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Next morning, at ten o'clock, the Collector's coach-and-six stood at the Inn gate, harnessed up and ready for the return journey. In the road-way beyond one of the grooms waited with a hand on Bayard's bridle.
The Collector, booted and spurred, with riding-whip tucked under his arm, came up the pebbled pathway, drawing on his gauntleted gloves. Dicky trotted beside him. Manasseh followed in attendance. Behind them in the porchway the landlady bobbed unregarded, like a piece of clockwork gradually running down.
"Hey!" The Collector, as he reached the gate, lifted his chin sharply-- threw up his head as a finely bred animal scents battle or danger. "What's this? A riot, up the street?"
The grooms could not tell him, for the sound had reached their ears but a second or two before the question; a dull confused murmur out of which, as it increased to a clamour and drew nearer, sharper outcries detached themselves, and the shrill voices of women. A procession had turned the corner of the head of the avenue--a booing, howling rabble.
The Collector stepped to his horse's rein, flung himself into saddle, and rode forward at a foot's pace to meet the tumult.
Suddenly his hand tightened on the rein, and Bayard came to a halt; but his master did not perceive this. The hand's movement had been nervous, involuntary. He sat erect--stood, rather, from the stirrup--his nostril dilated, his brain scarcely believing what his eyes saw.
"The swine!" he said slowly, to himself. His teeth were shut and the words inaudible. "The swine!" he repeated.
Men have done, in the name of religion and not so long ago--indeed are perhaps doing now and daily--deeds so vile that mere decency cannot face describing them. It is a question if mere decency (by which I mean the good instinct of civilised man) will not in the end purge faith clean of religion; if, while men dispute and hate and inflict cruelty for religion, they are not all the while outgrowing it. Libraries, for example, are written to prove that unbaptized infants come out of darkness to draw a fleeting breath or two and pass to hell-fire; the dispute occupies men for generations--and lo! one day the world finds it has no use for any such question. Time--no thanks to the theologians-- has educated it, and this thing at any rate it would no longer believe if it could, as it certainly cannot. Faith never yet has burnt man or woman at the stake. Religion has burnt its tens of thousands.
Behind the first two or three ranks of the mob--an exultant mob of grown men, grown women, and (worst of all) little children--plodded a grey horse, drawing a cart. Behind the cart, bound to it, with a thong tight about her fire-scorched wrists--But no; it is not to be written.
They had stripped her to the waist, and then for decency--their decency!--had thrown a jacket of coarse sacking over her, lacing it loosely in front with pack-thread. But, because their work required it, this garment had been gathered up into a rope at the neck, whence it dangled in folds over her young breast.
She walked with wide eyes, uttering no sound. She alone of that crowd uttered no sound. A brute with a bandaged jaw walked close behind her. Oliver Vyell saw his forearm swing up--saw the scourge whirl in his fist--met the girl's eyes. . . . She, meeting his, let escape the first and last cry she uttered that day. He could have sworn that her face was scarlet; but no, he was wrong; while he looked he saw his mistake-she was white as death. Then with that one pitiful cry she sank among the close-pressing crowd; but her hands, by the cord's constraint, still lifted themselves as might a drowning swimmer's; and the grey horse--the one other innocent creature in that procession--plodded forward, dragging her now senseless body at the cart's tail.
It does a man good sometimes to get in his blow. It did Oliver Vyell good, riding in, to slash twice crosswise on the brute's bandaged face; to feel the whalebone bite and then, as he swung out of saddle, to ram fist and whip-butt together on the ugly mouth, driving in its fore-teeth.
"Stop the horse, some one!" he commanded, as the Beadle reeled back. "She has fainted." He added, "The first man that interferes, I shoot."
The crowd growled. He turned on the nearest mutterer--"Your knife!" The fellow handed it; so promptly, he might have been holding it ready to proffer. The Collector stooped and cut the thongs. This done, he stood up and saw the Beadle advancing again, snarling through the bloody gap in his mouth.
"You had best take that man away," said the Collector quietly, pulling out his small pistol. "If you don't, I am going to kill him." They heard and saw that he meant it. He added in the same tone, "I am going to take all responsibility for this. Will you make way, please?"
His first intention was to lift the body lying unconscious in the roadway, carry it to the coach and drive out of Port Nassau with it, defying the law to interfere. For the moment he "saw red," as we say nowadays, and was quite capable of shooting down, or bidding his servants shoot down, any man who offered to hinder. It is even possible that had he acted straightway upon the impulse, he might, with his momentary mastery of the mob, have won clean away; possible, but by no means likely, for already a couple of constables were pushing forward to support the Beadle, and half a dozen broad-shouldered fellows--haters of "prerogative"--had recovered themselves and were ranging up to support the law. Had he noted this, it would not have daunted him. What he noted, and what gave him pause, was the girl's white back at his feet, upturning its hideous weals. He stooped to lift her, and drew back, shivering delicately at the thought of hurting the torn flesh in his arms--a vain scruple, since she had passed for the moment beyond pain. He picked up the scourge, and stood erect again, crushing it into his pocket.
"Will you make way, please," he ordered, "while I fetch a cover to hide your blasted handiwork?"
He strode through them, and they fell back to give him passage. He walked straight to the coach, pulled the door open, and, in the act of dragging forth a rug, caught sight of Dicky's small, scared face.
"Oh papa, what has happened?"
"An accident, child. Jump inside; I will explain by-and-by."
"Begging your Honour's pardon"--a heavy-featured fellow, who had followed the Collector to the coach, put out a hand and touched the child's shoulder--"I don't hold in whipping maidens, and if it's a fight I'm with you. But you can't carry her out of it, the way you're meaning. They've seen blood, same as yourself. This child of yours--he stands as much chance to be hurt as any, if you push it. Your Honour'll have to find some other way."
The Collector glanced over his shoulder, and saw that the man spoke truth.
"Dicky," he said easily, but in a voice the child durst not disobey, "there has been an accident. Go you down and amuse yourself on the sands till Manasseh calls you."
He walked back coolly, carrying the rug on his arm.
"Where was she to be taken?" he asked.
"To the stocks!" answered a voice or two. "To the Court-house!" said others.
"It's the same thing," said the heavy-browed man, at the Collector's elbow. "The stocks are just across the square from the Court-house. You'll find the magistrates there; they're the ones to face. They took her case first this morning, and this is the first part of her sentence."
Oliver Vyell walked back to the crowd. It was--a glance assured him-- more hostile than before; had recovered from its surprise, and was menacing. But it gave way again before him.
He called on them to give more room. He stooped and, spreading the rug over the girl's body, lifted and laid her in the straw of the cart. A constable would have interfered. The Collector swung round on him.
"You are taking her back to the Court-house? Well, I have business there too. Where is your Court-house?"
The constable pointed.
"Up the road? I am obliged to you. Drive on, if you please."
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