* The "Bow Street runners" of those days were the predecessors of the detective police of the present time.
FOR a couple of hours I walked on briskly, careless in what direction I went, so long as I kept my back turned on Barkingham.
By the time I had put seven miles of ground, according to my calculations, between me and the red-brick house, I began to look upon the doctor's writing-desk rather in the light of an incumbrance, and determined to examine it without further delay. Accordingly I picked up the first large stone I could find in the road, crossed a common, burst through a hedge, and came to a halt, on the other side, in a thick wood. Here, finding myself well screened from public view, I broke open the desk with the help of the stone, and began to look over the contents.
To my unspeakable disappointment I found but few papers of any kind to examine. The desk was beautifully fitted with all the necessary materials for keeping up a large correspondence; but there were not more than half a dozen letters in it altogether. Four were on business matters, and the other two were of a friendly nature, referring to persons and things in which I did not feel the smallest interest. I found besides half a dozen bills receipted (the doctor was a mirror of punctuality in the payment of tradesmen), note and letter-paper of the finest quality, clarified pens, a pretty little pin-cushion, two small account-books filled with the neatest entries, and some leaves of blotting-paper. Nothing else; absolutely nothing else, in the treacherous writing-desk on which I had implicitly relied to guide me to Alicia's hiding-place.
I groaned in sheer wretchedness over the destruction of all my dearest plans and hopes. If the Bow Street runners had come into the plantation just as I had completed the rifling of the desk I think I should have let them take me without making the slightest effort at escape. As it was, no living soul appeared within sight of me. I must have sat at the foot of a tree for full half an hour, with the doctor's useless bills and letters before me, with my head in my hands, and with all my energies of body and mind utterly crushed by despair.
At the end of the half hour, the natural restlessness of my faculties began to make itself felt.
Whatever may be said about it in books, no emotion in this world ever did, or ever will, last for long together. The strong feeling may return over and over again; but it must have its constant intervals of change or repose. In real life the bitterest grief doggedly takes its rest and dries its eyes; the heaviest despair sinks to a certain level, and stops there to give hope a chance of rising, in spite of us. Even the joy of an unexpected meeting is always an imperfect sensation, for it never lasts long enough to justify our secret anticipations—our happiness dwindles to mere every-day contentment before we have half done with it.
I raised my head, and gathered the bills and letters together, and stood up a man again, wondering at the variableness of my own temper, at the curious elasticity of that toughest of all the vital substances within us, which we call Hope. "Sitting and sighing at the foot of this tree," I thought, "is not the way to find Alicia, or to secure my own safety. Let me circulate my blood and rouse my ingenuity, by taking to the road again."
Before I forced my way back to the open side of the hedge, I thought it desirable to tear up the bills and letters, for fear of being traced by them if they were found in the plantation. The desk I left where it was, there being no name on it. The note-paper and pens I pocketed—forlorn as my situation was, it did not authorize me to waste stationery. The blotting-paper was the last thing left to dispose of: two neatly-folded sheets, quite clean, except in one place, where the impression of a few lines of writing appeared. I was about to put the blotting-paper into my pocket after the pens, when something in the look of the writing impressed on it, stopped me.
Four blurred lines appeared of not more than two or three words each, running out one beyond another regularly from left to right. Had the doctor been composing poetry and blotting it in a violent hurry? At a first glance, that was more than I could tell. The order of the written letters, whatever they might be, was reversed on the face of the impression taken of them by the blotting-paper. I turned to the other side of the leaf. The order of the letters was now right, but the letters themselves were sometimes too faintly impressed, sometimes too much blurred together to be legible. I held the leaf up to the light—and there was a complete change: the blurred letters grew clearer, the invisible connecting lines appeared—I could read the words from first to last.
The writing must have been hurried, and it had to all appearance been hurriedly dried toward the corner of a perfectly clean leaf of the blotting-paper. After twice reading, I felt sure that I had made out correctly the following address:
Miss Giles, 2 Zion Place, Crickgelly, N. Wales.
It was hard under the circumstances, to form an opinion as to the handwriting; but I thought I could recognize the character of some of the doctor's letters, even in the blotted impression of them. Supposing I was right, who was Miss Giles?
Some Welsh friend of the doctor's, unknown to me? Probably enough. But why not Alicia herself under an assumed name? Having sent her from home to keep her out of my way, it seemed next to a certainty that her father would take all possible measures to prevent my tracing her, and would, therefore, as a common act of precaution, forbid her to travel under her own name. Crickgelly, North Wales, was assuredly a very remote place to banish her to; but then the doctor was not a man to do things by halves: he knew the lengths to which my cunning and resolution were capable of carrying me; and he would have been innocent indeed if he had hidden his daughter from me in any place within reasonable distance of Barkingham. Last, and not least important, Miss Giles sounded in my ears exactly like an assumed name.
Was there ever any woman absolutely and literally named Miss Giles? However I may have altered my opinion on this point since, my mind was not in a condition at that time to admit the possible existence of any such individual as a maiden Giles. Before, therefore, I had put the precious blotting-paper into my pocket, I had satisfied myself that my first duty, under all the circumstances, was to shape my flight immediately to Crickgelly. I could be certain of nothing—not even of identifying the doctor's handwriting by the impression on the blotting-paper. But provided I kept clear of Barkingham, it was all the same to me what part of the United Kingdom I went to; and, in the absence of any actual clew to her place of residence, there was consolation and encouragement even in following an imaginary trace. My spirits rose to their natural height as I struck into the highroad again, and beheld across the level plain the smoke, chimneys, and church spires of a large manufacturing town. There I saw the welcome promise of a coach—the happy chance of making my journey to Crickgelly easy and rapid from the very outset.
On my way to the town, I was reminded by the staring of all the people I passed on the road, of one important consideration which I had hitherto most unaccountably overlooked—the necessity of making some radical change in my personal appearance.
I had no cause to dread the Bow Street runners, for not one of them had seen me; but I had the strongest possible reasons for distrusting a meeting with my enemy, Screw. He would certainly be made use of by the officers for the purpose of identifying the companions whom he had betrayed; and I had the best reasons in the world to believe that he would rather assist in the taking of me than in the capture of all the rest of the coining gang put together—the doctor himself not excepted. My present costume was of the dandy sort—rather shabby, but gay in color and outrageous in cut. I had not altered it for an artisan's suit in the doctor's house, because I never had any intention of staying there a day longer than I could possibly help. The apron in which I had wrapped the writing-desk was the only approach I had made toward wearing the honorable uniform of the workingman.
Would it be wise now to make my transformation complete, by adding to the apron a velveteen jacket and a sealskin cap? No: my hands were too white, my manners too inveterately gentleman-like, for all artisan disguise. It would be safer to assume a serious character—to shave off my whiskers, crop my hair, buy a modest hat and umbrella, and dress entirely in black. At the first slopshop I encountered in the suburbs of the town, I got a carpet-bag and a clerical-looking suit. At the first easy shaving-shop I passed, I had my hair cropped and my whiskers taken off. After that I retreated again to the country—walked back till I found a convenient hedge down a lane off the highroad—changed my upper garments behind it, and emerged, bashful, black, and reverend, with my cotton umbrella tucked modestly under my arm, my eyes on the ground, my head in the air, and my hat off my forehead. When I found two laborers touching their caps to me on my way back to the town, I knew that it was all right, and that I might now set the vindictive eyes of Screw himself safely at defiance.
I had not the most distant notion where I was when I reached the High Street, and stopped at The Green Bull Hotel and Coach-office. However, I managed to mention my modest wishes to be conveyed at once in the direction of Wales, with no more than a becoming confusion of manner.
The answer was not so encouraging as I could have wished. The coach to Shrewsbury had left an hour before, and there would be no other public conveyance running in my direct ion until the next morning. Finding myself thus obliged to yield to adverse circumstances, I submitted resignedly, and booked a place outside by the next day's coach, in the name of the Reverend John Jones. I thought it desirable to be at once unassuming and Welsh in the selection of a traveling name; and therefore considered John Jones calculated to fit me, in my present emergency, to a hair.
After securing a bed at the hotel, and ordering a frugal curate's dinner (bit of fish, two chops, mashed potatoes, semolina pudding, half-pint of sherry), I sallied out to look at the town.
Not knowing the name of it, and not daring to excite surprise by asking, I found the place full of vague yet mysterious interest. Here I was, somewhere in central England, just as ignorant of localities as if I had been suddenly deposited in Central Africa. My lively fancy revelled in the new sensation. I invented a name for the town, a code of laws for the inhabitants, productions, antiquities, chalybeate springs, population, statistics of crime, and so on, while I walked about the streets, looked in at the shop-windows, and attentively examined the Market-place and Town-hall. Experienced travelers, who have exhausted all novelties, would do well to follow my example; they may be certain, for one day at least, of getting some fresh ideas, and feeling a new sensation.
On returning to dinner in the coffee-room, I found all the London papers on the table.
The Morning Post happened to lie uppermost, so I took it away to my own seat to occupy the time, while my unpretending bit of fish was frying. Glancing lazily at the advertisements on the first page, to begin with, I was astonished by the appearance of the following lines, at the top of a column:
"If F— —K S—FTL—Y will communicate with his distressed and alarmed relatives, Mr. and Mrs. B—TT—RB—RY, he will hear of something to his advantage, and may be assured that all will be once more forgiven. A—B—LLA entreats him to write."
What, in the name of all that is most mysterious, does this mean! was my first thought after reading the advertisement. Can Lady Malkinshaw have taken a fresh lease of that impregnable vital tenement, at the door of which Death has been knocking vainly for so many years past? (Nothing more likely.) Was my felonious connection with Doctor Dulcifer suspected? (It seemed improbable.) One thing, however, was certain: I was missed, and the Batterburys were naturally anxious about me—anxious enough to advertise in the public papers.
I debated with myself whether I should answer their pathetic appeal or not. I had all my money about me (having never let it out of my own possession during my stay in the red-brick house), and there was plenty of it for the present; so I thought it best to leave the alarm and distress of my anxious relatives unrelieved for a little while longer, and to return quietly to the perusal of the Morning Post.
Five minutes of desultory reading brought me unexpectedly to an explanation of the advertisement, in the shape of the following paragraph:
"ALARMING ILLNESS OF LADY MALKINSHAW.—We regret to announce that this venerable lady was seized with an alarming illness on Saturday last, at her mansion in town. The attack took the character of a fit—of what precise nature we have not been able to learn. Her ladyship's medical attendant and near relative, Doctor Softly, was immediately called in, and predicted the most fatal results. Fresh medical attendance was secured, and her ladyship's nearest surviving relatives, Mrs. Softly, and Mr. and Mrs. Batterbury, of Duskydale Park, were summoned. At the time of their arrival her ladyship's condition was comatose, her breathing being highly stertorous. If we are rightly informed, Doctor Softly and the other medical gentlemen present gave it as their opinion that if the pulse of the venerable sufferer did not rally in the course of a quarter of an hour at most, very lamentable results might be anticipated. For fourteen minutes, as our reporter was informed, no change took place; but, strange to relate, immediately afterward her ladyship's pulse rallied suddenly in the most extraordinary manner. She was observed to open her eyes very wide, and was heard, to the surprise and delight of all surrounding the couch, to ask why her ladyship's usual lunch of chicken-broth with a glass of Amontillado sherry was not placed on the table as usual. These refreshments having been produced, under the sanction of the medical gentlemen, the aged patient partook of them with an appearance of the utmost relish. Since this happy alteration for the better, her ladyship's health has, we rejoice to say, rapidly improved; and the answer now given to all friendly and fashionable inquirers is, in the venerable lady's own humorous phraseology, 'Much better than could be expected.'"
Well done, my excellent grandmother! my firm, my unwearied, my undying friend! Never can I say that my case is desperate while you can swallow your chicken-broth and sip your Amontillado sherry. The moment I want money, I will write to Mr. Batterbury, and cut another little golden slice out of that possible three-thousand-pound-cake, for which he has already suffered and sacrificed so much. In the meantime, O venerable protectress of the wandering Rogue! let me gratefully drink your health in the nastiest and smallest half-pint of sherry this palate ever tasted, or these eyes ever beheld!
I went to bed that night in great spirits. My luck seemed to be returning to me; and I began to feel more than hopeful of really discovering my beloved Alicia at Crickgelly, under the alias of Miss Giles.
The next morning the Rev. John Jones descended to breakfast so rosy, bland, and smiling, that the chambermaids simpered as he tripped by them in the passage, and the landlady bowed graciously as he passed her parlor door. The coach drove up, and the reverend gentleman (after waiting characteristically for the woman's ladder) mounted to his place on the roof, behind the coachman. One man sat there who had got up before him—and who should that man be, but the chief of the Bow Street runners, who had rashly tried to take Doctor Dulcifer into custody!
There could not be the least doubt of his identity; I should have known his face again among a hundred. He looked at me as I took my place by his side, with one sharp searching glance—then turned his head away toward the road. Knowing that he had never set eyes on my face (thanks to the convenient peephole at the red-brick house), I thought my meeting with him was likely to be rather advantageous than otherwise. I had now an opportunity of watching the proceedings of one of our pursuers, at any rate—and surely this was something gained.
"Fine morning, sir," I said politely.
"Yes," he replied in the gruffest of monosyllables.
I was not offended: I could make allowance for the feelings of a man who had been locked up by his own prisoner.
"Very fine morning, indeed," I repeated, soothingly and cheerfully.
The runner only grunted this time. Well, well! we all have our little infirmities. I don't think the worse of the man now, for having been rude to me, that morning, on the top of the Shrewsbury coach.
The next passenger who got up and placed himself by my side was a florid, excitable, confused-looking gentleman, excessively talkative and familiar. He was followed by a sulky agricultural youth in top-boots—and then, the complement of passengers on our seat behind the coachman was complete.
"Heard the news, sir?" said the florid man, turning to me.
"Not that I am aware of," I answered.
"It's the most tremendous thing that has happened these fifty years," said the florid man. "A gang of coiners, sir, discovered at Barkingham—in a house they used to call the Grange. All the dreadful lot of bad silver that's been about, they're at the bottom of. And the head of the gang not taken!—escaped, sir, like a ghost on the stage, through a trap-door, after actually locking the runners into his workshop. The blacksmiths from Barkingham had to break them out; the whole house was found full of iron doors, back staircases, and all that sort of thing, just like the Inquisition. A most respectable man, the original proprietor! Think what a misfortune to have let his house to a scoundrel who has turned the whole inside into traps, furnaces, and iron doors. The fellow's reference, sir, was actually at a London bank, where he kept a first-rate account. What is to become of society? where is our protection? Where are our characters, when we are left at the mercy of scoundrels? The times are awful—upon my soul, the times we live in are perfectly awful!"
"Pray, sir, is there any chance of catching this coiner?" I inquired innocently.
"I hope so, sir; for the sake of outraged society, I hope so," said the excitable man. "They've printed handbills at Barkingham, offering a reward for taking him. I was with my friend the mayor, early this morning, and saw them issued. 'Mr. Mayor,' says I, 'I'm going West—give me a few copies—let me help to circulate them—for the sake of outraged society, let me help to circulate them. Here they are—take a few, sir, for distribution. You'll see these are three other fellows to be caught besides the principal rascal—one of them a scamp belonging to a respectable family. Oh! what times! Take three copies, and pray circulate them in three influential quarters. Perhaps that gentleman next you would like a few. Will you take three, sir?"
"No, I won't," said the Bow Street runner doggedly. "Nor yet one of 'em—and it's my opinion that the coining-gang would be nabbed all the sooner, if you was to give over helping the law to catch them."
This answer produced a vehement expostulation from my excitable neighbor, to which I paid little attention, being better engaged in reading the handbill.
It described the doctor's personal appearance with remarkable accuracy, and cautioned persons in seaport towns to be on the lookout for him. Old File, Young File, and myself were all dishonorably mentioned together in a second paragraph, as runaways of inferior importance Not a word was said in the handbill to show that the authorities at Barkingham even so much as suspected the direction in which any one of us had escaped. This would have been very encouraging, but for the presence of the runner by my side, which looked as if Bow Street had its suspicions, however innocent Barkingham might be.
Could the doctor have directed his flight toward Crickgelly? I trembled internally as the question suggested itself to me. Surely he would prefer writing to Miss Giles to join him when he got to a safe place of refuge, rather than encumber himself with the young lady before he was well out of reach of the far-stretching arm of the law. This seemed infinitely the most natural course of conduct. Still, there was the runner traveling toward Wales—and not certainly without a special motive. I put the handbills in my pocket, and listened for any hints which might creep out in his talk; but he perversely kept silent. The more my excitable neighbor tried to dispute with him, the more contemptuously he refused to break silence. I began to feel vehemently impatient for our arrival at Shrewsbury; for there only could I hope to discover something more of my formidable fellow-traveler's plans.
The coach stopped for dinner; and some of our passengers left us, the excitable man with the handbills among the number. I got down, and stood on the doorstep of the inn, pretending to be looking about me, but in reality watching the movements of the runner.
Rather to my surprise, I saw him go to the door of the coach and speak to one of the inside passengers. After a short conversation, of which I could not hear one word, the runner left the coach door and entered the inn, called for a glass of brandy and water, and took it out to his friend, who had not left the vehicle. The friend bent forward to receive it at the window. I caught a glimpse of his face, and felt my knees tremble under me—it was Screw himself!
Screw, pale and haggard-looking, evidently not yet recovered from the effect of my grip on his throat! Screw, in attendance on the runner, traveling inside the coach in the character of an invalid. He must be going this journey to help the Bow Street officers to identify some one of our scattered gang of whom they were in pursuit. It could not be the doctor—the runner could discover him without assistance from anybody. Why might it not be me?
I began to think whether it would be best to trust boldly in my disguise, and my lucky position outside the coach, or whether I should abandon my fellow-passengers immediately. It was not easy to settle at once which course was the safest—so I tried the effect of looking at my two alternatives from another point of view. Should I risk everything, and go on resolutely to Crickgelly, on the chance of discovering that Alicia and Miss Giles were one and the same person—or should I give up on the spot the only prospect of finding my lost mistress, and direct my attention entirely to the business of looking after my own safety?
As the latter alternative practically resolved itself into the simple question of whether I should act like a man who was in love, or like a man who was not, my natural instincts settled the difficulty in no time. I boldly imitated the example of my fellow-passengers, and went in to dinner, determined to go on afterward to Crickgelly, though all Bow Street should be following at my heels.
SECURE as I tried to feel in my change of costume, my cropped hair, and my whiskerless cheeks, I kept well away from the coach-window, when the dinner at the inn was over and the passengers were called to take their places again. Thus far—thanks to the strength of my grasp on his neck, which had left him too weak to be an outside passenger—Screw had certainly not seen me; and, if I played my cards properly, there was no reason why he should see me before we got to our destination.
Throughout the rest of the journey I observed the strictest caution, and fortune seconded my efforts. It was dark when we got to Shrewsbury. On leaving the coach I was enabled, under cover of the night, to keep a sharp watch on the proceedings of Screw and his Bow Street ally. They did not put up at the hotel, but walked away to a public house. There, my clerical character obliged me to leave them at the door.
I returned to the hotel, to make inquiries about conveyances.
The answers informed me that Crickgelly was a little fishing-village, and that there was no coach direct to it, but that two coaches running to two small Welsh towns situated at nearly equal distances from my destination, on either side of it, would pass through Shrewsbury the next morning. The waiter added, that I could book a place—conditionally—by either of these vehicles; and that, as they were always well-filled, I had better be quick in making my choice between them. Matters had now arrived at such a pass, that nothing was left for me but to trust to chance. If I waited till the morning to see whether Screw and the Bow Street runner traveled in my direction, and to find out, in case they did, which coach they took, I should be running the risk of losing a place for myself, and so delaying my journey for another day. This was not to be thought of. I told the waiter to book me a place in which coach he pleased. The two were called respectively The Humming Bee, and The Red Cross Knight. The waiter chose the latter.
Sleep was not much in my way that night. I rose almost as early as Boots himself—breakfasted—then sat at the coffee-room window looking out anxiously for the two coaches.
Nobody seemed to agree which would pass first. Each of the inn servants of whom I inquired made it a matter of partisanship, and backed his favorite coach with the most consummate assurance. At last, I heard the guard's horn and the clatter of the horses' hoofs. Up drove a coach—I looked out cautiously—it was the Humming Bee. Three outside places were vacant; one behind the coachman; two on the dickey. The first was taken immediately by a farmer, the second—-to my unspeakable disgust and terror—was secured by the inevitable Bow Street runner; who, as soon as h e was up, helped the weakly Screw into the third place, by his side. They were going to Crickgelly; not a doubt of it, now.
I grew mad with impatience for the arrival of the Red Cross Knight. Half-an-hour passed—forty minutes—and then I heard another horn and another clatter—and the Red Cross Knight rattled up to the hotel door at full speed. What if there should be no vacant place for me! I ran to the door with a sinking heart. Outside, the coach was declared to be full.
"There is one inside place," said the waiter, "if you don't mind paying the—"
Before he could say the rest, I was occupying that one inside place. I remember nothing of the journey from the time we left the hotel door, except that it was fearfully long. At some hour of the day with which I was not acquainted (for my watch had stopped for want of winding up), I was set down in a clean little street of a prim little town (the name of which I never thought of asking), and was told that the coach never went any further.
No post-chaise was to be had. With incredible difficulty I got first a gig, then a man to drive it; and, last, a pony to draw it. We hobbled away crazily from the inn door. I thought of Screw and the Bow Street runner approaching Crickgelly, from their point of the compass, perhaps at the full speed of a good post-chaise—I thought of that, and would have given all the money in my pocket for two hours' use of a fast road-hack.
Judging by the time we occupied in making the journey, and a little also by my own impatience, I should say that Crickgelly must have been at least twenty miles distant from the town where I took the gig. The sun was setting, when we first heard, through the evening stillness, the sound of the surf on the seashore. The twilight was falling as we entered the little fishing village, and let our unfortunate pony stop, for the last time, at a small inn door.
The first question I asked of the landlord was, whether two gentlemen (friends of mine, of course, whom I expected to meet) had driven into Crickgelly, a little while before me. The reply was in the negative; and the sense of relief it produced seemed to rest me at once, body and mind, after my long and anxious journey. Either I had beaten the spies on the road, or they were not bound to Crickgelly. Any way, I had first possession of the field of action. I paid the man who had driven me, and asked my way to Zion Place. My directions were simple—I had only to go through the village, and I should find Zion Place at the other end of it.
The village had a very strong smell, and a curious habit of building boats in the street between intervals of detached cottages; a helpless, muddy, fishy little place. I walked through it rapidly; turned inland a few hundred yards; ascended some rising ground; and discerned, in the dim twilight, four small lonesome villas standing in pairs, with a shed and a saw-pit on one side, and a few shells of unfinished houses on the other. Some madly speculative builder was evidently trying to turn Crickgelly into a watering-place.
I made out Number Two, and discovered the bell-handle with difficulty, it was growing so dark. A servant-maid—corporeally enormous; but, as I soon found, in a totally undeveloped state, mentally—opened the door.
"Does Miss Giles live here?" I asked.
"Don't see no visitors," answered the large maiden. "'T'other one tried it and had to go away. You go, too."
"'T'othor one?" I repeated. "Another visitor? And when did he call?"
"Better than an hour ago."
"Was there nobody with him?"
"No. Don't see no visitors. He went. You go, too."
Just as she repeated that exasperating formula of words, a door opened at the end of the passage. My voice had evidently reached the ears of somebody in the back parlor. Who the person was I could not see, but I heard the rustle of a woman's dress. My situation was growing desperate, my suspicions were aroused—I determined to risk everything—and I called softly in the direction of the open door, "Alicia!"
A voice answered, "Good heavens! Frank?" It was her voice. She had recognized mine. I pushed past the big servant; in two steps I was at the end of the passage; in one more I was in the back parlor.
She was there, standing alone by the side of a table. Seeing my changed costume and altered face, she turned deadly pale, and stretched her hand behind her mechanically, as if to take hold of a chair. I caught her in my arms; but I was afraid to kiss her—she trembled so when I only touched her.
"Frank!" she said, drawing her head back. "What is it? How did you find out? For mercy's sake what does it mean?"
"It means, love, that I've come to take care of you for the rest of your life and mine, if you will only let me. Don't tremble—there's nothing to be afraid of! Only compose yourself, and I'll tell you why I am here in this strange disguise. Come, come, Alicia!—don't look like that at me. You called me Frank just now, for the first time. Would you have done that, if you had disliked me or forgotten me?"
I saw her color beginning to come back—the old bright glow returning to the dear dusky cheeks. If I had not seen them so near me, I might have exercised some self-control—as it was, I lost my presence of mind entirely, and kissed her.
She drew herself away half-frightened, half-confused—certainly not offended, and, apparently, not very likely to faint—which was more than I could have said of her when I first entered the room. Before she had time to reflect on the peril and awkwardness of our position, I pressed the first necessary questions on her rapidly, one after the other.
"Where is Mrs. Baggs?" I asked first.
Mrs. Baggs was the housekeeper.
Alicia pointed to the closed folding-doors. "In the front parlor; asleep on the sofa."
"Have you any suspicion who the stranger was who called more than an hour ago?"
"None. The servant told him we saw no visitors, and he went away, without leaving his name."
"Have you heard from your father?"
She began to turn pale again, but controlled herself bravely, and answered in a whisper:
"Mrs. Baggs had a short note from him this morning. It was not dated; and it only said circumstances had happened which obliged him to leave home suddenly, and that we were to wait here till be wrote again, most likely in a few days."
"Now, Alicia," I said, as lightly as I could, "I have the highest possible opinion of your courage, good-sense, and self-control; and I shall expect you to keep up your reputation in my eyes, while you are listening to what I have to tell you."
Saying these words, I took her by the hand and made her sit close by me; then, breaking it to her as gently and gradually as possible, I told her all that had happened at the red-brick house since the evening when she left the dinner-table, and we exchanged our parting look at the dining-room door.
It was almost as great a trial to me to speak as it was to her to hear. She suffered so violently, felt such evident misery of shame and terror, while I was relating the strange events which had occurred in her absence, that I once or twice stopped in alarm, and almost repented my boldness in telling her the truth. However, fair-dealing with her, cruel as it might seem at the time, was the best and safest course for the future. How could I expect her to put all her trust in me if I began by deceiving her—if I fell into prevarications and excuses at the very outset of our renewal of intercourse? I went on desperately to the end, taking a hopeful view of the most hopeless circumstances, and making my narrative as mercifully short as possible.
When I had done, the poor girl, in the extremity of her forlornness and distress, forgot all the little maidenly conventionalities and young-lady-like restraints of everyday life—and, in a burst of natural grief and honest confiding helplessness, hid her face on my bosom, and cried there as if she were a child again, and I was the mother to whom she had been used to look for comfort.
I made no attempt to stop her tears—they were the safest and best vent for the violent agitation under which she was suffering. I said nothing; words, at such a ti me as that, would only have aggravated her distress. All the questions I had to ask; all the proposals I had to make, must, I felt, be put off—no matter at what risk—until some later and calmer hour. There we sat together, with one long unsnuffed candle lighting us smokily; with the discordantly-grotesque sound of the housekeeper's snoring in the front room, mingling with the sobs of the weeping girl on my bosom. No other noise, great or small, inside the house or out of it, was audible. The summer night looked black and cloudy through the little back window.
I was not much easier in my mind, now that the trial of breaking my bad news to Alicia was over. That stranger who had called at the house an hour before me, weighed on my spirits. It could not have been Doctor Dulcifer. He would have gained admission. Could it be the Bow Street runner, or Screw? I had lost sight of them, it is true; but had they lost sight of me?
Alicia's grief gradually exhausted itself. She feebly raised her head, and, turning it away from me, hid her face. I saw that she was not fit for talking yet, and begged her to go upstairs to the drawing-room and lie down a little. She looked apprehensively toward the folding-doors that shut us off from the front parlor.
"Leave Mrs. Baggs to me," I said. "I want to have a few words with her; and, as soon as you are gone, I'll make noise enough here to wake her."
Alicia looked at me inquiringly and amazedly. I did not speak again. Time was now of terrible importance to us—I gently led her to the door.
As soon as I was alone, I took from my pocket one of the handbills which my excitable fellow-traveler had presented to me, so as to have it ready for Mrs. Baggs the moment we stood face to face. Armed with this ominous letter of introduction, I kicked a chair down against the folding-doors, by way of giving a preliminary knock to arouse the housekeeper's attention. The plan was immediately successful. Mrs. Baggs opened the doors of communication violently. A slight smell of spirits entered the room, and was followed close by the housekeeper herself, with an indignant face and a disordered head-dress.
"What do you mean, sir? How dare you—" she began; then stopped aghast, looking at me in speechless astonishment.
"I have been obliged to make a slight alteration in my personal appearance, ma'am," I said. "But I am still Frank Softly."
"Don't talk to me about personal appearances, sir," cried Mrs. Baggs recovering. "What do you mean by being here? Leave the house immediately. I shall write to the doctor, Mr. Softly, this very night."
"He has no address you can direct to," I rejoined. "If you don't believe me, read that." I gave her the handbill without another word of preface.
Mrs. Baggs looked at it—lost in an instant some of the fine color plentifully diffused over her face by sleep and spirits—sat down in the nearest chair with a thump that seemed to threaten the very foundations of Number Two, Zion Place—and stared me hard in the face; the most speechless and helpless elderly female I ever beheld.
"Take plenty of time to compose yourself ma'am," I said. "If you don't see the doctor again soon, under the gallows, you will probably not have the pleasure of meeting with him for some considerable time."
Mrs. Baggs smote both her hands distractedly on her knees, and whispered a devout ejaculation to herself softly.
"Allow me to deal with you, ma'am, as a woman of the world," I went on. "If you will give me half-an-hour's hearing, I will explain to you how I come to know what I do; how I got here; and what I have to propose to Miss Alicia and to you."
"If you have the feelings of a man, sir," said Mrs. Baggs, shaking her head and raising her eyes to heaven, "you will remember that I have nerves, and will not presume upon them."
As the old lady uttered the last words, I thought I saw her eyes turn from heaven, and take the earthly direction of the sofa in the front parlor. It struck me also that her lips looked rather dry. Upon these two hints I spoke.
"Might I suggest some little stimulant?" I asked, with respectful earnestness. "I have heard my grandmother (Lady Malkinshaw) say that, 'a drop in time saves nine.'"
"You will find it under the sofa pillow," said Mrs. Baggs, with sudden briskness. "'A drop in time saves nine'—my sentiments, if I may put myself on a par with her ladyship. The liqueur-glass, Mr. Softly, is in the backgammon-board. I hope her ladyship was well the last time you heard from her? Suffers from her nerves, does she? Like me, again. In the backgammon-board. Oh, this news, this awful news!"
I found the bottle of brandy in the place indicated, but no liqueur-glass in the backgammon-board. There was, however, a wine-glass, accidentally left on a chair by the sofa. Mrs. Baggs did not seem to notice the difference when I brought it into the back room and filled it with brandy.
"Take a toothful yourself," said Mrs. Baggs, lightly tossing off the dram in a moment. "'A drop in time'—I can't help repeating it, it's so nicely expressed. Still, with submission to her ladyship's better judgment, Mr. Softly, the question seems now to arise, whether, if one drop in time saves nine, two drops in time may not save eighteen." Here Mrs. Baggs forgot her nerves and winked. I returned the wink and filled the glass a second time. "Oh, this news, this awful news!" said Mrs. Baggs, remembering her nerves again.
Just then I thought I heard footsteps in front of the house, but, listening more attentively, found that it had begun to rain, and that I had been deceived by the pattering of the first heavy drops against the windows. However, the bare suspicion that the same stranger who had called already might be watching the house now, was enough to startle me very seriously, and to suggest the absolute necessity of occupying no more precious time in paying attention to the vagaries of Mrs. Baggs' nerves. It was also of some importance that I should speak to her while she was sober enough to understand what I meant in a general way.
Feeling convinced that she was in imminent danger of becoming downright drunk if I gave her another glass, I kept my hand on the bottle, and forthwith told my story over again in a very abridged and unceremonious form, and without allowing her one moment of leisure for comment on my narrative, whether it might be of the weeping, winking, drinking, groaning, or ejaculating kind. As I had anticipated, when I came to a conclusion, and consequently allowed her an opportunity of saying a few words, she affected to be extremely shocked and surprised at hearing of the nature of her master's pursuits, and reproached me in terms of the most vehement and virtuous indignation for incurring the guilt of abetting them, even though I had done so from the very excusable motive of saving my own life. Having a lively sense of the humorous, I was necessarily rather amused by this; but I began to get a little surprised as well, when we diverged to the subject of the doctor's escape, on finding that Mrs. Baggs viewed the fact of his running away to some hiding-place of his own in the light of a personal insult to his faithful and attached housekeeper.
"It shows a want of confidence in me," said the old lady, "which I may forgive, but can never forget. The sacrifices I have made for that ungrateful man are not to be told in words. The very morning he sent us away here, what did I do? Packed up the moment he said Go. I had my preserves to pot, and the kitchen chimney to be swept, and the lock of my box hampered into the bargain. Other women in my place would have grumbled—I got up directly, as lively as any girl of eighteen you like to mention. Says he, 'I want Alicia taken out of young Softly's way, and you must do it.'—-Says I, 'This very morning, sir?'—Says he, 'This very morning.'—Says I, 'Where to?'—Says he, 'As far off as ever you can go; coast of Wales—Crickgelly. I won't trust her nearer; young Softly's too cunning, and she's too fond of him.'—'Any more orders, sir?' says I.—'Yes; take some fancy name—Simkins, Johnson, Giles, Jones, James,' says he, 'what you like bu t Dulcifer; for that scamp Softly will move heaven and earth to trace her.'—'What else?' says I.—'Nothing, but look sharp,' says he; 'and mind one thing, that she sees no visitors, and posts no letters.' Before those last words had been out of his wicked lips an hour, we were off. A nice job I had to get her away—a nice job to stop her from writing letters to you—a nice job to keep her here. But I did it; I followed my orders like a slave in a plantation with a whip at his bare back. I've had rheumatics, weak legs, bad nights, and miss in the sulks—all from obeying the doctor's orders. And what is my reward? He turns coiner, and runs away without a word to me beforehand, and writes me a trumpery note, without a date to it, without a farthing of money in it, telling me nothing! Look at my confidence in him, and then look at the way he's treated me in return. What woman's nerves can stand that? Don't keep fidgeting with the bottle! Pass it this way, Mr. Softly, or you'll break it, and drive me distracted."
"He has no excuse, ma'am," I said. "But will you allow me to change the subject, as I am pressed for time? You appear to be so well acquainted with the favorable opinion which Miss Alicia and I entertain of each other, that I hope it will be no fresh shock to your nerves, if I inform you, in plain words, that I have come to Crickgelly to marry her."
"Marry her! marry—If you don't leave off fidgeting with the bottle, Mr. Softly, and change the subject directly, I shall ring the bell."
"Hear me out, ma'am, and then ring if you like. If you persist, however, in considering yourself still the confidential servant of a felon who is now flying for his life, and if you decline allowing the young lady to act as she wishes, I will not be so rude as to hint that—as she is of age—she may walk out of this house with me, whenever she likes, without your having the power to prevent her; but, I will politely ask instead, what you would propose to do with her, in the straitened position as to money in which she and you are likely to be placed? You can't find her father to give her to; and, if you could, who would be the best protector for her? The doctor, who is the principal criminal in the eye of the law, or I, who am only the unwilling accomplice? He is known to the Bow Street runners—I am not. There is a reward for the taking of him, and none for the taking of me. He has no respectable relatives and friends, I have plenty. Every way my chances are the best; and consequently I am, every way, the fittest person to trust her to. Don't you see that?"
Mrs. Baggs did not immediately answer. She snatched the bottle out of my hands—drank off another dram, shook her head at me, and ejaculated lamentably: "My nerves, my nerves! what a heart of stone he must have to presume on my poor nerves!"
"Give me one minute more," I went on. "I propose to take you and Alicia to-morrow morning to Scotland. Pray don't groan! I only suggest the journey with a matrimonial object. In Scotland, Mrs. Baggs, if a man and woman accept each other as husband and wife, before one witness, it is a lawful marriage; and that kind of wedding is, as you see plainly enough, the only safe refuge for a bridegroom in my situation. If you consent to come with us to Scotland, and serve as witness to the marriage, I shall be delighted to acknowledge my sense of your kindness in the eloquent language of the Bank of England, as expressed to the world in general on the surface of a five-pound note."
I cautiously snatched away the brandy bottle as I spoke, and was in the drawing-room with it in an instant. As I suppose, Mrs. Baggs tried to follow me, for I heard the door rattle, as if she had got out of her chair, and suddenly slipped back into it again. I felt certain of her deciding to help us, if she was only sober enough to reflect on what I had said to her. The journey to Scotland was a tedious, and perhaps a dangerous, undertaking. But I had no other alternative to choose.
In those uncivilized days, the Marriage Act had not been passed, and there was no convenient hymeneal registrar in England to change a vagabond runaway couple into a respectable man and wife at a moment's notice. The trouble and expense of taking Mrs. Baggs with us, I encountered, of course, solely out of regard for Alicia's natural prejudices. She had led precisely that kind of life which makes any woman but a bad one morbidly sensitive on the subject of small proprieties. If she had been a girl with a recognized position in society, I should have proposed to her to run away with me alone. As it was, the very defenselessness of her situation gave her, in my opinion, the right to expect from me even the absurdest sacrifices to the narrowest conventionalities. Mrs. Baggs was not quite so sober in her habits, perhaps, as matrons in general are expected to be; but, for my particular purpose, this was only a slight blemish; it takes so little, after all, to represent the abstract principle of propriety in the short-sighted eye of the world.
As I reached the drawing-room door, I looked at my watch.
Nine o'clock! and nothing done yet to facilitate our escaping from Crickgelly to the regions of civilized life the next morning. I was pleased to hear, when I knocked at the door, that Alicia's voice sounded firmer as she told me to come in. She was more confused than astonished or frightened when I sat down by her on the sofa, and repeated the principal topics of my conversion with Mrs. Baggs.
"Now, my own love," I said, in conclusion—suiting my gestures, it is unnecessary to say, to the tenderness of my language—"there is not the least doubt that Mrs. Baggs will end by agreeing to my proposals. Nothing remains, therefore, but for you to give me the answer now, which I have been waiting for ever since that last day when we met by the riverside. I did not know then what the motive was for your silence and distress. I know now, and I love you better after that knowledge than I did before it."
Her head dropped into its former position on my bosom, and she murmured a few words, but too faintly for me to hear them.
"You knew more about your father, then, than I did?" I whispered.
"Less than you have told me since," she interposed quickly, without raising her face.
"Enough to convince you that he was breaking the laws," I suggested; "and, to make you, as his daughter, shrink from saying 'yes' to me when we sat together on the river bank?"
She did not answer. One of her arms, which was hanging over my shoulder, stole round my neck, and clasped it gently.
"Since that time," I went on, "your father has compromised me. I am in some danger, not much, from the law. I have no prospects that are not of the most doubtful kind; and I have no excuse for asking you to share them, except that I have fallen into my present misfortune through trying to discover the obstacle that kept us apart. If there is any protection in the world that you can turn to, less doubtful than mine, I suppose I ought to say no more, and leave the house. But if there should be none, surely I am not so very selfish in asking you to take your chance with me? I honestly believe that I shall have little difficulty, with ordinary caution, in escaping from pursuit, and finding a safe home somewhere to begin life in again with new interests. Will you share it with me, Alicia? I can try no fresh persuasions—-I have no right, perhaps, in my present situation to have addressed so many to you already."
Her other arm stole round my neck; she laid her cheek against mine, and whispered—
"Be kind to me, Frank—I have nobody in the world who loves me but you!"
I felt her tears on my face; my own eyes moistened as I tried to answer her. We sat for some minutes in perfect silence—without moving, without a thought beyond the moment. The rising of the wind, and the splashing of the rain outside were the first sounds that stirred me into action again.
I summoned my resolution, rose from the sofa, and in a few hasty words told Alicia what I proposed for the next day, and mentioned the hour at which I would come in the morning. As I had anticipated, she seemed relieved and reassured at the prospect even of such slight sanction and encouragement, on the part of another woman, as would be implied by the companionship of Mrs. Baggs on the journey to Scotland.
The next and last difficulty I had to encounter was necessarily connected with her father. He had never been very affectionate; and he was now, for aught she or I knew to the contrary, parted from her forever. Still, the instinctive recognition of his position made her shrink, at the last moment, when she spoke of him, and thought of the serious nature of her engagement with me. After some vain arguing and remonstrating, I contrived to quiet her scruples, by promising that an address should be left at Crickgelly, to which any second letter that might arrive from the doctor could be forwarded. When I saw that this prospect of being able to communicate with him, if he wrote or wished to see her, had sufficiently composed her mind, I left the drawing-room. It was vitally important that I should get back to the inn and make the necessary arrangements for our departure the next morning, before the primitive people of the place had retired to bed.
As I passed the back parlor door on my way out, I heard the voice of Mrs. Baggs raised indignantly. The words "bottle!" "audacity!" and "nerves!" reached my ear disjointedly. I called out "Good-by! till to-morrow;" heard a responsive groan of disgust; then opened the front door, and plunged out into the dark and rainy night.
It might have been the dropping of water from the cottage roofs while I passed through the village, or the groundless alarm of my own suspicious fancy, but I thought I was being followed as I walked back to the inn. Two or three times I turned round abruptly. If twenty men had been at my heels, it was too dark to see them. I went on to the inn.
The people there were not gone to bed; and I sent for the landlord to consult with him about a conveyance. Perhaps it was my suspicious fancy again; but I thought his manner was altered. He seemed half distrustful, half afraid of me, when I asked him if there had been any signs, during my absence, of those two gentlemen, for whom I had already inquired on arriving at his door that evening. He gave an answer in the negative, looking away from me while he spoke.
Thinking it advisable, on the whole, not to let him see that I noticed a change in him, I proceeded at once to the question of the conveyance, and was told that I could hire the landlord's light cart, in which he was accustomed to drive to the market town. I appointed an hour for starting the next day, and retired at once to my bedroom. There my thoughts were enough. I was anxious about Screw and the Bow Street runner. I was uncertain about the stranger who had called at Number Two, Zion Place. I was in doubt even about the landlord of the inn. Never did I know what real suffering from suspense was, until that night, Whatever my apprehensions might have been, they were none of them realized the next morning.
Nobody followed me on my way to Zion Place, and no stranger had called there before me a second time, when I made inquiries on entering the house. I found Alicia blushing, and Mrs. Baggs impenetrably wrapped up in dignified sulkiness. After informing me with a lofty look that she intended to go to Scotland with us, and to take my five-pound note—partly under protest, and partly out of excessive affection for Alicia—she retired to pack up. The time consumed in performing this process, and the further delay occasioned by paying small outstanding debts to tradespeople, and settling with the owner of the house, detained us till nearly noon before we were ready to get into the landlord's cart.
I looked behind me anxiously at starting, and often afterward on the road; but never saw anything to excite my suspicions. In settling matters with the landlord over night, I had arranged that we should be driven to the nearest town at which a post-chaise could be obtained. My resources were just as likely to hold out against the expenses of posting, where public conveyances could not be obtained, as against the expense of waiting privately at hotels, until the right coaches might start. According to my calculations, my money would last till we got to Scotland. After that, I had my watch, rings, shirtpin, and Mr. Batterbury, to help in replenishing my purse. Anxious, therefore, as I was about other things, money matters, for once in a way, did not cause me the smallest uneasiness.
WE posted five-and-thirty miles, then stopped for a couple of hours to rest, and wait for a night coach running northward.
On getting into this vehicle we were fortunate enough to find the fourth inside place not occupied. Mrs. Baggs showed her sense of the freedom from restraint thus obtained by tying a huge red comforter round her head like a turban, and immediately falling fast asleep. This gave Alicia and me full liberty to talk as we pleased. Our conversation was for the most part of that particular kind which is not of the smallest importance to any third person in the whole world. One portion of it, however, was an exception to this general rule. It had a very positive influence on my fortunes, and it is, therefore, I hope, of sufficient importance to bear being communicated to the reader.
We had changed horses for the fourth time, had seated ourselves comfortably in our places, and had heard Mrs. Baggs resume the kindred occupations of sleeping and snoring, when Alicia whispered to me:
"I must have no secrets, now, from you—must I, Frank?"
"You must have anything you like, do anything you like, and say anything you like. You must never ask leave—but only grant it!"
"Shall you always tell me that, Frank?"
I did not answer in words, but the conversation suffered a momentary interruption. Of what nature, susceptible people will easily imagine. As for the hard-hearted I don't write for them.
"My secret need not alarm you," Alicia went on, in tones that began to sound rather sadly; "it is only about a tiny pasteboard box that I can carry in the bosom of my dress. But it has got three diamonds in it, Frank, and one beautiful ruby. Did you ever give me credit for having so much that was valuable about me?—shall I give it you to keep for me?"
I remembered directly Old File's story of Mrs. Dulcifer's elopement, and of the jewels she had taken with her. It was easy to guess, after what I had heard, that the poor woman had secretly preserved some of her little property for the benefit of her child.
"I have no present need of money, darling," I answered; "keep the box in its present enviable position." I stopped there, saying nothing of the thought that was really uppermost in my mind. If any unforeseen accident placed me within the grip of the law, I should not now have the double trial to endure of leaving my wife for a prison, and leaving her helpless.
Morning dawned and found us still awake. The sun rose, Mrs. Baggs left off snoring, and we arrived at the last stage before the coach stopped.
I got out to see about some tea for my traveling companions, and looked up at the outside passengers. One of them seated in the dickey looked down at me. He was a countryman in a smock-frock, with a green patch over one of his eyes. Something in the expression of his uncovered eye made me pause—reflect—turn away uneasily—and then look again at him furtively. A sudden shudder ran through me from top to toe; my heart sank; and my head began to feel giddy. The countryman in the dickey was no other than the Bow Street runner in disguise.
I kept away from the coach till the fresh horses were on the point of starting, for I was afraid to let Alicia see my face, after making that fatal discovery. She noticed how pale I was when I got in. I made the best excuse I could; and gently insisted on her trying to sleep a little after being awake all night. She lay back in her corner; and Mrs. Baggs, comforted with a morning dram in her tea, fell asleep again. I had thus an hour's leisure before me to think what I should do next.
Screw was not in company with the runner this time. He must have managed to identify me somewhere, and the officer doubtless knew my personal appearance well enough now to follow and make sure of me without help. That I was the man whom he was tracking could not be doubted: his disguise and his position on the top of the coach proved it only too plainly.
But why had he not seized me at once? Probably because he had some ulterior purpose to serve, which would have been thwarted by my immediate apprehension. What that purpose was I did my best to fathom, and, as I thought, succeeded in the attempt. What I was to do when the coach stopped was a more difficult point to settle. To give the runner the slip, with two women to take care of, was simply impossible. To treat him, as I had treated Screw at the red-brick house, was equally out of the question, for he was certain to give me no chance of catching him alone. To keep him in ignorance of the real object of my journey, and thereby to delay his discovering himself and attempting to make me a prisoner, seemed the only plan on the safety of which I could place the smallest reliance. If I had ever had any idea of following the example of other runaway lovers, and going to Gretna Green, I should now have abandoned it. All roads in that direction would betray what the purpose of my journey was if I took them. Some large town in Scotland would be the safest destination that I could publicly advertise myself as bound for. Why not boldly say that I was going with the two ladies to Edinburgh?
Such was the plan of action which I now adopted.
To give any idea of the distracted condition of my mind at the time when I was forming it, is simply impossible. As for doubting whether I ought to marry at all under these dangerous circumstances, I must frankly own that I was too selfishly and violently in love to look the question fairly in the face at first. When I subsequently forced myself to consider it, the most distinct project I could frame for overcoming all difficulty was, to marry myself (the phrase is strictly descriptive of the Scotch ceremony) at the first inn we came to, over the Border; to hire a chaise, or take places in a public conveyance to Edinburgh, as a blind; to let Alicia and Mrs. Baggs occupy those places; to remain behind myself; and to trust to my audacity and cunning, when left alone, to give the runner the slip. Writing of it now, in cool blood, this seems as wild and hopeless a plan as ever was imagined. But, in the confused and distracted state of all my faculties at that period, it seemed quite easy to execute, and not in the least doubtful as to any one of its probable results.
On reaching the town at which the coach stopped, we found ourselves obliged to hire another chaise for a short distance, in order to get to the starting-point of a second coach. Again we took inside places, and again, at the first stages when I got down to look at the outside passengers, there was the countryman with the green shade over his eye. Whatever conveyance we traveled by on our northward road, we never escaped him. He never attempted to speak to me, never seemed to notice me, and never lost sight of me. On and on we went, over roads that seemed interminable, and still the dreadful sword of justice hung always, by its single hair, over my head. My haggard face, my feverish hands, my confused manner, my inexpressible impatience, all belied the excuses with which I desperately continued to ward off Alicia's growing fears, and Mrs. Baggs's indignant suspicions. "Oh! Frank, something has happened! For God's sake, tell me what!"—"Mr. Softly, I can see through a deal board as far as most people. You are following the doctor's wicked example, and showing a want of confidence in me." These were the remonstrances of Alicia and the housekeeper.
At last we got out of England, and I was still a free man. The chaise (we were posting again) brought us into a dirty town, and drew up at the door of a shabby inn. A shock-headed girl received us.
"Are we in Scotland?" I asked.
"Mon! whar' else should ye be?" The accent relieved me of all doubt.
"A private room—something to eat, ready in an hour's time—chaise afterward to the nearest place from which a coach runs to Edinburgh." Giving these orders rapidly, I followed the girl with my traveling companions into a stuffy little room. As soon as our attendant had left us, I locked the door, put the key in my pocket, and took Alicia by the hand.
"Now, Mrs. Baggs," said I, "bear witness—"
"You're not going to marry her now!" interposed Mrs. Baggs, indignantly. "Bear witness, indeed! I won't bear witness till I've taken off my bonnet, and put my hair tidy!"
"The ceremony won't take a minute," I answered; "and I'll give you your five-pound note and open the door the moment it's over. Bear witness," I went on, drowning Mrs. Baggs's expostulations with the all-important marriage-words, "that I take this woman, Alicia Dulcifer for my lawful wedded wife."
"In sickness and in health, in poverty and wealth," broke in Mrs. Baggs, determining to represent the clergyman as well as to be the witness.
"Alicia, dear," I said, interrupting in my turn, "repeat my words. Say 'I take this man, Francis Softly, for my lawful wedded husband.'"
She repeated the sentence, with her face very pale, with her dear hand cold and trembling in mine.
"For better for worse," continued the indomitable Mrs. Baggs. "Little enough of the Better, I'm afraid, and Lord knows how much of the Worse."
I stopped her again with the promised five-pound note, and opened the room door. "Now, ma'am," I said, "go to your room; take off your bonnet, and put your hair as tidy as you please."
Mrs. Baggs raised her eyes and hands to heaven, exclaimed "Disgraceful!" and flounced out of the room in a passion. Such was my Scotch marriage—as lawful a ceremony, remember, as the finest family wedding at the largest parish church in all England.
An hour passed; and I had not yet summoned the cruel courage to communicate my real situation to Alicia. The entry of the shock-headed servant-girl to lay the cloth, followed by Mrs. Baggs, who was never out of the way where eating and drinking appeared in prospect, helped me to rouse myself. I resolved to go out for a few minutes to reconnoiter, and make myself acquainted with any facilities for flight or hiding which the situation of the house might present. No doubt the Bow Street runner was lurking somewhere; but he must, as a matter of course, have heard, or informed himself, of the orders I had given relating to our conveyance on to Edinburgh; and, in that case, I was still no more in danger of his avowing himself and capturing me, than I had been at any previous period of our journey.
"I am going out for a moment, love, to see about the chaise," I said to Alicia. She suddenly looked up at me with an anxious searching expression. Was my face betraying anything of my real purpose? I hurried to the door before she could ask me a single question.
The front of the inn stood nearly in the middle of the principal street of the town. No chance of giving any one the slip in that direction; and no sign, either, of the Bow Street runner. I sauntered round, with the most unconcerned manner I could assume, to the back of the house, by the inn yard. A door in one part of it stood half-open. Inside was a bit of kitchen-garden, bounded by a paling; beyond that some backs of detached houses; beyond them, again, a plot of weedy ground, a few wretched cottages, and the open, heathery moor. Good enough for running away, but terribly bad for hiding.
I returned disconsolately to the inn. Walking along the passage toward the staircase, I suddenly heard footsteps behind me—turned round, and saw the Bow Street runner (clothed again in his ordinary costume, and accompanied by two strange men) standing between me and the door.
"Sorry to stop you from going to Edinburgh, Mr. Softly," he said. "But you're wanted back at Barkingham. I've just found out what you have been traveling all the way to Scotland for; and I take you prisoner, as one of the coining gang. Take it easy, sir. I've got help, you see; and you can't throttle three men, whatever you may have done at Barkingham with one."
He handcuffed me as he spoke. Resistance was hopeless. I could only make an appeal to his mercy, on Alicia's account.
"Give me ten minutes," I said, "to break what has happened to my wife. We were only married an hour ago. If she knows this suddenly, it may be the death of her."
"You've led me a nice dance on a wrong scent," answered the runner, sulkily. "But I never was a hard man where women are concerned. Go upstairs, and leave the door open, so that I can see in through it if I like. Hold your hat over your wrists, if you don't want her to see the handcuffs."
I ascended the first flight of stairs, and my heart gave a sudden bound as if it would burst. I stopped, speechless and helpless, at the sight of Alicia, standing alone on the landing. My first look at her face told me she had heard all that had passed in the passage. She passionately struck the hat with which I had been trying to hide the handcuffs out of my fingers, and clasped me in her arms with such sudden and desperate energy that she absolutely hurt me.
"I was afraid of something, Frank," she whispered. "I followed you a little way. I stopped here; I have heard everything. Don't let us be parted! I am stronger than you think me. I won't be frightened. I won't cry. I won't trouble anybody, if that man will only take me with you!"
It is best for my sake, if not for the reader's, to hurry over the scene that followed.
It ended with as little additional wretchedness as could be expected. The runner was resolute about keeping me handcuffed, and taking me back, without a moment's unnecessary waste of time to Barkingham; but he relented on other points.
Where he was obliged to order a private conveyance, there was no objection to Alicia and Mrs. Baggs following it. Where we got into a coach, there was no harm in their hiring two inside places. I gave my watch, rings, and last guinea to Alicia, enjoining her, on no account, to let her box of jewels see the light until we could get proper advice on the best means of turning them to account. She listened to these and other directions with a calmness that astonished me.
"You shan't say, my dear, that your wife has helped to make you uneasy by so much as a word or a look," she whispered to me as we left the inn.
And she kept the hard promise implied in that one short sentence throughout the journey. Once only did I see her lose her self-possession. At starting on our way south, Mrs. Baggs—taking the same incomprehensible personal offense at my misfortune which she had previously taken at the doctor's—upbraided me with my want of confidence in her, and declared that it was the main cause of all my present trouble. Alicia turned on her as she was uttering the words, with a look and a warning that silenced her in an instant:
"If you say another syllable that isn't kind to him, you shall find your way back by yourself!"
The words may not seem of much importance to others; but I thought, as I overheard them, that they justified every sacrifice I had made for my wife's sake.
ON our way back I received from the runner some explanation of his apparently unaccountable proceedings in reference to myself.
To begin at the beginning, it turned out that the first act of the officers, on their release from the workroom in the red-brick house, was to institute a careful search for papers in the doctor's study and bedroom. Among the other documents that he had not had time to destroy, was a letter to him from Alicia, which they took from one of the pockets of his dressing-gown. Finding, from the report of the men who had followed the gig, that he had distanced all pursuit, and having therefore no direct clew to his whereabout, they had been obliged to hunt after him in various directions, on pure speculation. Alicia's letter to her father gave the address of the house at Crickgelly; and to this the runner repaired, on the chance of intercepting or discovering any communications which the doctor might make to his daughter, Screw being taken with the officer to identify the young lady. After leaving the last coach, they posted to within a mile of Crickgelly, and then walked into the village, in order to excite no special attention, should the doctor be lurking in the neighborhood. The runner had tried ineffectually to gain admission as a visitor at Zion Place. After having the door shut on him, he and Screw had watched the house and village, and had seen me approach Number Two. Their suspicions were directly excited.
Thus far, Screw had not recognized, nor even observed me; but he immediately identified me by my voice, while I was parleying with the stupid servant at the door. The runner, hearing who I was, reasonably enough concluded that I must be the recognized medium of communication between the doctor and his daughter, especially when he found that I was admitted, instantly after calling, past the servant, to some one inside the house.
Leaving Screw on the watch, he went to the inn, discovered himself privately to the landlord, and made sure (in more ways than one, as I conjectured) of knowing when, and in what direction, I should leave Crickgelly. On finding that I was to leave it the next morning, with Alicia and Mrs. Baggs, he immediately suspected that I was charged with the duty of taking the daughter to, or near, the place chosen for the father's retreat; and had therefore abstained from interfering prematurely with my movements. Knowing whither we were bound in the cart, he had ridden after us, well out of sight, with his countryman's disguise ready for use in the saddle-bags—Screw, in case of any mistakes or mystifications, being left behind on the watch at Crickgelly.
The possibility that I might be running away with Alicia had suggested itself to him; but he dismissed it as improbable, first when he saw that Mrs. Baggs accompanied us, and again, when, on nearing Scotland, he found that we did not take the road to Gretna Green. He acknowledged, in conclusion, that he should have followed us to Edinburgh, or even to the Continent itself, on the chance of our leading him to the doctor's retreat, but for the servant girl at the inn, who had listened outside the door while our brief marriage ceremony was proceeding, and from whom, with great trouble and delay, he had extracted all the information he required. A further loss of half an hour's time had occurred while he was getting the necessary help to assist him, in the event of my resisting, or trying to give him the slip, in making me a prisoner. These small facts accounted for the hour's respite we had enjoyed at the inn, and terminated the runner's narrative of his own proceedings.
On arriving at our destination I was, of course, immediately taken to the jail.
Alicia, by my advice, engaged a modest lodging in a suburb of Barkingham. In the days of the red-brick house, she had seldom been seen in the town, and she was not at all known by sight in the suburb. We arranged that she was to visit me as often as the authorities would let her. She had no companion, and wanted none. Mrs. Baggs, who had never forgiven the rebuke administered to her at the starting-point of our journey, left us at the close of it. Her leave-taking was dignified and pathetic. She kindly informed Alicia that she wished her well, though she could not conscientiously look upon her as a lawful married woman; and she begged me (in case I got off), the next time I met with a respectable person who was kind to me, to profit by remembering my past errors, and to treat my next benefactress with more confidence than I had treated her.
My first business in the prison was to write to Mr. Batterbury.
I had a magnificent ease to present to him, this time. Although I believed myself, and had succeeded in persuading Alicia, that I was sure of being recommended to mercy, it was not the less the fact that I was charged with an offense still punishable by death, in the then barbarous state of the law. I delicately stated just enough of my case to make one thing clear to the mind of Mr. Batterbury. My affectionate sister's interest in the contingent reversion was now ( unless Lady Malkinshaw perversely and suddenly expired) actually threatened by the Gallows!
While calmly awaiting the answer, I was by no means without subjects to occupy my attention when Alicia was not at the prison. There was my fellow-workman—Mill—(the first member of our society betrayed by Screw) to compare notes with; and there was a certain prisoner who had been transported, and who had some very important and interesting particulars to communicate, relative to life and its chances in our felon-settlements at the Antipodes. I talked a great deal with this man; for I felt that his experience might be of the greatest possible benefit to me.
Mr. Batterbury's answer was speedy, short, and punctual. I had shattered his nervous system forever, he wrote, but had only stimulated his devotion to my family, and his Christian readiness to look pityingly on my transgressions. He had engaged the leader of the circuit to defend me; and he would have come to see me, but for Mrs. Batterbury; who had implored him not to expose himself to agitation. Of Lady Malkinshaw the letter said nothing; but I afterward discovered that she was then at Cheltenham, drinking the waters and playing whist in the rudest health and spirits.
It is a bold thing to say, but nothing will ever persuade me that Society has not a sneaking kindness for a Rogue.
For example, my father never had half the attention shown to him in his own house, which was shown to me in my prison. I have seen High Sheriffs in the great world, whom my father went to see, give him two fingers—the High Sheriff of Barkinghamshire came to see me, and shook hands cordially. Nobody ever wanted my father's autograph—dozens of people asked for mine. Nobody ever put my father's portrait in the frontispiece of a magazine, or described his personal appearance and manners with anxious elaboration, in the large type of a great newspaper—I enjoyed both those honors. Three official individuals politely begged me to be sure and make complaints if my position was not perfectly comfortable. No official individual ever troubled his head whether my father was comfortable or not. When the day of my trial came, the court was thronged by my lovely countrywomen, who stood up panting in the crowd and crushing their beautiful dresses, rather than miss the pleasure of seeing the dear Rogue in the dock. When my father once stood on the lecturer's rostrum, and delivered his excellent discourse, called "Medical Hints to Maids and Mothers on Tight Lacing and Teething," the benches were left empty by the ungrateful women of England, who were not in the slightest degree anxious to feast their eyes on the sight of a learned adviser and respectable man. If these facts led to one inevitable conclusion, it is not my fault. We Rogues are the spoiled children of Society. We may not be openly acknowledged as Pets, but we all know, by pleasant experience, that we are treated like them.
The trial was deeply affecting. My defense—or rather my barrister's—was the simple truth. It was impossible to overthrow the facts against us; so we honestly owned that I got into the scrape through love for Alicia. My counsel turned this to the best possible sentimental account. He cried; the ladies cried; the jury cried; the judge cried; and Mr. Batterbury, who had desperately come to see the trial, and know the worst, sobbed with such prominent vehemence, that I believe him, to this day, to have greatly influenced the verdict. I was strongly recommended to mercy and got off with fourteen years' transportation. The unfortunate Mill, who was tried after me, with a mere dry-eyed barrister to defend him, was hanged.
WITH the record of my sentence of transportation, my life as a Rogue ends, and my existence as a respectable man begins. I am sorry to say anything which may disturb popular delusions on the subject of poetical justice, but this is strictly the truth.
My first anxiety was about my wife's future.
Mr. Batterbury gave me no chance of asking his advice after the trial. The moment sentence had been pronounced, he allowed himself to be helped out of court in a melancholy state of prostration, and the next morning he left for London. I suspect he was afraid to face me, and nervously impatient, besides, to tell Annabella that he had saved the legacy again by another alarming sacrifice. My father and mother, to whom I had written on the subject of Alicia, were no more to be depended on than Mr. Batterbury. My father, in answering my letter, told me that he conscientiously believed he had done enough in forgiving me for throwing away an excellent education, and disgracing a respectable name. He added that he had not allowed my letter for my mother to reach her, out of pitying regard for her broken health and spirits; and he ended by telling me (what was perhaps very true) that the wife of such a son as I had been, had no claim upon her father-in-law's protection and help. There was an end, then, of any hope of finding resources for Alicia among the members of my own family.
The next thing was to discover a means of providing for her without assistance. I had formed a project for this, after meditating over my conversations with the returned transport in Barkingham jail, and I had taken a reliable opinion on the chances of successfully executing my design from the solicitor who had prepared my defense.
Alicia herself was so earnestly in favor of assisting in my experiment, that she declared she would prefer death to its abandonment. Accordingly, the necessary preliminaries were arranged; and, when we parted, it was some mitigation of our grief to know that there was a time appointed for meeting again. Alicia was to lodge with a distant relative of her mother's in a suburb of London; was to concert measures with this relative on the best method of turning her jewels into money; and was to follow her convict husband to the Antipodes, under a feigned name, in six months' time.
If my family had not abandoned me, I need not have thus left her to help herself. As it was, I had no choice. One consolation supported me at parting—she was in no danger of persecution from her father. A second letter from him had arrived at Crickgelly, and had been forwarded to the address I had left for it. It was dated Hamburg, and briefly told her to remain at Crickgelly, and expect fresh instructions, explanations, and a supply of money, as soon as he had settled the important business matters which had taken him abroad. His daughter answered the letter, telling him of her marriage, and giving him an address at a post-office to write to, if he chose to reply to her communication. There the matter rested.
What was I to do on my side? Nothing but establish a reputation for mild behavior. I began to manufacture a character for myself for the first days of our voyage out in the convict-ship; and I landed at the penal settlement with the reputation of being the meekest and most biddable of felonious mankind.
After a short probationary experience of such low convict employments as lime-burning and road-mending, I was advanced to occupations more in harmony with my education. Whatever I did, I never neglected the first great obligation of making myself agreeable and amusing to everybody. My social reputation as a good fellow began to stand as high at one end of the world as ever it stood at the other. The months passed more quickly than I had dared to hope. The expiration of my first year of transportation was approaching, and already pleasant hints of my being soon assigned to private service began to reach my ears. This was the first of the many ends I was now working for; and the next pleasant realization of my hopes that I had to expect, was the arrival of Alicia.
She came, a month later than I had anticipated; safe and blooming, with five hundred pounds as the produce of her jewels, and with the old Crickgelly alias (changed from Miss to Mrs. Giles), to prevent any suspicions of the connection between us.
Her story (concocted by me before I left England) was, that she was a widow lady, who had come to settle in Australia, and make the most of her little property in the New World. One of the first things Mrs. Giles wanted was necessarily a trustworthy servant, and she had to make her choice of one among the convicts of good character, to be assigned to private service. Being one of that honorable body myself at the time, it is needless to say that I was the fortunate man on whom Mrs. Giles's choice fell. The first situation I got in Australia was as servant to my own wife.
Alicia made a very indulgent mistress.
If she had been mischievously inclined, she might, by application to a magistrate, have had me flogged or set to work in chains on the roads, whenever I became idle or insubordinate, which happened occasionally. But instead of complaining, the kind creature kissed and made much of her footman by stealth, after his day's work. She allowed him no female followers, and only employed one woman-servant occasionally, who was both old and ugly. The name of the footman was Dear in private, and Francis in company; and when the widowed mistress, upstairs, refused eligible offers of marriage (which was pretty often), the favored domestic in the kitchen was always informed of it, and asked, with the sweetest humility, if he approved of the proceeding.
Not to dwell on this anomalous period of my existence, let me say briefly that my new position with my wife was of the greatest advantage in enabling me to direct in secret the profitable uses to which her little fortune was put.
We began in this way with an excellent speculation in cattle—buying them for shillings and selling them for pounds. With the profits thus obtained, we next tried our hands at houses—first buying in a small way, then boldly building, and letting again and selling to great advantage. While these speculations were in progress, my behavior in my wife's service was so exemplary, and she gave me so excellent a character when the usual official inquiries were instituted, that I soon got the next privilege accorded to persons in my situation—a ticket-of-leave. By the time this had been again exchanged for a conditional pardon (which allowed me to go about where I pleased in Australia, and to trade in my own name like any unconvicted merchant) our house-property had increased enormously, our land had been sold for public buildings, and we had shares in the famous Emancipist's Bank, which produced quite a little income of themselves.
There was now no need to keep the mask on any longer.
I went through the superfluous ceremony of a second marriage with Alicia; took stores in the city; built a villa in the country; and here I am at this present moment of writing, a convict aristocrat—a prosperous, wealthy, highly respectable mercantile man, with two years of my sentence of transportation still to expire. I have a barouche and two bay horses, a coachman and page in neat liveries, three charming children, and a French governess, a boudoir and lady's-maid for my wife. She is as handsome as ever, but getting a little fat. So am I, as a worthy friend remarked when I recently appeared holding the plate, at our last charity sermon.
What would my surviving relatives and associates in England say, if they could see me now? I have heard of them at different times and through various channels. Lady Malkinshaw, after living to the verge of a hundred, and surviving all sorts of accidents, died quietly one afternoon, in her chair, with an empty dish before her, and without giving the slightest notice to anybody. Mr. Batterbury, having sacrificed so much to his wife's reversion, profited nothing by its falling in at last. His quarrels with my amiable sister—which took their rise from his interested charities toward me—ended in producing a separation. And, far from saving anything by Annabella's inheritance of her pin-money, he had a positive loss to put up with, in the shape of some hundreds extracted yearly from his income, as alimony to his uncongenial wife. He is said to make use of shocking language whenever my name is mentioned, and to wish that he had been carried off by the yellow fever before he ever set eyes on the Softly family.
My father has retired from practice. He and my mother have gone to live in the country, near the mansion of the only marquis with whom my father was actually and personally acquainted in his professional days. The marquis asks him to dinner once a year, and leaves a card for my mother before he returns to town for the season. A portrait of Lady Malkinshaw hangs in the dining-room. In this way, my parents are ending their days contentedly. I can honestly say that I am glad to hear it.
Doctor Dulcifer, when I last heard of him, was editing a newspaper in America. Old File, who shared his flight, still shares his fortunes, being publisher of his newspaper. Young File resumed coining operations in London; and, having braved his fate a second time, threaded his way, in due course, up to the steps of the scaffold. Screw carries on the profitable trade of informer, in London. The dismal disappearance of Mill I have already recorded.
So much on the subject of my relatives and associates. On the subject of myself, I might still write on at considerable length. But while the libelous title of "A ROGUE'S LIFE" stares me in the face at the top of the page, how can I, as a rich and reputable man, be expected to communicate any further autobiographical particulars, in this place, to a discerning public of readers? No, no, my friends! I am no longer interesting—I am only respectable like yourselves. It is time to say "Good-by."