The Duke of Stockbridge/Chapter 10

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The Duke of Stockbridge by Edward Bellamy
CHAPTER TENTH
GREAT GOINGS ON AT BARRINGTON CONTINUED

When Perez and the men who with him were in the act of advancing on the jail, were so suddenly recalled by the cry that the people were stoning the judges, Prudence had been left quite alone, sitting on Perez' horse in the middle of the street. She had no clear idea what all this crowd and commotion in the village was about, nor even what the Stockbridge men had come down for in such martial array. She only knew that Mrs. Hamlin's son, the captain with the sword, had said he would bring her to her father, and now that he had run off taking all the other men with him, she knew not what to do or which way to turn. To her, thus perched up on the big horse, confused and scared by the tumult, approached a tall, sallow, gaunt old woman, in a huge green sunbonnet, and a butternut gown of coarsest homespun. Her features were strongly marked, but their expression was not unkindly, though just now troubled and anxious.

"I guess I've seen yew tew meetin," she said to Prudence. "Ain't you Fennell's gal?"

"Yes," replied the girl, "I come daown to see father." Prudence, although she had profited by having lived at service in the Woodbridge family, where she heard good English spoken, had frequent lapses into the popular dialect.

"I'm Mis Poor. Zadkiel Poor's my husban'. He's in jail over thar long with yer dad. He's kinder ailin, an I fetched daown some roots 'n yarbs as uster dew him a sight o' good, w'en he was ter hum. I thort mebbe I mout git to see him. Him as keeps jail lets folks in sometimes, I hearn tell."

"Do you know where the jail is?" asked the girl.

"It's that ere haouse over thar. It's in with the tavern."

"Let's go and ask the jailer if he'll let us in," suggested Prudence.

"I wuz gonter wait an' git Isr'el Goodrich tew go long an kinder speak fer me, ef I could," said Mrs. Poor. "He's considabul thought on by folks roun' here, and he's a neighbor o' ourn, an real kind, Isr'el Goodrich is. But I don' see him nowhar roun', an mebbe we mout's well go right along, an not wait no longer."

And so the two women went on toward the jail, and Prudence dismounted before the door of the tavern end, and tied the horse.

"I callate they muss keep the folks in that ere ell part, with the row o' leetle winders," said Mrs. Poor. She spoke in a hushed voice, as one speaks near a tomb. The girl was quite pale, and she stared with a scared fascination at the wall behind which her father was shut up. Timidly the women entered the open door. Both Bement and his wife were in the barroom.

"What dew ye want?" demanded the latter, sharply.

Mrs. Poor curtsied very low, and smiled a vague, abject smile of propitiation.

"If ye please, marm, I'm Mis Poor. He's in this ere jail fer debt. He's kinder pulin like, Zadkiel is, an I jess fetched daown some yarbs fer him. He's been uster takin on em, an they doos him good, specially the sassafras. An I thort mebbe, marm, I mout git tew see him, bein ez he ain't a well man, an never wuz sence I married him, twenty-five year agone come nex' Thanksgivin."

"And I want to see father, if you please, marm. My father's George Fennell. Is he very sick marm?" added Prudence eagerly, seeing that Mrs. Poor was forgetting her.

"I don' keer who ye be, an ye needn' waste no time o' tellin me," replied Mrs. Bement, her pretty blue eyes as hard as steel. "Ye couldn't go intew that jail not ef ye wuz Gin'ral Washington. I ain't goin ter hev no women folks a bawlin an a blubberin roun' this ere jail's long's _my_ husban' keeps it, an that's flat.

"I won't cry a bit, if you'll only let me see father," pleaded Prudence, two great tears gathering in her eyes, even as she spoke, and testifying to the value of her promise. "And--and I'll scrub the floor for you, too. It needs it, and I'm a good scrubber, Mrs. Woodbridge says I am."

"I'd take it kind of ye, I would," said Mrs. Poor, "ef ye'd let me in jess fer a minit. He'd set store by seein of me, an I could give him the yarbs. He ain't a well man, an never wuz, Zadkiel ain't. Ye needn't let the gal in. It don' matter 's much about her, an gals is cryin things. I'll scrub yer floor better'n she ever kin, an come to look it doos kinder need it," and she turned her agonized eyes a moment upon the floor in affected critical inspection.

"Cephas, see that crowd comin. What do they mean? Put them women out. G'long there, git out, quick! Shut the door, Cephas. Put up the bar. What ever's comin to us?"

Well might Mrs. Bement say so, for the sight that had caught her eyes as she stood confronting the women and the open door, was no less an one than a mass of nearly a thousand men and boys, bristling with clubs and guns, rushing directly toward the jail.

Scarcely had the women been thrust out, and the white-faced Bement dropped the bar into its sockets across the middle of the door, than there was a rushing, tramping sound before the house, like the noise of many waters, and a great hubbub of hoarse voices. Then came a heavy blow, as if with the hilt of a sword against the door, and a loud voiced called,

"Open, and be quick about it!"

"Don't do it, Cephas, the house is stout, and mebbe help'll come," said Mrs. Bement, although she trembled.

But Cephas, though generally like clay in the hands of his wife, was at this instant dominated by a terror greater than his fear of her. He lifted the bar from the sockets, and was instantly sent staggering back against the wall as the door burst open. The room was instantly filled to its utmost capacity with men, who dropped the butts of their muskets on the floor with a jar that made the bottles in the bar clink in concert.

Bement who had managed to get behind the bar, stood there with a face like ashes, his flabby cheeks relaxed with terror so they hung like dewlaps. He evidently expected nothing better than to be butchered without mercy on the spot.

"Good morning, Mr. Bement," said Perez, as coolly as if he had just dropped in for a glass of flip.

"Good morning sir," faintly articulated the landlord.

"You remember me, perhaps. I took dinner here, and visited by brother in the jail last Saturday. I should like to see him again. Will you be kind enough to hand me the keys, there behind you?" Bement stared as if dazed at Perez, looked around at the crowd of men, and then looked back at Perez again, and still stood gaping.

"Did ye hear the cap'n?" shouted Abner in a voice of thunder. Bement gave a start of terror, and involuntarily turned to take the bunch of keys down from the nail. But by the time he had turned, the keys were no longer there.

It had been easy to see from the first, that Mrs. Bement was made of quite different stuff from her husband. As she stood by his side behind the bar, although she was tremulous with excitement, the look with which she had faced the crowd was rather vixenish than frightened. There was a vicious sparkle in her eyes, and the color of her cheeks was concentrated in two small spots, one under each cheek bone. Just as her husband, succumbing to the inevitable, was turning to take the keys from their nail and deliver them over, she quietly reached behind him, and snatched them. Then, with a deft motion opening the top of her gown a little, she dropped them into her bosom, and looked at Perez with a defiant expression, as much as to say, "Now I should like to see you get them."

There was no doubt about the little shrew being thoroughly game, and yet her act was less striking as evidence of her bravery, than as testifying her confidence in the chivalry of the rough men before her. And, indeed, it was comical to see the dumbfoundered and chop-fallen expression on their flushed and excited faces, as they took in the meaning of this piece of strategy. They had taken up arms against their government, and but a few moments before had been restrained with difficulty from laying violent hands upon the august judges of the land, but not the boldest of them thought it possible to touch this woman. There were men here whom neither lines of bayonets nor walls of stone would have turned back, but not one of them was bold enough to lay a forcible hand upon the veil that covered a woman's breast. They were Americans.

There was a dead silence. The men gaped at each other, and Perez himself looked a little foolish for a moment. Then he turned to Abner and said in a grimly quiet way:

"Knock Bement down. Then four of you swing him by his arms and legs and break the jail door through with his head."

"Ye wouldn' murder me, cap'n," gasped the hapless man. In a trice Abner had hauled him out from behind the bar, and tripped him up on the floor. Then three other men, together with Abner, seized him by the hands and feet, and half dragged, half carried him across the room to the door in the middle of one of the sides which opened into the jail corridor.

"Swing the cuss three times, so's ter git kinder a goin, an then we'll see w'ether his head or the door's the thickest," said Abner.

"Giv' em the keys, Marthy. They're a killin me," screeched Bement.

The woman had set her teeth. Her face was a little whiter, the red spots under her cheek bones were a little smaller and a little redder than before. That was all the sign she gave. Putting her hand convulsively over the spot on her bosom where the desired articles were secreted, she replied in a shrill voice:

"I shell keep the keys, Cephas. It's my dewty. Pray, Cephas, that I may hev strength given me ter dew my dewty."

"Ye won't see me killed 'fore yer eyes, will ye, give em the keys I tell ye," shrieked Bement, as they began to swing him, and Abner said:

"One."

The woman looked a bit more like going into hysterics, but not a whit more like yielding.

"Mebbe t'wont kill ye, an they can't bust the door, nohow. Mebbe they'll git tuckered 'fore long. If wust comes to wust, it's a comfort ter know ez ye're a perfesser in good stannin."

Bement had doubtless had previous experience of a certain tenacity of purpose on the part of his spouse, for ceasing to address further adjurations to her, he began to appeal for mercy to the men.

"Two," said Abner, as they swung him again.

Now, Mrs. Poor and Prudence, having been thrust out of the barroom just before the mob thundered up against the barred door, had been borne back into the room again by the rush when the door was opened, and it was Mrs. Poor who now made a diversion.

"Look a here, Abner Rathbun," she said. "W'at in time's the use of murd'rin the man? He hain't done nothin. It's the woman, as has got the keys. She wouldn' let me inter see Zadkiel, an I'm jess a itchin tew git my hands ontew her, an that's the trewth, ef I be a perfesser. You let the man alone. I'll git them keys, or my name ain't Resignation Ann Poor."

There was a general murmur of approval, and without waiting for orders from Perez, Abner and his helpers let Bement drop, and he scrambled to his feet.

Mrs. Bement began to pant. She knew well enough that she had nothing to fear from all the men in Massachusetts, but one of her own sex was a more formidable enemy. And, indeed, a much more robust person than the jailer's little wife, might have been excused for not relishing a tussle with the tall, rawboned old woman, with hands brown, muscular, and labor hardened as a man's, who now laid her big green sunbonnet on the counter, and stepping to the open end of the bar, advanced toward her. Mrs. Poor held her hands before her about breast high, at half arm's length, elbows depressed, palms turned outward, the fingers curved like a cat's claws. There was an expression of grim satisfaction on her hard features.

Mrs. Bement stood awaiting her, breathing hard, evidently scared, but equally evidently, furious.

"Give em the keys, Marthy. She'll kill ye," called out Bement, from the back of the room.

But she paid no attention to this. Her fingers began to curve back like claws, and her hands assumed the same feline attitude as Mrs. Poor's. It was easy to see that the pluck of the little woman extorted a certain admiration from the very men who had fathers, sons and brothers in the cells beyond. She was not a bit more than half as big as her antagonist, but she looked game to the backbone, and the forthcoming result was not altogether to be predicted. You could have heard a pin drop in the room, as the men leaned over the counter with faces expressive of intensest excitement, while those behind stood on tiptoe to see. For the moment everything else was forgotten in the interest of the impending combat. Mrs. Bement seemed drawing back for a spring. Then suddenly, quick as lightning, she put her hand in her bosom, drew out the keys, and throwing them down on the counter, burst into hysterical sobs.

In another moment the jail door was thrown open, and the men were rushing down the corridor.