'Maybe,' was the reply. 'But my question related to the owner. What it has been I don't care to know, and what it is I can see for myself.'
The heir-apparent to the Maypole pressed his finger on his lips, and glancing at the young gentleman already noticed, who had changed his attitude when the house was first mentioned, replied in a lower tone:
'The owner's name is Haredale, Mr Geoffrey Haredale, and'--again he glanced in the same direction as before--'and a worthy gentleman too--hem!'
Paying as little regard to this admonitory cough, as to the significant gesture that had preceded it, the stranger pursued his questioning.
'I turned out of my way coming here, and took the footpath that crosses the grounds. Who was the young lady that I saw entering a carriage? His daughter?'
'Why, how should I know, honest man?' replied Joe, contriving in the course of some arrangements about the hearth, to advance close to his questioner and pluck him by the sleeve, 'I didn't see the young lady, you know. Whew! There's the wind again--AND rain-- well it IS a night!'
Rough weather indeed!' observed the strange man.
'You're used to it?' said Joe, catching at anything which seemed to promise a diversion of the subject.
'Pretty well,' returned the other. 'About the young lady--has Mr Haredale a daughter?'
'No, no,' said the young fellow fretfully, 'he's a single gentleman--he's--be quiet, can't you, man? Don't you see this talk is not relished yonder?'
Regardless of this whispered remonstrance, and affecting not to hear it, his tormentor provokingly continued:
'Single men have had daughters before now. Perhaps she may be his daughter, though he is not married.'
'What do you mean?' said Joe, adding in an undertone as he approached him again, 'You'll come in for it presently, I know you will!'
'I mean no harm'--returned the traveller boldly, 'and have said none that I know of. I ask a few questions--as any stranger may, and not unnaturally--about the inmates of a remarkable house in a neighbourhood which is new to me, and you are as aghast and disturbed as if I were talking treason against King George. Perhaps you can tell me why, sir, for (as I say) I am a stranger, and this is Greek to me?'
The latter observation was addressed to the obvious cause of Joe Willet's discomposure, who had risen and was adjusting his riding- cloak preparatory to sallying abroad. Briefly replying that he could give him no information, the young man beckoned to Joe, and handing him a piece of money in payment of his reckoning, hurried out attended by young Willet himself, who taking up a candle followed to light him to the house-door.
While Joe was absent on this errand, the elder Willet and his three companions continued to smoke with profound gravity, and in a deep silence, each having his eyes fixed on a huge copper boiler that was suspended over the fire. After some time John Willet slowly shook his head, and thereupon his friends slowly shook theirs; but no man withdrew his eyes from the boiler, or altered the solemn expression of his countenance in the slightest degree.
At length Joe returned--very talkative and conciliatory, as though with a strong presentiment that he was going to be found fault with.
'Such a thing as love is!' he said, drawing a chair near the fire, and looking round for sympathy. 'He has set off to walk to London,--all the way to London. His nag gone lame in riding out here this blessed afternoon, and comfortably littered down in our stable at this minute; and he giving up a good hot supper and our best bed, because Miss Haredale has gone to a masquerade up in town, and he has set his heart upon seeing her! I don't think I could persuade myself to do that, beautiful as she is,--but then I'm not in love (at least I don't think I am) and that's the whole difference.'
'He is in love then?' said the stranger.
'Rather,' replied Joe. 'He'll never be more in love, and may very easily be less.'
'Silence, sir!' cried his father.