“Don’t make any mistake. ’Twas I that set the press-gang upon ’ee,” answered Zeb, in the same dull tones.
There was silence between them for half a minute, and then the stranger spoke, as if to himself—
“My God! Love has made this oaf a man!” He stood for a while, sucking at his under-lip, and regarding Zeb gloomily. “May I ask why you have deliberately blown up this pretty mine at the eleventh hour?”
“I couldn’t do it,” Zeb groaned; “Lord knows ’twas not for love of you, but I couldn’t.”
“Upon my word, you fascinate me. People say that evil is more easily learnt than goodness; but that’s great nonsense. The footsteps of the average beginner are equally weak in both pursuits. Would you mind telling me why you chose this particular form of treachery, in preference (let us say) to poison or shooting from behind a hedge? Was it simply because you risked less? Pardon the question, but I have a particular reason for knowing.”
“We’re wastin’ time,” said Zeb, pulling out his watch again.
“It’s extraordinary how a fool will stumble on good luck. Why, sir, but for one little accident, the existence of which you could not possibly have known, I might easily have waited for the press-gang, stated the case to them, and had you lugged off to sea in my place. Has it occurred to you, in the course of your negotiations, that the wicked occasionally stumble into pits of their own digging? You, who take part in the psalm-singing every Sunday, might surely have remembered this. As it is, I suppose I must hurry on my clothes, and get to church by some roundabout way.”
“I’m afeard you can’t, without my help.”
“’Cause the gang is posted all round ’ee. I met the lot half an hour back, an’ promised to call ’pon you and bring word you was here.”
“Come, come; I retract my sneers. You begin to excite my admiration. I shall undoubtedly shoot you before I’m taken, but it shall be your comfort to die amid expressions of esteem.”
“You’m mistaken. I came to save ’ee, if you’ll be quick.”
“I’ve a load of ore-weed outside, in the cart. By the lie o’ the cottage none can spy ye while you slip underneath it; but I’ll fetch a glance round, to make sure. Underneath it you’ll be safe, and I’ll drive ’ee past the sailors, and send ’em on here to search.”
“You develop apace. But perhaps you’ll admit a flaw in your scheme. What on earth induced you to imagine I should trust you?”
“Man, I reckoned all that. My word’s naught. But ’tis your one chance—and I would kneel to ‘ee, if by kneelin’ I could persuade ’ee. We’ll fight it out after; bring your pistols. Only come!”
The stranger slipped on his other shoe, then his waistcoat and jacket, whistling softly. Then he stepped to the chimney-piece, took down his pistols, and stowed them in his coat-pockets.