They were under the district's sole gas lamp and had, by mutual consent, paused. The Reverend gazed at her trembling lips. Like flower petals, he thought, overwhelmed by their pitiful look of vulnerability. Suddenly he was kissing her, or trying to, rather, while she struggled against him.
"Ought to be ashamed of yourself," she spat, breaking away. "You..." she was shaking, looking down at herself, "...touching an unclean creature like me."
It was the Reverend's misfortune (some would find this comic) to have fallen in love with a prostitute who would not sleep with him. He took this as a sign of her true devotion, that she would not sully the fine feelings she felt by profaning them in the act from which she earned her few pathetic coppers. But often he suspected this was all in his head. She showed him no favor, no tenderness. All she did was try and drive him off. He only saw her like this, late at night, always drunk and lately, worse, seeming to be almost out of her mind. But as is often the case with tortured personalities such as his own, the impossibility of the situation simply drove him to greater lengths. He found himself suggesting the outrageous.
"Where will you sleep tonight, Nan?"
"Where I damn well please."
"Why don't you come to the rectory? I could have Mrs. Hatchitt turn down the parlor settee."
Coarse laughter erupted from her virginal face as if she were possessed.
"Mrs. Hatchitt?" she echoed, by way of a retort, then marched off to an alley inhabited only by cats. "Here's where I'll sleep," she called back. "Not in some stinking house of God."
Deeply ashamed, yet thrilled by the scent of perfume that lingered on his hands and shirtfront, he walked to the alley's entrance. He heard her move around in the refuse, making a nest for herself, then, after another moment, loud snores. In the gaslight he could barely make her out, sprawled on a pile of old paper, that same mouth he had recently been made dizzy by now hanging open, slack and empty. Moving silently, he crept further into the narrow space. He eased off the thin coat he always wore on these forays to mask his collar and laid it over her heaving, sweat-stained body. A passion gnawed at his vitals. He would walk until dawn. Five, ten miles, however long it took. Tomorrow, what would he tell his congregation? How ludicrous, that such a sinner as himself, the worst among them, should presume to show them the way to salvation. He breathed in deeply of the alley's cat spray and rotting offal.
"Do you love me?" a voice came from the stifling dark. "Do you really love me?"
"With all my heart," he said simply.
"Then kill me," she said.
"Nan?" The horrible suspicion came that she was not speaking to him. And sure enough, she went on, her eyes still closed but her breathing agitated now, rapid and choppy, as if running or struggling in a dream.
"I can't keep it inside anymore," she gasped. "It's screaming to get out. The awful secret!"
"What secret, Nan?"
"Either kill me or let me go!" She thrashed, still unaware, tearing her knuckles against the brick wall of the alley. "But don't make me keep it inside!"
He tripped, going to her, and sprawled headfirst in the filth. By the time he had gotten to his feet she was past him, still in a dream, active in body but absent in mind. For the first time he realized he had not smelled gin on her breath. What awful poison had she progressed to in her headlong rush from suffering? The soles of his shoes scraped as he staggered out onto the Seven Dials Road to look for her, but she had vanished. All the doors remained shut, their windows dark. It was as if the mysterious personage she had been addressing high above had finally relented and taken her to his dark bosom.
"Nan!" he cried, unmindful of whatever commotion he might cause. "Nan!"
He went running down the street, one edge of his broken collar sticking out like a bone through flesh.