Chapter II.
 

One day, nearly two years after the birth of this second child, the quiet town of S----was aroused from its dreams by a strange and startling event. About a week before, a handsomely dressed man, with the air of a foreigner, alighted from the stage coach at the "White Swan," and asked if he could have a room. A traveler of such apparent distinction was a rare event in S----; and as he suggested the probable stay of a week or so, he became an object of immediate attention, as well as curiosity.

Night had closed in when he arrived, and as he was fatigued by his journey in the old lumbering stage coach that ran between the nearest sea-port town and S----, he did not show himself again that evening to the curious people who were to be found idling about the "White Swan." But he had a talk with the landlord. That functionary waited upon him to know his pleasure as to supper.

"The ride has given me a headache," the stranger said, "which a cup of tea will probably remove. Beyond that, I will take nothing to-night. Your name is--"

"Adams, sir. Adams is my name," replied the landlord.

"And mine is Willoughby--Col. Willoughby. "And the Englishman bowed with a slight air of condescension.

"I am at your service, Col. Willoughby," said the landlord in his blunt way. "Just say what you want, and the thing is done."

"A cup of tea will serve me to-night, my friend. Let it be good and strong; for my head is a little unsettled with this throbbing pain. That stage coach of yours would be something better for a pair of new springs."

"It's seen service, and no mistake. But people in these parts don't calculate much on easy riding. Springs are no great account. We look to the main chance."

"What is that?"

"Getting over the ground."

The traveler smiled to himself in a quiet way, as if the landlord's answer had touched some memory or experience.

Nothing further being remarked, Mr. Adams retired to order a cup of tea for his guest. Something about the Englishman had stimulated his curiosity; and, so, instead of sending the cup of tea by his wife, who did most of the waiting, he carried it to the room himself.

"Sit down, Mr. Adams," said the traveler, after the tea had been put before him.

The landlord did not wait for a second invitation.

"I hope the tea is to your liking, sir."

"Excellent. I've not tasted better since I left London."

The traveler spoke blandly, as he held his cup a little way from his lips, and looked over the top of it at his host with something more than a casual glance. He was reading his face with an evident effort to gain from it, as an index, some clear impression of his character.

"My wife understands her business," replied the flattered landlord. "There is not her equal in all the country round."

"I can believe you, Mr. Adams. Already this delicious beverage has acted like a charmed potion. My headache has left me as if by magic."

He set his cup down; moved his chair a little way from the table at which he was sitting, and threw a pleasant look upon the landlord.

"How long have you been in this town, Mr. Adams?" The question seemed indifferently asked; but the landlord's ear did not fail to perceive in the tone in which it was given, a foreshadowing of much beyond.

"I was born here," he replied.

"Ah! Then you know all the people, I imagine?"

"I know all their faces, at least."

"And their histories and characters?"

"Perhaps."

Something in this "perhaps," and the tone in which it was uttered, seemed not to strike the questioner agreeably. He bent his brows a little, and looked more narrowly at the landlord.

"I did not see much of your town as I came in this evening. How large is it?"

"Middling good size, sir, for an inland town," was the not very satisfactory answer.

"What is the population?"

"Well, I don't know--can't just say to a certainty."

"Two thousand?"

"Laws! no sir! Not over one, if that."

"About a thousand, then?"

"Maybe a thousand, and maybe not more than six or seven hundred."

"Call it seven hundred, then," said the traveler, evidently a little amused.

"And that will, in my view, be calling it enough."

There was a pause. The traveler seemed in doubt as to whether he should go on with his queries.

"Not much trade here, I presume?" He asked, at length.

"Not much to boast of," said Adams.

Another pause.

"Any well-to-do people? Gentlemen who live on their means?"

"Yes; there's Aaron Thompson. He's rich, I guess. But you can't measure a snake 'till he's dead, as they say."

"True," said the traveler, seeming to fall into the landlord's mood. "Executors often change the public estimate of a man as to this world's goods. So, Aaron Thompson is one of your rich men?"

"Yes, and there's Abel Reeder--a close-fisted old dog, but wealthy as a Jew, and no mistake. Then there is Captain Allen."

A flash of interest went over the stranger's face, which was turned at once from the light.

"Captain Allen! And what of him?" The voice was pitched to a lower tone; but there was no appearance of special curiosity.

"A great deal of him." The landlord put on a knowing look.

"Is he a sea captain?"

"Yes;" and lowering his voice, "something else besides, if we are to credit people who pretend to know."

"Ah! but you speak in riddles, Mr. Adams. What do you mean by something more?"

"Why, the fact is, Mr. Willoughby, they do say, that he got his money in a backhanded sort of fashion."

"By gambling?"

"No, sir! By piracy!"

Col. Willoughby gave a real or affected start.

"A grave charge that, sir." He looked steadily at the landlord. "And one that should not be lightly made."

"I only report the common talk."

"If such talk should reach the ears of Captain Allen?" suggested the stranger.

"No great likelihood of its doing so, for I reckon there's no man in S----bold enough to say 'pirate' to his face."

"What kind of a man is he?"

"A bad specimen in every way."

"He's no favorite of yours, I see?"

"I have no personal cause of dislike. We never had many words together," said the landlord. "But he's a man that you want to get as far away from as possible. There are men, you know, who kind of draw you towards them, as if they were made of loadstone; and others that seem to push you off. Captain Allen is one of the latter kind."

"What sort of a looking man is he?"

"Short; thick-set; heavily built, as to body. A full, coarse face; dark leathery skin; and eyes that are a match for the Evil One's. There is a deep scar across his left forehead, running past the outer corner of his eye, and ending against the cheek bone. The lower lid of this eye is drawn down, and the inside turned out, showing its deep red lining. There is another scar on his chin. Two fingers are gone from his left hand, and his right hand has suffered violence."

"He has evidently seen hard service," remarked the stranger, and in a voice that showed him to be suppressing, as best he could, all signs of interest in the landlord's communication.

"There's no mistake about that; and if you could only see him, my word for it, you would fall into the common belief that blood lies upon his conscience."

"I shall certainly put myself in the way of seeing him, after the spur you have just given to my curiosity," said Col. Willoughby, in a decided manner, as if he had an interest in the man beyond what the landlord's communication had excited.

"Then you will have to remain here something more than a week, I'm thinking," replied the landlord.

"Why so?"

"Captain Allen isn't at home."

There was a sudden change in the stranger's face that did not escape the landlord's notice. But whether it indicated pleasure or disappointment, he could not tell; for it was at best a very equivocal expression.

"Not at home!" His voice indicated surprise.

"No, sir."

"How long has he been absent?"

"About a month."

"And is expected to return soon, no doubt?"

"As to that, I can't say. Few people in this town I apprehend, can speak with certainty as to the going and coming of Captain Allen."

"Is he often away?"

"No, sir; but oftener of late than formerly."

"Is his absence usually of a prolonged character?"

"It is much longer than it used to be--never less than a month, and often extended to three times that period."

Colonel Willoughby sat without further remark for some time, his eyes bent down, his brows contracted by thought, and his lips firmly drawn together.

"Thank you, my friend," he said, at length, looking up, "for your patience in answering my idle questions. I will not detain you any longer."

The landlord arose, and, bowing to his guest, retired from the apartment.