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RAB VINCH'S WIFE.
THE chill October dusk swept down upon the village, as it lay sheltered against a red-breasted Devonshire hill, at the foot of which, where the river meandered brown-faced and silent out among the meadows, stood Rab Vinch's cottage. The firelight crept across the threshold, throwing shadows by the way on the white-washed walls of the small kitchen, and outlining Rab's harsh passionate features as he sat and stared down on the flames. A certain peaceful quiet which reigned in the room -for Rab's wife, who was preparing the evening meal, moved softly-was broken by the sound of footsteps, and with a brief knock a man entered.
'They've brought it in murder agin lame Tom," he cried, excitedly. Rab shifted back his chair, and his face grew grey beneath his tanned skin.
"An' tha Squoire ain't done nort!" he exclaimed.
"Eh tha Squoire," repeated the man, turning towards him; but a sudden movement on the part of the woman prevented him from seeing Rab. "It 'pears," he continued, "thet inter tha 'Sizes tha Squoire bain't no more than ony tother man; tho' ha did git a speshil doctor down from Lonnon, costing pounds an' pounds, jest tu show thet lame Tom wezn't fixed tu hiz chump1 tha zame ez moast folk; but tha jidge wez vor hanging, jidges baing paid vor zich, zo hanging it's ta ba; ony down in tha vullage uz reckons ther wez more than wan pusson mixed up in that ther murder."
"Down in tha vullage they ba mazing clivar, no doubt," the woman answered, scornfully; "but tha law ain't no vule to ba a-hanging o' hinnocent folk."
The man moved a step nearer, and laid his hand upon her arm.
"Thet ba jest wher 'ee ba wrong, Zusan Vinch," he said. "I zeed thickey corpse a vull dree hours a-vour tha perlice iver clapped eyes on it, an' twez riglar ringed round wi' fut-marks thet wez niver made by ony boot o' lame Tom's; eh, an' if it had not rained thet powerful spirited, tha perlice wid o' zeen 'em themzulves, blind ez they ba. An' my wife hur zed ta me a skaur o' times, 'Tummas Wulkie,' hurs zed, why doant 'ee gaw inter Extur an' tull tha law what yer 'ave zeen wi' yer own eyes?' An' I've up an' zed tu hur, 'Naw,' zes I, 'tha law ba a catchy thing, an' like tother folk's turnips, best not meddled
An expression of fear passed over the woman's face. "Tha law ain't for the hanging o' hinnocent folk," she repeated, doggedly.
"Tha law an' tha perlice ba moast wan," the man answered with contempt, "alwiz snuffing round arter tha wrong scent, like varmer Plant's tarrier dawg. Why did Josh Tuckitt sail for Meriky tha day arter the murder? wat call had ha to ba zo mazing smart all - ta-wance? answer me that, Zusan Vinch."
"Josh Tuckitt had nort watever to do wi' it," Rab interposed, impetuously.
"How do yer coome to knaw
1 Off the chump-not quite in his right mind.
thic?" the man asked, with a look of suspicion.
"Cuz uz wez togither that nite." There was a moment's silence, and then Susan Finch spoke.
"Why can't yer let things bide ez they ba, Tummas Wulkie?" she exclaimed, passionately. "Wan wid think yez had killed tha poor man yersulf, tha way yer ba alwiz pauking tha blame on tother folk.”
"Tiz a quare thing," the man answered, turning on his heel, "that a long tongue an' a short understandin' moast times run in couples; but ther wuman wez a kind o extry thort o' tha Almighty's, an' uz all knaw thet tiz tha way o' zich things to cost a deal more than they ba worth. An' ez for tha pauking o' tha blame on tother folk," he continued, as he opened the door and stepped out into the night, "I wid never 'ave belaved thet a humman not more than a skaur o' months merrided wid o' bin zo zet on tha hanging o' a pore natrel; but ther wimen ba contrary critters, turrible zet on tha squashing o' vlies, but aiting the roast pork with tha rest."
The echo of the man's retreating footsteps died away, and the kettle seemed to hiss more loudly in the silence that fell upon the little kitchen. At last Rab spoke.
"Hanging ba a stuffy death," he said, hoarsely-" a mortal stuffy death."
She knelt down beside him. "Twez an accident," she whis pered, "yer ba thet strong 'ee doant alwiz knaw."
"Yer ba a riglar dumman wi' yer haccidents, haccidents," he interrupted, with fierce 'contempt; "ain't I towld 'ee a skaur o' times thet twezn't no haccident."
"An' lame Tom?" she asked, falteringly.
"Lame Tom wezn't in it." "Nor Josh Tuckitt?" "Naw, nor Josh Tuckitt." "O God, Rab!" she exclaimed. He drew away from her, but she, bending forward, let her face droop upon his knee. The tall clock in the corner ticked on towards night, and the kettle boiled over, but the man and the woman heeded neither: he was dimly conscious that her hot tears were falling upon his hand, but when she spoke her voice seemed far away.
"Rab," she said, "an' zoon ther wull ba dree o' uz."
He turned and looked at her, and his face softened, and an expression of pity came into his fierce, deep-set eyes.
"Little Moather," he said.
She clung to him with passionate vehemence. "There cud niver ba no tother man but yer for me, Rab," she sobbed-"niver, niver, whatever 'ee did."
His muscular hands closed round her with a rare tenderness, and great beads of sweat gathered upon his forehead.
"What made 'ee gaw for to do it when uz wez that happy?" she said.
His lips trembled, as if he were about to speak, but he did not answer her.
"Rab," she cried, with a sudden shiver, "things dursn't bide ez they ba; they dursn't, they dursn't."
His whole expression changed, the fierce look returned to his eyes.
"Dursn't?" he repeated, in a voice of rising anger; "who axed 'ee for yer pinion wan way or tother?"
She did not answer him, and a silence fell between them, till with a sudden rush of suspicion
the thought came to Rab that she was condemning him.
"What ba 'ee a-thinking of?" he asked, fiercely.
"Rab," she said, in her soft, low voice, as she rubbed the lapel of his brown velveteen coat with her hand, "I wez ony reckoning thet twezn't for nort thet our Lord coomed inter tha wordel feeble in body; twezn't for nort thet Ha let Simon o' Cyrene carry tha cross up tha steep hill to Golgotha; it bain't tha strong who's tu lane on tha wake." She stopped a moment, and he looked down on her upturned face with a curious mixture of pity, tenderness, and irritation.
"Ee ba powerful anxious to git me ter Eaven, wan way or tother," he said, with a grim smile.
Rab," she answered, taking his great knotted hands and pressing them against her breast, "I widn't 'ave 'ee act contrary to tha best thet ba in 'ee, tez ony thic, tiz ony thic; and O Rab, if yer had zeen lame Tom ez I did when tha per lice tooked him, his vace thet scart wi' fear, ha might 'a been a poor dumb critter caught in wan o' yer snares."
"Lame Tom ba wakezome," he said, and his voice trembled. "Yes," she repeated "wake"wakezome, mortal wakezome."
He looked past her at the closed door, as if his sight could pierce the wooden panels and see the world that lay beyond, and into his rugged passionate face there came a certain expression of nobleness. "May ba I wull," he began; but she, following a train of thoughts of her own, interrupted him.
"Twid ba the zame ez if yer wez to let a chil' die for 'ee," she said, in a slow, dreamy voice, speaking as one who had seen a vision.
He thrust her from him and rose to his feet: "Then I wull gi' mezulf up ta marrer," he said ; "but ez for 'ee," he added, with concentrated bitterness, "yer ba no wife o' mine from this howr," and he turned from her and climbed the rickety stairs that led to their bedroom. But he could not sleep, and the slow hours passed away, and then he heard the door open softly, and by-and-by her little cold form crept into the bed and lay down beside him, and she, thinking that he slept, rested her head up against his shoulder and sobbed comfortlessly. He remained stiff and silent, as if the deafness of sleep was upon him; but his memory had travelled back to a day in their mutual childhood, the day on which he had first seen her cry. She had told her fortune on the long quakinggrasses, and had wept because Fate had ordained that she should marry a tinker; and though he had been but six years old at the time, and his mind little troubled with the thought of maidens, yet, because her weeping had been very heavy, he had promised to marry her himself, and she had been comforted. And now, as he lay angry and resentful beside her, the old distich rang in his brain-tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor-man, apothecary, thief; tinker, tailor. Then a sudden rush of tenderness came to him, and he put out his hand and touched her; but she had fallen asleep.
With the first streak of dawn he rose and drew back the lattice, so that the light fell upon her face with its curves that tilted upwards, as the petals of some flower that seeks its happiness in the sun, and he noticed over again that her chestnut hair had a glint on it like the breast of a cock
pheasant. Her nightdress had fallen open at the neck, making visible the curves of her bosom, rounded with coming motherhood, and he remembered with an exceeding bitterness that he must also part from his child; but as he looked at the woman lying there, his face softened.
'Maybe I widn't gaw for tu do lame Tom no harm," he said, "if her wezn't thet turribel meddlezome; tain't dying I ba a-feard of-I reckon I can die tha zame ez ony tother man; but I doant want tu ba vustled1 inter it; but hurs a riglar dumman all-over, pushing 'ee t'wards Eaven wi hur 'eart an' pulling 'ee back wi' hur tongue. But ther tain't no good talking; may ba hur'll larn when tiz too late."
He turned away and crept softly down the old, creaky stairs: below, in one corner of the kitchen, there stood a big box in which lived his two ferrets, Cross-eyes and Poley; he gave them their usual breakfast of bread and milk, and let them play for a moment about his neck. Then he took down his guns, one by one, from the great beam against which they rested: there was the old muzzle-loader on which he had first learnt to shoot, "a riglar terror to kick, but mortal depenzome for a right and left"; and the long duck-gun that had carried straight in its time-it was a family heirloom, and his great grandfather had carried it on the night he had been pixie - led; and, lastly, there was Rab's own favourite gun, a pin-fire breechloader that had once belonged to the young Squire. Rab took each gun in turn and rubbed the barrel tenderly with an old oil rag, and then returned it to its former rest
ing-place; his big yellow lurcher stood watching him with eyes that in their alertness curiously resembled Rab's own. When he had finished he tied up the dog, and, going out, shut the door of his cottage behind him.
A rough sob rose in his throat. "I didn't reckon hur wid zlape like thic," he said; "but ther wimen be alwiz contrary."
Up through the great woods he went, for his road to the town lay that way. And in a certain hedge facing west a hare had made its seat. Rab had often tried to catch it, but the hare had been too wary for him, and now as he passed the accustomed spot he stopped instinctively, and noticed that the snare had been brushed away but that the animal had escaped. He knelt down and reset the wire, and as he did so he heard footsteps, and looking up he saw his wife. The blood rushed into his face, but he assumed an air of indifference. "I reckon I've alwiz zet thickey snare a deal too low," he said, bending down over his work; "a hare howlds hiz 'ead wondervul 'igh when ha ba movetting along unconscious. Eh," he continued, drawing a deep breath, "but hares ba vantysheeny 2 baistesses; skaurs o' times O've ruckeeds down behind a bit o' vuz wi' tha moon a-glinting a-tap o' me an cock-leert jest on tha creep an' iverything thet quiet 'ee cud moast a-yhear tha dew a-valling; eh, an' I've 'ad tha gun a zide o' me an' cudn't vire cuz they baistesses wez thic vantysheeny."
But she only saw that an animal caught in such a snare would be hung.
"Come away, Rab," she cried; "come away."
He looked down at the snare meditatively.
"Zome o' 'em," he said, half to himself, "makes a to-do, but moast die mortal quiet."
"O Rab! come away," she repeated in a voice of agony; come away."
"Ba 'ee a-fraid I shull ba late for tha hanging?" he cried, and sprang to his feet; then without waiting for her answer he rushed past her and was hidden from view behind the thick trees.
"Rab!" she called, running after him, "Rab! Rab! Rab!"
But there came no reply: later in the day she learned that he had surrendered himself to the police, but permission to see him was refused. So when evening came she crept homewards alone through the great woods, and when she had reached the spot where he had set the snare, she heard a strange cry; the hare had been caught in the wire. Covering her ears with her hands she fled away, yet ever and ever the cry followed her.
It was the day of Rab's trial: the court was crowded, and the counsel for the defence in despair; to all questions as to his motive for the crime Rab had maintained a dogged silence.
"Twezn't no haccident," he repeated; "I did it o' puppuss."
He cut short the trial by pleading guilty, and the judge, following the usual formula, rose, and having taken the black cap, turned to the prisoner and asked if he had anything to say why the sentence of death should not be passed upon him.
The ensuing silence was broken by the sound of a woman's voice. "Yer honour," Susan Finch said,
for it was she who spoke, "they tul me that tha law ba agin a woman testifying for hur husband; but ther ba thic thet ba higher than the law, an' thet ba Nater; and it ain't in nater thet a woman shid zee the man thet hur loves, an' who hur knaws tu ba hinnocent-tain't in nater, I zay, thet hur shid zee him given auver to death an' hur not to up and zay tha truth. An' I tull yer honour tha zame ez I wid tull tha Almighty if I stud a-vor' His throne, thet twezn't no murder Rab did thickey nite; twez an haccident, an' don't ee iver gaw for to believe nort else. Yer doant knaw Rab tha zame ez I do; uz wez chils togither, an' they thet ba chils togither kind o' larns wun-an-tother's hearts unconscious. Rab bain't tha sort thet takes to murder, Rab aint; ha's tempestuous o' times, an' thic strong thet ha doesn't alwiz knaw, but his heart is ez tenderzome ez a chil's. I cud tullie a skaur o' things, ony Rab aint wan o' they ez likes to ba boasted of; but I ax yer honour why ba Rab astanding a vor' ee at this yhere blessid minit? Did the perlice catch him?-naw; then why ba ha a-standing ther a-vor' ee, wi' they cruel iron things on his hands? Why, becuz Lame Tom ba wakezome: ther bain't no tother lad thet wid up an put tha rope round hiz neck rather then anything wakezome shid suffer unjust. But ther baint no call for a rope, and if Rab wid ony spake ha cud tull 'ee zo hiszulf. An' if yer ax me why ha hezn't stud up vrom tha vust an' zed it twez an haccident, then I tull 'ee it was becase I wez alwiz a-worritting o' him thet kept him to zilence. I wez alwiz a-axing questions, an' ha doan't like it, an' ha wants tu larn me. I've done a power o'