'His shadow has been upon it and me, in light and darkness, at noonday and midnight. And now, at last, he has come in the body!'
'But he wouldn't have gone in the body,' returned the locksmith with some irritation, 'if you had left my arms and legs at liberty. What riddle is this?'
'It is one,' she answered, rising as she spoke, 'that must remain for ever as it is. I dare not say more than that.'
'Dare not!' repeated the wondering locksmith.
'Do not press me,' she replied. 'I am sick and faint, and every faculty of life seems dead within me.--No!--Do not touch me, either.'
Gabriel, who had stepped forward to render her assistance, fell back as she made this hasty exclamation, and regarded her in silent wonder.
'Let me go my way alone,' she said in a low voice, 'and let the hands of no honest man touch mine to-night.' When she had tottered to the door, she turned, and added with a stronger effort, 'This is a secret, which, of necessity, I trust to you. You are a true man. As you have ever been good and kind to me,--keep it. If any noise was heard above, make some excuse--say anything but what you really saw, and never let a word or look between us, recall this circumstance. I trust to you. Mind, I trust to you. How much I trust, you never can conceive.'
Casting her eyes upon him for an instant, she withdrew, and left him there alone.
Gabriel, not knowing what to think, stood staring at the door with a countenance full of surprise and dismay. The more he pondered on what had passed, the less able he was to give it any favourable interpretation. To find this widow woman, whose life for so many years had been supposed to be one of solitude and retirement, and who, in her quiet suffering character, had gained the good opinion and respect of all who knew her--to find her linked mysteriously with an ill-omened man, alarmed at his appearance, and yet favouring his escape, was a discovery that pained as much as startled him. Her reliance on his secrecy, and his tacit acquiescence, increased his distress of mind. If he had spoken boldly, persisted in questioning her, detained her when she rose to leave the room, made any kind of protest, instead of silently compromising himself, as he felt he had done, he would have been more at ease.
'Why did I let her say it was a secret, and she trusted it to me!' said Gabriel, putting his wig on one side to scratch his head with greater ease, and looking ruefully at the fire. 'I have no more readiness than old John himself. Why didn't I say firmly, "You have no right to such secrets, and I demand of you to tell me what this means," instead of standing gaping at her, like an old moon- calf as I am! But there's my weakness. I can be obstinate enough with men if need be, but women may twist me round their fingers at their pleasure.'
He took his wig off outright as he made this reflection, and, warming his handkerchief at the fire began to rub and polish his bald head with it, until it glistened again.
'And yet,' said the locksmith, softening under this soothing process, and stopping to smile, 'it MAY be nothing. Any drunken brawler trying to make his way into the house, would have alarmed a quiet soul like her. But then'--and here was the vexation--'how came it to be that man; how comes he to have this influence over her; how came she to favour his getting away from me; and, more than all, how came she not to say it was a sudden fright, and nothing more? It's a sad thing to have, in one minute, reason to mistrust a person I have known so long, and an old sweetheart into the bargain; but what else can I do, with all this upon my mind!-- Is that Barnaby outside there?'
'Ay!' he cried, looking in and nodding. 'Sure enough it's Barnaby--how did you guess?'
'By your shadow,' said the locksmith.
'Oho!' cried Barnaby, glancing over his shoulder, 'He's a merry fellow, that shadow, and keeps close to me, though I AM silly. We have such pranks, such walks, such runs, such gambols on the grass! Sometimes he'll be half as tall as a church steeple, and sometimes no bigger than a dwarf.