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mystic spell, his dominion over her could not have been stronger than it was.
At half-past eight o'clock she left the house, going out very softly, as if even in that empty place her guilty footfall might be heard.
She had forgotten all about her engagement to spend the evening and sleep with her mother-in-law, and had no thought of the surprise that might have been excited in the dowager's well-regulated mind by her non-appearance.
It was dark when she left the cottage, and there were no stars that night, nor the faintest glimmer from the moon, which did not rise until much later. Esther walked to the town with feverish haste, and the church-clocks were chiming the first quarter after nine when she came into the straggling lamplit road, where the country lost itself in the town. She turned aside into a dark lane, and walked there till the second quarter had chimed from the neighbouring church-tower, and then made her way to the factory by obscure alleys and narrow streets, which had been familiar to her in her dreary girlhood.
And where was Joshua Rainbow while his young wife was hurrying to destruction ? At Durnside, too far for succour, and untroubled by any doubt of her safety ? No, Joshua was not at Durnside. The business, which might very well have taken him two days, had been hurried over in one : thanks to a series of fortunate accidents, such as finding the people he wanted at home, and ready for him, and so on, the money had been collected before nightfall, and Joshua free to return by an express which left Durnside at a quarter past seven, and did the forty miles in a little more than an hour. It was an expensive train, and Joshua had been told to travel by a cheap and slow one; but he could afford to pay the difference out of his own pocket, and he had a strange feeling of eagerness to return to his wife, in spite of the arrangements he had made for her safety.
There had been a sense of trouble upon him throughout the time of his absence, vague enough at its worst, but not to be shaken off. What was that expression in the face of Mr. Crosby, the manager, as he gave him his directions for the journey—a look that had puzzled Joshua somehow, and set him wondering in an uneasy way? It haunted him all through his day's work, and as the day waned, his desire to get home again grew into a burning fever.
Why had he been sent on this business? It was a mark of confidence, no doubt, to intrust him with this collection of money ; but it seemed altogether motiveless, and the thought of it worried him now that he was far away from Mirkdale. Urged by this shapeless dread, and favoured by circumstance, he got through his work with wonderful rapidity ; not wasting an hour upon his dinner, as
ultivated quof the casemeshua went
another man would have done, but refreshing himself only with a glass of ale and a biscuit; and thus it was that at half-past nine he was standing at the door of his mother's lodgings, with all his shadowy fears vanished out of his mind, and happy in the thought of giving his wife a pleasant surprise by this unexpected return. Hurried as he had been at Durnside, he had found time to buy a bonnet-ribbon and a little workbox for Esther.
The door of Mrs. Rainbow's sitting-room stood ajar this sultry evening. Joshua wondered at not hearing his wife's voice within ; but then Esther had not been much of a talker of late, and his mother had fallen asleep perhaps, leaving his darling to amuse herself as best she might. He had looked up from the street, but had caught no glimpse of her at the window. Yet this was not strange, for Mrs. Rainbow cultivated quite a garden of geraniums and balsams on a little table in front of the casement.
There was no light in the room, late as it was. Joshua went in softly, expecting to find his mother slumbering peacefully in her easy-chair. But she was not asleep. She was standing by the window, looking down across the geraniums into the dull dark street—a tall solemn-looking figure in a scanty black gown.
Where's Esther ?' Joshua asked breathlessly.
No, Joshua. Did you expect that she would ?'
* Expect that she would ! why, of course, mother. I arranged it all with her. She was to be with you at five, and to spend the night here—as I said in that scrawl I left for you yesterday.
'I did not expect her, Joshua,' his mother said in her cold hard voice. •Esther had something better to do when you were out of the way than to come to an old woman like me. This is a very poor place for Esther Rainbow, with her hopes and expectations.'
• In God's name, what do you mean, mother ?
What do I mean? What does everybody in Mirkdale mean, when they speak of your wife? Do you think that if you choose to shut your eyes, other people will shut theirs to oblige you ?'
• Mother, what are you talking about ?'
*Are you mad ? he gasped ; 'or am I ?
• What, you've heard nothing of the neighbours' talk, then ? You don't know how Stephen Lyne has been hanging about your place—two and three hours at a time-alone with Esther ?
It's a lie !' Joshua cried fiercely. "He has never darkened my door but once-nigh two months ago—when he took shelter from the rain.'
• He has been in your house two or three times a week-four times a week often. I daresay my lady fancied, in such a lonesome place there was no one to take heed of her goings-on ; but there were neighbours coming and going to see what happened, to take notice when Mr. Lyne went in and when he went out.'
'How long is it since you heard this, mother? Mind, it's a lie, a wicked lie; and I'll prove it so. But how long have you heard it, and kept it from me ?'
'I only heard it a few days ago; and I was coming to you to tell you of it in a day or so.'
"You don't believe it, mother ?
I can't help believing it; those I heard it from ain't likely to speak anything but truth to me. And there's nothing so strange in it. You could hardly expect much else, when you married a girl young enough to be your daughter for the sake of her pretty face.'
I'll not believe it ! I'll not believe it !' said Joshua, in a thick hoarse voice. “But why isn't she here?' he cried, looking suddenly round. If she's true to me, why isn't she here ?'
* Ah, why indeed ! muttered the old woman, bending over the table to strike a lucifer-match.
The ghastly face which the lighted candle showed her presently almost frightened her. She had never liked her daughter-in-law, had been jealous of her from the very first, and perhaps would have been scarcely sorry for her disgrace; but she was sorry for that look of agony in her son's white face.
Where are you going, Joshua ?' she cried, as he dashed out of the room.
* To look for her,' he answered, without stopping.
He ran downstairs, and out into the street. The hot still night seemed to suffocate him. He ran on through a street or two, startling the few people that he met by his wild haggard look, and presently running against one of his fellow-workmen.
• Why, Joshua Rainbow, what's the matter wi' you to-night ?' cried the man. Where are you going, lad ?'
Home. There, Phil, don't stop me; I'm in a hurry.'
*But this is not your way home, lad. Are you gone clean daft? If you're looking for your wife, I reckon she's looking for you, poor little lass. I saw her go into the factory just now as pale as a ghost.'
• Into the factory—Esther—at this time of night ?'
'Strange, isn't it? I thought maybe you reckoned upon coming home to-night, and had told her to meet you there. I saw a light burning in the counting-house. I suppose Mr. Crosby's there still, hard at it.'
'Let me go, Phil !' said Joshua desperately, and left his comrade staring after him at the street-corner.
He hurried on to the factory, with his blood in a fever, his heart
of agonyinely sorry for from the
beating as it had never beaten in his life before. What he expected to find he knew not; but direful and murderous thoughts were in his mind. His wife at the factory at this hour! a light burning in the little counting-house! She had gone to meet some one; and that half-contemptuous, half-pitying look of the manager's—Joshua knew now what it meant-knew that they had sent him upon this journey to get him out of the way; and his wife knew it too perhaps, and had laughed at him for the besotted dupe he was.
Yes; there was a light burning in the little counting-house. The door below was unlocked. Joshua opened it noiselessly, and went into the passage, where the gas was burning dimly, and upstairs to the room where he had seen the lamp from without.
The door was half open, and he heard a voice within speaking in low soothing tones—his voice, Stephen Lyne's. Another moment, and Joshua Rainbow stood in the open doorway, face to face with his wife and her lover.
At sight of that ghastly face Esther gave an awful cry, and fell in a heap upon the ground. Stephen Lyne lifted her up, and pushed her hurriedly into a little room—a kind of dressing-room, that opened out of the counting-house. Then planting his back against the door, he faced the man he had wronged, with an insolent defiance in his dark eyes.
Now, sir,' he said, 'what do you want here ?'
Your life, you infernal scoundrel, though every drop of your heart's blood isn't enough to pay for the wrong you've done me! But let me get my wife out of this place first, and then you'll see what I want of you. Let me pass to that room.'
Stephen Lyne kept his place against the door.
*Your wife ! he cried contemptuously. What right has a boor like you to such a little beauty? She is my mistress, fellow; and you can look for your remedy in a court of law. I can afford to pay a handsome price for my bird.'
He had his back still against the door, when Joshua Rainbow seized him by the throat and flung him away from it. Then the two men closed upon each other like a couple of gladiators. There was a sharp rapid struggle, a push for the outer door of the counting-house, then the fall of a heavy body down the stairs, and in the next moment Joshua Rainbow staggered back into the room, with the mastiff Pluto hanging on to his neckerchief. The dog had been prowling somewhere about the empty rooms and passages, and had only come upon the scene in time to see his master hurled down the short flight of stairs.
Esther stood in the doorway between the two rooms, in an agony of terror, watching her husband's struggle with the mastiff. She called to the dog by his name; she tried to grasp his collar, and failing in this, flew to the window, screaming for help.