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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBarnaby Rudge - Chapter 16
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Barnaby Rudge - Chapter 16 Post by :36161 Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Dickens Date :December 2010 Read :863

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Barnaby Rudge - Chapter 16

A series of pictures representing the streets of London in the
night, even at the comparatively recent date of this tale, would
present to the eye something so very different in character from
the reality which is witnessed in these times, that it would be
difficult for the beholder to recognise his most familiar walks in
the altered aspect of little more than half a century ago.

They were, one and all, from the broadest and best to the narrowest
and least frequented, very dark. The oil and cotton lamps, though
regularly trimmed twice or thrice in the long winter nights, burnt
feebly at the best; and at a late hour, when they were unassisted
by the lamps and candles in the shops, cast but a narrow track of
doubtful light upon the footway, leaving the projecting doors and
house-fronts in the deepest gloom. Many of the courts and lanes
were left in total darkness; those of the meaner sort, where one
glimmering light twinkled for a score of houses, being favoured in
no slight degree. Even in these places, the inhabitants had often
good reason for extinguishing their lamp as soon as it was lighted;
and the watch being utterly inefficient and powerless to prevent
them, they did so at their pleasure. Thus, in the lightest
thoroughfares, there was at every turn some obscure and dangerous
spot whither a thief might fly or shelter, and few would care to
follow; and the city being belted round by fields, green lanes,
waste grounds, and lonely roads, dividing it at that time from the
suburbs that have joined it since, escape, even where the pursuit
was hot, was rendered easy.

It is no wonder that with these favouring circumstances in full and
constant operation, street robberies, often accompanied by cruel
wounds, and not unfrequently by loss of life, should have been of
nightly occurrence in the very heart of London, or that quiet folks
should have had great dread of traversing its streets after the
shops were closed. It was not unusual for those who wended home
alone at midnight, to keep the middle of the road, the better to
guard against surprise from lurking footpads; few would venture to
repair at a late hour to Kentish Town or Hampstead, or even to
Kensington or Chelsea, unarmed and unattended; while he who had
been loudest and most valiant at the supper-table or the tavern,
and had but a mile or so to go, was glad to fee a link-boy to
escort him home.

There were many other characteristics--not quite so disagreeable--
about the thoroughfares of London then, with which they had been
long familiar. Some of the shops, especially those to the eastward
of Temple Bar, still adhered to the old practice of hanging out a
sign; and the creaking and swinging of these boards in their iron
frames on windy nights, formed a strange and mournfal concert for
the ears of those who lay awake in bed or hurried through the
streets. Long stands of hackney-chairs and groups of chairmen,
compared with whom the coachmen of our day are gentle and polite,
obstructed the way and filled the air with clamour; night-cellars,
indicated by a little stream of light crossing the pavement, and
stretching out half-way into the road, and by the stifled roar of
voices from below, yawned for the reception and entertainment of
the most abandoned of both sexes; under every shed and bulk small
groups of link-boys gamed away the earnings of the day; or one more
weary than the rest, gave way to sleep, and let the fragment of his
torch fall hissing on the puddled ground.

Then there was the watch with staff and lantern crying the hour,
and the kind of weather; and those who woke up at his voice and
turned them round in bed, were glad to hear it rained, or snowed,
or blew, or froze, for very comfort's sake. The solitary passenger
was startled by the chairmen's cry of 'By your leave there!' as two
came trotting past him with their empty vehicle--carried backwards
to show its being disengaged--and hurried to the nearest stand.
Many a private chair, too, inclosing some fine lady, monstrously
hooped and furbelowed, and preceded by running-footmen bearing
flambeaux--for which extinguishers are yet suspended before the
doors of a few houses of the better sort--made the way gay and
light as it danced along, and darker and more dismal when it had
passed. It was not unusual for these running gentry, who carried
it with a very high hand, to quarrel in the servants' hall while
waiting for their masters and mistresses; and, falling to blows
either there or in the street without, to strew the place of
skirmish with hair-powder, fragments of bag-wigs, and scattered
nosegays. Gaming, the vice which ran so high among all classes
(the fashion being of course set by the upper), was generally the
cause of these disputes; for cards and dice were as openly used,
and worked as much mischief, and yielded as much excitement below
stairs, as above. While incidents like these, arising out of drums
and masquerades and parties at quadrille, were passing at the west
end of the town, heavy stagecoaches and scarce heavier waggons were
lumbering slowly towards the city, the coachmen, guard, and
passengers, armed to the teeth, and the coach--a day or so perhaps
behind its time, but that was nothing--despoiled by highwaymen; who
made no scruple to attack, alone and single-handed, a whole caravan
of goods and men, and sometimes shot a passenger or two, and were
sometimes shot themselves, as the case might be. On the morrow,
rumours of this new act of daring on the road yielded matter for a
few hours' conversation through the town, and a Public Progress of
some fine gentleman (half-drunk) to Tyburn, dressed in the newest
fashion, and damning the ordinary with unspeakable gallantry and
grace, furnished to the populace, at once a pleasant excitement and
a wholesome and profound example.

Among all the dangerous characters who, in such a state of society,
prowled and skulked in the metropolis at night, there was one man
from whom many as uncouth and fierce as he, shrunk with an
involuntary dread. Who he was, or whence he came, was a question
often asked, but which none could answer. His name was unknown, he
had never been seen until within about eight days or thereabouts,
and was equally a stranger to the old ruffians, upon whose haunts
he ventured fearlessly, as to the young. He could be no spy, for
he never removed his slouched hat to look about him, entered into
conversation with no man, heeded nothing that passed, listened to
no discourse, regarded nobody that came or went. But so surely as
the dead of night set in, so surely this man was in the midst of
the loose concourse in the night-cellar where outcasts of every
grade resorted; and there he sat till morning.

He was not only a spectre at their licentious feasts; a something
in the midst of their revelry and riot that chilled and haunted
them; but out of doors he was the same. Directly it was dark, he
was abroad--never in company with any one, but always alone; never
lingering or loitering, but always walking swiftly; and looking (so
they said who had seen him) over his shoulder from time to time,
and as he did so quickening his pace. In the fields, the lanes,
the roads, in all quarters of the town--east, west, north, and
south--that man was seen gliding on like a shadow. He was always
hurrying away. Those who encountered him, saw him steal past,
caught sight of the backward glance, and so lost him in the
darkness.

This constant restlessness, and flitting to and fro, gave rise to
strange stories. He was seen in such distant and remote places, at
times so nearly tallying with each other, that some doubted whether
there were not two of them, or more--some, whether he had not
unearthly means of travelling from spot to spot. The footpad
hiding in a ditch had marked him passing like a ghost along its
brink; the vagrant had met him on the dark high-road; the beggar
had seen him pause upon the bridge to look down at the water, and
then sweep on again; they who dealt in bodies with the surgeons
could swear he slept in churchyards, and that they had beheld him
glide away among the tombs on their approach. And as they told
these stories to each other, one who had looked about him would
pull his neighbour by the sleeve, and there he would be among them.

At last, one man--he was one of those whose commerce lay among the
graves--resolved to question this strange companion. Next night,
when he had eat his poor meal voraciously (he was accustomed to do
that, they had observed, as though he had no other in the day),
this fellow sat down at his elbow.

'A black night, master!'

'It is a black night.'

'Blacker than last, though that was pitchy too. Didn't I pass you
near the turnpike in the Oxford Road?'

'It's like you may. I don't know.'

'Come, come, master,' cried the fellow, urged on by the looks of
his comrades, and slapping him on the shoulder; 'be more
companionable and communicative. Be more the gentleman in this
good company. There are tales among us that you have sold yourself
to the devil, and I know not what.'

'We all have, have we not?' returned the stranger, looking up. 'If
we were fewer in number, perhaps he would give better wages.'

'It goes rather hard with you, indeed,' said the fellow, as the
stranger disclosed his haggard unwashed face, and torn clothes.
'What of that? Be merry, master. A stave of a roaring song now'--

'Sing you, if you desire to hear one,' replied the other, shaking
him roughly off; 'and don't touch me if you're a prudent man; I
carry arms which go off easily--they have done so, before now--and
make it dangerous for strangers who don't know the trick of them,
to lay hands upon me.'

'Do you threaten?' said the fellow.

'Yes,' returned the other, rising and turning upon him, and looking
fiercely round as if in apprehension of a general attack.

His voice, and look, and bearing--all expressive of the wildest
recklessness and desperation--daunted while they repelled the
bystanders. Although in a very different sphere of action now,
they were not without much of the effect they had wrought at the
Maypole Inn.

'I am what you all are, and live as you all do,' said the man
sternly, after a short silence. 'I am in hiding here like the
rest, and if we were surprised would perhaps do my part with the
best of ye. If it's my humour to be left to myself, let me have
it. Otherwise,'--and here he swore a tremendous oath--'there'll be
mischief done in this place, though there ARE odds of a score
against me.'

A low murmur, having its origin perhaps in a dread of the man and
the mystery that surrounded him, or perhaps in a sincere opinion on
the part of some of those present, that it would be an inconvenient
precedent to meddle too curiously with a gentleman's private
affairs if he saw reason to conceal them, warned the fellow who
had occasioned this discussion that he had best pursue it no
further. After a short time the strange man lay down upon a bench
to sleep, and when they thought of him again, they found he was
gone.

Next night, as soon as it was dark, he was abroad again and
traversing the streets; he was before the locksmith's house more
than once, but the family were out, and it was close shut. This
night he crossed London Bridge and passed into Southwark. As he
glided down a bye street, a woman with a little basket on her arm,
turned into it at the other end. Directly he observed her, he
sought the shelter of an archway, and stood aside until she had
passed. Then he emerged cautiously from his hiding-place, and
followed.

She went into several shops to purchase various kinds of household
necessaries, and round every place at which she stopped he hovered
like her evil spirit; following her when she reappeared. It was
nigh eleven o'clock, and the passengers in the streets were
thinning fast, when she turned, doubtless to go home. The phantom
still followed her.

She turned into the same bye street in which he had seen her first,
which, being free from shops, and narrow, was extremely dark. She
quickened her pace here, as though distrustful of being stopped,
and robbed of such trifling property as she carried with her. He
crept along on the other side of the road. Had she been gifted
with the speed of wind, it seemed as if his terrible shadow would
have tracked her down.

At length the widow--for she it was--reached her own door, and,
panting for breath, paused to take the key from her basket. In a
flush and glow, with the haste she had made, and the pleasure of
being safe at home, she stooped to draw it out, when, raising her
head, she saw him standing silently beside her: the apparition of
a dream.

His hand was on her mouth, but that was needless, for her tongue
clove to its roof, and her power of utterance was gone. 'I have
been looking for you many nights. Is the house empty? Answer me.
Is any one inside?'

She could only answer by a rattle in her throat.

'Make me a sign.'

She seemed to indicate that there was no one there. He took the
key, unlocked the door, carried her in, and secured it carefully
behind them.

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It was a chilly night, and the fire in the widow's parlour had burnt low. Her strange companion placed her in a chair, and stooping down before the half-extinguished ashes, raked them together and fanned them with his hat. From time to time he glanced at her over his shoulder, as though to assure himself of her remaining quiet and making no effort to depart; and that done, busied himself about the fire again.It was not without reason that he took these pains, for his dress was dank and drenched with wet, his jaws rattled with cold, and he
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