Gliding along the silent streets, and holding his course where they were darkest and most gloomy, the man who had left the widow’s house crossed London Bridge, and arriving in the City, plunged into the backways, lanes, and courts, between Cornhill and Smithfield; with no more fixedness of purpose than to lose himself among their windings, and baffle pursuit, if any one were dogging his steps.
It was the dead time of the night, and all was quiet. Now and then a drowsy watchman’s footsteps sounded on the pavement, or the lamplighter on his rounds went flashing past, leaving behind a little track of smoke mingled with glowing morsels of his hot red link. He hid himself even from these partakers of his lonely walk, and, shrinking in some arch or doorway while they passed, issued forth again when they were gone and so pursued his solitary way.
To be shelterless and alone in the open country, hearing the wind moan and watching for day through the whole long weary night; to listen to the falling rain, and crouch for warmth beneath the lee of some old barn or rick, or in the hollow of a tree; are dismal things—but not so dismal as the wandering up and down where shelter is, and beds and sleepers are by thousands; a houseless rejected creature. To pace the echoing stones from hour to hour, counting the dull chimes of the clocks; to watch the lights twinkling in chamber windows, to think what happy forgetfulness each house shuts in; that here are children coiled together in their beds, here youth, here age, here poverty, here wealth, all equal in their sleep, and all at rest; to have nothing in common with the slumbering world around, not even sleep, Heaven’s gift to all its creatures, and be akin to nothing but despair; to feel, by the wretched contrast with everything on every hand, more utterly alone and cast away than in a trackless desert; this is a kind of suffering, on which the rivers of great cities close full many a time, and which the solitude in crowds alone awakens.
The miserable man paced up and down the streets—so long, so wearisome, so like each other—and often cast a wistful look towards the east, hoping to see the first faint streaks of day. But obdurate night had yet possession of the sky, and his disturbed and restless walk found no relief.
One house in a back street was bright with the cheerful glare of lights; there was the sound of music in it too, and the tread of dancers, and there were cheerful voices, and many a burst of laughter. To this place—to be near something that was awake and glad—he returned again and again; and more than one of those who left it when the merriment was at its height, felt it a check upon their mirthful mood to see him flitting to and fro like an uneasy ghost. At last the guests departed, one and all; and then the house was close shut up, and became as dull and silent as the rest.
His wanderings brought him at one time to the city jail. Instead of hastening from it as a place of ill omen, and one he had cause to shun, he sat down on some steps hard by, and resting his chin upon his hand, gazed upon its rough and frowning walls as though even they became a refuge in his jaded eyes. He paced it round and round, came back to the same spot, and sat down again. He did this often, and once, with a hasty movement, crossed to where some men were watching in the prison lodge, and had his foot upon the steps as though determined to accost them. But looking round, he saw that the day began to break, and failing in his purpose, turned and fled.
He was soon in the quarter he had lately traversed, and pacing to and fro again as he had done before. He was passing down a mean street, when from an alley close at hand some shouts of revelry arose, and there came straggling forth a dozen madcaps, whooping and calling to each other, who, parting noisily, took different ways and dispersed in smaller groups.
Hoping that some low place of entertainment which would afford him a safe refuge might be near at hand, he turned into this court when they were all gone, and looked about for a half-opened door, or lighted window, or other indication of the place whence they had come. It was so profoundly dark, however, and so ill-favoured, that he concluded they had but turned up there, missing their way, and were pouring out again when he observed them. With this impression, and finding there was no outlet but that by which he had entered, he was about to turn, when from a grating near his feet a sudden stream of light appeared, and the sound of talking came. He retreated into a doorway to see who these talkers were, and to listen to them.
The light came to the level of the pavement as he did this, and a man ascended, bearing in his hand a torch. This figure unlocked and held open the grating as for the passage of another, who presently appeared, in the form of a young man of small stature and uncommon self-importance, dressed in an obsolete and very gaudy fashion.
‘Good night, noble captain,’ said he with the torch. ‘Farewell, commander. Good luck, illustrious general!’
In return to these compliments the other bade him hold his tongue, and keep his noise to himself, and laid upon him many similar injunctions, with great fluency of speech and sternness of manner.
‘Commend me, captain, to the stricken Miggs,’ returned the torch- bearer in a lower voice. ‘My captain flies at higher game than Miggses. Ha, ha, ha! My captain is an eagle, both as respects his eye and soaring wings. My captain breaketh hearts as other bachelors break eggs at breakfast.’
‘What a fool you are, Stagg!’ said Mr Tappertit, stepping on the pavement of the court, and brushing from his legs the dust he had contracted in his passage upward.
‘His precious limbs!’ cried Stagg, clasping one of his ankles. ‘Shall a Miggs aspire to these proportions! No, no, my captain. We will inveigle ladies fair, and wed them in our secret cavern. We will unite ourselves with blooming beauties, captain.’
‘I’ll tell you what, my buck,’ said Mr Tappertit, releasing his leg; ‘I’ll trouble you not to take liberties, and not to broach certain questions unless certain questions are broached to you. Speak when you’re spoke to on particular subjects, and not otherways. Hold the torch up till I’ve got to the end of the court, and then kennel yourself, do you hear?’
‘I hear you, noble captain.’
‘Obey then,’ said Mr Tappertit haughtily. ‘Gentlemen, lead on!’ With which word of command (addressed to an imaginary staff or retinue) he folded his arms, and walked with surpassing dignity down the court.
His obsequious follower stood holding the torch above his head, and then the observer saw for the first time, from his place of concealment, that he was blind. Some involuntary motion on his part caught the quick ear of the blind man, before he was conscious of having moved an inch towards him, for he turned suddenly and cried, ‘Who’s there?’
‘A man,’ said the other, advancing. ‘A friend.’
‘A stranger!’ rejoined the blind man. ‘Strangers are not my friends. What do you do there?’
‘I saw your company come out, and waited here till they were gone. I want a lodging.’
‘A lodging at this time!’ returned Stagg, pointing towards the dawn as though he saw it. ‘Do you know the day is breaking?’
‘I know it,’ rejoined the other, ‘to my cost. I have been traversing this iron-hearted town all night.’
‘You had better traverse it again,’ said the blind man, preparing to descend, ‘till you find some lodgings suitable to your taste. I don’t let any.’
‘Stay!’ cried the other, holding him by the arm.
‘I’ll beat this light about that hangdog face of yours (for hangdog it is, if it answers to your voice), and rouse the neighbourhood besides, if you detain me,’ said the blind man. ‘Let me go. Do you hear?’
‘Do you hear!’ returned the other, chinking a few shillings together, and hurriedly pressing them into his hand. ‘I beg nothing of you. I will pay for the shelter you give me. Death! Is it much to ask of such as you! I have come from the country, and desire to rest where there are none to question me. I am faint, exhausted, worn out, almost dead. Let me lie down, like a dog, before your fire. I ask no more than that. If you would be rid of me, I will depart to-morrow.’
‘If a gentleman has been unfortunate on the road,’ muttered Stagg, yielding to the other, who, pressing on him, had already gained a footing on the steps—‘and can pay for his accommodation—’
‘I will pay you with all I have. I am just now past the want of food, God knows, and wish but to purchase shelter. What companion have you below?’
‘Then fasten your grate there, and show me the way. Quick!’
The blind man complied after a moment’s hesitation, and they descended together. The dialogue had passed as hurriedly as the words could be spoken, and they stood in his wretched room before he had had time to recover from his first surprise.
‘May I see where that door leads to, and what is beyond?’ said the man, glancing keenly round. ‘You will not mind that?’
‘I will show you myself. Follow me, or go before. Take your choice.’
He bade him lead the way, and, by the light of the torch which his conductor held up for the purpose, inspected all three cellars narrowly. Assured that the blind man had spoken truth, and that he lived there alone, the visitor returned with him to the first, in which a fire was burning, and flung himself with a deep groan upon the ground before it.
His host pursued his usual occupation without seeming to heed him any further. But directly he fell asleep—and he noted his falling into a slumber, as readily as the keenest-sighted man could have done—he knelt down beside him, and passed his hand lightly but carefully over his face and person.
His sleep was checkered with starts and moans, and sometimes with a muttered word or two. His hands were clenched, his brow bent, and his mouth firmly set. All this, the blind man accurately marked; and as if his curiosity were strongly awakened, and he had already some inkling of his mystery, he sat watching him, if the expression may be used, and listening, until it was broad day.