'He is not hurt,' said the traveller at length, raising his head and the lantern together.
'You have found that out at last, have you?' rejoined the old man. 'My eyes have seen more light than yours, but I wouldn't change with you.'
'What do you mean?'
'Mean! I could have told you he wasn't hurt, five minutes ago. Give me the light, friend; ride forward at a gentler pace; and good night.'
In handing up the lantern, the man necessarily cast its rays full on the speaker's face. Their eyes met at the instant. He suddenly dropped it and crushed it with his foot.
'Did you never see a locksmith before, that you start as if you had come upon a ghost?' cried the old man in the chaise, 'or is this,' he added hastily, thrusting his hand into the tool basket and drawing out a hammer, 'a scheme for robbing me? I know these roads, friend. When I travel them, I carry nothing but a few shillings, and not a crown's worth of them. I tell you plainly, to save us both trouble, that there's nothing to be got from me but a pretty stout arm considering my years, and this tool, which, mayhap from long acquaintance with, I can use pretty briskly. You shall not have it all your own way, I promise you, if you play at that game. With these words he stood upon the defensive.
'I am not what you take me for, Gabriel Varden,' replied the other.
'Then what and who are you?' returned the locksmith. 'You know my name, it seems. Let me know yours.'
'I have not gained the information from any confidence of yours, but from the inscription on your cart which tells it to all the town,' replied the traveller.
'You have better eyes for that than you had for your horse, then,' said Varden, descending nimbly from his chaise; 'who are you? Let me see your face.'
While the locksmith alighted, the traveller had regained his saddle, from which he now confronted the old man, who, moving as the horse moved in chafing under the tightened rein, kept close beside him.
'Let me see your face, I say.'
'No masquerading tricks,' said the locksmith, 'and tales at the club to-morrow, how Gabriel Varden was frightened by a surly voice and a dark night. Stand--let me see your face.'
Finding that further resistance would only involve him in a personal struggle with an antagonist by no means to be despised, the traveller threw back his coat, and stooping down looked steadily at the locksmith.
Perhaps two men more powerfully contrasted, never opposed each other face to face. The ruddy features of the locksmith so set off and heightened the excessive paleness of the man on horseback, that he looked like a bloodless ghost, while the moisture, which hard riding had brought out upon his skin, hung there in dark and heavy drops, like dews of agony and death. The countenance of the old locksmith lighted up with the smile of one expecting to detect in this unpromising stranger some latent roguery of eye or lip, which should reveal a familiar person in that arch disguise, and spoil his jest. The face of the other, sullen and fierce, but shrinking too, was that of a man who stood at bay; while his firmly closed jaws, his puckered mouth, and more than all a certain stealthy motion of the hand within his breast, seemed to announce a desperate purpose very foreign to acting, or child's play.
Thus they regarded each other for some time, in silence.
'Humph!' he said when he had scanned his features; 'I don't know you.'
'Don't desire to?'--returned the other, muffling himself as before.
'I don't,' said Gabriel; 'to be plain with you, friend, you don't carry in your countenance a letter of recommendation.'
'It's not my wish,' said the traveller. 'My humour is to be avoided.'
'Well,' said the locksmith bluntly, 'I think you'll have your humour.'
'I will, at any cost,' rejoined the traveller. 'In proof of it, lay this to heart--that you were never in such peril of your life as you have been within these few moments; when you are within five minutes of breathing your last, you will not be nearer death than you have been to-night!'
'Aye!' said the sturdy locksmith.