CHAPTER XXII--CHARACTER AND ACQUIREMENTS OF MR. ROWLEY
I am not certain that I had ever really appreciated before that hour the extreme peril of the adventure on which I was embarked. The sight of my cousin, the look of his face--so handsome, so jovial at the first sight, and branded with so much malignity as you saw it on the second--with his hyperbolical curls in order, with his neckcloth tied as if for the conquests of love, setting forth (as I had no doubt in the world he was doing) to clap the Bow Street runners on my trail, and cover England with handbills, each dangerous as a loaded musket, convinced me for the first time that the affair was no less serious than death. I believe it came to a near touch whether I should not turn the horses' heads at the next stage and make directly for the coast. But I was now in the position of a man who should have thrown his gage into the den of lions; or, better still, like one who should have quarrelled overnight under the influence of wine, and now, at daylight, in a cold winter's morning, and humbly sober, must make good his words. It is not that I thought any the less, or any the less warmly, of Flora. But, as I smoked a grim segar that morning in a corner of the chaise, no doubt I considered, in the first place, that the letter-post had been invented, and admitted privately to myself, in the second, that it would have been highly possible to write her on a piece of paper, seal it, and send it skimming by the mail, instead of going personally into these egregious dangers, and through a country that I beheld crowded with gibbets and Bow Street officers. As for Sim and Candlish, I doubt if they crossed my mind.
At the Green Dragon Rowley was waiting on the doorsteps with the luggage, and really was bursting with unpalatable conversation.
'Who do you think we've 'ad 'ere, sir?' he began breathlessly, as the chaise drove off. 'Red Breasts'; and he nodded his head portentously.
'Red Breasts?' I repeated, for I stupidly did not understand at the moment an expression I had often heard.
'Ah!' said he. 'Red weskits. Runners. Bow Street runners. Two on' em, and one was Lavender himself! I hear the other say quite plain, "Now, Mr. Lavender, IF you're ready." They was breakfasting as nigh me as I am to that postboy. They're all right; they ain't after us. It's a forger; and I didn't send them off on a false scent--O no! I thought there was no use in having them over our way; so I give them "very valuable information," Mr. Lavender said, and tipped me a tizzy for myself; and they're off to Luton. They showed me the 'andcuffs, too--the other one did--and he clicked the dratted things on my wrist; and I tell you, I believe I nearly went off in a swound! There's something so beastly in the feel of them! Begging your pardon, Mr. Anne,' he added, with one of his delicious changes from the character of the confidential schoolboy into that of the trained, respectful servant.
Well, I must not be proud! I cannot say I found the subject of handcuffs to my fancy; and it was with more asperity than was needful that I reproved him for the slip about the name.
'Yes, Mr. Ramornie,' says he, touching his hat. 'Begging your pardon, Mr. Ramornie. But I've been very piticular, sir, up to now; and you may trust me to be very piticular in the future. It were only a slip, sir.'
'My good boy,' said I, with the most imposing severity, 'there must be no slips. Be so good as to remember that my life is at stake.'
I did not embrace the occasion of telling him how many I had made myself. It is my principle that an officer must never be wrong. I have seen two divisions beating their brains out for a fortnight against a worthless and quite impregnable castle in a pass: I knew we were only doing it for discipline, because the General had said so at first, and had not yet found any way out of his own words; and I highly admired his force of character, and throughout these operations thought my life exposed in a very good cause.