At twilight on a wild, windy day in March, 1775, a small group of men sits in the bar parlor of the Maypole Inn, an ancient hostelry situated in Chigwell parish on the borders of Epping Forest. Two guests in particular engage the attention of John Willet, the proprietor. One is a well-dressed young gentleman who seems preoccupied. The other, a traveler, sits huddled in an old riding coat, his hat pulled forward to hide his face from the landlord’s curious gaze. After the young gentleman, Edward Chester, leaves the inn, Joe Willet, the landlord’s son, informs the others that Edward, whose horse went lame, intends to walk the twelve miles to London despite the stormy weather because he is hoping to see Emma Haredale at a masquerade she is attending in town.
The name Haredale seems to interest the stranger, and he listens intently when Solomon Daisy, the parish clerk, tells the story of a murder that shocked the neighborhood twenty-two years before to the day. Mr. Reuben Haredale, Emma’s father, was at that time owner of The Warren, a great house near the village. One morning, he was found murdered in his bedroom. His steward, a man named Rudge, and a gardener were missing. Several months later, Rudge’s body, identified by the clothing he was wearing, was recovered from a pond on the estate. There was no trace of the gardener, and the mystery remains unsolved. Since her father’s violent death, Emma lives at The Warren with Mr. Geoffrey Haredale, her bachelor uncle.
The stranger calls abruptly for his horse and gallops away, almost colliding with a chaise driven by Gabriel Varden, the Clerkenwell locksmith. By the light of a lantern, Varden sees the traveler’s scarred, scowling face. On his way back to London that same night, Varden finds Edward lying wounded on the highway. About the fallen man capers the grotesque figure of Barnaby Rudge, son of the Rudge who was Reuben’s steward. The boy was born half-witted on the day the murder was discovered. Helpless, loved, and pitied, he lives on a shabby street nearby with his mother and his tame, talking raven, Grip. Aided by Barnaby, Varden takes the wounded man to the Rudge house and puts him to bed.
The next morning, Varden tells the story of his night’s adventures to Dolly, his daughter, and Simon Tappertit, his apprentice. Dolly, who knows of Emma’s affection for Edward, is deeply concerned. When Varden goes to the Rudge house to inquire about Edward, he finds him greatly improved. While he is talking with Mrs. Rudge, whose face clearly reveals the troubles and sorrows of her life, a soft knocking sounds at the closed shutter. When she opens the door, Varden sees over her shoulder the livid face and fierce eyes of the horseman he encountered the night before. The man flees, leaving the locksmith convinced that he is the highwayman who attacked Edward. Mrs. Rudge, visibly upset by the man’s appearance on her doorstep, begs Varden to say nothing about the strange visitor.
John Chester, Edward’s father, is a vain, selfish man with great ambitions for his son. Shortly after his son’s mysterious attack, he and Geoffrey meet by appointment in a private room at the Maypole. Although the two families were enemies for years, John knows that they at last have a common interest in their opposition to a match between Emma and Edward. John confesses frankly that he wishes his son to marry a Protestant heiress, not the niece of a Catholic country squire. Geoffrey, resenting John’s superior airs, promises that he will do his best to change his niece’s feelings toward Edward. The meeting of the two men causes great interest among the villagers gathered in the bar parlor of the inn.
The mysterious stranger comes again to Mrs. Rudge’s house. When permitted to enter, he demands food and money. Frightened by the threats of the sinister blackmailer, she and her son move secretly to a remote country village.
Geoffrey, true to his promise, refuses Edward admittance to The Warren. When the young man confronts his father to demand an...
(The entire section is 1658 words.)