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The Broad Highway(Book2,Chapter43)

2006-08-28 23:01

  Book Two. The Woman Chapter XLIII. How I Set Out to Face My Destiny

  The pallid moon shone down pitilessly upon the dead, white face that stared up at me through its grime and blood, with the same half-tolerant, half-amused contempt of me that it had worn in life; the drawn lips seemed to mock me, and the clenched fists to defy me still; so that I shivered, and turned to watch the oncoming light that danced like a will-o'-the-wisp among the shadows. Presently it stopped, and a voice hailed once more:

  "Hallo!"

  "Hallo!" I called back; "this way——this way!" In a little while I saw the figure of a man whom I at once recognized as the one-time Postilion, bearing the lanthorn of a chaise, and, as he approached, it struck me that this meeting was very much like our first, save for him who lay in the shadows, staring up at me with unwinking eyes.

  "So ho!" exclaimed the Postilion as he came up, raising his lanthorn that he might view me the better; "it's you again, is it?"

  "Yes," I nodded.

  "Well, I don't like it," he grumbled, "a-meeting of each other again like this, in this 'ere ghashly place——no, I don't like it ——too much like last time to be nat'ral, and, as you know, I can't abide onnat'ralness. If I was to ax you where my master was, like as not you'd tell me 'e was——"

  "Here!" said I, and, moving aside, pointed to the shadow.

  The Postilion stepped nearer, lowering his lanthorzs. then staggered blindly backward.

  "Lord!" he whimpered, "Lord love me!" and stood staring, with dropped jaw.

  "Where is your chaise?"

  "Up yonder——yonder——in the lane," he mumbled, his eyes still fixed.

  "Then help me to carry him there."

  "No, no——I dursn't touch it——I can't——not me——not me!"

  "I think you will," said I, and took the pistol from my pocket.

  "Ain't one enough for to-night?" he muttered; "put it away——I'll come——I'll do it——put it away." So I dropped the weapon back into my pocket while the Postilion, shivering violently, stooped with me above the inanimate figure, and, with our limp burden between us, we staggered and stumbled up the path, and along the lane to where stood a light traveling chaise.

  "'E ain't likely to come to this time, I'm thinkin'!" said the Postilion, mopping the sweat from his brow and grinning with pallid lips, after we had got our burden into the vehicle; "no, 'e ain't likely to wake up no more, nor yet 'curse my 'ead off' ——this side o' Jordan."

  "No," I answered, beginning to unwind my neckcloth.

  "Nor it ain't no good to go a-bandagin' and a-bindin' of 'im up ——like you did last time."

  "No," said I; "no." And stepping into the chaise, I muffled that disfigured face in my neckcloth; having done which, I closed the door.

  "What now?" inquired the Postilion.

  "Now you can drive us to Cranbrook."

  "What——be you a-comin' too?"

  "Yes," I nodded; "yes, I am coming too."

  "Lord love me!" he exclaimed, and a moment later I heard him chirruping to his horses; the whip cracked and the chaise lurched forward. Whether he had some wild notion that I might attempt to descend and make my escape before we reached our destination, I cannot say, but he drove at a furious pace, taking corners at reckless speed, so that the chaise lurched and swayed most violently, and, more than once, I was compelled to hold that awful figure down upon the seat before me, lest it should slide to the floor. On we sped, past hedge and tree, by field and lonely wood. And ever in my ears was the whir of the wheels, the drumming of hoofs, and the crack of the whip; and ever the flitting moonbeams danced across that muffled face until it seemed that the features writhed and gibed at me, beneath the folds of the neckerchief.

  And so at last came lights and houses, and the sound of excited voices as we pulled up before the Posting House at Cranbrook. Looking from the window, I saw a ring of faces with eyes that gleamed in the light of the lanthorns, and every eye was fixed on me, and every foot gave back a step as I descended from the chaise. And, while I stood there, the Postilion came with two white-faced ostlers, who, between them, bore a heavy burden through the crowd, stumbling awkwardly as they went; and, as men saw that which they carried, there came a low, deep sound ——wordless, inarticulate, yet full of menace. But, above this murmur rose a voice, and I saw the Postilion push his way to the steps of the inn, and turn there, with hands clenched and raised above his head.

  "My master——Sir Maurice Vibart——is killed——shot to death ——murdered down there in the 'aunted 'Oller!" he cried, "and, if you axes me who done it, I says to you——'e did——so 'elp me God!" and speaking, he raised his whip and pointed at me.

  Once more there rose that inarticulate sound of menace, and once more all eyes were fixed upon me.

  "'E were a fine gen'man!" said a voice.

  "Ah! so gay an' light-'earted!" said another.

  "Ay, ay——a generous, open open-'anded gen'man!" said a third.

  And every moment the murmur swelled, and grew more threatening; fists were clenched, and sticks flourished, so that, instinctively, I set my back against the chaise, for it seemed they lacked only some one to take the initiative ere they fell upon me.

  The Postilion saw this too, for, with a shout, he sprang forward, his whip upraised. But, as he did so; the crowd was burst asunder, he was caught by a mighty arm, and Black George stood beside me, his eyes glowing, his fists clenched, and his hair and beard bristling.

  "Stand back, you chaps," he growled, "stand back or I'll 'urt some on ye; be ye all a lot o' dogs to set on an' worry one as is all alone?" And then, turning to me, "What be the matter wi' the fools, Peter?"

  "Matter?" cried the Postilion; "murder be the matter——my master be murdered——shot to death——an' there stands the man as done it!"

  "Murder?" cried George, in an altered voice; "murder?" Now, as he spoke, the crowd parted, and four ostlers appeared, bearing a hurdle between them, and on the hurdle lay a figure, an elegant figure whose head and face were still muffled in my neckerchief. I saw George start, and, like a flash, his glance came round to my bare throat, and dismay was in his eyes.

  "Peter?" he murmured; then he laughed suddenly and clapped his hand down upon my shoulder. "Look 'ee, you chaps," he cried, facing the crowd, "this is my friend Peter——an honest man an' no murderer, as 'e will tell ye 'isself——this is my friend as I'd go bail for wi' my life to be a true man; speak up, Peter, an' tell 'em as you 'm an honest man an' no murderer." But I shook my head.

  "Oh, Peter!" he whispered, "speak! speak!"

  "Not here, George," I answered; "it would be of no avail——besides, I can say nothing to clear myself."

  "Nothin', Peter?"

  "Nothing, George. This man was shot and killed in the Hollow——I found him lying dead——I found the empty pistol, and the Postilion, yonder, found me standing over the body. That is all I have to tell."

  "Peter," said he, speaking hurriedly beneath his breath,

  "Oh, Peter!——let's run for it——'twould be main easy for the likes o' you an' me——"

  "No, George," I answered; "it would be worse than useless. But one thing I do ask of you——you who know me so much better than most——and it is, that you will bid me good-by, and——take my hand once more, George here before all these eyes that look upon me as a murderer, and——"

  Before I had finished he had my hand in both of his——nay, had thrown one great arm protectingly about me.

  "Why, Peter——" he began, in a strangely cracked voice, "oh! man as I love!——never think as I'd believe their lies, an'——Peter ——such fighters as you an' me! a match for double their number ——let's make a bolt for it——ecod! I want to hit somebody. Never doubt me, Peter——your friend——an' they'd go over like skittles like skittles, Peter——"

  The crowd, which had swelled momentarily, surged, opened, and a man on horseback pushed his way towards me, a man in some disorder of dress, as though he had clothed himself in a hurry.

  Rough hands were now laid upon me; I saw George's fist raised threateningly, but caught it in my grasp.

  "Good-by," said I, "good-by, George, and don't look so downcast, man." But we were forced apart, and I was pushed and pulled and hustled away, through a crowd of faces whose eyes damned me wherever I looked, along panelled passage ways, and into a long, dim room, where sat the gentleman I had seen on the horse, busily tying his cravat, to whom I delivered up the pistol, and answered divers questions as well as I might, and by whom, after much jotting of notes and memoranda, I was delivered over to four burly fellows, who, with deep gravity, and a grip much tighter than was necessary, once more led me out into the moonlit street, where were people who pressed forward to stare into my face, and people who leaned out of windows to stare down upon my head, and many more who followed at my heels.

  And thus, in much estate, I ascended a flight of worn stone steps into the churchyard, and so——by a way of tombs and graves——came at last to the great square church-tower, into which I was incontinently thrust, and there very securely locked up.

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