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barnby rudge (chapter 38)

2006-09-08 09:24

    The secretary put his hand before his eyes to shade them from the glare of the lamp, and for some moments looked at Hugh with a frowning brow, as if he remembered to have seen him lately, but could not call to mind where, or on what occasion. His uncertainty was very brief, for before Hugh had spoken a word, he said, as his countenance cleared up:

    'Ay, ay, I recollect. It's quite right, John, you needn't wait. Don't go, Dennis.'

    'Your servant, master,' said Hugh, as Grueby disappeared.

    'Yours, friend,' returned the secretary in his smoothest manner. 'What brings YOU here? We left nothing behind us, I hope?'

    Hugh gave a short laugh, and thrusting his hand into his breast, produced one of the handbills, soiled and dirty from lying out of doors all night, which he laid upon the secretary's desk after flattening it upon his knee, and smoothing out the wrinkles with his heavy palm.

    'Nothing but that, master. It fell into good hands, you see.'

    'What is this!' said Gashford, turning it over with an air of perfectly natural surprise. 'Where did you get it from, my good fellow; what does it mean? I don't understand this at all.'

    A little disconcerted by this reception, Hugh looked from the secretary to Dennis, who had risen and was standing at the table too, observing the stranger by stealth, and seeming to derive the utmost satisfaction from his manners and appearance. Considering himself silently appealed to by this action, Mr Dennis shook his head thrice, as if to say of Gashford, 'No. He don't know anything at all about it. I know he don't. I'll take my oath he don't;' and hiding his profile from Hugh with one long end of his frowzy neckerchief, nodded and chuckled behind this screen in extreme approval of the secretary's proceedings.

    'It tells the man that finds it, to come here, don't it?' asked Hugh. 'I'm no scholar, myself, but I showed it to a friend, and he said it did.'

    'It certainly does,' said Gashford, opening his eyes to their utmost width; 'really this is the most remarkable circumstance I have ever known. How did you come by this piece of paper, my good friend?'

    'Muster Gashford,' wheezed the hangman under his breath, 'agin' all Newgate!'

    Whether Hugh heard him, or saw by his manner that he was being played upon, or perceived the secretary's drift of himself, he came in his blunt way to the point at once.

    'Here!' he said, stretching out his hand and taking it back; 'never mind the bill, or what it says, or what it don't say. You don't know anything about it, master,——no more do I,——no more does he,' glancing at Dennis. 'None of us know what it means, or where it comes from: there's an end of that. Now I want to make one against the Catholics, I'm a No-Popery man, and ready to be sworn in. That's what I've come here for.'

    'Put him down on the roll, Muster Gashford,' said Dennis approvingly. 'That's the way to go to work——right to the end at once, and no palaver.'

    'What's the use of shooting wide of the mark, eh, old boy!' cried Hugh.

    'My sentiments all over!' rejoined the hangman. 'This is the sort of chap for my division, Muster Gashford. Down with him, sir. Put him on the roll. I'd stand godfather to him, if he was to be christened in a bonfire, made of the ruins of the Bank of England.'

    With these and other expressions of confidence of the like flattering kind, Mr Dennis gave him a hearty slap on the back, which Hugh was not slow to return.

    'No Popery, brother!' cried the hangman.

    'No Property, brother!' responded Hugh.

    'Popery, Popery,' said the secretary with his usual mildness.

    'It's all the same!' cried Dennis. 'It's all right. Down with him, Muster Gashford. Down with everybody, down with everything! Hurrah for the Protestant religion! That's the time of day, Muster Gashford!'

    The secretary regarded them both with a very favourable expression of countenance, while they gave loose to these and other demonstrations of their patriotic purpose; and was about to make some remark aloud, when Dennis, stepping up to him, and shading his mouth with his hand, said, in a hoarse whisper, as he nudged him with his elbow:

    'Don't split upon a constitutional officer's profession, Muster Gashford. There are popular prejudices, you know, and he mightn't like it. Wait till he comes to be more intimate with me. He's a fine-built chap, an't he?'

    'A powerful fellow indeed!'

    'Did you ever, Muster Gashford,' whispered Dennis, with a horrible kind of admiration, such as that with which a cannibal might regard his intimate friend, when hungry,——'did you ever——and here he drew still closer to his ear, and fenced his mouth with both his open bands——'see such a throat as his? Do but cast your eye upon it. There's a neck for stretching, Muster Gashford!'

    The secretary assented to this proposition with the best grace he could assume——it is difficult to feign a true professional relish: which is eccentric sometimes——and after asking the candidate a few unimportant questions, proceeded to enrol him a member of the Great Protestant Association of England. If anything could have exceeded Mr Dennis's joy on the happy conclusion of this ceremony, it would have been the rapture with which he received the announcement that the new member could neither read nor write: those two arts being (as Mr Dennis swore) the greatest possible curse a civilised community could know, and militating more against the professional emoluments and usefulness of the great constitutional office he had the honour to hold, than any adverse circumstances that could present themselves to his imagination.

    The enrolment being completed, and Hugh having been informed by Gashford, in his peculiar manner, of the peaceful and strictly lawful objects contemplated by the body to which he now belonged—— during which recital Mr Dennis nudged him very much with his elbow, and made divers remarkable faces——the secretary gave them both to understand that he desired to be alone. Therefore they took their leaves without delay, and came out of the house together.

    'Are you walking, brother?' said Dennis.

    'Ay!' returned Hugh. 'Where you will.'

    'That's social,' said his new friend. 'Which way shall we take? Shall we go and have a look at doors that we shall make a pretty good clattering at, before long——eh, brother?'

    Hugh answering in the affirmative, they went slowly down to Westminster, where both houses of Parliament were then sitting. Mingling in the crowd of carriages, horses, servants, chairmen, link-boys, porters, and idlers of all kinds, they lounged about; while Hugh's new friend pointed out to him significantly the weak parts of the building, how easy it was to get into the lobby, and so to the very door of the House of Commons; and how plainly, when they marched down there in grand array, their roars and shouts would be heard by the members inside; with a great deal more to the same purpose, all of which Hugh received with manifest delight.

    He told him, too, who some of the Lords and Commons were, by name, as they came in and out; whether they were friendly to the Papists or otherwise; and bade him take notice of their liveries and equipages, that he might be sure of them, in case of need. Sometimes he drew him close to the windows of a passing carriage, that he might see its master's face by the light of the lamps; and, both in respect of people and localities, he showed so much acquaintance with everything around, that it was plain he had often studied there before; as indeed, when they grew a little more confidential, he confessed he had.

    Perhaps the most striking part of all this was, the number of people——never in groups of more than two or three together——who seemed to be skulking about the crowd for the same purpose. To the greater part of these, a slight nod or a look from Hugh's companion was sufficient greeting; but, now and then, some man would come and stand beside him in the throng, and, without turning his head or appearing to communicate with him, would say a word or two in a low voice, which he would answer in the same cautious manner. Then they would part, like strangers. Some of these men often reappeared again unexpectedly in the crowd close to Hugh, and, as they passed by, pressed his hand, or looked him sternly in the face; but they never spoke to him, nor he to them; no, not a word.

    It was remarkable, too, that whenever they happened to stand where there was any press of people, and Hugh chanced to be looking downward, he was sure to see an arm stretched out——under his own perhaps, or perhaps across him——which thrust some paper into the hand or pocket of a bystander, and was so suddenly withdrawn that it was impossible to tell from whom it came; nor could he see in any face, on glancing quickly round, the least confusion or surprise. They often trod upon a paper like the one he carried in his breast, but his companion whispered him not to touch it or to take it up,——not even to look towards it,——so there they let them lie, and passed on.

    When they had paraded the street and all the avenues of the building in this manner for near two hours, they turned away, and his friend asked him what he thought of what he had seen, and whether he was prepared for a good hot piece of work if it should come to that. The hotter the better,' said Hugh, 'I'm prepared for anything.'——'So am I,' said his friend, 'and so are many of us; and they shook hands upon it with a great oath, and with many terrible imprecations on the Papists.

    As they were thirsty by this time, Dennis proposed that they should repair together to The Boot, where there was good company and strong liquor. Hugh yielding a ready assent, they bent their steps that way with no loss of time.

    This Boot was a lone house of public entertainment, situated in the fields at the back of the Foundling Hospital; a very solitary spot at that period, and quite deserted after dark. The tavern stood at some distance from any high road, and was approachable only by a dark and narrow lane; so that Hugh was much surprised to find several people drinking there, and great merriment going on. He was still more surprised to find among them almost every face that had caught his attention in the crowd; but his companion having whispered him outside the door, that it was not considered good manners at The Boot to appear at all curious about the company, he kept his own counsel, and made no show of recognition.

    Before putting his lips to the liquor which was brought for them, Dennis drank in a loud voice the health of Lord George Gordon, President of the Great Protestant Association; which toast Hugh pledged likewise, with corresponding enthusiasm. A fiddler who was present, and who appeared to act as the appointed minstrel of the company, forthwith struck up a Scotch reel; and that in tones so invigorating, that Hugh and his friend (who had both been drinking before) rose from their seats as by previous concert, and, to the great admiration of the assembled guests, performed an extemporaneous No-Popery Dance.

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