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CHAPTER XVI


THE SCHOOLMASTER'S SUIT


IT WAS now dark. Jerk passed through the cluster of quaint little houses that make up the one street of Dymchurch-under-the-wall, and so on to the vicarage. Just at the corner where the Court House stands amid the great trees he heard singing, and recognized the voice and figure of Imogene. She was carrying a basket from the direction of the Ship and was probably bound, like himself, for the vicarage. But as she passed the Court House she paused, and to Jerk's astonishment felt among the ivy that grew around the old front door. There in a certain branch was a piece of paper, which she took from its hiding-place as if she had expected to find it. The message it contained she read by the light of the lantern that hung above the door, and then, thrusting it into the bosom of her rough dress, she went on toward the vicarage gate. But out from the shadows of the trees stepped a man, whom Jerk perceived to be the schoolmaster. Imogene hesitated when she saw him, for he was standing directly in her path, but when she tried to hurry past, Rash stopped her and spoke.

"So, Mistress, now that you have got your lover's written promise from the ivy there, you think you can afford to pass by such a humble one as the schoolmaster, but you're mistaken, and I'll trouble you to show me that letter."

The girl's hand went involuntarily to her bosom, where the note in question was securely tucked away, and she answered back clear and straight: "No, Mister Rash, you've no right."

"Right is might, Mistress, as you'll find, and I think we shall be able to come to terms now. I want you to come along with me to the vicarage; Doctor Syn is there, and I've something to say before you both."

"Let us go, then," said Imogene, trying to pass.

"All in good time," returned the schoolmaster, stopping her. "There's no immediate hurry, I think, for the Doctor won't come out of that shuttered room of his till morning, so we can afford to keep him waiting, and I've something to say to you first—alone."

The girl tossed her head impatiently, as if she knew what was coming, but Rash continued:

"A few weeks back I asked you to marry me—I, the esteemed schoolmaster, asked you, the daughter of a criminal; you, whose father was a proved murderer, a dirty pirate hanged publicly at Rye for a filthy tavern crime; you who were born in a Raratonga drinking hell, some half-caste native girl's brat! Ecod! it's laughable! I offered to make you respectable and put your banns up in the church, and you refused. Now I know why. You think because that young fool Cobtree is pleased to admire you, that you will catch him in your toils, do you? You're a clever one, ain't you? I dare swear that sooner or later you'd succeed in getting hold of him—let the young idiot ruin you, eh? Then make a virtuous song about it to the squire, and a settlement to keep your mouth shut, perhaps."

"Beast!" cried the girl, and she struck him sideways across the mouth with her clenched hand.

"Hello!" thought Jerk, crouching in the bushes, "here's another one having a 'go' at him; well, the more the merrier, so long as I'm the last."

The schoolmaster recoiled, trying to look as if the stinging blow had not hurt, but the blood was flowing from his lip and from the hand of the girl as well.

"So that's it, is it?" he sniggered, "a real love match, p'haps? The squire's consent, the wedding bells, and live happily ever after, eh? Ecod! my lady, I think not. Rash is your man, see? and lucky you are to get him; you whose father's gibbet chains are still swinging in Rye."

"And yours are swinging a bit nearer than that!" said Jerry Jerk to himself.

"You leave my father out of it," went on the girl, "for from all I've heard of him he was a better man than you, and he was fond of me, too; so it's lucky for you he's not here to hear you speaking bad of his child."

"You know nothing about him—he was a drunken rascal!"

"Doctor Syn knew him well, and he's told me things. A rough man he was, certain, and none rougher, reckless, too, and brave, a lawbreaker on land as well as sea, pitiless to his enemies, staunch to his friends, but contemptible he never was; and so, Mister Rash, you can afford to respect him, and I say again that I wish he were here to make you."

"Shouldn't care if he was," replied the schoolmaster, "for there's always the law to look after a man."

"So there is," chuckled Jerk, "and that you'll find."

"Bah! what's the good of haggling and squabbling?" said Mr. Rash. "You're mine, or you'll have to bear the consequences."

"And that is?" asked the girl defiantly.

"The rope for your friends when I turn King's evidence."

"You wouldn't dare, you coward, for you'd be hanging yourself as well."

"King's evidence will cover me all square."

"So you're determined to turn it, are you?"

"I am, unless you change your mind."

The girl didn't reply to that, so Mr. Rash, thinking that he was making an advance, continued:

"Think, Imogene—this Cobtree fellow will be packed off to London in a month or so, and from there on to Oxford; and after a university career of drinking, gambling, and loose living, with precious little learning, he'll settle down to the gentleman's life, marry some person of quality, and you—eh? what of you, then?"

"I earn my living now, don't I?" replied the girl. "Well, what's to prevent me going on the same?"

"Don't you want to marry?" went on the schoolmaster. "Don't you want a house of your own? Don't you want to be the envy of all the girls in the village?"

"Not at the price of my happiness; and, besides, I'm not so sure that I do want all those things so desperate. I'm afraid the wife of Mister Rash would be too genteel a job for me."

"Oh, I'd soon educate you up to that," returned the schoolmaster, looking pleased.

"It 'ud be a great nuisance to both of us, wouldn't it?"

"I shouldn't mind—it would be a pleasant business making a respectable woman of you, Imogene. You see, you're not common like these village girls, and that's what attracts me; otherwise, it might have been better for me to have fixed my choice on one of them: one that hasn't a bad mark against her, so to speak. But I don't mind what folk say. I suppose they'll talk a bit and laugh behind my back. Well, let 'em, say I. I don't care, because I want you."

"Then it's a pity that I'm not the same way of thinking, isn't it?"

"What do you mean?"

"That I wouldn't marry you—no, not though you got the whole village the rope!"

"You ungrateful wretch, not after all they've done for you?"

"You're not the sort of party to talk to others about being ungrateful, are you now?"

"I wasn't born of jail folk."

"No; and you can hope your children, if you're ever cursed with any, will be able to say the same, for I doubt it very greatly. Mister Schoolmaster. And as to your threats, I set no store on them, for from my heart I despise you; I despise you because you would be willing to betray your fellows, but I despise you more because I know you are too great a coward to do it."

"We shall see," said the schoolmaster, "for who's to stop me?"

"Parson Syn," answered the girl. "Parsons can bear all manner of secrets and not betray them. That's their business, and Doctor Syn's a good man, so I'll tell him everything, and in his wisdom he'll find a means of checking your contemptible scheme."

"That shows how little you know about things, Mistress Ignoramous; for it's that very same good man, Doctor Syn, who is going to read out your banns on this next Sabbath as ever is, and it's Rash who is going to make him, and if you won't come along with me to church, well, I'll threaten other parties in this little place who'll help me to make you. Folk are none too anxious to be exposed these days with King's men in the village, and so you'll see——" The schoolmaster stopped talking suddenly.