Wait for an answer, and bring it back to me here. If you should find that Mr Haredale is engaged just now, tell him--can he remember a message, landlord?'
'When he chooses, sir,' replied John. 'He won't forget this one.'
'How are you sure of that?'
John merely pointed to him as he stood with his head bent forward, and his earnest gaze fixed closely on his questioner's face; and nodded sagely.
'Tell him then, Barnaby, should he be engaged,' said Mr Chester, 'that I shall be glad to wait his convenience here, and to see him (if he will call) at any time this evening.--At the worst I can have a bed here, Willet, I suppose?'
Old John, immensely flattered by the personal notoriety implied in this familiar form of address, answered, with something like a knowing look, 'I should believe you could, sir,' and was turning over in his mind various forms of eulogium, with the view of selecting one appropriate to the qualities of his best bed, when his ideas were put to flight by Mr Chester giving Barnaby the letter, and bidding him make all speed away.
'Speed!' said Barnaby, folding the little packet in his breast, 'Speed! If you want to see hurry and mystery, come here. Here!'
With that, he put his hand, very much to John Willet's horror, on the guest's fine broadcloth sleeve, and led him stealthily to the back window.
'Look down there,' he said softly; 'do you mark how they whisper in each other's ears; then dance and leap, to make believe they are in sport? Do you see how they stop for a moment, when they think there is no one looking, and mutter among themselves again; and then how they roll and gambol, delighted with the mischief they've been plotting? Look at 'em now. See how they whirl and plunge. And now they stop again, and whisper, cautiously together--little thinking, mind, how often I have lain upon the grass and watched them. I say what is it that they plot and hatch? Do you know?'
'They are only clothes,' returned the guest, 'such as we wear; hanging on those lines to dry, and fluttering in the wind.'
'Clothes!' echoed Barnaby, looking close into his face, and falling quickly back. 'Ha ha! Why, how much better to be silly, than as wise as you! You don't see shadowy people there, like those that live in sleep--not you. Nor eyes in the knotted panes of glass, nor swift ghosts when it blows hard, nor do you hear voices in the air, nor see men stalking in the sky--not you! I lead a merrier life than you, with all your cleverness. You're the dull men. We're the bright ones. Ha! ha! I'll not change with you, clever as you are,--not I!'
With that, he waved his hat above his head, and darted off.
'A strange creature, upon my word!' said the guest, pulling out a handsome box, and taking a pinch of snuff.
'He wants imagination,' said Mr Willet, very slowly, and after a long silence; 'that's what he wants. I've tried to instil it into him, many and many's the time; but'--John added this in confidence-- 'he an't made for it; that's the fact.'
To record that Mr Chester smiled at John's remark would be little to the purpose, for he preserved the same conciliatory and pleasant look at all times. He drew his chair nearer to the fire though, as a kind of hint that he would prefer to be alone, and John, having no reasonable excuse for remaining, left him to himself.
Very thoughtful old John Willet was, while the dinner was preparing; and if his brain were ever less clear at one time than another, it is but reasonable to suppose that he addled it in no slight degree by shaking his head so much that day. That Mr Chester, between whom and Mr Haredale, it was notorious to all the neighbourhood, a deep and bitter animosity existed, should come down there for the sole purpose, as it seemed, of seeing him, and should choose the Maypole for their place of meeting, and should send to him express, were stumbling blocks John could not overcome. The only resource he had, was to consult the boiler, and wait impatiently for Barnaby's return.