Let us hurry over what is to follow. I who knew her so well can have no pleasure in dwelling over her misery and degradation. And he who reads these pages will, I hope, have little sympathy with the minor details of the life of such a man as George Hawker.
Some may think that she has been punished enough already, for leaving her quiet happy home to go away with such a man. “She must have learnt already,” such would say, “that he cares nothing for her. Let her leave her money behind, and go back to her father to make such amends as she may for the misery she has caused him.” Alas, my dear madam, who would rejoice in such a termination of her troubles more than myself? But it is not for me to mete out degrees of punishment. I am trying with the best of my poor abilities to write a true history of certain people whom I knew. And I, no more than any other human creature, can see the consequences that will follow on any one act of folly or selfishness, such as this poor foolish girl has committed. We must wait and watch, judging with all charity. Let you and me go on with her, even to the very end.
Good men draw together very slowly. Yet it is one of the greatest happinesses one is capable of, to introduce two such to one another, and see how soon they become friends. But bad men congregate like crows or jackals, and when a new one appears, he is received into the pack without question, as soon as he has given proof sufficient of being a rascal.
This was the case with George Hawker. His facility for making acquaintance with rogues and blacklegs was perfectly marvellous. Any gentleman of this class seemed to recognise him instinctively, and became familiar immediately. So that soon he had round him such a circle of friends as would have gone hard to send to the dogs the most honourable and virtuous young man in the three kingdoms.
When a new boy goes to school, his way is smoothed very much at first by the cakes and pocket-money he brings with him. Till these are gone he must be a weak boy indeed who cannot (at a small school) find some one to fight his battles and fetch and carry for him. Thackeray has thought of this (what does he not think of?) in his little book, “Dr. Birch,” where a young sycophant is represented saying to his friend, who has just received a hamper, “Hurrah, old fellow, I’LL LEND YOU MY KNIFE.” This was considered so true to nature, on board a ship in which I once made a long voyage, that it passed into a proverb with us, and if any one was seen indulging in a luxury out of the way at dinner — say an extra bottle of wine out of his private store — half-a-dozen would cry out at once, “Hurrah, old fellow, I’ll lend you my knife:” a modest way of requesting to be asked to take a glass of wine better than that supplied by the steward.
In the same way, George Hawker was treated by the men he had got round him as a man who had a little property that he had not got rid of, and as one who was to be used with some civility, until his money was gone, and he sank down to the level of the rest of them — to the level of living by his wits, if they were sharp enough to make a card or billiard sharper; or otherwise to find his level among the proscribed of society, let that be what it might.
And George’s wits were not of the first order, or the second; and his manners and education were certainly not those of a gentleman, or likely to be useful in attracting such unwary persons as these Arabs of the metropolis preyed upon. So it happened that when all his money was played away, which came to pass in a month or two, the higher and cleverer class of rascals began to look uncommonly cold upon him.
At first poor crushed Mary used to entertain of an evening some of the ELITE among the card-sharpers of London — men who actually could have spoken to a gentleman in a public place, and not have got kicked. These men were polite, and rather agreeable, and one of them, a Captain Saxon, was so deferential to her, and seemed so entirely to understand her position, that she grew very fond of him, and was always pleased to see him at her house.
Though, indeed, she saw but little of any men who came there soon after any of them arrived, she used to receive a signal from George, which she dared not disobey, to go to bed. And when she lay there, lonely and sleepless, she could detect, from the absence of conversation, save now and then a low, fierce oath, that they were playing desperately, and at such times she would lie trembling and crying. Once or twice, during the time she remembered these meetings, they were rudely broken upon by oaths and blows, and on one particular occasion, she heard one of the gamesters, when infuriated, call her husband “a d —— d swindling dog of a forger.”
In these times, which lasted but a few months, she began to reflect what a fool she had been, and how to gratify her fancy she had thrown from her everything solid and worth keeping in the world. She had brought herself to confess, in bitterness and anguish, that he did not love her, and never had, and that she was a miserable, unhappy dupe. But, notwithstanding, she loved him still, though she dreaded the sight of him, for she got little from him now but oaths and taunts.
It was soon after their return from Brighton that he broke out, first on some trivial occasion, and cursed her aloud. He said he hated the sight of her pale face, for it always reminded him of ruin and misery; that he had the greatest satisfaction in telling her that he was utterly ruined; that his father was dead, and had left his money elsewhere, and that her father was little better; that she would soon be in the workhouse; and, in fine, said everything that his fierce, wild, brutal temper could suggest.
She never tempted another outbreak of the kind; that one was too horrible for her, and crushed her spirit at once. She only tried by mildness and submission to deprecate his rage. But every day he came home looking fiercer and wilder; as time went on her heart sunk within her, and she dreaded something more fearful than she had experienced yet.
As I said, after a month or two, his first companions began to drop off, or only came, bullying and swearing, to demand money. And now another class of men began to take their place, the sight of whom made her blood cold — worse dressed than the others, and worse mannered, with strange, foul oaths on their lips. And then, after a time, two ruffians, worse looking than any of the others, began to come there, of whom the one she dreaded most was called Maitland.
He was always very civil to her; but there was something about him, his lowering, evil face, and wild looks, which made him a living nightmare to her. She knew he was flying from justice, by the way he came and went, and by the precaution always taken when he was there. But when he came to live in the room over theirs, and when, by listening at odd times, she found that he and her husband were engaged in some great villany, the nature of which she could not understand, then she saw that there was nothing to do, but in sheer desperation to sit down and wait the catastrophe.
About this time she made another discovery, that she was penniless, and had been so some time. George had given her money from time to time to carry on household expenses, and she contrived to make these sums answer well enough. But one day, determined to know the worst, she asked him, at the risk of another explosion, how their account stood at the bank? He replied in the best of his humours, apparently, “that the five thousand they had had there had been overdrawn some six weeks, and that, if it hadn’t been for his exertions in various ways, she’d have been starved out before now.”
“All gone!” she said; “and where to?”
“To the devil,” he answered. “And you may go after it.”
“And what are we to do now, George?”
“The best we can.”
“But the baby, George? I shall lie-in in three months.”
“You must take your chance, and the baby too. As long as there’s any money going you’ll get some of it. If you wrote to your father you might get some.”
“I’ll never do that,” she said.
“Won’t you?” said he; “I’ll starve you into it when money gets scarce.”
Things remained like this till it came to be nearly ten months from their marriage. Mary had never written home but once, from Brighton, and then, as we know, the answer had miscarried; so she, conceiving she was cast off by her father, had never attempted to communicate with him again. The time grew nigh that she should be confined, and she got very sick and ill, and still the man Maitland lived in the house, and he and George spent much of their time at night, away together.
Yet poor Mary had a friend who stayed by her through it all — Captain Saxon, the great billiard sharper. Many a weary hour, when she was watching up anxious and ill for her husband, this man would come and sit with her, talking agreeably and well about many things; but chiefly about the life he used to lead before he fell so low as he was then.
He used to say, “Mrs. Hawker, you cannot tell what a relief and pleasure it is to me to have a LADY to talk to again. You must conceive how a man brought up like myself misses it.”
“Surely, Captain Saxon,” she would say, “you have some relations left. Why not go back to them?”
“They wouldn’t own me,” he said. “I smashed everything, a fine fortune amongst other things, by my goings on; and they very properly cast me off. I never got beyond the law, though. Many well-known men speak to me now, but they won’t play with me, though; I am too good. And so you see I play dark to win from young fellows, and I am mixed up with a lot of scoundrels. A man brought an action against me the other day to recover two hundred pounds I won of him, but he couldn’t do anything. And the judge said, that though the law couldn’t touch me, yet I was mixed up notoriously with a gang of sharpers. That was a pleasant thing to hear in court — wasn’t it? — but true.”
“It has often surprised me to see how temperate you are, Captain Saxon,” she said.
“I am forced to be,” he said; “I must keep my hand steady. See there; it’s as firm as a rock. No; the consolation of drink is denied me; I have something to live for still. I’ll tell you a secret. I’ve insured my life very high in favour of my little sister whom I ruined, and who is out as a governess. If I don’t pay up to the last, you see, or if I commit suicide, she’ll lose the money. I pay very high, I assure you. On one occasion not a year ago, I played for the money to pay the premium only two nights before it would have been too late. There was touch and go for you. But my hand was as steady as a rock, and after the last game was over I fainted.”
“Good Lord,” she said, “what a terrible life! But, suppose you fall into sickness and poverty. Then you may fall into arrear, and she will lose everything after all.”
He laughed aloud. A strange wild laugh. “No,” said he; “I am safe there, if physicians are to be believed. Sometimes, when I am falling asleep, my head begins to flutter and whirl, and I sit up in bed, breathless and perspiring till it grows still again. Then I laugh to myself, and say, ‘Not this time then, but it can’t be long now.’ Those palpitations, Mrs. Hawker, are growing worse and worse each month. I have got a desperate incurable heart complaint, that will carry me off, sudden and sure, without warning, I hope to a better sort of world than this.”
“I am sorry for you, Captain Saxon,” she said, sobbing, “so very, very sorry for you!”
“I thank you kindly, my good friend,” he replied. “It’s long since I had so good a friend as you. Now change the subject. I want to talk to you about yourself. You are going to be confined.”
“In a few days, I fear,” she said.
“Have you money?”
“My husband seems to have money enough at present, but we have none to fall back upon.”
“What friends have you?”
“None that I can apply to.”
“H’m,” he said. “Well, you must make use of me, and as far as I can manage it of my purse too, in case of an emergency. I mean, you know, Mrs. Hawker,” he added, looking full at her, “to make this offer to you as I would to my own sister. Don’t in God’s name refuse my protection, such as it is, from any mistaken motives of jealousy. Now tell me, as honestly as you dare, how do you believe your husband gets his living?”
“I have not the least idea, but I fear the worst.”
“You do right,” he said. “Forewarned is forearmed, and, at the risk of frightening you, I must bid you prepare for the worst. Although I know nothing about what he is engaged in, yet I know that the man Maitland, who lives above, and who you say is your husband’s constant companion, is a desperate man. If anything happens apply to me straightway, and I will do all I can. My principal hope is in putting you in communication with your friends. Could you not trust me with your story, that we might take advice together?”
She told him all from beginning to the end, and at the last she said, “If the worst should come, whatever that may be, I would write for help to Major Buckley, for the sake of the child that is to come.”
“Major Buckley!”— he asked eagerly — “do you mean James Buckley of the — th?”
“The same man,” she replied, “my kindest friend.”
“Oh, Lord!” he said, growing pale, “I’ve got one of these spasms coming on. A glass of water, my dear lady, in God’s name!”
He held both hands on his heart, and lay back in his chair a little, with livid lips, gasping for breath. By degrees his white hands dropped upon his lap, and he said with a sigh, “Nearer still, old friend, nearer than ever. Not far off now.”
But he soon recovered and said, “Mrs. Hawker, if you ever see that man Buckley again, tell him that you saw Charley Biddulph, who was once his friend, fallen to be the consort of rogues and thieves, cast off by everyone, and dying of a heart complaint; but tell him he could not die without sending a tender love to his good old comrade, and that he remembered him and loved him to the very end.”
“And I shall say too,” said Mary, “when all neglected me, and forgot me, this Charles Biddulph helped and cheered me; and when I was fallen to the lowest, that he was still to me a courteous gentleman, and a faithful adviser; and that but for him and his goodness I should have sunk into desperation long ago. Be sure that I will say this too.”
The door opened, and George Hawker came in.
“Good evening, Captain Saxon,” said he. “My wife seems to make herself more agreeable to you than she does to me. I hope you are pleased with her. However, you are welcome to be. I thank God I ain’t jealous. Where’s Maitland?”
“He has not been here to-night, George,” she said, timidly.
“Curse him then. Give me a candle; I’m going up-stairs. Don’t go on my account, Captain Saxon. Well, if you will, good night.”
Saxon bade him good-night, and went. George went up into Maitland’s room, where Mary was never admitted; and soon she heard him hammer, hammering at metal, over-head. She was too used to that sound to take notice of it; so she went to bed, but lay long awake, thinking of poor Captain Saxon.
Less than a week after that she was confined. She had a boy, and that gave her new life. Poorly provided for as that child was, he could not have been more tenderly nursed or more prized and loved if he had been born in the palace, with his Majesty’s right honourable ministers in the ante-room, drinking dry Sillery in honour of the event.
Now she could endure what was to come better. And less than a month after, just as she was getting well again, all her strength and courage were needed. The end came.
She was sitting before the fire, about ten o’clock at night, nursing her baby, when she heard the street-door opened by a key; and the next moment her husband and Maitland were in the room.
“Sit quiet, now, or I’ll knock your brains out with the poker,” said George; and, seizing a china ornament from the chimney-piece, he thrust it into the fire, and heaped the coals over it.
“We’re caught like rats, you fool, if they have tracked us,” said Maitland; “and nothing but your consummate folly to thank for it. I deserve hanging for mixing myself up with such a man in a thing like this. Now, are you coming; or do you want half-an hour to wish your wife good-bye?”
George never answered that question. There was a noise of breaking glass down-stairs, and a moment after a sound of several feet on the stair.
“Make a fight for it,” said Maitland, “if you can do nothing else. Make for the back-door.”
But George stood aghast, while Mary trembled in every limb. The door was burst open, and a tall man coming in said, “In the King’s name, I arrest you, George Hawker and William Maitland, for coining.”
Maitland threw himself upon the man, and they fell crashing over the table. George dashed at the door, but was met by two others. For a minute there was a wild scene of confusion and struggling, while Mary crouched against the wall with the child, shut her eyes, and tried to pray. When she looked round again she saw her husband and Maitland securely handcuffed, and the tall man, who first came in, wiping the blood from a deep cut in his forehead, said,
“There is nothing against this woman, is there, Sanders?”
“Nothing, sir, except that she is the prisoner Hawker’s wife.”
“Poor woman!” said the tall man. “She has been lately confined, too. I don’t think it will be necessary to take her into custody. Take away the prisoners; I shall stay here and search.”
He began his search by taking the tongs and pulling the fire to pieces. Soon he came to the remnants of the china ornament which George had thrown in; and, after a little more raking, two or three round pieces of metal fell out of the grate.
“A very green trick,” he remarked. “Well, they must stay there to cool before I can touch them;” and turning to Mary said, “Could you oblige me with some sticking-plaster? Your husband’s confederate has given me an ugly blow.”
She got some, and put it on for him. “Oh, sir!” she said, “Can you tell me what this is all about?”
“Easy, ma’am,” said he. “Maitland is one of the most notorious coiners in England, and your husband is his confederate and assistant. We’ve been watching, just to get a case that there would be no trouble about, and we’ve got it.”
“And if it is proved?” she asked, trembling.
He looked very serious. “Mrs. Hawker, I know your history, as well as your husband’s, the same as if you told it to me. So I am sorry to give a lady who is in misfortune more pain than I can help; but you know coining is a hanging matter.”
She rocked herself wildly to and fro, and the chair where she sat, squeezing the child against her bosom till he cried. She soothed him again without a word, and then said to the officer, who was searching every nook and cranny in the room:
“Shall you be obliged to turn me out of here, or may I stay a few nights?”
“You can stay as long as you please, madam,” he said; “that’s a matter with your landlady, not me. But if I was you I’d communicate with my friends, and get some money to have my husband defended.”
“They’d sooner pay for the rope to hang him,” she said. “You seem a kind and pitiful sort of man; tell me honestly, is there any chance for him?”
“Honestly, none. There may be some chance of his life; but there is evidence enough on this one charge, leave alone others, mind you, to convict twenty men. Why, we’ve evidence of two forgeries committed on his father before ever he married you; so that, if he is acquitted on this charge, he’ll be arrested for another outside the court.”
All night long she sat up nursing the child before the fire, which from time to time she replenished. The officers in possession slept on sofas, and dozed in chairs; but when the day broke she was still there, pale and thoughtful, sitting much in the same place and attitude as she did before all this happened, the night before, which seemed to her like a year ago, so great was the change since then. “Then,” thought she, “he was nothing but a villain after all. He had merely gained her heart for money’s sake, and cast her off when it was gone. What a miserable fool she had been, and how rightly served now, to be left penniless in the world!”
Penniless, but not friendless. She remembered Captain Saxon, and determined to go to him and ask his advice. So when the strange weird morning had crept on to such time as the accustomed crowd began to surge through the street, she put on her bonnet, and went away for the first time to seek him at his lodgings, in a small street, leading off Piccadilly.
An old woman answered the door. “The Captain was gone,” she said, “to Boulogne, and wouldn’t be back yet for a fortnight. Would she leave any name?”
She hardly thought it worth while. All the world seemed to have deserted her now; but she said, more in absence of mind than for any other reason, “Tell him that Mrs. Hawker called, if you please.”
“Mrs. Hawker!” the old woman said; “there’s a letter for you, ma’am, I believe; and something particular too, ‘cause he told me to keep it in my desk till you called. Just step in, if you please.”
Mary followed her in, and she produced a letter directed to Mrs. Hawker. When Mary opened it, which she did in the street, after the door was shut, the first thing she saw was a bank-note for five pounds, and behind it was the following note:—
“I am forced to go to Boulogne, at a moment’s notice, with a man whom I must not lose sight of. Should you have occasion to apply to me during my absence (which is fearfully probable), I have left this, begging your acceptance of it, in the same spirit as that in which it was offered; and I pray you to accept this piece of advice at the same time:—
“Apply instantly to your friends, and go back to them at once. Don’t stop about London on any excuse. You have never known what it is to be without money yet; take care you never do. When a man or a woman is poor and hungry, there is a troop of devils who always follow such, whispering all sorts of things to them. They are all, or nearly all, known to me: take care you do not make their acquaintance.
“Yours most affectionately,
What a strange letter, she thought. He must be mad. Yet there was method in his madness, too. Devils such as he spoke of had leant over her chair and whispered to her before now, plain to be heard. But that was in the old times, when she sat brooding alone over the fire at night. She was no longer alone now, and they had fled — fled, scared at the face of a baby.
She went home and spoke to the landlady. But little was owing, and that she had money enough to pay without the five pounds that the kind gambler had given her. However, when she asked the landlady whether she could stay there a week or two longer, the woman prayed her with tears to begone; that she and her husband had brought trouble enough on them already.
But there was still a week left of their old tenancy, so she held possession in spite of the landlady; and from the police-officers, who were still about the place, she heard that the two prisoners had been committed for trial, and that that trial would take place early in the week at the Old Bailey.
Three days before the trial she had to leave the lodgings, with but little more than two pounds in the world. For those three days she got lodging as she could in coffee-houses and such places, always meeting, however, with that sort of kindness and sympathy from the women belonging to them which could not be bought for money. She was in such a dull state of despair, that she was happily insensible to all smaller discomforts, and on the day of the trial she endeavoured to push into the court with her child in her arms.
The crowd was too dense, and the heat was too great for her, so she came outside and sat on some steps on one side of a passage. Once she had to move as a great personage came up, and then one of the officers said —
“Come, my good woman, you mustn’t sit there, you know. That’s the judge’s private door.”
“I beg pardon,” she said, “and I will move, if you wish me. But they are trying my husband for coining, and the court is too hot for the child. If you will let me sit there, I will be sure to get out of the way when my lord comes past.”
The man looked at her as if it was a case somewhat out of his experience, and went away. Soon, however, he came back again, and, after staring at her a short time, said —
“Do you want anything, missis? Anything I can get?”
“I am much obliged to you, nothing,” she said; “but if you can tell me how the trial is going on, I shall be obliged to you.”
He shook his head and went away, and when he returned, telling her that the judge was summing up, he bade her follow him, and found her a place in a quiet part of the court. She could see her husband and Maitland standing in the dock, quite close to her, and before them the judge was calmly, slowly, and distinctly giving the jury the history of the case from beginning to end. She was too much bewildered and desperate to listen to it, but she was attracted by the buzz of conversation which arose when the jury retired. They seemed gone a bare minute to her, when she heard and understood that the prisoners were found guilty. Then she heard Maitland sentenced to death, and George Hawker condemned to be transported beyond the seas for the term of his natural life, in consideration of his youth; so she brought herself to understand that the game was played out, and turned to go.
The officer who had been kind to her stopped her, and asked her “where she was going?” She answered “to Devonshire,” and passed on, but almost immediately pushed back to him through the crowd, which was pouring out of the doors, and thanked him for his kindness to her. Then she went out with the crowd into the street, and almost instinctively struck westward.
Through the western streets, roaring with carriages, crowded with foot passengers — like one in a dream — past the theatres, and the arches, and all the great, rich world, busy seeking its afternoon pleasure, through the long suburbs, getting more scattered as she went on, and so out on to the dusty broad western highway; a lonely wanderer, with only one thought in her throbbing head, to reach such home as was left her, before she died.
At the first quiet spot she came to she sat down and forced herself to think. Two hundred miles to go, and fifteen shillings to keep her. Never mind, she could beg; she had heard that some made a trade of begging, and did well; hard if she should die on the road. So she pushed on through the evening toward the sinking sun, till the milestones passed slower and slower, and then she found shelter in a tramps’ lodging-house, and got what rest she could. In a week she was at Taunton. Then the weather, which had hitherto been fair and pleasant, broke up, and still she held on, with the rain beating from the westward in her face, as though to stay her from her refuge, dizzy and confused, but determined still, along the miry high-road.
She had learnt from a gipsy woman, with whom she had walked in company for some hours, how to carry her child across her back, slung in her shawl. So, with her breast bare to the storm, she fought her way over the high bleak downs, glad and happy when the boy ceased his wailing, and lay warm and sheltered behind her, swathed in every poor rag she could spare from her numbed and dripping body.
Late on a wild rainy night she reached Exeter, utterly penniless, and wet to the skin. She had had nothing to eat since noon, and her breast was failing from want of nourishment and over-exertion. Still it was only twenty miles further. Surely, she thought, God had not saved her through two hundred such miles, to perish at last. The child was dry and warm, and fast asleep, if she could get some rest in one of the doorways in the lower part of the town, till she was stronger she could fight her way on to Drumston; so she held on to St. Thomas’s, and finding an archway drier than the others sat down, and took the child upon her lap.
Rest! — rest was a fiction; she was better walking — such aches, and cramps, and pains in every joint! She would get up and push on, and yet minute after minute went by, and she could not summon courage.
She was sitting with her beautiful face in the light of a lamp. A woman well and handsomely dressed was passing rapidly through the rain, but on seeing her stopped and said:—
“My poor girl, why do you sit there in the damp entry, such a night as this?”
“I am cold, hungry, ruined; that’s why I sit under the arch,” replied Mary, rising up.
“Come home with me,” said the woman; “I will take care of you.”
“I am going to my friends,” replied she.
“Are you sure they will be glad to see you, my dear,” said the woman, “with that pretty little pledge at your bosom?”
“I care not,” said Mary, “I told you I was desperate.”
“Desperate, my pretty love,” said the woman; “a girl with beauty like yours should never be desperate; come with me.”
Mary stepped forward and struck her, so full and true that the woman reeled backwards, and stood whimpering and astonished.
“Out! you false jade,” said Mary; “you are one of those devils that Saxon told me of, who come whispering, and peering, and crowding behind those who are penniless and deserted; but I have faced you, and struck you, and I tell you to go back to your master, and say that I am not for him.”
The woman went crying and frightened down the street, thinking that she had been plying her infamous trade on a lunatic; but Mary sat down again and nursed the child.
But the wind changed a little, and the rain began to beat in on her shelter; she arose, and went down the street to seek a new one.
She found a deep arch, well sheltered, and, what was better, a lamp inside, so that she could sit on the stone step, and see her baby’s face. Dainty quarters, truly! She went to take possession, and started back with a scream. What delusion was this? There, under the lamp, on the step, sat a woman, her own image, nursing a baby so like her own that she looked down at her bosom to see if it was safe. It must be a fancy of her own disordered brain; but no — for when she gathered up her courage, and walked towards it, a woman she knew well started up, and, laughing wildly, cried out,
“Ha! ha! Mary Thornton.”
“Ellen Lee?” said Mary, aghast.
“That’s me, dear,” replied the other; “you’re welcome, my love, welcome to the cold stones, and wet streets, and to hunger and drunkenness, and evil words, and the abomination of desolation. That’s what we all come to, my dear. Is that his child?”
“Whose?” said Mary. “This is George Hawker’s child.”
“Hush, my dear!” said the other; “we never mention his name in our society, you know. This is his too — a far finer one than yours. Cis Jewell had one of his too, a poor little rat of a thing that died, and now the minx is flaunting about the High-street every night, in her silks and her feathers as bold as brass. I hope you’ll have nothing to say to her; you and I will keep house together. They are looking after me to put me in the madhouse. You’ll come too, of course.”
“God have mercy on you, poor Nelly!” said Mary.
“Exactly so, my dear,” the poor lunatic replied. “Of course He will. But about him you know. You heard the terms of his bargain?”
“What do you mean?” asked Mary.
“Why, about him you know, G—— H— — Madge the witch’s son. He sold himself to the deuce, my dear, on condition of ruining a poor girl every year. And he has kept his contract hitherto. If he don’t, you know — come here, I want to whisper to you.”
The poor girl whispered rapidly in her ear; but Mary broke away from her and fled rapidly down the street, poor Ellen shouting after her, “Ha, ha! the parson’s daughter too — ha, ha!”
“Let me get out of this town, O Lord!” she prayed most earnestly, “if I die in the fields.” And so she sped on, and paused not till she was full two miles out of the town towards home, leaning on the parapet of the noble bridge that even then crossed the river Exe.
The night had cleared up, and a soft and gentle westerly breeze was ruffling the broad waters of the river, where they slept deep, dark, and full above the weir. Just below where they broke over the low rocky barrier, the rising moon showed a hundred silver spangles among the broken eddies.
The cool breeze and the calm scene quieted and soothed her, and, for the first time for many days, she began to think.
She was going back, but to what? To a desolated home, to a heart-broken father, to the jeers and taunts of her neighbours. The wife of a convicted felon, what hope was left for her in this world? None. And that child that was sleeping so quietly on her bosom, what a mark was set on him from this time forward! — the son of Hawker the coiner! Would it not be better if they both were lying below there in the cold still water, at rest?
But she laughed aloud. “This is the last of the devils he talked of,” said she. “I have fought the others and beat them. I won’t yield to this one.”
She paused abashed, for a man on horseback was standing before her as she turned. Had she not been so deeply engaged in her own thoughts she might have heard him merrily whistling as he approached from the town, but she heard him not, and was first aware of his presence when he stood silently regarding her, not two yards off.
“My girl,” he said, “I fear you’re in a bad way. I don’t like to see a young woman, pretty as I can see you are even now, standing on a bridge, with a baby, talking to herself.”
“You mistake me,” she said, “I was not going to do that; I was resting and thinking.”
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To Crediton,” she replied. “Once there, I should almost fancy myself safe.”
“See here,” he said; “my waggon is coming up behind. I can give you a lift as far as there. Are you hungry?”
“Ah,” she said, “If you knew. If you only knew!”
They waited for the waggon’s coming up, for they could hear the horses’ bells chiming cheerily across the valley. “I had an only daughter went away once,” he said. “But, glory to God! I got her back again, though she brought a child with her. And I’ve grown to be fonder of that poor little base-born one than anything in this world. So cheer up.”
“I am married,” she said; “this is my lawful boy, though it were better, perhaps, he had never been born.”
“Don’t say that, my girl,” said the old farmer, for such she took him to be, “but thank God you haven’t been deceived like so many are.”
The waggon came up and was stopped. He made her take such refreshment as was to be got, and then get in and lie quiet among the straw till in the grey morning they reached Crediton. The weather had grown bad again, and long before sunrise, after thanking and blessing her benefactor, poor Mary struck off once more, with what strength she had left, along the deep red lanes, through the driving rain.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10