Buoyed up by this he tried to picture the scene; the lonely road, the carriage, the shrieking girl, the ruffians looking fearfully up and down as they strove to silence her; and himself running to the rescue; as Mr. Burchell ran with the big stick, in Mr. Goldsmith’s novel, which he had read a few months before. Then the struggle. He saw himself knocked—well, pushed down; after all, with care, he might play a fine part without much risk. The men might fly either at sight of him, or when he drew nearer and added his shouts to the girl’s cries; or—or some one else might come up, by chance or summoned by the uproar! In a minute it would be over; in a minute—and what a rich reward he might reap.
Nevertheless he did not feel sure he would be able to do it. His heart thumped, and his smile grew sickly, and he passed his tongue again and again over his dry lips, as he thought of the venture. But do it or not when the time came, he would at least give himself the chance. He would attend the girl wherever she went, dog her, watch her, hang on her skirts; so, if the thing happened, he would be at hand, and if he had the courage, would save her.
‘It should—it should stand me in a thousand!’ he muttered, wiping his damp brow, ‘and that would put me on my legs.’
He put her gratitude at that; and it was a great sum, a rich bribe. He thought of the money lovingly, and of the feat with trembling, and took his hat and unlocked his door and went downstairs. He spied about him cautiously until he learned that Mr. Dunborough had departed; then he went boldly to the stables, and inquired and found that the gentleman had started for Bristol in a post-chaise. ‘In a middling black temper,’ the ostler added, ‘saving your reverence’s presence.’
That ascertained, the tutor needed no more. He knew that Dunborough, on his way to foreign service, had lain ten days in Bristol, whistling for a wind; that he had landed there also on his return, and made—on his own authority—some queer friends there. Bristol, too, was the port for the plantations; a slave-mart under the rose, with the roughest of all the English seatown populations. There were houses at Bristol where crimping was the least of the crimes committed; in the docks, where the great ships, laden with sugar and tobacco, sailed in and out in their seasons, lay sloops and skippers, ready to carry all comers, criminal and victim alike, beyond the reach of the law. The very name gave Mr. Thomasson pause; he could have done with Gretna—which Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act had lately raised to importance—or Berwick, or Harwich, or Dover. But Bristol had a grisly sound. From Marlborough it lay no more than forty miles away by the Chippenham and Marshfield road; a post-chaise and four stout horses might cover the distance in four hours.
He felt, as he sneaked into the house, that the die was cast. The other intended to do it then. And that meant—’Oh, Lord,’ he muttered, wiping his brow, ’I shall never dare! If he is there himself, I shall never dare!’ As he crawled upstairs he went hot one moment and shivered the next; and did not know whether he was glad or sorry that the chance would be his to take.