“I mean the world this young woman will have to live in. But we talk at cross-purposes. When I asked, ‘What becomes of her at the end of this?’ I was thinking of the harm you have already done. As a fact, I have ordered my cart to be ready to take her home.”
Captain Vyell considered for a few seconds. “Sir,” he said, “since plain speech is allowed between us, I consider you a narrow bigot; but, I hasten to add, you are the best man I have met in Port Nassau. By the way—that house on our left—does it by chance belong to Mr. Wapshott?”
“I thought so. For a couple of hours past, in the intervals of my reading, I have discovered a family of tall young women peeking at us from behind the windows and a barrier of furniture; and once, it seemed to me, I detected the wattles of your worthy fellow-magistrate. He ought not to strain that neck; you should warn him of the danger.”
“It should have warned you, sir, of what mischief you are doing.”
“I seem to remember,” the Collector mused, “reading the words ’Honi soit qui mal y pense’ to-day written on the wall behind you. . . . Why, damn me, sir, for aught you or any of them can tell, I intend to marry this girl! Why not? Go and tell them. Could there (you’ll say) be a fairer betrothal? The reputable plight their troth with a single ring around the woman’s finger; but here are four rings around the four ankles, and the bar locked. With your leave, which is the more symbolical?”
“You are a reprobate man, Captain Vyell,” was the answer, “and I have no relish for your talk. I will only say this, When her punishment is done, my cart shall be ready for her; and you, if you would vindicate an action which—for I’ll give you that credit—sprang from a generous impulse, will go your ways and let this child live down her humiliation.”
Mr. Trask turned and went his way up the alley, across which the sun made level rays of flame. The Collector sat in thought.
He turned his head, surprised by the sound of a sob. A small child had drawn near—a toddle of four, trailing her wooden doll with its head in the dust—and stood a few paces in front of Ruth Josselin, round-eyed, finger at mouth.
“Steady, my girl. . . . Steady!”
At the murmured warning she braced her body stiffly, and no second sob came. But the tears ran—the first in all her long agony—and small shivers, as light winds play on aspen, chased one another down her throat. Almost you could guess them passing down her flesh beneath the sackcloth, rippling over its torn and purple ridges.
He did not check her weeping. The child—small, innocent cause of it— stood round-eyed, wondering. “She has been naughty. What has she done, to be so naughty?”
Over the maples the town clock slowly told the hour.
They were free. The Collector tossed away the half-smoked tobacco-leaf—his twelfth—drew a long breath, and emitted it with a gay laugh of relief. At the same moment he saw Mr. Trask’s bullock-cart approaching down the dappled avenue.