‚It’s all bought up as fast as it can be made,‘ said the fellow. ‚There are fourteen water-mills, six steam-engines, and a galvanic battery, always a-working upon it, and they can’t make it fast enough, though the men work so hard that they die off, and the widows is pensioned directly, with twenty pound a-year for each of the children, and a premium of fifty for twins. One penny a square! Two half-pence is all the same, and four farthings is received with joy. One penny a square! Wine-stains, fruit-stains, beer-stains, water-stains, paint-stains, pitch-stains, mud-stains, blood-stains! Here is a stain upon the hat of a gentleman in company, that I’ll take clean out, before he can order me a pint of ale.‘
‚Hah!‘ cried Sikes starting up. ‚Give that back.‘
‚I’ll take it clean out, sir,‘ replied the man, winking to the company, ‚before you can come across the room to get it. Gentlemen all, observe the dark stain upon this gentleman’s hat, no wider than a shilling, but thicker than a half-crown. Whether it is a wine-stain, fruit-stain, beer-stain, water-stain, paint-stain, pitch-stain, mud-stain, or blood-stain–‚
The man got no further, for Sikes with a hideous imprecation overthrew the table, and tearing the hat from him, burst out of the house.
With the same perversity of feeling and irresolution that had fastened upon him, despite himself, all day, the murderer, finding that he was not followed, and that they most probably considered him some drunken sullen fellow, turned back up the town, and getting out of the glare of the lamps of a stage-coach that was standing in the street, was walking past, when he recognised the mail from London, and saw that it was standing at the little post-office. He almost knew what was to come; but he crossed over, and listened.
The guard was standing at the door, waiting for the letter-bag. A man, dressed like a game-keeper, came up at the moment, and he handed him a basket which lay ready on the pavement.
‚That’s for your people,‘ said the guard. ‚Now, look alive in there, will you. Damn that ‚ere bag, it warn’t ready night afore last; this won’t do, you know!‘
‚Anything new up in town, Ben?‘ asked the game-keeper, drawing back to the window-shutters, the better to admire the horses.
‚No, nothing that I knows on,‘ replied the man, pulling on his gloves. ‚Corn’s up a little. I heerd talk of a murder, too, down Spitalfields way, but I don’t reckon much upon it.‘
‚Oh, that’s quite true,‘ said a gentleman inside, who was looking out of the window. ‚And a dreadful murder it was.‘
‚Was it, sir?‘ rejoined the guard, touching his hat. ‚Man or woman, pray, sir?‘
‚A woman,‘ replied the gentleman. ‚It is supposed–‚
‚Now, Ben,‘ replied the coachman impatiently.
‚Damn that ‚ere bag,‘ said the guard; ‚are you gone to sleep in there?‘
‚Coming!‘ cried the office keeper, running out.
‚Coming,‘ growled the guard. ‚Ah, and so’s the young ‚ooman of property that’s going to take a fancy to me, but I don’t know when. Here, give hold. All ri–ight!‘
The horn sounded a few cheerful notes, and the coach was gone.
Sikes remained standing in the street, apparently unmoved by what he had just heard, and agitated by no stronger feeling than a doubt where to go. At length he went back again, and took the road which leads from Hatfield to St. Albans.
He went on doggedly; but as he left the town behind him, and plunged into the solitude and darkness of the road, he felt a dread and awe creeping upon him which shook him to the core. Every object before him, substance or shadow, still or moving, took the semblance of some fearful thing; but these fears were nothing compared to the sense that haunted him of that morning’s ghastly figure following at his heels. He could trace its shadow in the gloom, supply the smallest item of the outline, and note how stiff and solemn it seemed to stalk along. He could hear its garments rustling in the leaves, and every breath of wind came laden with that last low cry. If he stopped it did the same. If he ran, it followed–not running too: that would have been a relief: but like a corpse endowed with the mere machinery of life, and borne on one slow melancholy wind that never rose or fell.
At times, he turned, with desperate determination, resolved to beat this phantom off, though it should look him dead; but the hair rose on his head, and his blood stood still, for it had turned with him and was behind him then. He had kept it before him that morning, but it was behind now–always. He leaned his back against a bank, and felt that it stood above him, visibly out against the cold night-sky. He threw himself upon the road–on his back upon the road. At his head it stood, silent, erect, and still–a living grave-stone, with its epitaph in blood.
Let no man talk of murderers escaping justice, and hint that Providence must sleep. There were twenty score of violent deaths in one long minute of that agony of fear.
There was a shed in a field he passed, that offered shelter for the night. Before the door, were three tall poplar trees, which made it very dark within; and the wind moaned through them with a dismal wail. He _could not_ walk on, till daylight came again; and here he stretched himself close to the wall–to undergo new torture.
For now, a vision came before him, as constant and more terrible than that from which he had escaped. Those widely staring eyes, so lustreless and so glassy, that he had better borne to see them than think upon them, appeared in the midst of the darkness: light in themselves, but giving light to nothing. There were but two, but they were everywhere. If he shut out the sight, there came the room with every well-known object–some, indeed, that he would have forgotten, if he had gone over its contents from memory–each in its accustomed place. The body was in _its_ place, and its eyes were as he saw them when he stole away. He got up, and rushed into the field without. The figure was behind him. He re-entered the shed, and shrunk down once more. The eyes were there, before he had laid himself along.
And here he remained in such terror as none but he can know, trembling in every limb, and the cold sweat starting from every pore, when suddenly there arose upon the night-wind the noise of distant shouting, and the roar of voices mingled in alarm and wonder. Any sound of men in that lonely place, even though it conveyed a real cause of alarm, was something to him. He regained his strength and energy at the prospect of personal danger; and springing to his feet, rushed into the open air.
The broad sky seemed on fire. Rising into the air with showers of sparks, and rolling one above the other, were sheets of flame, lighting the atmosphere for miles round, and driving clouds of smoke in the direction where he stood. The shouts grew louder as new voices swelled the roar, and he could hear the cry of Fire! mingled with the ringing of an alarm-bell, the fall of heavy bodies, and the crackling of flames as they twined round some new obstacle, and shot aloft as though refreshed by food. The noise increased as he looked. There were people there–men and women–light, bustle. It was like new life to him. He darted onward–straight, headlong–dashing through brier and brake, and leaping gate and fence as madly as his dog, who careered with loud and sounding bark before him.
He came upon the spot. There were half-dressed figures tearing to and fro, some endeavouring to drag the frightened horses from the stables, others driving the cattle from the yard and out-houses, and others coming laden from the burning pile, amidst a shower of falling sparks, and the tumbling down of red-hot beams. The apertures, where doors and windows stood an hour ago, disclosed a mass of raging fire; walls rocked and crumbled into the burning well; the molten lead and iron poured down, white hot, upon the ground. Women and children shrieked, and men encouraged each other with noisy shouts and cheers. The clanking of the engine-pumps, and the spirting and hissing of the water as it fell upon the blazing wood, added to the tremendous roar. He shouted, too, till he was hoarse; and flying from memory and himself, plunged into the thickest of the throng. Hither and thither he dived that night: now working at the pumps, and now hurrying through the smoke and flame, but never ceasing to engage himself wherever noise and men were thickest. Up and down the ladders, upon the roofs of buildings, over floors that quaked and trembled with his weight, under the lee of falling bricks and stones, in every part of that great fire was he; but he bore a charmed life, and had neither scratch nor bruise, nor weariness nor thought, till morning dawned again, and only smoke and blackened ruins remained.
This mad excitement over, there returned, with ten-fold force, the dreadful consciousness of his crime. He looked suspiciously about him, for the men were conversing in groups, and he feared to be the subject of their talk. The dog obeyed the significant beck of his finger, and they drew off, stealthily, together. He passed near an engine where some men were seated, and they called to him to share in their refreshment. He took some bread and meat; and as he drank a draught of beer, heard the firemen, who were from London, talking about the murder. ‚He has gone to Birmingham, they say,‘ said one: ‚but they’ll have him yet, for the scouts are out, and by to-morrow night there’ll be a cry all through the country.‘
He hurried off, and walked till he almost dropped upon the ground; then lay down in a lane, and had a long, but broken and uneasy sleep. He wandered on again, irresolute and undecided, and oppressed with the fear of another solitary night.
Suddenly, he took the desperate resolution to going back to London.
‚There’s somebody to speak to there, at all event,‘ he thought. ‚A good hiding-place, too. They’ll never expect to nab me there, after this country scent. Why can’t I lie by for a week or so, and, forcing blunt from Fagin, get abroad to France? Damme, I’ll risk it.‘