My horse, young man! He is but a hack hired from a roadside posting house, but he must carry me to London to-night.'
'To-night!' said Joe.
'To-night,' returned the other. 'What do you stare at? This tavern would seem to be a house of call for all the gaping idlers of the neighbourhood!'
At this remark, which evidently had reference to the scrutiny he had undergone, as mentioned in the foregoing chapter, the eyes of John Willet and his friends were diverted with marvellous rapidity to the copper boiler again. Not so with Joe, who, being a mettlesome fellow, returned the stranger's angry glance with a steady look, and rejoined:
'It is not a very bold thing to wonder at your going on to-night. Surely you have been asked such a harmless question in an inn before, and in better weather than this. I thought you mightn't know the way, as you seem strange to this part.'
'The way--' repeated the other, irritably.
'Yes. DO you know it?'
'I'll--humph!--I'll find it,' replied the man, waving his hand and turning on his heel. 'Landlord, take the reckoning here.'
John Willet did as he was desired; for on that point he was seldom slow, except in the particulars of giving change, and testing the goodness of any piece of coin that was proffered to him, by the application of his teeth or his tongue, or some other test, or in doubtful cases, by a long series of tests terminating in its rejection. The guest then wrapped his garments about him so as to shelter himself as effectually as he could from the rough weather, and without any word or sign of farewell betook himself to the stableyard. Here Joe (who had left the room on the conclusion of their short dialogue) was protecting himself and the horse from the rain under the shelter of an old penthouse roof.
'He's pretty much of my opinion,' said Joe, patting the horse upon the neck. 'I'll wager that your stopping here to-night would please him better than it would please me.'
'He and I are of different opinions, as we have been more than once on our way here,' was the short reply.
'So I was thinking before you came out, for he has felt your spurs, poor beast.'
The stranger adjusted his coat-collar about his face, and made no answer.
'You'll know me again, I see,' he said, marking the young fellow's earnest gaze, when he had sprung into the saddle.
'The man's worth knowing, master, who travels a road he don't know, mounted on a jaded horse, and leaves good quarters to do it on such a night as this.'
'You have sharp eyes and a sharp tongue, I find.'
'Both I hope by nature, but the last grows rusty sometimes for want of using.'
'Use the first less too, and keep their sharpness for your sweethearts, boy,' said the man.
So saying he shook his hand from the bridle, struck him roughly on the head with the butt end of his whip, and galloped away; dashing through the mud and darkness with a headlong speed, which few badly mounted horsemen would have cared to venture, even had they been thoroughly acquainted with the country; and which, to one who knew nothing of the way he rode, was attended at every step with great hazard and danger.
The roads, even within twelve miles of London, were at that time ill paved, seldom repaired, and very badly made.