The household of the worthy carpenter, it may be conceived, was thrown into the utmost confusion and distress by the unaccountable disappearance of the two boys. As time wore on, and they did not return, Mr. Wood’s anxiety grew so insupportable, that he seized his hat with the intention of sallying forth in search of them, though he did not know whither to bend his steps, when his departure was arrested by a gentle knock at the door.
“There he is!” cried Winifred, starting up, joyfully, and proving by the exclamation that her thoughts were dwelling upon one subject only. “There he is!”
“I fear not,” said her father, with a doubtful shake of the head. “Thames would let himself in; and Jack generally finds an entrance through the backdoor or the shop-window, when he has been out at untimely hours. But, go and see who it is, love. Stay! I’ll go myself.”
His daughter, however, anticipated him. She flew to the door, but returned the next minute, looking deeply disappointed, and bringing the intelligence that it was “only Mrs. Sheppard.”
“Who?” almost screamed Mrs. Wood.
“Jack Sheppard’s mother,” answered the little girl, dejectedly; “she has brought a basket of eggs from Willesden, and some flowers for you.”
“For me!” vociferated Mrs. Wood, in indignant surprise. “Eggs for me! You mistake, child. They must be for your father.”
“No; I’m quite sure she said they’re for you,” replied Winifred; “but she does want to see father.”
“I thought as much,” sneered Mrs. Wood.
“I’ll go to her directly,” said Wood, bustling towards the door. “I dare say she has called to inquire about Jack.”
“I dare say no such thing,” interposed his better half, authoritatively; “remain where you are, Sir.”
“At all events, let me send her away, my dear,” supplicated the carpenter, anxious to avert the impending storm.
“Do you hear me?” cried the lady, with increasing vehemence. “Stir a foot, at your peril.”
“But, my love,” still remonstrated Wood, “you know I’m going to look after the boys–”
“After Mrs. Sheppard, you mean, Sir,” interrupted his wife, ironically. “Don’t think to deceive me by your false pretences. Marry, come up! I’m not so easily deluded. Sit down, I command you. Winny, show the person into this room. I’ll see her myself; and that’s more than she bargained for, I’ll be sworn.”
Finding it useless to struggle further, Mr. Wood sank, submissively, into a chair, while his daughter hastened to execute her arbitrary parent’s commission.
“At length, I have my wish,” continued Mrs. Wood, regarding her husband with a glance of vindictive triumph. “I shall behold the shameless hussy, face to face; and, if I find her as good-looking as she’s represented, I don’t know what I’ll do in the end; but I’ll begin by scratching her eyes out.”
In this temper, it will naturally be imagined, that Mrs. Wood’s reception of the widow, who, at that moment, was ushered into the room by Winifred, was not particularly kind and encouraging. As she approached, the carpenter’s wife eyed her from head to foot, in the hope of finding something in her person or apparel to quarrel with. But she was disappointed. Mrs. Sheppard’s dress—extremely neat and clean, but simply fashioned, and of the plainest and most unpretending material,—offered nothing assailable; and her demeanour was so humble, and her looks so modest, that—if she had been ill-looking—she might, possibly, have escaped the shafts of malice preparing to be levelled against her. But, alas! she was beautiful—and beauty is a crime not to be forgiven by a jealous woman.
As the lapse of time and change of circumstances have wrought a remarkable alteration in the appearance of the poor widow, it may not be improper to notice it here. When first brought under consideration, she was a miserable and forlorn object; squalid in attire, haggard in looks, and emaciated in frame. Now, she was the very reverse of all this. Her dress, it has just been said, was neatness and simplicity itself. Her figure, though slight, had all the fulness of health; and her complexion—still pale, but without its former sickly cast,—contrasted agreeably, by its extreme fairness, with the dark brows and darker lashes that shaded eyes which, if they had lost some of their original brilliancy, had gained infinitely more in the soft and chastened lustre that replaced it. One marked difference between the poor outcast, who, oppressed by poverty, and stung by shame, had sought temporary relief in the stupifying draught,—that worst “medicine of a mind diseased,”—and those of the same being, freed from her vices, and restored to comfort and contentment, if not to happiness, by a more prosperous course of events, was exhibited in the mouth. For the fresh and feverish hue of lip which years ago characterised this feature, was now substituted a pure and wholesome bloom, evincing a total change of habits; and, though the coarse character of the mouth remained, in some degree, unaltered, it was so modified in expression, that it could no longer be accounted a blemish. In fact, the whole face had undergone a transformation. All its better points were improved, while the less attractive ones (and they were few in comparison) were subdued, or removed. What was yet more worthy of note was, that the widow’s countenance had an air of refinement about it, of which it was utterly destitute before, and which seemed to intimate that her true position in society was far above that wherein accident had placed her.
“Well, Mrs. Sheppard,” said the carpenter, advancing to meet her, and trying to look as cheerful and composed as he could; “what brings you to town, eh?—Nothing amiss, I trust?”
“Nothing whatever, Sir,” answered the widow. “A neighbour offered me a drive to Paddington; and, as I haven’t heard of my son for some time, I couldn’t resist the temptation of stepping on to inquire after him, and to thank you for your great goodness to us both, I’ve brought a little garden-stuff and a few new-laid eggs for you, Ma’am,” she added turning to Mrs. Wood, who appeared to be collecting her energies for a terrible explosion, “in the hope that they may prove acceptable. Here’s a nosegay for you, my love,” she continued, opening her basket, and presenting a fragrant bunch of flowers to Winifred, “if your mother will allow me to give it you.”
“Don’t touch it, Winny!” screamed Mrs. Wood, “it may be poisoned.”
“I’m not afraid, mother,” said the little girl, smelling at the bouquet. “How sweet these roses are! Shall I put them into water?”
“Put them where they came from,” replied Mrs. Wood, severely, “and go to bed.”
“But, mother, mayn’t I sit up to see whether Thames returns?” implored Winifred.
“What can it matter to you whether he returns or not, child,” rejoined Mrs. Wood, sharply. “I’ve spoken. And my word’s law—with you, at least,” she added, bestowing a cutting glance upon her husband.
The little girl uttered no remonstrance; but, replacing the flowers in the basket, burst into tears, and withdrew.
Mrs. Sheppard, who witnessed this occurrence with dismay, looked timorously at Wood, in expectation of some hint being given as to the course she had better pursue; but, receiving none, for the carpenter was too much agitated to attend to her, she ventured to express a fear that she was intruding.
“Intruding!” echoed Mrs. Wood; “to be sure you are! I wonder how you dare show your face in this house, hussy!”
“I thought you sent for me, Ma’am,” replied the widow, humbly.
“So I did,” retorted Mrs. Wood; “and I did so to see how far your effrontery would carry you.”
“I’m sure I’m very sorry. I hope I haven’t given any unintentional offence?” said the widow, again meekly appealing to Wood.
“Don’t exchange glances with him under my very nose, woman!” shrieked Mrs. Wood; “I’ll not bear it. Look at me, and answer me one question. And, mind! no prevaricating—nothing but the truth will satisfy me.”
Mrs. Sheppard raised her eyes, and fixed them upon her interrogator.
“Are you not that man’s mistress?” demanded Mrs. Wood, with a look meant to reduce her supposed rival to the dust.
“I am no man’s mistress,” answered the widow, crimsoning to her temples, but preserving her meek deportment, and humble tone.
“That’s false!” cried Mrs. Wood. “I’m too well acquainted with your proceedings, Madam, to believe that. Profligate women are never reclaimed. He has told me sufficient of you—”
“My dear,” interposed Wood, “for goodness’ sake—”
“I will speak,” screamed his wife, totally disregarding the interruption; “I will tell this worthless creature what I know about her,—and what I think of her.”
“Not now, my love—not now,” entreated Wood.
“Yes, now,” rejoined the infuriated dame; “perhaps, I may never have another opportunity. She has contrived to keep out of my sight up to this time, and I’ve no doubt she’ll keep out of it altogether for the future.”
“That was my doing, dearest,” urged the carpenter; “I was afraid if you saw her that some such scene as this might occur.”
“Hear me, Madam, I beseech you,” interposed Mrs. Sheppard, “and, if it please you to visit your indignation on any one let it be upon me, and not on your excellent husband, whose only fault is in having bestowed his charity upon so unworthy an object as myself.”
“Unworthy, indeed!” sneered Mrs. Wood.
“To him I owe everything,” continued the widow, “life itself—nay, more than life,—for without his assistance I should have perished, body and soul. He has been a father to me and my child.”
“I never doubted the latter point, I assure you, Madam,” observed Mrs. Wood.
“You have said,” pursued the widow, “that she, who has once erred, is irreclaimable. Do not believe it, Madam. It is not so. The poor wretch, driven by desperation to the commission of a crime which her soul abhors, is no more beyond the hope of reformation than she is without the pale of mercy. I have suffered—I have sinned—I have repented. And, though neither peace nor innocence can be restored to my bosom; though tears cannot blot out my offences, nor sorrow drown my shame; yet, knowing that my penitence is sincere, I do not despair that my transgressions may be forgiven.”
“Mighty fine!” ejaculated Mrs. Wood, contemptuously.
“You cannot understand me, Madam; and it is well you cannot. Blest with a fond husband, surrounded by every comfort, you have never been assailed by the horrible temptations to which misery has exposed me. You have never known what it is to want food, raiment, shelter. You have never seen the child within your arms perishing from hunger, and no relief to be obtained. You have never felt the hearts of all hardened against you; have never heard the jeer or curse from every lip; nor endured the insult and the blow from every hand. I have suffered all this. I could resist the tempter now, I am strong in health,—in mind. But then—Oh! Madam, there are moments—moments of darkness, which overshadow a whole existence—in the lives of the poor houseless wretches who traverse the streets, when reason is well-nigh benighted; when the horrible promptings of despair can, alone, be listened to; and when vice itself assumes the aspect of virtue. Pardon what I have said, Madam. I do not desire to extenuate my guilt—far less to defend it; but I would show you, and such as you—who, happily, are exempted from trials like mine—how much misery has to do with crime. And I affirm to you, on my own conviction, that she who falls, because she has not strength granted her to struggle with affliction, may be reclaimed,—may repent, and be forgiven,—even as she, whose sins, ‘though many, were forgiven her’.
“It gladdens me to hear you talk thus, Joan,” said Wood, in a voice of much emotion, while his eyes filled with tears, “and more than repays me for all I have done for you.”
“If professions of repentance constitute a Magdalene, Mrs. Sheppard is one, no doubt,” observed Mrs. Wood, ironically; “but I used to think it required something more than mere words to prove that a person’s character was abused.”
“Very right, my love,” said Wood, “very sensibly remarked. So it does. Bu I can speak to that point. Mrs. Sheppard’s conduct, from my own personal knowledge, has been unexceptionable for the last twelve years. During that period she has been a model of propriety.”
“Oh! of course,” rejoined Mrs. Wood; “I can’t for an instant question such distinterested testimony. Mrs. Sheppard, I’m sure, will say as much for you. He’s a model of conjugal attachment and fidelity, a pattern to his family, and an example to his neighbours. Ain’t he, Madam?’”
“He is, indeed,” replied the widow, fervently; “more—much more than that.”
“He’s no such thing!” cried Mrs. Wood, furiously. “He’s a base, deceitful, tyrannical, hoary-headed libertine—that’s what he is. But, I’ll expose him. I’ll proclaim his misdoings to the world; and, then, we shall see where he’ll stand. Marry, come up! I’ll show him what an injured wife can do. If all wives were of my mind and my spirit, husbands would soon be taught their own insignificance. But a time will come (and that before long,) when our sex will assert its superiority; and, when we have got the upper hand, let ‘em try to subdue us if they can. But don’t suppose, Madam, that anything I say has reference to you. I’m speaking of virtuous women—of WIVES, Madam. Mistresses neither deserve consideration nor commiseration.”
“I expect no commiseration,” returned Mrs. Sheppard, gently, “nor do I need any. But, rather than be the cause of any further misunderstanding between you and my benefactor, I will leave London and its neighbourhood for ever.”
“Pray do so, Madam,” retorted Mrs. Wood, “and take your son with you.”
“My son!” echoed the widow, trembling.
“Yes, your son, Madam. If you can do any good with him, it’s more than we can. The house will be well rid of him, for a more idle, good-for-nothing reprobate never crossed its threshold.”
“Is this true, Sir?” cried Mrs. Sheppard, with an agonized look at Wood. “I know you’ll not deceive me. Is Jack what Mrs. Wood represents him?”
“He’s not exactly what I could desire him to be, Joan,” replied the carpenter, reluctantly, “But a ragged colt sometimes makes the best horse. He’ll mend, I hope.”
“Never,” said Mrs. Wood,—“he’ll never mend. He has taken more than one step towards the gallows already. Thieves and pickpockets are his constant companions.”
“Thieves!” exclaimed Mrs. Sheppard, horror-stricken.
“Jonathan Wild and Blueskin have got him into their hands,” continued Mrs. Wood.
“Impossible!” exclaimed the widow, wildly.
“If you doubt my word, woman,” replied the carpenter’s wife, coldly, “ask Mr. Wood.”
“I know you’ll contradict it, Sir,” said the widow, looking at Wood as if she dreaded to have her fears confirmed,—“I know you will.”
“I wish I could, Joan,” returned the carpenter, sadly.
Mrs. Sheppard let fall her basket.
“My son,” she murmured, wringing her hands piteously—, “my son the companion of thieves! My son in Jonathan Wild’s power! It cannot be.”
“Why not?” rejoined Mrs. Wood, in a taunting tone. “Your son’s father was a thief; and Jonathan Wild (unless I’m misinformed,) was his friend,—so it’s not unnatural he should show some partiality towards Jack.”
“Jonathan Wild was my husband’s bitterest enemy,” said Mrs. Sheppard. “He first seduced him from the paths of honesty, and then betrayed him to a shameful death, and he has sworn to do the same thing by my son. Oh, Heavens; that I should have ever indulged a hope of happiness while that terrible man lives!”
“Compose yourself, Joan,” said Wood; “all will yet be well.”
“Oh, no,—no,” replied Mrs. Sheppard, distractedly. “All cannot be well, if this is true. Tell me, Sir,” she added, with forced calmness, and grasping Wood’s arm; “what has Jack done? Tell me in a word, that I may know the worst. I can bear anything but suspense.”
“You’re agitating yourself unnecessarily, Joan,” returned Wood, in a soothing voice. “Jack has been keeping bad company. That’s the only fault I know of.”
“Thank God for that!” ejaculated Mrs. Sheppard, fervently. “Then it is not too late to save him. Where is he, Sir? Can I see him?”
“No, that you can’t,” answered Mrs. Wood; “he has gone out without leave, and has taken Thames Darrell with him. If I were Mr. Wood, when he does return, I’d send him about his business. I wouldn’t keep an apprentice to set my authority at defiance.”
Mr. Wood’s reply, if he intended any, was cut short by a loud knocking at the door.
“‘Odd’s-my-life!—what’s that?” he cried, greatly alarmed.
“It’s Jonathan Wild come back with a troop of constables at his heels, to search the house,” rejoined Mrs. Wood, in equal trepidation. “We shall all be murdered. Oh! that Mr. Kneebone were here to protect me!”
“If it is Jonathan,” rejoined Wood, “it is very well for Mr. Kneebone he’s not here. He’d have enough to do to protect himself, without attending to you. I declare I’m almost afraid to go to the door. Something, I’m convinced, has happened to the boys.”
“Has Jonathan Wild been here to-day?” asked Mrs. Sheppard, anxiously.
“To be sure he has!” returned Mrs. Wood; “and Blueskin, too. They’re only just gone, mercy on us! what a clatter,” she added, as the knocking was repeated more violently than before.
While the carpenter irresolutely quitted the room, with a strong presentiment of ill upon his mind, a light quick step was heard descending the stairs, and before he could call out to prevent it, a man was admitted into the passage.
“Is this Misther Wudd’s, my pretty miss?” demanded the rough voice of the Irish watchman.
“It is”, seplied Winifred; “have you brought any tidings of Thames Darrell!”
“Troth have I!” replied Terence: “but, bless your angilic face, how did you contrive to guess that?”
“Is he well?—is he safe?—is he coming back,” cried the little girl, disregarding the question.
“He’s in St. Giles’s round-house,” answered Terence; “but tell Mr. Wudd I’m here, and have brought him a message from his unlawful son, and don’t be detainin’ me, my darlin’, for there’s not a minute to lose if the poor lad’s to be recused from the clutches of that thief and thief-taker o’ the wurld, Jonathan Wild.”
The carpenter, upon whom no part of this hurried dialogue had been lost, now made his appearance, and having obtained from Terence all the information which that personage could impart respecting the perilous situation of Thames, he declared himself ready to start to Saint Giles’s at once, and ran back to the room for his hat and stick; expressing his firm determination, as he pocketed his constable’s staff with which he thought it expedient to arm himself, of being direfully revenged upon the thief-taker: a determination in which he was strongly encouraged by his wife. Terence, meanwhile, who had followed him, did not remain silent, but recapitulated his story, for the benefit of Mrs. Sheppard. The poor widow was thrown into an agony of distress on learning that a robbery had been committed, in which her son (for she could not doubt that Jack was one of the boys,) was implicated; nor was her anxiety alleviated by Mrs. Wood, who maintained stoutly, that if Thames had been led to do wrong, it must be through the instrumentality of his worthless companion.
“And there you’re right, you may dipind, marm,” observed Terence. “Master Thames Ditt—what’s his blessed name?—has honesty written in his handsome phiz; but as to his companion, Jack Sheppard, I think you call him, he’s a born and bred thief. Lord bless you marm! we sees plenty on ‘em in our purfession. Them young prigs is all alike. I seed he was one,—and a sharp un, too,—at a glance.”
“Oh!” exclaimed the widow, covering her face with her hands.
“Take a drop of brandy before we start, watchman,” said Wood, pouring out a glass of spirit, and presenting it to Terence, who smacked his lips as he disposed of it. “Won’t you be persuaded, Joan?” he added, making a similar offer to Mrs. Sheppard, which she gratefully declined. “If you mean to accompany us, you may need it.”
“You are very kind, Sir,” returned the widow, “but
На этой странице вы можете прочитать онлайн книгу «Jack Sheppard. Vol. 2», автора William Ainsworth. Данная книга относится к жанрам: «Европейская старинная литература», «Литература 19 века».. Книга «Jack Sheppard. Vol. 2» была издана в 2019 году. Приятного чтения!