The room, on the other hand, was furnished with faded solidity, and the walls were lined with scholarly and costly volumes in glazed cases. The house must have been taken furnished; for it had no congruity with this man of the shirt sleeves and the mean supper. As for the earl's daughter, the earl and the visionary consulships in foreign cities, they had long ago begun to fade in Challoner's imagination. Like Doctor Grierson and the Mormon angels, they were plainly woven of the stuff of dreams. Not an illusion remained to the knight-errant; not a hope was left him, but to be speedily relieved from this disreputable business.
The man had continued to regard his visitor with undisguised anxiety, and began once more to press him for his errand.
'I am here,' said Challoner, 'simply to do a service between two ladies; and I must ask you, without further delay, to summon Miss Fonblanque, into whose hands alone I am authorised to deliver the letter that I bear.'
A growing wonder began to mingle on the man's face with the lines of solicitude. 'I am Miss Fonblanque,' he said; and then, perceiving the effect of this communication, 'Good God!' he cried, 'what are you staring at? I tell you, I am Miss Fonblanque.'
Seeing the speaker wore a chin-beard of considerable length, and the remainder of his face was blue with shaving, Challoner could only suppose himself the subject of a jest. He was no longer under the spell of the young lady's presence; and with men, and above all with his inferiors, he was capable of some display of spirit.
'Sir,' said he, pretty roundly, 'I have put myself to great inconvenience for persons of whom I know too little, and I begin to be weary of the business. Either you shall immediately summon Miss Fonblanque, or I leave this house and put myself under the direction of the police.'
'This is horrible!' exclaimed the man. 'I declare before Heaven I am the person meant, but how shall I convince you? It must have been Clara, I perceive, that sent you on this errand--a madwoman, who jests with the most deadly interests; and here we are incapable, perhaps, of an agreement, and Heaven knows what may depend on our delay!'
He spoke with a really startling earnestness; and at the same time there flashed upon the mind of Challoner the ridiculous jingle which was to serve as password. 'This may, perhaps, assist you,' he said, and then, with some embarrassment, '"Nigger, nigger, never die."'
A light of relief broke upon the troubled countenance of the man with the chin-beard. '"Black face and shining eye"--give me the letter,' he panted, in one gasp.
'Well,' said Challoner, though still with some reluctance, 'I suppose I must regard you as the proper recipient; and though I may justly complain of the spirit in which I have been treated, I am only too glad to be done with all responsibility. Here it is,' and he produced the envelope.
The man leaped upon it like a beast, and with hands that trembled in a manner painful to behold, tore it open and unfolded the letter. As he read, terror seemed to mount upon him to the pitch of nightmare. He struck one hand upon his brow, while with the other, as if unconsciously, he crumpled the paper to a ball. 'My gracious powers!' he cried; and then, dashing to the window, which stood open on the garden, he clapped forth his head and shoulders, and whistled long and shrill. Challoner fell back into a corner, and resolutely grasping his staff, prepared for the most desperate events; but the thoughts of the man with the chin-beard were far removed from violence. Turning again into the room, and once more beholding his visitor, whom he appeared to have forgotten, he fairly danced with trepidation. 'Impossible!' he cried. 'Oh, quite impossible! O Lord, I have lost my head.' And then, once more striking his hand upon his brow, 'The money!' he exclaimed. 'Give me the money.'
'My good friend,' replied Challoner, 'this is a very painful exhibition; and until I see you reasonably master of yourself, I decline to proceed with any business.'
'You are quite right,' said the man.