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good twenty-four hours, as I've done, Rudd,” rejoined Spark, surlily ; "it's not your meat, I fancy, I'm eating.”
“No, no! you're always red hot to fasten a quarrel on me,” retorted Rudd.
“ Because you bait me as a bulldog does a badger,” returned Spike, with a ferocious gleam in his grey eyes, “but I'd have you remember that a badger can bite, Jack.'
“I know that, to my cost, my lad," was Rudd's reply, “but let's drop the subject. Can any of you divine what's become of Grimes ?”
The woman had by this time sat down in front of the fire, with her jaws resting upon her hands, gazing vacantly into the grate; the question, however, aroused her, and her face assumed a more vigilant expression as she listened, without appearing to do so, to the conversation.
"He can't have got trapped,” said little Barns, “oh no, no! Grimes was too 'cute a fellow for that."
“Perhaps he's hit on some plan, and stopped behind to work it out,” suggested Bunting, “Grimes is a long headed chap.”
Spike shook his head, as he said, “ After our escape yesterday morning, Grimes would naturally drop down as snugly as possible to his own lair, and yet, Bess says she's seen nothing of him.”
The woman moved uneasily on her seat, but did not interrupt the conversation.
“Well, I hope he hasn't got into trouble," resumed Rudd, trying to look confident, “but Grimes always was an unlucky fellow all his life.”
Bess shuddered, and shrunk still closer into herself, as she wondered to herself where the wretched man, who was her husband, could be—anywhere but at home at such a time, she prayed he might be—even in prison, so that he might escape the clutches of such a band.
The hope had scarcely formed itself in her mind, before a step was heard at the door, and Grimes stood amongst them.
His slouched hat, his lank, rusty hair, his foxy whiskers, every fold of his threadbare costume, from the handkerchief, twisted like a hay-wisp round his lean neck, to the patched and leaky boots he wore, reeking with wet; hunger gleaming from his cold, blue eyes; hunger stamped in every wrinkle of his pinched and furrowed visage, on his raw, hungry nose, on his blue lips, his sharp chin,-stamped even on his bony fingers and his slinking form; mud clinging to his miserable trousers, and standing out in patches even on his reeking coat! Such
was the wretched man with whom Rudd and his companions were banded together.
“ How long have you been here, pals?” was his first inquiry, as he threw himself, like a famished wolf, on the remains of the breakfast, without noticing his wretched wife; “ I dar not ventur into the high road till daylight had past, and then slunk home like a hunted wolf.”
“ We've only been an hour or so here,” was Rudd's rejoinder, “but we acted differently to you ;-we travelled in the daytime, and slept by night.”
“ You did !” exclaimed the other, turning up his eyes.“Rudd, you've the impudence of a fiend, or you'd never ventur to such lengths; but, however, if I was longer in turning up, I've managed to pick up a bit of news,—you know who,—" and a jerk of his hand eked out the hint; "the gentleman we went to visit, a night or two ago."
“ Go on, you fool," roared Rudd, foaming at the mouth with impatience; “ I understand you, you drivelling ass ;—what of him, I say?"
“ Patience for a minute," said Grimes, coolly ; “d'ye think a fellow's to be brow-beat and buffetted in this way? -he's off to Paris, that's all.--Yes, that's the name, for I took particular notice, and spelt it over to myself, to fix it in my mind.”
“ And who told you this, you croaking owl ?” roared Rudd, striking the table with his clenched fist.
“ Bah! you needn't work yourself up in that way, Rudd,” said Spike, joining in the conversation, which until now had been entirely carried on by the two men; “if the bird's flown, it's none of our fault, you know.”
Rudd started up from his seat, and then sank back again, and his countenance, from being frightfully distorted, grew suddenly pale. Spike eyed this demonstration with a taunting smile, that made his antagonist's mastery over himself the more difficult to maintain; he did so, however, and with a calmness that astonished every one, turned to Grimes again, and said in a hoarse whisper“Where and how did you come by this news ?”
Nothing could be simpler. Last night, when it was darkening, I was prowling in the stable-yard of the Blue Boar, at B—, wondering where I could get a belly-full, when a carriage and four drove up with Dal-I mean him in it; fresh horses were ordered out, and away they went again, without stopping, and I heard the hostler and a helper, who came into the stable where I was hid, say that he was off to Paris with a
“And I wasn't there!” groaned Rudd, quivering with baffled
rage; " I'd have given life itself—it's all I've left now-to have been in your place, Grimes. Hang the ill luck that dogs me, go where I will, and now he's escaped me altogether.”
“Unless you follow him to Paris, my lad,” said Spike, sneeringly; "you may catch him there."
Rudd's face was hid by his hands, so that they could not see the effect this taunt had upon him. A dead silence followed, broken only by a convulsive groan, that seemed to issue at intervals from the very depths of Rudd's heart, and whenever it was heard, they all noticed that his strong frame quivered, and his head was drawn down, as if by some unseen power, upon his chest, whilst the four men sate around in wonder, not even Spike daring to interrupt this wild gust of passion and despair.
Suddenly he sat up erect, with a stern smile imprinted on his face, as pale as that of a dead man; by a mighty effort he had conquered even himself, but the writhing lip, the rolling eye, and the ghastly pallor of his face, told how dearly was it purchased. Even the smile that hovered around his features could not hide the stern revenge that showed itself like an undercurrent of action beneath the surface, and he trembled as he said, "My revenge will come; but get your breakfast, Grimes, and then we'll talk of other matters.”
“Whose brat is that, in the corner ?" demanded the other, for the first time directing his attention to Herbert, who lay apparently undisturbed, amidst all this wild uproar, buried in sleep; "where did you pick him up ?”
“ Hush, Grimes,” said Rudd, laying his finger on his lips; “don't speak so loud.”
Why, you've been roaring like a mad bull, Jack," cried Spike, with a loud, coarse laugh ; “ and now, when you've changed your mood, and begin to pipe small, you won't speak above a cat's whisper."
“You're safe for this time, Spike,” said Rudd, affecting not to notice the truth of the other's remark; “but is it not strange that poor little fellow should lie so quiet, there, and here we've been shouting and talking, like so many mad fools about himhow sound the poor fellow sleeps, my lads !”
“I believe he's shamming,” growled Spike.
“He shan't be disturbed, and so that's enough,” cried Rudd, folding his arms over his brawny chest ;-"I say it again, he shan't be touched, and it's at your peril, or any man's peril, to do so."
Spike laughed tauntingly–he was jealous of Rudd's presumed superiority, and took every opportunity of piquing him—and said, "d'ye think I dar' not satisfy myself whether the little ass is really shamming, or not, Jack ?
“No, you dare not, I'll stake my life, he is asleep."
“Here goes then," cried Spike, springing from his chair, towards the settle, but before he could move three steps, Rudd's gigantic frame was interposed between him and the object of his scrutiny, and the latter, winding his arms round his antagonist's much less powerful frame, fairly lifted him from his feet, and carried him back to his seat, with the greatest ease.
“I needn't go to see myself,” said he, with a parting hug, that made the discomfited Spike pant for breath, as Herbert, rubbing his eyes, sate up erect before them; “Holloa ! my little cock sparrow, are you fresh and hearty again, after your snooze ?"
“Yes, sir,—who are all these men ?” was Herbert's first question.
“ Friends of mine,” was the response; “this gentleman,' pointing to Grimes ; "has just come from a journey—but lie down again, and sleep if you can, for we must be off again in the afternoon."
Herbert wondered, whether he could escape from the society of these terrible men, before that time, but thinking it better to appear to acquiesce in the suggestion, lay down again, though he did not again fall asleep.
In the meantime, the men drew round the fire, and began to smoke in silence–Grimes lay down on a wretched bed in one corner, and soon fell fast asleep, whilst the woman, having cleared away the breakfast things, ascended by a ladder, into the loft above, and did not again make her appearance for a considerable time.
Dinner passed over, and still no one seemed disposed to leave their present quarters,—Herbert, whose boyish fears began to predominate over the courage that had hitherto supported him, began to give way to despair; he felt as if it were an impossibility to escape from the surveillance of these men, every one of whom his alarmed imagination depicted in the most frightful colours, and who evidently were retaining him amongst them for some guilty purpose; he durst not allow his imagination to divine what this latter might be, and the more vague and intangible were the conjectures his mind assumed, the more and more unhappy did he become.
As the night drew on, Barns and Spike slunk out, and were presently followed by the man Grimes, who shortly after re
turned, and after whispering to Rudd, for some moments, in an eager tone, again went away, accompanied by the latter and Bunting. There were now none but the woman and Herbert remaining, and with a throbbing heart, the latter watched every movement of his companion, who was now occupied in her task of putting the miserable room into some sort of order.
More than once the poor boy felt impelled to throw himself upon her compassion, especially when he detected her occasionally eyeing him with an emotion, that he was quite ready to interpret into one of pity ; but then, the dread, indefinable fear of failing to excite her pity, deterred him from such a step; it would arouse all her vigilance, should he fail to do so, and then escape would be impossible.
At last her employment seemed to have come to an end, and resuming her ordinary place before the fire, she rested her chin on the palms of her hands, rocking herself gently, backwards and forwards, whilst her great mournful eyes were fixed on the smouldering turf, muttering at intervals to herself, and then sighing heavily, as she resumed the rocking movement her wretched cogitations at times seemed to interrupt.
Herbert watched her for a long time in silence, he even held his breath lest that might recall him to her memory; she seemed utterly to have forgotten him, so completely so, in fact, that tears were stealing silently down her haggard countenance, in a manner that showed how completely she fancied herself to be alone.
It was strange that the boy felt more terrified by the society of this lonely and grief-stricken woman, than he had ever done in the company of the reckless ruffians, with whom he had spent the preceding night. There was something so appalling in the very loneliness that surrounded them, broken only by the dull crackling of the embers in the grate, that his very heart died within him ; the attitude of grief, too, his companion had assumed, her wild, black, dishevelled hair, falling unconfined over her swarth, sallow face, and heaving bosom, the deep corroding despair that was stamped on her gaunt, hunger-stricken, visage, and the heavy sighs that burst from her breast, were enough to fill much more courageous beings with fear.
And then glancing round, silently and stealthily, to survey the apartment, with its barricadoed window, the pair of bludgeons hung over the fire-place, the plaster falling from the blackened laths, the smoky roof, the lurid light emitted by the fire, and the gloom that enveloped everything remote; everything wild, and improbable, and appalling, that he had ever heard of, or read, rushed upon his mind, and drove him wellnigh to despair.