The Black Lion was so far off, and occupied such a length of time in the getting at, that notwithstanding the strong presumptive evidence she had about her of the late events being real and of actual occurrence, Dolly could not divest herself of the belief that she must be in a dream which was lasting all night. Nor was she quite certain that she saw and heard with her own proper senses, even when the coach, in the fulness of time, stopped at the Black Lion, and the host of that tavern approached in a gush of cheerful light to help them to dismount, and give them hearty welcome.
There too, at the coach door, one on one side, one upon the other, were already Edward Chester and Joe Willet, who must have followed in another coach: and this was such a strange and unaccountable proceeding, that Dolly was the more inclined to favour the idea of her being fast asleep. But when Mr Willet appeared—old John himself—so heavy-headed and obstinate, and with such a double chin as the liveliest imagination could never in its boldest flights have conjured up in all its vast proportions—then she stood corrected, and unwillingly admitted to herself that she was broad awake.
And Joe had lost an arm—he—that well-made, handsome, gallant fellow! As Dolly glanced towards him, and thought of the pain he must have suffered, and the far-off places in which he had been wandering, and wondered who had been his nurse, and hoped that whoever it was, she had been as kind and gentle and considerate as she would have been, the tears came rising to her bright eyes, one by one, little by little, until she could keep them back no longer, and so before them all, wept bitterly.
‘We are all safe now, Dolly,’ said her father, kindly. ‘We shall not be separated any more. Cheer up, my love, cheer up!’
The locksmith’s wife knew better perhaps, than he, what ailed her daughter. But Mrs Varden being quite an altered woman—for the riots had done that good—added her word to his, and comforted her with similar representations.
‘Mayhap,’ said Mr Willet, senior, looking round upon the company, ‘she’s hungry. That’s what it is, depend upon it—I am, myself.’
The Black Lion, who, like old John, had been waiting supper past all reasonable and conscionable hours, hailed this as a philosophical discovery of the profoundest and most penetrating kind; and the table being already spread, they sat down to supper straightway.
The conversation was not of the liveliest nature, nor were the appetites of some among them very keen. But, in both these respects, old John more than atoned for any deficiency on the part of the rest, and very much distinguished himself.
It was not in point of actual conversation that Mr Willet shone so brilliantly, for he had none of his old cronies to ‘tackle,’ and was rather timorous of venturing on Joe; having certain vague misgivings within him, that he was ready on the shortest notice, and on receipt of the slightest offence, to fell the Black Lion to the floor of his own parlour, and immediately to withdraw to China or some other remote and unknown region, there to dwell for evermore, or at least until he had got rid of his remaining arm and both legs, and perhaps an eye or so, into the bargain. It was with a peculiar kind of pantomime that Mr Willet filled up every pause; and in this he was considered by the Black Lion, who had been his familiar for some years, quite to surpass and go beyond himself, and outrun the expectations of his most admiring friends.
The subject that worked in Mr Willet’s mind, and occasioned these demonstrations, was no other than his son’s bodily disfigurement, which he had never yet got himself thoroughly to believe, or comprehend. Shortly after their first meeting, he had been observed to wander, in a state of great perplexity, to the kitchen, and to direct his gaze towards the fire, as if in search of his usual adviser in all matters of doubt and difficulty. But there being no boiler at the Black Lion, and the rioters having so beaten and battered his own that it was quite unfit for further service, he wandered out again, in a perfect bog of uncertainty and mental confusion, and in that state took the strangest means of resolving his doubts: such as feeling the sleeve of his son’s greatcoat as deeming it possible that his arm might be there; looking at his own arms and those of everybody else, as if to assure himself that two and not one was the usual allowance; sitting by the hour together in a brown study, as if he were endeavouring to recall Joe’s image in his younger days, and to remember whether he really had in those times one arm or a pair; and employing himself in many other speculations of the same kind.
Finding himself at this supper, surrounded by faces with which he had been so well acquainted in old times, Mr Willet recurred to the subject with uncommon vigour; apparently resolved to understand it now or never. Sometimes, after every two or three mouthfuls, he laid down his knife and fork, and stared at his son with all his might—particularly at his maimed side; then, he looked slowly round the table until he caught some person’s eye, when he shook his head with great solemnity, patted his shoulder, winked, or as one may say—for winking was a very slow process with him—went to sleep with one eye for a minute or two; and so, with another solemn shaking of his head, took up his knife and fork again, and went on eating. Sometimes, he put his food into his mouth abstractedly, and, with all his faculties concentrated on Joe, gazed at him in a fit of stupefaction as he cut his meat with one hand, until he was recalled to himself by symptoms of choking on his own part, and was by that means restored to consciousness. At other times he resorted to such small devices as asking him for the salt, the pepper, the vinegar, the mustard—anything that was on his maimed side—and watching him as he handed it. By dint of these experiments, he did at last so satisfy and convince himself, that, after a longer silence than he had yet maintained, he laid down his knife and fork on either side his plate, drank a long draught from a tankard beside him (still keeping his eyes on Joe), and leaning backward in his chair and fetching a long breath, said, as he looked all round the board:
‘It’s been took off!’
‘By George!’ said the Black Lion, striking the table with his hand, ‘he’s got it!’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Mr Willet, with the look of a man who felt that he had earned a compliment, and deserved it. ‘That’s where it is. It’s been took off.’
‘Tell him where it was done,’ said the Black Lion to Joe.
‘At the defence of the Savannah, father.’
‘At the defence of the Salwanners,’ repeated Mr Willet, softly; again looking round the table.
‘In America, where the war is,’ said Joe.
‘In America, where the war is,’ repeated Mr Willet. ‘It was took off in the defence of the Salwanners in America where the war is.’ Continuing to repeat these words to himself in a low tone of voice (the same information had been conveyed to him in the same terms, at least fifty times before), Mr Willet arose from table, walked round to Joe, felt his empty sleeve all the way up, from the cuff, to where the stump of his arm remained; shook his hand; lighted his pipe at the fire, took a long whiff, walked to the door, turned round once when he had reached it, wiped his left eye with the back of his forefinger, and said, in a faltering voice: ‘My son’s arm— was took off—at the defence of the—Salwanners—in America—where the war is’—with which words he withdrew, and returned no more that night.
Indeed, on various pretences, they all withdrew one after another, save Dolly, who was left sitting there alone. It was a great relief to be alone, and she was crying to her heart’s content, when she heard Joe’s voice at the end of the passage, bidding somebody good night.
Good night! Then he was going elsewhere—to some distance, perhaps. To what kind of home could he be going, now that it was so late!
She heard him walk along the passage, and pass the door. But there was a hesitation in his footsteps. He turned back—Dolly’s heart beat high—he looked in.
‘Good night!’—he didn’t say Dolly, but there was comfort in his not saying Miss Varden.
‘Good night!’ sobbed Dolly.
‘I am sorry you take on so much, for what is past and gone,’ said Joe kindly. ‘Don’t. I can’t bear to see you do it. Think of it no longer. You are safe and happy now.’
Dolly cried the more.
‘You must have suffered very much within these few days—and yet you’re not changed, unless it’s for the better. They said you were, but I don’t see it. You were—you were always very beautiful,’ said Joe, ‘but you are more beautiful than ever, now. You are indeed. There can be no harm in my saying so, for you must know it. You are told so very often, I am sure.’
As a general principle, Dolly did know it, and was told so, very often. But the coachmaker had turned out, years ago, to be a special donkey; and whether she had been afraid of making similar discoveries in others, or had grown by dint of long custom to be careless of compliments generally, certain it is that although she cried so much, she was better pleased to be told so now, than ever she had been in all her life.
‘I shall bless your name,’ sobbed the locksmith’s little daughter, ‘as long as I live. I shall never hear it spoken without feeling as if my heart would burst. I shall remember it in my prayers, every night and morning till I die!’
‘Will you?’ said Joe, eagerly. ‘Will you indeed? It makes me— well, it makes me very glad and proud to hear you say so.’
Dolly still sobbed, and held her handkerchief to her eyes. Joe still stood, looking at her.
‘Your voice,’ said Joe, ‘brings up old times so pleasantly, that, for the moment, I feel as if that night—there can be no harm in talking of that night now—had come back, and nothing had happened in the mean time. I feel as if I hadn’t suffered any hardships, but had knocked down poor Tom Cobb only yesterday, and had come to see you with my bundle on my shoulder before running away.—You remember?’
Remember! But she said nothing. She raised her eyes for an instant. It was but a glance; a little, tearful, timid glance. It kept Joe silent though, for a long time.
‘Well!’ he said stoutly, ‘it was to be otherwise, and was. I have been abroad, fighting all the summer and frozen up all the winter, ever since. I have come back as poor in purse as I went, and crippled for life besides. But, Dolly, I would rather have lost this other arm—ay, I would rather have lost my head—than have come back to find you dead, or anything but what I always pictured you to myself, and what I always hoped and wished to find you. Thank God for all!’
Oh how much, and how keenly, the little coquette of five years ago, felt now! She had found her heart at last. Never having known its worth till now, she had never known the worth of his. How priceless it appeared!
‘I did hope once,’ said Joe, in his homely way, ‘that I might come back a rich man, and marry you. But I was a boy then, and have long known better than that. I am a poor, maimed, discharged soldier, and must be content to rub through life as I can. I can’t say, even now, that I shall be glad to see you married, Dolly; but I am glad—yes, I am, and glad to think I can say so—to know that you are admired and courted, and can pick and choose for a happy life. It’s a comfort to me to know that you’ll talk to your husband about me; and I hope the time will come when I may be able to like him, and to shake hands with him, and to come and see you as a poor friend who knew you when you were a girl. God bless you!’
His hand did tremble; but for all that, he took it away again, and left her.