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THE STRANGE CLAIMANT; On, TWICE WED. 7 • -+-- CHAPTER XIX. THE HEARSE. I HADN'T thought it was so late," said Laxity, as he took iris seat upon the box and proceeded to wrap himself carefully. Ugh! but it strikes cold Now, you fellows; what ure you after, making such a noise ? bean't the thing big enough to nod room for ye ? It's Q-atley here," squeaked Toby Lipkins, he won't Well, I call that good, I do," cried Gatley; "when he's sitting down right atop of me, and I move out of his way." "Don't be an ass, Toby," said Laxity, with a little gentle force seating the small man, and push- ing his hat firmly down upon his head you'll have enough to do to get sober before you get in- now then, steiidy-all hold fast, for I mean to go it." And he was as good as his word. At the best speed of the four splendid animals he drove, they bowled along the widest of the roads which led to the town whence, the preceding morning, they had started. It was all the men could do, holding by one another, and to every available point, to keep their seats: while their teeth chattered, and they vainly essayed some mutual remark on the severity of the morning air. They're too far gone to think to ask me for the rest of my story," chuckled the fat man, as, having warmed himself to a glow, he relaxed somewhat of his speed. And I'm not sorry for it, either," he Beliloquised; I've always said it was the rats, though my wife and mother Moggs would have it 'twas the ghqat-ghost, indeed I never did believe in 'em; never shall tho'f I do like to set their hair on end at times with something awful. Now, then," he said, raising his voice, and looking round all right, there ? Eh! right enough; except a'moBt shook to a jelly," said he of the soapy countenance, who sat next Ohob on the roof the rest, carefully loosening one hand, were setting themselves in order, and releasing their brows from the hats into which they had been jammed, for better security during their rapid progress. Where's Toby Lipkins ? Here he is," said Gatley, in a voice by no means expressive of satisfaction at his position. The little man had, in fact, fallen asleep in a sitting posture, so near the edge of the roof, that he ran risk every moment of being jerked over and from the trying office of keeping an fye upon him and perpetually clutching at some portion 0: his attire, bis nearest neighbour had released himself by landing Toby into their midst, where his head and shoulders became the share of Gatley's knees, his nether limbs straying at random among those of his fellows, by whom they were indignantly rejected in turns. Let him be, he'll sleep it off so," said Laxity. It's easily said let him be, rejoined the one who was suffering the inconvenience but I tell you what, Chob, I shall let him go presently, and there'll be a smash his head's in my stomach every other minute-" And he's kicked my hat off a'ready," exclaimed another. "And put his foot in my eye," added a third. "Well, 11, we can't leave the fellow behind, can we ? as-• •: Laxity, with provoking coolness. I'll Ii vou what, Ohob," said Gatley-, "we might put him junia -he'd be comfortable enough there, and could take bis sleep out in peace. A about irom an applauded the proposition. Perhi c s you'll go with him ?" said Ohob Laxity. II There's no need," returned Gatley; "no need in the world. He'll be warm And snug—a precious sight more than it is out here, cutting along through this keen air." "Put him in, put him in," arose from all the men. And frighten the chap out of what little wits he have got," objected the driver. Pooh he'll not know it," said one. Hold a bit, there's a good fellow, till we get him down my legs ache fit to drop," said Toby's sup- porter. "Well," said Laxity, slackening his pace all the time, see you now, I'll have nothing to do with it, nothing at all; then if you do go scaring the man out of his senses, you'll hold me free." V Free, ah I should say so," said one fellow; free of anything, so long as we get free of this lumbering carcase; he's as void o' sense and life just now, for the matter o' that, as MJ corpse ever went in the hearse." The vehicle was stopped. Laxity, raised upon his box, leaned over to watch the proceedings; two of the men descended, and two others, having lowered, in not the most gentle manner, their sleeping comrade into their arms, also got down to assist. The door of the hearse was already opened, dis- closing its gloomy interior, when it was flung to with a loud exclamation from the one whose hand thrust it from him, and was echoed by the two others. There's something in there!" I heard a cry!" It's nought human Down went in a heap the insensible form of Toby Lipkins-away ran his valiant supporters-the men still on the roof, their brains yet muddled by liquor, knowing not what had scared their fellows, under the influence of self-preservation followed their example; and, ere Cbob Laxity could make out what hid alarmed bis followers, he found himself alone, save for the drunken sle- per, who, half roused by the shock of his fall, grumbled out an oath, rolled an inch or two, and then composed himself just between the hind wheels of the hearse. What ails the men ? cried Laxity, are they all gone stark, staring mad ? or has that fellow's liquor been working in 'em all this time, and gone off with a bang ? It Lad an extra queer flavour to me. I say, Gatley! Ben, Ben Crudles! The more I holloa the faster they run What's that? it was a child's voice, as I'm a sinner, and in the maehine, too, I'd take my oath With more agility than might have been expected from his size and rotundity, Obob Laxity descended from his elevated post, and quickly approached the back of the bearse. The door had swung back on its hinges, he threw it open to the fuil extent, and the faint light of early day glimmered into the obscurity within. „ Ob mercy on us! the palls are moving cried Laxity; what on earth! it's a face, flesh and blood, too!, lie dived head foremod into the vehicle as he spoke, and dragged forth the clothes and other appurtenances of his trade, which had been thrown promiscuously to the other end. As he did so, a child's voice burst out in a pitiful wail, and a light mass at the farther end began to move. Oome forth, whoever ye are," cried Laxity, adopt- ing something of the solemn adjuration style he had heard at the Kerseley theatre years gone by. Come forth ye can't be at any good, burrowing and hiduis' among the dwellings of the departed. A sliaht movement, and a few muttered words made answer the light heap advanced slowly towards the light. "Mercy on us!" cried Laxity, startled into his natural tone. Tis a woman and a child! Heaven preserve ua What on earth do ye do in here ?" The intruders had by this time reached the opening of the hearse, where Laxity stood guard. Crouching and terrified, holding with firm grasp to her breast the little child, who was sobbing piteously, the woman turned a pallid, terror-stricken face up to the jolly one of the undertaker. "Speak! tell me woman, what do you here ?" Laxity began again, in tragedy tones, but it would not do. There, there, don't tremble and shiver! don't cry, little one. I won't harm you; come out, do, of this here dismal machine! So, so, that's it—stand easy, now." He assisted the stranger to the ground, she still clinging to the child, and glancing fearfully around her in all directions. "You must have been hard up for a ride; my word you must," he said, as he returned to the receptacle the various et teteras he had withdrawn, yet still keeping his hold upon the trembling fugitive. "It's a mercy you weren't smothered in that old black box, and the rate I've been rattling along at! eh, sakes! little dreaming who I was shaking and jumb- ling of inside." If How far-how far-" gasped the pale-faced woman, in an anxious tone. How far we got to go ? "No, from there—we have come—3ince "Well, you see, not knowing bow far I've had the pleasure ef driving you, mistress, I can't say." "The cross roads," she said, hurriedly "oh, pray forgive me I I did not know what to do, 1 was pur- sued." It Oh, at the cross roads," said Laxity, reflectively; ah! while me and my mates were in at the Trouble House. Well, mistress, it's a matter of eleven miles we've done since we started, and I flatter myself we done it in good style, too." Has any one passed us on the road ?" she asked, eagerly "any men ?" Not a soul—man, woman, nor child. Eb, sakes! they must be fast ones, they must be, that will come up with these beasts, when they steps out as it is in them to do. But may I be so bold, mistress, as to ask where you be going ? To London, to London," she replied hurriedly, interrupting him. CHAPTER XX. OUTSIDE THE HEARSE. WHERB ? to London!" repeated Chob, with a low whistle; "well, that's a long road, and, though it's all in the way as far as I be going, 'tis but a small part of it, I'm thinking. However, if I can give you a lift-and I'm sure the air's better out than inside of this old machine—why, you're welcome, mistress though you frightened my mates well nigh out of their wits, a bit since." Oh, bless you and thank you," cried the woman, eagerly answering him you don't know from what you have saved me and my poor child. I would never have dared to get in there it was wrong, but I 11118 almost mad with terror!" Well, well, I'm always sorry to see a female in a scrape," said Ohob kindly, adding, sotto voce, though it's little comfort I've had of 'em, goodness knows I" "Now, then, let me help you," he said, and mo- tioned that she should ascend to the box beside him. But the woman drew back, nervously. We shall be seen up there," she said. Nay, nay, I don't know who thee's afeard on of a certainty," said Laxity, but I tell thee we got the start many a mile of any of the Trouble House folk, and we'll be at the end of our journey afore they could be half way, letting alone that there bean't a horse in their stables as would go without a cart at his heels. Thee'd stifle in there, mistress; and see, ye can put this ere about theeself and the little one." He had assisted her, while speaking, to a place be- side him upon the box, «nd threw over her shoulders a large, warm rug, of which he had felt the full benefit during his night drive. The woman proceeded to muffle herself in this and a shawl of her own, in such a manner that a chance passenger might make any- thing out of the dark, shapeless form, sooner than a young woman and a child. "I wonder what I shall do with yeu," growled Laxity, as he approached the unconscious Toby Lipkins, still recumbent in not the most graceful of attitudes between the hind wheels. "It would be no more than you deserve to roll you ti the road-side, and leave you to sleep it out, you scurvy little dog, but I'll return good for evil, so here goes!" As he spoke, with little effort he raised Toby from the ground, tossed him within the machine," where, upon the hammer cloths, Ac., Lipkins reposed as genially, doubtless, as ever enervated Roman upon his rose-strewn couch after a debauch. And now we're off," said the good-natured man, as he gathered up his reins, then paused, and looked around. I wonder wre those fellowB have got to," he said. ''A pretty footing they'll have of it, if they miss me on the way, as likely as not, and have to walk every step into Brankswold. Well, it be no business o' mine—" and with one touch of the tract- business o' mine—" and with one touch of the tract- able animals he drove, they were off at a aignified trot, tossing their manes as proudly, and conferring together as urbanely, as if conveying to its last abode the mertal clay of titled Doble- or courtly dame. For a considerable distance they proceeded at a moderate pace, Laxity scanning each side of the way, which was skirted with woods, seeking some trace of his companions; but finding it vain, he presently urged his horses to a quicker step. All this while not a word had been spoken till Ohob, turning to the huddled-up form beside him, said- It's like me to be doing a thing, and thinking about it after. Now, for aught I know, I might just be helping them I ought not; you might be a bad one, ye see, and running av from any villany as ever was. But I don't know how it is, I never can stand out agin the face of a youngster; and I always do say there can't be much harm in a woman, while she do stick to her child through it." He put aside the folds of the shawl with the handle of his whip, and gazed down into the little pale face of the sleeping child. It's yours V he asked, kindly. A low voice gave the affirmative. And where be her father ? you'll be fond of him as you lova the child." Dead," said the woman. Eh, poor lass, poor lass-then thee'rt a widow ?" "No, she said, and then went on, in broken accents, and with a voice that faltered often, as if uncertain how much to reveal, she told him briefly the cause of her being found in such a forlorn con- dition. "Ill treated you, eh? and the child; led a bad life ? Well, well, it is hard when them one has to look to for cherishing and comfort, turns all to the contrary; as hard one way as t'other, not a doubt. And thee hasn't the look or a scold nor a bad one, neither." He had not yet seen the face, which had been averted: by the full, morning light he now beheld it, very pale and worn, but yet possessing something that appeared to give the good man uneasiness. He fidgetted awhile, and muttered to himself, Make it worse, too—and thenttle one—not mend matters—can't be helped," and so on. "And you are going tO London, eh?" he said. aloud; got any relatlous-friends there ? She replied in the negative. It's a sorry look-out for you, and with that little one upon your hands; God know's it's a hard lot you've set yourself, my lass, and you can't know nor tell half the pains and crosses of it. A woman gets on but poorly, alone, anywhere; and it do not seem natural a wife should quit a good home for nought, and cast herself out upon the world—a hard world it is, too, I can tell You. But you do not look false-like, and as I believe y0U) and think a man's no man that treats a woman ill (though it be small comfort I've had of 'em)"—this in a lower voice— why, I will do all I can towards putting you on your way." She blessed and thanked him again, assuring him how much he had already berved her. Ay, ay, but I were trapped into that, mind ye," said the old man; now, I don't know but if yon had come to me and said as yOQ was going to give yonr master the slip, and would I help you to do it—I do believe I should na' washed my hands o' the matter. It is an ill office, my lass, stepping betwixt a woman and her lawful husband; but being as you'd thrown yourself, like, upon me, itbeantinme to step aside and let you down with a run. That's just where I be; and though I will, as I 8ayf help you on, if it be only for the sake of that little one there, I'd sooner see thee starting on t'other road, I would indeed lass, I would indeed! You will not tell them! you will not send him after us?" exclaimed the woman, starting as if she were about to spring from her seat. Nay, nay sit still, sit still! he replied never fear, I will do thee no hurt; but I could wish thee wouldst turn, and make just one more trial; so back and Never, never I" cried the woman, with a fierce energy that startled poor Laxity. If you had known him !-i£ you had but heard him-ii you knew what I do Go back-go back," she repeated, wildly, "look here!" and she held up a short, bright blade before the astonished eyes of the driver. When we lay in the barn, when she was so weary her feet could go no farther, and I could not carry her—I heard his voice, I listened to what they said, I thought every moment he would be in upon us. And I would have stabbed him, or myself, ah! even her, even HERT sooner'than he should have taken us back—ah 'p-ahe shuddered and drew herself up around her child. God help you, lass!" he replied, thee must ha' suffered a deal to talk like that. It was a mercy you did get away, at that rate, and it was then you got into the hearse, was it ?" Yes. They'd put logs against the door I heard them, and they meant to come back for us; there were people in the public-house, and he was afraid then-yes, afraid. When they bad gone, I got up. I tried to force open the door, but I could not. I felt around the walls for some place I could get out at. There was a thin place in the wall where it was rotted, and boards had been nailed up; I tore and pulled them away-look here!" She uncovered her hands, and showed them cut and bleeding all over; one finger, laid open, quite useless. Laxity uttered an exclamation of distress, and hastily pulled out a very white handkerchief, rather stiff, and of 'special appearance. Wrap it up, wrap it up he said, with a choking tone. You pity them," said the woman, coldly enough again, but he would make it something to laugh at and mock me for." Obob clenched his teeth over what I fear was a very improper sentiment. "I did not feel it," she went on "I was only glad to squeeze myself out throug get this poor child out-she never cried, never said one word, though I know it hurt her. I did not know what to do I saw the hearse, then the thought came into my head that I would hide in it till he had gone. I got in with my child, and hid among the things. I listened, and listened oh, it seemed so long, while the men were singing and laugh- ing-but I heard nothing of him he waited, I sup- pose, till you were gone Then that was the fellow that sat behind the settle in the corner," cried Laxity; "there was two of them, ill-mannered scamps, grumbled at our sing- ing, and I believe gave old Scraws a hint to start us He urged on his horses to full speed as he spoke, as if the balance was now fairly turned, and his mind quite resolved on the subject of the side which he stood pledged to support. And now the day was fairly begun, and the road no longer ran between wooded country and wide heaths, or fenny marshes; snug farm closes, stacked hay and corn, with well kept meadows, and here and there a gentleman's country seat, appeared in view. The pace of the horses was again slackened, and Ohob Laxity mused thoughtfully. Nelly had, more than once, offered to get down, and appeared anxious to be released from a position so prominent, but Laxity still kept on his way. "I am very much obliged to you," Nelly said, earnestly: you have helped me more than you can tell; if you will now only tell me which is the best road I can take, I will not trouble you any longer." Yes, yes," said her kind companion, slowly, and evidently undecided what to say you see, my lass, I want to help you what I can; I feel for you and for the little one; but this is it—every wife don't run awav from him and mine sticks fast and sure by me. Well, well! we'll see what can be done. Any way, I'll stop at the Blue Moon I am friends with the landlord, and you can have a rest and a bit there." "Thank you; but no," said Nelly, nervously, "we had better be getting on; I don't feel it safe to stop." But, my good lass, you can't be going on like a water mill, and never to take a rest nor a sup' You trust to me, Jack Featherston's a fine old boy, and you're as safe at the Blue Moon as if, ah 60 if — but here we are." And he drew up at a small, snug country just without the little town of Brankswold. (To be continued.)


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