Once more, the Dover mail struggled on, with the jack-boots of its passengers squashing along by its side. They had stopped when the coach stopped, and they kept close company with it. If any one of the three had had the hardihood to propose to another to walk on a little ahead into the mist and darkness, he would have put himself in a fair way of getting shot instantly as a highwayman.
The last burst carried the mail to the summit of the hill. The horses stopped to breathe again, and the guard got down to skid the wheel for the descent, and open the coach-door to let the passengers in.
"Tst! Joe!" cried the coachman in a warning voice, looking down from his box.
"What do you say, Tom?"
They both listened.
"I say a horse at a canter coming up, Joe."
"I say a horse at a gallop, Tom," returned the guard, leaving his hold of the door, and mounting nimbly to his place. "Gentlemen! In the king's name, all of you!"
With this hurried adjuration, he cocked his blunderbuss, and stood on the offensive.
The passenger booked by this history, was on the coach-step, getting in; the two other passengers were close behind him, and about to follow. He remained on the step, half in the coach and half out of; they remained in the road below him. They all looked from the coachman to the guard, and from the guard to the coachman, and listened. The coachman looked back and the guard looked back, and even the emphatic leader pricked up his ears and looked back, without contradicting.
The stillness consequent on the cessation of the rumbling and labouring of the coach, added to the stillness of the night, made it very quiet indeed. The panting of the horses communicated a tremulous motion to the coach, as if it were in a state of agitation. The hearts of the passengers beat loud enough perhaps to be heard; but at any rate, the quiet pause was audibly expressive of people out of breath, and holding the breath, and having the pulses quickened by expectation.
The sound of a horse at a gallop came fast and furiously up the hill.
"So-ho!" the guard sang out, as loud as he could roar. "Yo there! Stand! I shall fire!"
The pace was suddenly checked, and, with much splashing and floundering, a man's voice called from the mist, "Is that the Dover mail?"
"Never you mind what it is!" the guard retorted. "What are you?"
"_Is_ that the Dover mail?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"I want a passenger, if it is."
"Mr. Jarvis Lorry."
Our booked passenger showed in a moment that it was his name. The guard, the coachman, and the two other passengers eyed him distrustfully.
"Keep where you are," the guard called to the voice in the mist, "because, if I should make a mistake, it could never be set right in your lifetime. Gentleman of the name of Lorry answer straight."
"What is the matter?" asked the passenger, then, with mildly quavering speech. "Who wants me? Is it Jerry?"
("I don't like Jerry's voice, if it is Jerry," growled the guard to himself. "He's hoarser than suits me, is Jerry.")
"Yes, Mr. Lorry."
"What is the matter?"
"A despatch sent after you from over yonder. T. and Co."
"I know this messenger, guard," said Mr.