'I wish you would,' said John, putting his hand to his brow in one of his accesses of giddiness.
The man pulled at the handle, and the clanking of the bell replied from further in the garden; twice and thrice he did it, with sufficient intervals; in the great frosty silence of the night the sounds fell sharp and small.
'Does he expect ye?' asked the driver, with that manner of familiar interest that well became his port-wine face; and when John had told him no, 'Well, then,' said the cabman, 'if ye'll tak' my advice of it, we'll just gang back. And that's disinterested, mind ye, for my stables are in the Glesgie Road.'
'The servants must hear,' said John.
'Hout!' said the driver. 'He keeps no servants here, man. They're a' in the town house; I drive him often; it's just a kind of a hermitage, this.'
'Give me the bell,' said John; and he plucked at it like a man desperate.
The clamour had not yet subsided before they heard steps upon the gravel, and a voice of singular nervous irritability cried to them through the door, 'Who are you, and what do you want?'
'Alan,' said John, 'it's me - it's Fatty - John, you know. I'm just come home, and I've come to stay with you.'
There was no reply for a moment, and then the door was opened.
'Get the portmanteau down,' said John to the driver.
'Do nothing of the kind,' said Alan; and then to John, 'Come in here a moment. I want to speak to you.'
John entered the garden, and the door was closed behind him. A candle stood on the gravel walk, winking a little in the draughts; it threw inconstant sparkles on the clumped holly, struck the light and darkness to and fro like a veil on Alan's features, and sent his shadow hovering behind him. All beyond was inscrutable; and John's dizzy brain rocked with the shadow. Yet even so, it struck him that Alan was pale, and his voice, when he spoke, unnatural.
'What brings you here to-night?' he began. 'I don't want, God knows, to seem unfriendly; but I cannot take you in, Nicholson; I cannot do it.'
'Alan,' said John, 'you've just got to! You don't know the mess I'm in; the governor's turned me out, and I daren't show my face in an inn, because they're down on me for murder or something!'
'For what?' cried Alan, starting.
'Murder, I believe,' says John.
'Murder!' repeated Alan, and passed his hand over his eyes. 'What was that you were saying?' he asked again.
'That they were down on me,' said John. 'I'm accused of murder, by what I can make out; and I've really had a dreadful day of it, Alan, and I can't sleep on the roadside on a night like this - at least, not with a portmanteau,' he pleaded.
'Hush!' said Alan, with his head on one side; and then, 'Did you hear nothing?' he asked.
'No,' said John, thrilling, he knew not why, with communicated terror. 'No, I heard nothing; why?' And then, as there was no answer, he reverted to his pleading: 'But I say, Alan, you've just got to take me in. I'll go right away to bed if you have anything to do. I seem to have been drinking; I was that knocked over. I wouldn't turn you away, Alan, if you were down on your luck.'
'No?' returned Alan. 'Neither will you, then. Come and let's get your portmanteau.'
The cabman was paid, and drove off down the long, lamp- lighted hill, and the two friends stood on the side-walk beside the portmanteau till the last rumble of the wheels had died in silence. It seemed to John as though Alan attached importance to this departure of the cab; and John, who was in no state to criticise, shared profoundly in the feeling.
When the stillness was once more perfect, Alan shouldered the portmanteau, carried it in, and shut and locked the garden door; and then, once more, abstraction seemed to fall upon him, and he stood with his hand on the key, until the cold began to nibble at John's fingers.
'Why are we standing here?' asked John.
'Eh?' said Alan, blankly.
'Why, man, you don't seem yourself,' said the other.
'No, I'm not myself,' said Alan; and he sat down on the portmanteau and put his face in his hands.