The moment they were gone, the babel, suppressed while the altercation lasted, rose again, loud as before. It is not every day that the busiest inn or the most experienced traveller has to do with an elopement, to say nothing of an abduction. While a large section of the ladies, seated together in a corner, tee-hee’d and tossed their heads, sneered at Miss and her screams, and warranted she knew all about it, and had her jacket and night-rail in her pocket, another party laid all to Sir George, swore by the viscountess, and quoted the masked uncle who made away with his nephew to get his estate. One or two indeed—and, if the chronicler is to be candid, one or two only, out of as many scores—proved that they possessed both imagination and charity. These sat apart, scared and affrighted by their thoughts; or stared with set eyes and flushed faces on the picture they would fain have avoided. But they were young and had seen little of the world.
On their part the men talked fast and loud, at one time laughed, and at another dropped a curse—their form of pity; quoted the route and the inns, and weighed the chances of Devizes or Bath, Bristol or Salisbury; vaguely suggested highwaymen, an old lover, Mrs. Cornelys’ ballet; and finally trooped out to stand in the road and listen, question the passers-by, and hear what the parish constable had to say of it. All except one very old man, who kept his seat and from time to time muttered, ‘Lord, what a shape she had! What a shape she had!’ until he dissolved in maudlin tears.
Meanwhile a woman lay upstairs, tossing in passionate grief and tended by servants; who, more pitiful than their mistresses, stole to her to comfort her. And three men rode steadily along the western road.
The attorney was brave with a coward’s great bravery; he was afraid, but he went on. As he climbed into his saddle in the stable-yard, the muttering ostlers standing round, and the yellow-flaring light of the lanthorns stretching fingers into the darkness, he could have wept for himself. Beyond the gates and the immediate bustle of the yard lay night, the road, and dimly-guessed violences; the meeting of man with man, the rush to grips under some dark wood, or where the moonlight fell cold on the heath. The prospect terrified; at the mere thought the lawyer dropped the reins and nervously gathered them. And he had another fear, and one more immediate. He was no horseman, and he trembled lest Sir George, the moment the gates were passed, should go off in a reckless gallop. Already he felt his horse heave and sidle under him, in a fashion that brought his heart into his mouth; and he was ready to cry for quarter. But the absurdity of the request where time was everything, the journey black earnest, and its issue life and death, struck him, and heroically he closed his mouth. Yet, at the remembrance that these things were, he fell into a fresh panic.