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In the end they came to a compromise. That Dame Justice should be hustled in this fashion--taken by the shoulders, so to speak, forced to catch up her robe and skip--offended the Chief Magistrate's sense of propriety. It was unseemly in the last degree, he protested. Nevertheless it appeared certain that Captain Vyell had a right to be tried and punished; and the Clerk's threat to set down the hearing for an adjourned sessions was promptly countered by the culprit's producing His Majesty's Commission, which enjoined upon all and sundry "to observe the welfare of my faithful subject, Oliver John Dinham de Courcy Vyell, now travelling on the business of this my Realm, and to further that business with all zeal and expedition as required by him"--a command which might be all the more strictly construed for being loosely worded. To be sure the Court might by dilatory process linger out the hearing of the Weights and Measures cases--one of which was being scandalously interrupted at this moment--or it might adjourn for dinner and reassemble in the afternoon, by which time the sands of Ruth Josselin's five hours' ignominy would be running out. But here Mr. Somershall had to be reckoned with. Mr. Somershall not only made it a practice to sit long at dinner and sleep after it; he invariably lost his temper if the dinner-hour were delayed; and, being deaf as well as honest, he was capable of blurting out his mind in a fashion to confound either of these disingenuous courses. As for Mr. Wapshott, the wording of the Commission had frightened him, and he wished himself at home.
It was Mr. Trask who found the way out. Mr. Trask, his malevolent eye fixed on the Collector, opined that after all an hour or two in the stocks would be a salutary lesson for hot blood and pampered flesh. He suggested that, without insisting on a trial, the Captain might be obliged, and his legs given that lesson. He cited precedents. More than once a friend or relative had, by mercy of the Court, been allowed to sit beside a culprit under punishment. If, a like leave being granted him, Captain Vyell preferred to have his ankles confined--why, truly, Mr. Trask saw no reason for denying him the experience. But the Captain, it was understood, must give his word of honour, first, to accept this as a free concession from the Bench, and, secondly, not to repent or demand release before the expiry of the five hours.
"With all my heart," promised Captain Vyell; and the Chief Magistrate reluctantly gave way.
Ruth Josselin sat in the stocks. She had come so far out of her swoon that her pulse beat, her breath came and went, she felt the sun warm on her face, and was aware of some pain where the edge of the wood pressed into her flesh, a little above the ankle-bones--of discomfort, rather, in comparison with the anguish throbbing and biting across her shoulder-blades. Some one--it may have been in unthinking mercy--had drawn down the sackcloth over her stripes, and the coarse stuff, irritating the raw, was as a shirt of fire.
She had come back to a sense of this torture, but not yet to complete consciousness. She sat with eyes half closed, filmed with suffering. As they had closed in the moment of swooning, so and with the same look of horror they awoke as the lids parted. But they saw nothing; neither the sunlight dappling the maple shadows nor the curious faces of the crowd. She felt the sunlight; the crowd's presence she felt not at all.
But misery she felt; a blank of misery through which her reviving soul-- like the shoot of a plant trodden into mire--pushed feebly towards the sunlight that coaxed her eyes to open. Something it sought there . . . a face . . . yes, a face. . . .
--Yes, of course, a face; lifted high above other faces that were hateful, hostile, mocking her misery--God knew why; a strong face, not very pitiful--but so strong!--and yet it must be pitiful too, for it condescended to help. It was moving down, bending, to help. . . .
--What had become of it? . . . Ah, now (shame at length reawakening) she remembered! She was hiding from him. He was strong, he was kind, but above all he must not see her shame. Let the earth cover her and hide it! . . . and either the merciful earth had opened or a merciful darkness had descended. She remembered sinking into it--sinking--her hands held aloft, as by ropes. Then the ropes had parted. . . . She had fallen, plumb. . . .
She was re-emerging now; and either shame lay far below, a cast-off weed in the depths, or shame had driven out shame as fire drives out fire. Her back was burning; her tongue was parched; her eyes were seared as they half opened upon the crowd. The grinning faces--the mouths pulled awry, mocking a sorrow they did not understand--these were meaningless to her. She did not, in any real sense, behold them. Her misery was a sea about her, and in the trough of it she looked up, seeking one face.
--And why not? It had shone far above her as a god's; but she had been sucked down as deep again, and there is an extreme of degradation may meet even a god's altitude on equal terms. Stark mortal, stark god--its limit of suffering past, humanity joins the celestial, clasping its knees.
Of a sudden, turning her eyes a little to the left, she saw him.
He had come at a strolling pace across the square, with Manasseh and the deputy-beadle walking wide beside him, and the Court-house rabble at his heels, but keeping, in spite of themselves, a respectful distance. At the stocks he faced about, and they halted on the instant, as though he had spoken a word of command. He smiled, seated himself leisurably at the end of the bench on Ruth Josselin's left, and extended a leg for Manasseh to draw off its riding-boot. At the back of the crowd a few voices chattered, but within the semicircle a hush had fallen.
It was then that she turned her eyes and saw him.
How came he here? What was he doing? . . . She could not comprehend at all. Only she felt her heart leap within her and stand still, as like a warm flood the consciousness of his presence stole through her, poured over her, soothing away for the moment all physical anguish. She sat very still, her hands in her lap; afraid to move, afraid even to look again. This consciousness--it should have been shame, but it held no shame at all. It was hope. It came near, very near, to bliss.
She was aware in a dull way of some one unlocking and lifting the upper beam of the stocks. Were they releasing her? Surely her sentence had been for five hours?--surely her faintness could not have lasted so long! This could not be the end? She did not wish to be released. She would not know what to do, where to go, when they set her free. She must walk home through the town, and that would be worst of all.
Or perhaps he was commanding them to release her? . . . No; the beam creaked and dropped into place again. A moment ago his voice had been speaking; speaking very cheerfully, not to her. Now it was silent. After some minutes she gathered courage to turn her eyes again.
Captain Vyell sat with his legs in durance. They were very shapely legs, cased in stockings of flesh-coloured silk with crimson knee-ties. He sat in perfect patience, and rolled a tobacco-leaf between his fingers. At his shoulder stood Manasseh like a statue, with face immobile as Marble--black marble--and a tinder-box ready in his hand.
"Why? . . ."
He could not be sure if it were a word, or merely a sigh, deep in her breast, so faintly it reached him. She had murmured it as if to herself, yet it seemed to hang on a question. His ear was alert.
"Hush!" he said, speaking low and without glancing towards her, for the eyes of the crowd were on them. "The faintness is over?"
"Do not talk at all. By-and-by we will talk. Now I am going to ask you a selfish question, and you are just to bend your head for 'yes' or 'no.' Will the smell of tobacco distress you, or bring the faintness back? These autumn flies sting abominably here, under the trees."
She moved her head slowly. "I do not feel them," she said after a while.
He glanced at her compassionately before nodding to Manasseh for a light. "No, poor wretch, I'll be sworn you do not," he muttered between the puffs. "Thank you, Manasseh; and now will you step down to the Inn, order the horses back to stable, and bring George and Harry back with you? I may require them to break a head or two here, if there should be trouble. Tell Alexander"--this was the coachman--"to have an eye on Master Dicky, and see that he gets his dinner. The child is on no account to come here, or be told about this. His papa is detained on business--you understand? Yes, and by the way, you may extract a book from the valise--the Calderon, for choice, or if it come handier, that second volume of Corneille. Don't waste time, though, in searching for this or that. In the stocks I've no doubt a book is a book: the instrument has a reputation for levelling."
Manasseh departed on his errand, and for a while the Collector paid no heed to his companion. He and she were now unprotected, at the mercy of the mob if it intended mischief; and the next few minutes would be critical.
He sat immersed apparently in his own thoughts, and by the look on his face these were serious thoughts. He seemed to see and yet not to see the ring of faces; to be aware of them, yet not concerned with them, no whit afraid and quite as little defiant. True, he was smoking, but without a trace of affected insouciance or bravado; gravely rather, resting an elbow on his groin and leaning forward with a preoccupied frown. Two minutes passed in this silence, and he felt the danger ebbing. Mob insolence ever wants a lead, and--perhaps because with the return of fine weather the fishing-crews had put to sea early--this Port Nassau crowd lacked a fugleman.
"Are you here--because--of me?"
"Hush, again," he answered quietly, not turning his head. "I like you to talk if you feel strong enough; but for the moment it will be better if they do not perceive. . . . Yes, and no," he answered her question after a pause. "I am here to see that you get through this. You are in pain?"
"Yes; but it is easier."
"You are afraid of these people?"
"Afraid?" She took some time considering this. "No," she said at length. "I am not afraid of them. I do not see them. You are here."
He took the tobacco-leaf from his lips, blew a thin cloud of smoke with grave deliberateness, and in doing so contrived to glance at her face.
"You have blood in you. That face, too, my beauty," he muttered, "never came to you but by gift of blood." Aloud he said, "That's brave. But take care when your senses clear and the strain comes back on you. Speak to me when you feel it coming; I don't want it to tauten you up with a jerk. You understand?"
"Yes. . . ."
"I wonder now--" he began musingly, and broke off. The danger he had been keeping account with was over; Manasseh had returned with the two grooms, and they--perfectly trained servants on the English model--took their posts without exhibiting surprise by so much as a twitch of the face. George in particular was a tight fellow with his fists, as the crowd, should it offer annoyance, would assuredly learn. The Collector took the volume which Manasseh brought him, and opened it, but did not begin to read. "You despise these people?" he asked.
He was puzzled with himself. He was here to protect her; and this, from him to her, implied a noble condescension. His fine manners, to be sure, forbade his showing it; on no account would he have shown it. But the puzzle was, he could not feel it.
She met his eyes. "No . . . why should I despise them?"
"They are canaille."
"What does that mean? . . . They have been cruel to me. Afterwards, I expect, they will be crueller still. But just now it does not matter, because you are here."
"Does that make so much difference?" he asked thoughtlessly.
She caught her breath upon a sob. "Ah, do not--" The voice died, strangled, in her throat. "Do not--" Again she could get no further, but sat shivering, her fingers interlocked and writhing.
"Brute!" muttered the Collector to himself. He did not ask her pardon, but opened his Calderon, signed to Manasseh to roll a fresh tobacco-leaf, and fell to reading his favourite Alcalde de Zalamea.
The sun crept slowly to the right over the tops of the maples. It no longer scorched their faces, but slanted in rays through the upper boughs, dappling the open walks with splashes of light which, as they receded in distance, took by a trick of the eyesight a pattern regular as diaper. By this time the Collector, when he glanced up from his book, had an ample view of the square, for the crowd had thinned. The punishment of the stocks was no such rare spectacle in Port Nassau; and five hours is a tedious while even for the onlooker--a very long while indeed to stand weighing the fun of throwing a handful of filth against the cost of a thrashing. The men-folk, reasoning thus, had melted away to their longshore avocations. The women, always more patient--as to their nature the show was more piquant than to the men's--had withdrawn with their knitting to benches well within eyeshot. The children, playing around, grew more and more immersed in their games; which, nevertheless, one or another would interrupt from time to time to point and ask a question. Above the Court-house the town clock chimed its quarters across the afternoon heat.
The Collector, glancing up in the act of turning a page, spied Mr. Trask hobbling down an alley towards the Jail. Mr. Trask, a martyr to gout, helped his progress with an oaken staff. He leaned on this as he halted before the stocks.
"Tired?" he asked.
"Damnably!" answered the Collector with great cheerfulness. "It takes one in the back, you see. If ever the Town Fathers think of moving this machine, you might put in a word for shifting it a foot or two back, against the prison wall."
Mr. Trask grinned.
"I suppose now," he said after a pause, "you think you are doing a fine thing, and doing it handsomely?"
"I had some notion of the sort, but this confinement of the feet is wonderfully cooling to the brain. No--if you dispute it. Most human actions are mixed."
Mr. Trask eyed him, chin between two fingers and thumb. When he spoke again it was with lowered voice. "Is it altogether kind to the girl?" he asked.
"Eh?" The Collector in turn eyed Mr. Trask.
"Or even quite fair to her?"
"Oh, come!" said the Collector. "Tongues? I hadn't thought of that."
"I dare say not." Mr. Trask glanced up at the windows of a two-storeyed house on the left, scarcely a stone's throw away, a respectable mansion with a verandah and neat gateway of wrought iron. "But at the end of this what becomes of her?"
The Collector shrugged his shoulders. "I have thought of that, at all events. My coach will be here to take her home. It lies on my road. As for me, I shall have to mount at once and ride through the night--a second test for the back-bone."
"Ride and be hanged to you!" broke out Mr. Trask with a snarl of scorn. "But for the rest, if your foppery leave you any room to consider the girl, you couldn't put a worse finish on your injury. Drive her off in your coach indeed!--and what then becomes of her reputation?"
"--Of what you have left to her, you mean? Damn it--you to talk like this!"
"Do not be profane, Captain Vyell. . . . We see things differently, and this punishment was meted to her--if cruelly, as you would say--still in honest concern for her soul's good. But if you, a loose-living man--" Mr. Trask paused.
"I thank you. For the moment I forgot that you are not at liberty. But I used not that plainness of speech to insult you; rather because it is part of the argument. If you, then, drive away with this child in public, through this town, you do her an injury for which mere carelessness is your best excuse; and the world will assign it a worse."
"I mean the world this young woman will have to live in. But we talk at cross-purposes. When I asked, 'What becomes of her at the end of this?' I was thinking of the harm you have already done. As a fact, I have ordered my cart to be ready to take her home."
Captain Vyell considered for a few seconds. "Sir," he said, "since plain speech is allowed between us, I consider you a narrow bigot; but, I hasten to add, you are the best man I have met in Port Nassau. By the way--that house on our left--does it by chance belong to Mr. Wapshott?"
"I thought so. For a couple of hours past, in the intervals of my reading, I have discovered a family of tall young women peeking at us from behind the windows and a barrier of furniture; and once, it seemed to me, I detected the wattles of your worthy fellow-magistrate. He ought not to strain that neck; you should warn him of the danger."
"It should have warned you, sir, of what mischief you are doing."
"I seem to remember," the Collector mused, "reading the words 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' to-day written on the wall behind you. . . . Why, damn me, sir, for aught you or any of them can tell, I intend to marry this girl! Why not? Go and tell them. Could there (you'll say) be a fairer betrothal? The reputable plight their troth with a single ring around the woman's finger; but here are four rings around the four ankles, and the bar locked. With your leave, which is the more symbolical?"
"You are a reprobate man, Captain Vyell," was the answer, "and I have no relish for your talk. I will only say this, When her punishment is done, my cart shall be ready for her; and you, if you would vindicate an action which--for I'll give you that credit--sprang from a generous impulse, will go your ways and let this child live down her humiliation."
Mr. Trask turned and went his way up the alley, across which the sun made level rays of flame. The Collector sat in thought.
He turned his head, surprised by the sound of a sob. A small child had drawn near--a toddle of four, trailing her wooden doll with its head in the dust--and stood a few paces in front of Ruth Josselin, round-eyed, finger at mouth.
"Steady, my girl. . . . Steady!"
At the murmured warning she braced her body stiffly, and no second sob came. But the tears ran--the first in all her long agony--and small shivers, as light winds play on aspen, chased one another down her throat. Almost you could guess them passing down her flesh beneath the sackcloth, rippling over its torn and purple ridges.
He did not check her weeping. The child--small, innocent cause of it-- stood round-eyed, wondering. "She has been naughty. What has she done, to be so naughty?"
Over the maples the town clock slowly told the hour.
They were free. The Collector tossed away the half-smoked tobacco-leaf--his twelfth--drew a long breath, and emitted it with a gay laugh of relief. At the same moment he saw Mr. Trask's bullock-cart approaching down the dappled avenue.
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