined Blarden; I'll not send you there now at any rate. I want to have a bit of chat with you this evening, and it shall rest with you whether you go there at all or not; I'll give you the choice fairly. We'll meet, then, at Morley Court this evening, at
p.196eight o'clock; and for fear of accidents in the meantime, you'll have no objection to our mutual friend, Mr. Chancey, and our common acquaintance, Mr. Grimes, accompanying you home in the coach, and just keeping an eye on you till I come, for fear you might be out walking when I callyou understand me? But here's Grimes. Mr. Grimes, my particular friend Sir Henry Ashwoode has taken an extraordinary remarkable fancy to you, and wishes to know whether you'll do him the favour to take a jaunt with him in a carriage to see his house at Morley Court, and to spend the day with him and Mr. Chancey, for he finds that his health requires him to keep at home, and he has a particular objection to be left alone, even for a minute. Sir Henry, the coach is at the door. You'd better bundle up your bank-notes, they may be useful to you. Chancey, tell Sir Henry's groom, as you pass, that he'll not want his horse any more to-day.
The party went out; Sir Henry, pale as death, and scarcely able to support himself on his limbs, walking between Chancey and the herculean constable. Blarden saw them safely shut up in the vehicle, and giving the coachman his orders, gazed after them as they drove away in the direction of Morley Court, with a flushed face and a bounding heart.