'Why the truth is,' said John after a long pause, 'that the person who'd go quickest, is a sort of natural, as one may say, sir; and though quick of foot, and as much to be trusted as the post itself, he's not good at talking, being touched and flighty, sir.'
'You don't,' said the guest, raising his eyes to John's fat face, 'you don't mean--what's the fellow's name--you don't mean Barnaby?'
'Yes, I do,' returned the landlord, his features turning quite expressive with surprise.
'How comes he to be here?' inquired the guest, leaning back in his chair; speaking in the bland, even tone, from which he never varied; and with the same soft, courteous, never-changing smile upon his face. 'I saw him in London last night.'
'He's, for ever, here one hour, and there the next,' returned old John, after the usual pause to get the question in his mind. 'Sometimes he walks, and sometimes runs. He's known along the road by everybody, and sometimes comes here in a cart or chaise, and sometimes riding double. He comes and goes, through wind, rain, snow, and hail, and on the darkest nights. Nothing hurts HIM.'
'He goes often to the Warren, does he not?' said the guest carelessly. 'I seem to remember his mother telling me something to that effect yesterday. But I was not attending to the good woman much.'
'You're right, sir,' John made answer, 'he does. His father, sir, was murdered in that house.'
'So I have heard,' returned the guest, taking a gold toothpick from his pocket with the same sweet smile. 'A very disagreeable circumstance for the family.'
'Very,' said John with a puzzled look, as if it occurred to him, dimly and afar off, that this might by possibility be a cool way of treating the subject.
'All the circumstances after a murder,' said the guest soliloquising, 'must be dreadfully unpleasant--so much bustle and disturbance--no repose--a constant dwelling upon one subject--and the running in and out, and up and down stairs, intolerable. I wouldn't have such a thing happen to anybody I was nearly interested in, on any account. 'Twould be enough to wear one's life out.--You were going to say, friend--' he added, turning to John again.
'Only that Mrs Rudge lives on a little pension from the family, and that Barnaby's as free of the house as any cat or dog about it,' answered John. 'Shall he do your errand, sir?'
'Oh yes,' replied the guest. 'Oh certainly. Let him do it by all means. Please to bring him here that I may charge him to be quick. If he objects to come you may tell him it's Mr Chester. He will remember my name, I dare say.'
John was so very much astonished to find who his visitor was, that he could express no astonishment at all, by looks or otherwise, but left the room as if he were in the most placid and imperturbable of all possible conditions. It has been reported that when he got downstairs, he looked steadily at the boiler for ten minutes by the clock, and all that time never once left off shaking his head; for which statement there would seem to be some ground of truth and feasibility, inasmuch as that interval of time did certainly elapse, before he returned with Barnaby to the guest's apartment.
'Come hither, lad,' said Mr Chester. 'You know Mr Geoffrey Haredale?'
Barnaby laughed, and looked at the landlord as though he would say, 'You hear him?' John, who was greatly shocked at this breach of decorum, clapped his finger to his nose, and shook his head in mute remonstrance.
'He knows him, sir,' said John, frowning aside at Barnaby, 'as well as you or I do.'
'I haven't the pleasure of much acquaintance with the gentleman,' returned his guest. 'YOU may have. Limit the comparison to yourself, my friend.'
Although this was said with the same easy affability, and the same smile, John felt himself put down, and laying the indignity at Barnaby's door, determined to kick his raven, on the very first opportunity.
'Give that,' said the guest, who had by this time sealed the note, and who beckoned his messenger towards him as he spoke, 'into Mr Haredale's own hands.