It was a chilly night, and the fire in the widows 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 shivered from head to foot. It had rained hard during the previous night and for some hours in the morning, but since noon it had been fine. Wheresoever he had passed the hours of darkness, his condition sufficiently betokened that many of them had been spent beneath the open sky. Besmeared with mire; his saturated clothes clinging with a damp embrace about his limbs; his beard unshaven, his face unwashed, his meagre cheeks worn into deep hollows,a more miserable wretch could hardly be, than this man who now cowered down upon the widows hearth, and watched the struggling flame with bloodshot eyes.
She had covered her face with her hands, fearing, as it seemed, to look towards him. So they remained for some short time in silence. Glancing round again, he asked at length, Is this your house?
It is. Why, in the name of Heaven, do you darken it?
Give me meat and drink, he answered sullenly, or I dare do more than that. The very marrow in my bones is cold, with wet and hunger. I must have warmth and food, and I will have them here.
You were the robber on the Chigwell road.
And nearly a murderer then.
The will was not wanting. There was one came upon me and raised the hue-and-cry, that it would have gone hard with, but for his nimbleness. I made a thrust at him.
You thrust your sword at him! cried the widow, looking upwards. You hear this man! you hear and saw!
He looked at her, as, with her head thrown back, and her hands tight clenched together, she uttered these words in an agony of appeal. Then, starting to his feet as she had done, he advanced towards her.
Beware! she cried in a suppressed voice, whose firmness stopped him midway. Do not so much as touch me with a finger, or you are lost; body and soul, you are lost.
Hear me, he replied, menacing her with his hand. I, that in the form of a man live the life of a hunted beast; that in the body am a spirit, a ghost upon the earth, a thing from which all creatures shrink, save those curst beings of another world, who will not leave me;I am, in my desperation of this night, past all fear but that of the hell in which I exist from day to day. Give the alarm, cry out, refuse to shelter me. I will not hurt you. But I will not be taken alive; and so surely as you threaten me above your breath, I fall a dead man on this floor. The blood with which I sprinkle it, be on you and yours, in the name of the Evil Spirit that tempts men to their ruin!
As he spoke, he took a pistol from his breast, and firmly clutched it in his hand.
Remove this man from me, good Heaven! cried the widow. In thy grace and mercy, give him one minutes penitence, and strike him dead!
It has no such purpose, he said, confronting her. It is deaf. Give me to eat and drink, lest I do that it cannot help my doing, and will not do for you.
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