What DO you mean, I ask again?'
'That,' returned the landlord, a little brought down from his dignity by the stranger's surliness, 'is a Maypole story, and has been any time these four-and-twenty years. That story is Solomon Daisy's story. It belongs to the house; and nobody but Solomon Daisy has ever told it under this roof, or ever shall--that's more.'
The man glanced at the parish-clerk, whose air of consciousness and importance plainly betokened him to be the person referred to, and, observing that he had taken his pipe from his lips, after a very long whiff to keep it alight, and was evidently about to tell his story without further solicitation, gathered his large coat about him, and shrinking further back was almost lost in the gloom of the spacious chimney-corner, except when the flame, struggling from under a great faggot, whose weight almost crushed it for the time, shot upward with a strong and sudden glare, and illumining his figure for a moment, seemed afterwards to cast it into deeper obscurity than before.
By this flickering light, which made the old room, with its heavy timbers and panelled walls, look as if it were built of polished ebony--the wind roaring and howling without, now rattling the latch and creaking the hinges of the stout oaken door, and now driving at the casement as though it would beat it in--by this light, and under circumstances so auspicious, Solomon Daisy began his tale:
'It was Mr Reuben Haredale, Mr Geoffrey's elder brother--'
Here he came to a dead stop, and made so long a pause that even John Willet grew impatient and asked why he did not proceed.
'Cobb,' said Solomon Daisy, dropping his voice and appealing to the post-office keeper; 'what day of the month is this?'
'Of March,' said the clerk, bending forward, 'the nineteenth of March; that's very strange.'
In a low voice they all acquiesced, and Solomon went on:
'It was Mr Reuben Haredale, Mr Geoffrey's elder brother, that twenty-two years ago was the owner of the Warren, which, as Joe has said--not that you remember it, Joe, for a boy like you can't do that, but because you have often heard me say so--was then a much larger and better place, and a much more valuable property than it is now. His lady was lately dead, and he was left with one child--the Miss Haredale you have been inquiring about--who was then scarcely a year old.'
Although the speaker addressed himself to the man who had shown so much curiosity about this same family, and made a pause here as if expecting some exclamation of surprise or encouragement, the latter made no remark, nor gave any indication that he heard or was interested in what was said. Solomon therefore turned to his old companions, whose noses were brightly illuminated by the deep red glow from the bowls of their pipes; assured, by long experience, of their attention, and resolved to show his sense of such indecent behaviour.
'Mr Haredale,' said Solomon, turning his back upon the strange man, 'left this place when his lady died, feeling it lonely like, and went up to London, where he stopped some months; but finding that place as lonely as this--as I suppose and have always heard say--he suddenly came back again with his little girl to the Warren, bringing with him besides, that day, only two women servants, and his steward, and a gardener.