I was on the downs, and had walked, perhaps, six miles, when again I saw the red speck ahead of me. It was the post-boy—a post-boy returning on foot, of all miracles. He came straight up to meet me, and then stood in the road, barring my path, and tapping his riding-boot with the butt of his whip—a handsome young fellow, well proportioned and well set up.
“I want you,” he said, “to walk back with me to Bleakirk.”
“Upon my word!” I cried out. “Considering that Bleakirk is six miles away, that I am walking in the other direction, and that, two hours back, you gave me a cursed cut over the legs with that whip, I fancy I see myself obliging you!”
He regarded me moodily for about a minute, but did not shift his position.
“Why are you on foot?” I asked.
“Oh, my God!” he cried out quickly, as a man might that was stabbed; “I couldn’t trust myself to ride; I couldn’t.” He shuddered, and put a hand over his eyes. “Look here,” he said, “you must walk home with me, or at least see me past the Chalk-pit.”
Now the Chalk-pit, when spelt with a capital letter, is an especially deep and ugly one on the very edge of the Bleakirk road, about two miles out of the village. A weak fence only separates its lip from the macadam. It is a nasty place to pass by night with a carriage; but here it was broad day, and the fellow was walking. So I didn’t take him at all.
“Listen to me,” he went on in a dull voice; “do you remember sitting beside this road, close on ten years back? And a boy and girl who came along this road together and asked you to marry them?”
“Bless my soul! Were you that boy?”
He nodded. “Yes: and the young lady in the chaise to-day was that girl. Old man, I know you reckon yourself clever,—I’ve heard you talk: but that when I met her to-day, three hours married, and she didn’t know me, I had a hell in my heart as I drove past the Chalk-pit, is a thing that passes your understanding, perhaps. They were laughing together, mark you, and yet they weren’t a hair’s breadth from death. And, by the Lord, you must help me past that pit!”
“Young man,” I said, musing, “when first I met you, you were ten years old, and I thought you a fool. To-day you have grown into an unmitigated ass. But you are dangerous; and therefore I respect you, and will see you home.”
I turned back with him. When we came to the Chalk-pit, I kept him on the farther side of the road, though it cost me some terror to walk between him and the edge; for I have too much imagination to be a thoroughly brave man.
The sun was sinking as we walked down to Bleakirk; and the recruiting sergeant sat asleep outside the “Woolpack,” with his head on the window-sill. I woke him up; and within half an hour my post-boy wore a bunch of ribbons on his cap—red, white, and blue.
I believe he has seen some fighting since then; and has risen in the ranks.