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- Thomas Wingfold, Curate - 80/90 -
solitary meadow, and not the poor youth who lay dying there in the chair, and who might indeed be only another of his victims, was the murderer of Emmeline! Unconsciously she accelerated her pace until it was almost a run, but did not thereby widen by a single yard the distance between her and the curate.
When she came out on the high road, she gave a glance in each direction, and, avoiding the country, made for the houses. A short lane led her into Pine street. There she felt safe, the more that it was market-day and a good many people about, and slackened her pace, feeling confident that her pursuer, whoever he was, would now turn aside. But she was disappointed, for, casting a glance over her shoulder, she saw that he still kept the same distance behind her. She saw also, in that single look, that he was well-known, for several were saluting him at once. What could it mean? It must be the G. B. of the Temple! Should she stop and challenge his pursuit? The obstacle to this was a certain sinking at the heart accounted for by an old memory. She must elude him instead. But she did not know a single person in the place, or one house where she could seek refuge. There was an hotel before her! But, unattended, heated, disordered, to all appearance disreputable, what account could she give of herself? That she had been followed by some one everybody knew, and to whom everybody would listen! Feebly debating thus with herself, she hurried along the pavement of Pine Street, with the Abbey church before her.
The footsteps behind her grew louder and quicker: the man had made up his mind and was coming up with her! He might be mad, or ready to run all risks! Probably he knew his life at stake through her perseverance and determination!
On came the footsteps, for the curate had indeed made up his mind to speak to her, and either remove or certify his apprehensions. Nearer yet and nearer they came. Her courage and strength were giving way together, and she should be at his mercy. She darted into a shop, sank on a chair by the counter, and begged for a glass of water. A young woman ran to fetch it, while Mr. Drew went upstairs for a glass of wine. Returning with it he came from behind the counter, and approached the lady where she sat leaning her head upon it.
Meantime the curate also had entered the shop, and placed himself where he might, unseen by her, await her departure, for he could not speak to her there. He had her full in sight when Mr. Drew went up to her.
"Do me the favour, madam," he said--but said no more. For at the sound of his voice, the lady gave a violent start, and raising her head looked at him. The wine-glass dropped from his hand. She gave a half-choked cry, and sped from the shop.
The curate was on the spring after her when he was arrested by the look of the draper: he stood fixed where she had left him, white and trembling as if he had seen a ghost. He went up to him, and said in a whisper:
"Who is she?"
"Mrs. Drew," answered the draper, and the curate was after her like a greyhound.
A little crowd of the shop-people gathered in consternation about their master.
"Pick up those pieces of glass, and call Jacob to wipe the floor," he said--then walked to the door, and stood staring after the curate as he all but ran to overtake the swiftly gliding figure.
The woman, ignorant that her pursuer was again upon her track, and hardly any longer knowing what she did, hurried blindly towards the churchyard. Presently the curate relaxed his speed, hoping she would enter it, when he would have her in a fit place for the interview upon which he was, if possible, more determined than ever, now that he had gained, so unexpectedly, such an absolute hold of her. "She must be Emmeline's mother," he said to himself, "--fit mother for such a daughter." The moment he caught sight of the visage lifted from its regard of the sleeping youth, he had suspected the fact. He had not had time to analyze its expression, but there was something dreadful in it. A bold question would determine the suspicion.
She entered the churchyard, saw the Abbey door open, and hastened to it. She was in a state of bewilderment and terror that would have crazed a weaker woman. In the porch she cast a glance behind her: there again was her pursuer! She sprang into the church. A woman was dusting a pew not far from the door.
"Who is that coming?" she asked, in a tone and with a mien that appalled Mrs. Jenkins. She had but to stretch her neck a little to see through the porch.
"Why, it be only the parson, ma'am!" she answered.
"Then I shall hide myself, over there, and you must tell him I went out by that other door. Here's a sovereign for you."
"I thank you, ma'am," said Mrs. Jenkins, looking wistfully at the sovereign, which was a great sum of money to a sexton's wife with children, then instantly going on with her dusting; "but it ain't no use tryin' of tricks with our parson. HE ain't one of your Mollies. A man as don't play no tricks with hisself, as I heerd a gentleman say, it ain't no use tryin' no tricks with HIM."
Almost while she spoke, the curate entered. The suppliant drew herself up, and endeavoured to look both dignified and injured.
"Would you oblige me by walking this way for a moment?" he said, coming straight to her.
Without a word she followed him, a long way up the church, to the stone screen which divided the chancel from the nave. There, in sight of Mrs. Jenkins, but so far off that she could not hear a word said, he asked her to take a seat on the steps that led up to the door in the centre of the screen. Again she obeyed, and Wingfold sat down near her.
"Are you Emmeline's mother?" he said.
The gasp, the expression of eye and cheek, the whole startled response of the woman, revealed that he had struck the truth. But she made no answer.
"You had better be open with me," he said, "for I mean to be very open with you."
She stared at him, but either could not, or would not speak. Probably it was caution: she must hear more.
The curate was already excited, and I fear now got a little angry, for the woman was not pleasant to his eyes.
"I want to tell you," he said, "that the poor youth whom your daughter's behaviour made a murderer of,--"
She gave a cry, and turned like ashes. The curate was ashamed of himself.
"It seems cruel," he said, "but it is the truth. I say he is now dying--will be gone after her in a few weeks. The same blow killed both, only one has taken longer to die. No end can be served by bringing him to justice. Indeed if he were arrested, he would but die on the way to prison. I have followed you to persuade you, if I can, to leave him to his fate and not urge it on. If ever man was sorry, or suffered for his crime,--"
"And pray what is that to me, sir?" cried the avenging mother, who, finding herself entreated, straightway became arrogant. "Will it give me back my child? The villain took her precious life without giving her a moment to prepare for eternity, and you ask me--her mother--to let him go free! I will not. I have vowed vengeance, and I will have it."
"Allow me to say that if you die in that spirit, you will be far worse prepared for eternity than I trust your poor daughter was."
"What is that to you? If I choose to run the risk, it is my business. I tell you it shall not be my fault if the wretch is not brought to the gallows."
"But he cannot live to reach it. The necessary preliminaries would waste all that is left of his life. I only ask of you to let him die in what peace is possible to him. We must forgive our enemies, you know. But indeed he is no enemy of yours."
"No enemy of mine! The man who murdered my child no enemy of mine! I am his enemy then, and that he shall find. If I cannot bring him to the gallows, I can at least make every man and woman in the country point the finger of scorn and hatred at him. I can bring him and all his to disgrace and ruin. Their pride indeed! They were far too grand to visit me, but not to send a murderer into my family. I am in my rights, and I will have justice. We shall see if they are too grand to have a nephew hung! My poor lovely innocent! I will have justice on the foul villain. Cringing shall not turn me."
Her lips were white, and her teeth set. She rose with the slow movement of one whose intent, if it had blossomed in passion, was yet rooted in determination, and turned to leave the church.
"It might hamper your proceedings a little," said Wingfold, "if in the meantime a charge of bigamy were brought against yourself, MRS. DREW!"
Her back was towards the curate, and for a moment she stood like another pillar of salt. Then she began to tremble, and laid hold of the carved top of a bench. But her strength failed her completely; she sank on her knees and fell on the floor with a deep moan.
The curate called Mrs. Jenkins and sent her for water. With some difficulty they brought her to herself.
She rose, shuddered, drew her shawl about her, and said to the woman,
"I am sorry to give so much trouble. When does the next train start for London?"
"Within an hour," answered the curate. "I will see you safe to it."
"Excuse me; I prefer going alone."
"That I cannot permit."
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