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She caught up her basket as she spoke and was making an unsteady rush away from them, when the same bystander checked her with his hand on her sleeve, and urged her to come with him and see the parish-doctor. Strengthening herself by the utmost exercise of her resolution, the poor trembling creature shook him off, almost fiercely, and took to flight. Nor did she feel safe until she had set a mile or two of by-road between herself and the marketplace, and had crept into a copse, like a hunted animal, to hide and recover breath. Not until then for the first time did she venture to recall how she had looked over her shoulder before turning out of the town, and had seen the sign of the White Lion hanging across the road, and the fluttering market booths, and the old grey church, and the little crowd gazing after her but not attempting to follow her.
The second frightening incident was this. She had been again as bad, and had been for some days better, and was travelling along by a part of the road where it touched the river, and in wet seasons was so often overflowed by it that there were tall white posts set up to mark the way. A barge was being towed towards her, and she sat down on the bank to rest and watch it. As the tow-rope was slackened by a turn of the stream and dipped into the water, such a confusion stole into her mind that she thought she saw the forms of her dead children and dead grandchildren peopling the barge, and waving their hands to her in solemn measure; then, as the rope tightened and came up, dropping diamonds, it seemed to vibrate into two parallel ropes and strike her, with a twang, though it was far off. When she looked again, there was no barge, no river, no daylight, and a man whom she had never before seen held a candle close to her face.
'Now, Missis,' said he; 'where did you come from and where are you going to?'
The poor soul confusedly asked the counter-question where she was?
'I am the Lock,' said the man.
'I am the Deputy Lock, on job, and this is the Lock-house. (Lock or Deputy Lock, it's all one, while the t'other man's in the hospital.) What's your Parish?'
'Parish!' She was up from the truckle-bed directly, wildly feeling about her for her basket, and gazing at him in affright.
'You'll be asked the question down town,' said the man. 'They won't let you be more than a Casual there. They'll pass you on to your settlement, Missis, with all speed. You're not in a state to be let come upon strange parishes 'ceptin as a Casual.'
''Twas the deadness again!' murmured Betty Higden, with her hand to her head.
'It was the deadness, there's not a doubt about it,' returned the man. 'I should have thought the deadness was a mild word for it, if it had been named to me when we brought you in. Have you got any friends, Missis?'
'The best of friends, Master.'
'I should recommend your looking 'em up if you consider 'em game to do anything for you,' said the Deputy Lock. 'Have you got any money?'
'Just a morsel of money, sir.'
'Do you want to keep it?'
'Sure I do!'
'Well, you know,' said the Deputy Lock, shrugging his shoulders with his hands in his pockets, and shaking his head in a sulkily ominous manner, 'the parish authorities down town will have it out of you, if you go on, you may take your Alfred David.'
'Then I'll not go on.'
'They'll make you pay, as fur as your money will go,' pursued the Deputy, 'for your relief as a Casual and for your being passed to your Parish.'
'Thank ye kindly, Master, for your warning, thank ye for your shelter, and good night.'
'Stop a bit,' said the Deputy, striking in between her and the door. 'Why are you all of a shake, and what's your hurry, Missis?'
'Oh, Master, Master,' returned Betty Higden, I've fought against the Parish and fled from it, all my life, and I want to die free of it!'
'I don't know,' said the Deputy, with deliberation, 'as I ought to let you go. I'm a honest man as gets my living by the sweat of my brow, and I may fall into trouble by letting you go. I've fell into trouble afore now, by George, and I know what it is, and it's made me careful. You might be took with your deadness again, half a mile off--or half of half a quarter, for the matter of that--and then it would be asked, Why did that there honest Deputy Lock, let her go, instead of putting her safe with the Parish? That's what a man of his character ought to have done, it would be argueyfied,' said the Deputy Lock, cunningly harping on the strong string of her terror; 'he ought to have handed her over safe to the Parish. That was to be expected of a man of his merits.'
As he stood in the doorway, the poor old careworn wayworn woman burst into tears, and clasped her hands, as if in a very agony she prayed to him.
'As I've told you, Master, I've the best of friends. This letter will show how true I spoke, and they will be thankful for me.'
The Deputy Lock opened the letter with a grave face, which underwent no change as he eyed its contents. But it might have done, if he could have read them.
'What amount of small change, Missis,' he said, with an abstracted air, after a little meditation, 'might you call a morsel of money?'
Hurriedly emptying her pocket, old Betty laid down on the table, a shilling, and two sixpenny pieces, and a few pence.
'If I was to let you go instead of handing you over safe to the Parish,' said the Deputy, counting the money with his eyes, 'might it be your own free wish to leave that there behind you?'
'Take it, Master, take it, and welcome and thankful!'
'I'm a man,' said the Deputy, giving her back the letter, and pocketing the coins, one by one, 'as earns his living by the sweat of his brow;' here he drew his sleeve across his forehead, as if this particular portion of his humble gains were the result of sheer hard labour and virtuous industry; 'and I won't stand in your way. Go where you like.'
She was gone out of the Lock-house as soon as he gave her this permission, and her tottering steps were on the road again. But, afraid to go back and afraid to go forward; seeing what she fled from, in the sky-glare of the lights of the little town before her, and leaving a confused horror of it everywhere behind her, as if she had escaped it in every stone of every market-place; she struck off by side ways, among which she got bewildered and lost. That night she took refuge from the Samaritan in his latest accredited form, under a farmer's rick; and if--worth thinking of, perhaps, my fellow-Christians--the Samaritan had in the lonely night, 'passed by on the other side', she would have most devoutly thanked High Heaven for her escape from him.
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Our Mutual Friend -- by Charles Dickens