“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.