'I am quite of your opinion,' said he. 'You have tried me at the running; you can try me next at the high jump. It will be all the same. It must end the one way.'
I made my holly whistle about my head.
'I believe you know what way!' said I. 'We are alone, it is night, and I am wholly resolved. Are you not frightened?'
'No,' he said, 'not in the smallest. I do not box, sir; but I am not a coward, as you may have supposed. Perhaps it will simplify our relations if I tell you at the outset that I walk armed.'
Quick as lightning I made a feint at his head; as quickly he gave ground, and at the same time I saw a pistol glitter in his hand.
'No more of that, Mr. French-Prisoner!' he said. 'It will do me no good to have your death at my door.'
'Faith, nor me either!' said I; and I lowered my stick and considered the man, not without a twinkle of admiration. 'You see,' I said, 'there is one consideration that you appear to overlook: there are a great many chances that your pistol may miss fire.'
'I have a pair,' he returned. 'Never travel without a brace of barkers.'
'I make you my compliment,' said I. 'You are able to take care of yourself, and that is a good trait. But, my good man! let us look at this matter dispassionately. You are not a coward, and no more am I; we are both men of excellent sense; I have good reason, whatever it may be, to keep my concerns to myself and to walk alone. Now I put it to you pointedly, am I likely to stand it? Am I likely to put up with your continued and--excuse me--highly impudent ingerence into my private affairs?'
'Another French word,' says he composedly.
'Oh! damn your French words!' cried I. 'You seem to be a Frenchman yourself!'
'I have had many opportunities by which I have profited,' he explained. 'Few men are better acquainted with the similarities and differences, whether of idiom or accent, of the two languages.'
'You are a pompous fellow, too!' said I.
'Oh, I can make distinctions, sir,' says he. 'I can talk with Bedfordshire peasants; and I can express myself becomingly, I hope, in the company of a gentleman of education like yourself.'
'If you set up to be a gentleman--' I began.
'Pardon me,' he interrupted: 'I make no such claim. I only see the nobility and gentry in the way of business. I am quite a plain person.'
'For the Lord's sake,' I exclaimed, 'set my mind at rest upon one point. In the name of mystery, who and what are you?'
'I have no cause to be ashamed of my name, sir,' said he, 'nor yet my trade. I am Thomas Dudgeon, at your service, clerk to Mr. Daniel Romaine, solicitor of London; High Holborn is our address, sir.'
It was only by the ecstasy of the relief that I knew how horribly I had been frightened. I flung my stick on the road.
'Romaine?' I cried. 'Daniel Romaine? An old hunks with a red face and a big head, and got up like a Quaker? My dear friend, to my arms!'
'Keep back, I say!' said Dudgeon weakly.
I would not listen to him. With the end of my own alarm, I felt as if I must infallibly be at the end of all dangers likewise; as if the pistol that he held in one hand were no more to be feared than the valise that he carried with the other, and now put up like a barrier against my advance.
'Keep back, or I declare I will fire,' he was crying. 'Have a care, for God's sake! My pistol--'
He might scream as be pleased. Willy nilly, I folded him to my breast, I pressed him there, I kissed his ugly mug as it had never been kissed before and would never be kissed again; and in the doing so knocked his wig awry and his hat off. He bleated in my embrace; so bleats the sheep in the arms of the butcher. The whole thing, on looking back, appears incomparably reckless and absurd; I no better than a madman for offering to advance on Dudgeon, and he no better than a fool for not shooting me while I was about it. But all's well that ends well; or, as the people in these days kept singing and whistling on the streets:-
'There's a sweet little cherub that sits up aloft And looks out for the life of poor Jack.'
'There!' said I, releasing him a little, but still keeping my hands on his shoulders, 'je vous ai bel et bien embrasse--and, as you would say, there is another French word.' With his wig over one eye, he looked incredibly rueful and put out.