"The reason why, I cannot tell, But I don't like thee, Dr. Fell."
These lines indicate an unconquerable feeling which most persons have, I presume, experienced; and which frequently, I think, results from a kind of cumulative evidence of uncongeniality or unworthiness, made up of a number of slight indices of character, which, separately, may appear of little moment, but altogether, produce a strong, if undefinable, feeling of aversion. Mr. Harlowe's manners were bland, polished, and insinuating; his conversation was sparkling and instructive; but a cold sneer seemed to play habitually about his lips, and at times there glanced forth a concentrated, polished ferocity—so to speak—from his eyes, revealing hard and stony depths, which I shuddered to think a being so pure and gentle as Edith might be doomed to sound and fathom. That he was a man of strong passions and determination of will, was testified by every curve of his square, massive head, and every line of his full countenance.
My aversion—reasonable or otherwise, as it might be—was not shared by Miss Willoughby; and it was soon apparent that, fascinated, intoxicated by her extreme beauty (the man was, I felt, incapable of love in its high, generous, and spiritual sense), Mr. Harlowe had determined on offering his hand and fortune to the unportioned orphan. He did so, and was accepted. I did not conceal my dislike of her suitor from Edith; and my wife—who, with feminine exaggeration of the hints I threw out, had set him down as a kind of polished human tiger—with tears intreated her to avoid the glittering snare. We of course had neither right nor power to push our opposition beyond friendly warning and advice; and when we found, thanks to Lady Maldon, who was vehemently in favor of the match—to, in Edith's position, the dazzling temptation of a splendid establishment, and to Mr. Harlowe's eloquent and impassioned pleadings—that the rich man's offer was irrevocably accepted, we of course forebore from continuing a useless and irritating resistance. Lady Maldon had several times very plainly intimated that our aversion to the marriage arose solely from a selfish desire of retaining the services of her charming relative; so prone are the mean and selfish to impute meanness and selfishness to others.
I might, however, I reflected, be of service to Miss Willoughby, by securing for her such a marriage settlement as would place her beyond the reach of one possible consequence of caprice and change. I spoke to Mr. Harlowe on the subject; and he, under the influence of headstrong, eager passion, gave me, as I expected, carte blanche. I availed myself of the license so readily afforded: a deed of settlement was drawn up, signed, sealed, and attested in duplicate the day before the wedding; and Edith Willoughby, as far as wealth and position in society were concerned, had undoubtedly made a surprisingly good bargain.
It happened that just as Lady Maldon, Edith Willoughby, and Mr. Harlowe were leaving my chambers after the execution of the deed, Mr. Ferret the attorney appeared on the stairs. His hands were full of papers, and he was, as usual, in hot haste; but he stopped abruptly as his eye fell upon the departing visitors, looked with startled earnestness at Miss Willoughby, whom he knew, and then glanced at Mr. Harlowe with an expression of angry surprise. That gentleman, who did not appear to recognize the new-comer, returned his look with a supercilious, contemptuous stare, and passed on with Edith—who had courteously saluted the inattentive Mr. Ferret—followed by Lady Maldon.
"What is the meaning of that ominous conjunction?" demanded Mr. Ferret as the affianced pair disappeared together.
"Marriage, Mr. Ferret! Do you know any just cause or impediment why they should not be joined together in holy wedlock?"
"The fellow's wife is dead then?"
"Yes; she died about a twelvemonth ago. Did you know her?"
"Not personally; by reputation only. A country attorney, Richards of Braintree, for whom I transact London business sent me the draught of a deed of separation—to which the unfortunate lady, rather than continue to live with her husband, had consented—for counsel's opinion. I had an interview with Mr. Harlowe himself upon the business; but I see he affects to have forgotten me. I do not know much of the merits of the case, but according to Richards—no great shakes of a fellow, between ourselves—the former Mrs. Harlowe was a martyr to her husband's calculated virulence and legal—at least not illegal, a great distinction, in my opinion, though not so set down in the books—despotism. He espoused her for her wealth: that secured, he was desirous of ridding himself of the incumbrance to it. A common case!—and now, if you please, to business."
I excused myself, as did my wife, from being present at the wedding; but everything, I afterwards heard, passed off with great eclat. The bridegroom was all fervor and obsequiousness; the bride all bashfulness and beauty. The "happy pair," I saw by the afternoon newspapers, were to pass the honeymoon at Mr. Harlowe's seat, Fairdown Park. The evening of the marriage-day was anything, I remember, but a pleasant one to me. I reached home by no means hilariously disposed, where I was greeted, by way of revival, with the intelligence that my wife, after listening with great energy to Lady Maldon's description of the wedding festivities for two tremendous hours, had at last been relieved by copious hysteria, and that Mary and Kate were in a fair way—if the exploit could be accomplished by perseverance—of crying themselves to sleep. These were our bridal compliments; much more flattering, I imagine, if not quite so honey-accented, as the courtly phrases with which the votaries and the victims of Hymen are alike usually greeted.
Time, business, worldly hopes and cares, the triumphs and defeats of an exciting profession, gradually weakened the impression made upon me by the gentle virtues of Edith Willoughby; and when, about fifteen months after the wedding, my wife informed me that she had been accosted by Mrs. Harlowe at a shop in Bond Street, my first feeling was one of surprise, not untinged with resentment, for what I deemed her ungrateful neglect.
"She recognized you then?" I remarked.
"Recognized me! What do you mean?"
"I thought perhaps she might have forgotten your features, as she evidently has our address."
"If you had seen," replied my wife, "how pale, how cold, how utterly desolate she looked, you would think less hardly of her. As soon as she observed me, a slight scream escaped her; and then she glanced eagerly and tremblingly around like a startled fawn. Her husband had passed out of the shop to give, I think, some direction to the coachman. She tottered towards me, and clasping me in her arms, burst into a passion of tears. "Oh, why—why," I asked as soon as I could speak, "why have you not written to us?" "I dared not!" she gasped. "But oh tell me, do you—does your husband remember me with kindness? Can I still reckon on his protection—his support?" I assured her you would receive her as your own child: the whispered words had barely passed my lips, when Mr. Harlowe, who had swiftly approached us unperceived, said, "Madam, the carriage waits." His stern, pitiless eye glanced from his wife to me, and stiffly bowing, he said, "Excuse me for interrupting your conversation; but time presses. Good-day." A minute afterwards, the carriage drove off."
I was greatly shocked at this confirmation of my worst fears; and I meditated with intense bitterness on the fate of a being of such meek tenderness exposed to the heartless brutalities of a sated sensualist like Harlowe. But what could be done? She had chosen, deliberately, and after warning, chosen her lot, and must accept the consequences of her choice. In all the strong statutes, and sharp biting laws of England, there can be found no clause wherewith to shield a woman from the "regulated" meanness and despotism of an unprincipled husband. Resignation is the sole remedy, and therein the patient must minister to herself.
On the morning of the Sunday following Edith's brief interview with my wife, and just as we were about to leave the house to attend divine service, a cab drove furiously up to the door, and a violent summons by both knocker and bell announced the arrival of some strangely-impatient visitor. I stepped out upon the drawing-room landing, and looked over the banister rail, curious to ascertain who had honored me with so peremptory a call. The door was quickly opened, and in ran, or rather staggered, Mrs. Harlowe, with a child in long clothes in her arms.
"Shut—shut the door!" she faintly exclaimed, as she sank on one of the hall seats. "Pray shut the door—I am pursued!"
I hastened down, and was just in time to save her from falling on the floor. She had fainted. I had her carried up stairs, and by the aid of proper restoratives, she gradually recovered consciousness. The child, a girl about four months old, was seized upon by Mary and Kate, and carried off in triumph to the nursery. Sadly changed, indeed, as by the sickness of the soul, was poor Edith. The radiant flush of youth and hope rendering her sweet face eloquent of joy and pride, was replaced by the cold, sad hues of wounded affections and proud despair. I could read in her countenance, as in a book, the sad record of long months of wearing sorrow, vain regrets, and bitter self-reproach. Her person, too, had lost its rounded, airy, graceful outline, and had become thin and angular. Her voice, albeit, was musical and gentle as ever, as she murmured, on recovering her senses, "You will protect me from my—from that man?" As I warmly pressed her hand, in emphatic assurance that I would shield her against all comers, another loud summons was heard at the door. A minute afterwards, a servant entered, and announced that Mr. Harlowe waited for me below. I directed he should be shown into the library; and after iterating my assurance to Edith that she was quite safe from violence beneath my roof, and that I would presently return to hear her explanation of the affair, I went down stairs.
Mr. Harlowe, as I entered, was pacing rapidly up and down the apartment. He turned to face me; and I thought he looked even more perturbed and anxious than vengeful and angry. He, however, as I coldly bowed, and demanded his business with me, instantly assumed a bullying air and tone.
"Mrs. Harlowe is here: she has surreptitiously left South Audley Street in a hired cab, and I have traced her to this house."
"Well! I trust it is well; and I insist that she instantly return to her home."
I used the word with an expression significative only of my sense of the sort of "home" he had provided for the gentle girl he had sworn to love and cherish; but the random shaft found a joint in his armor at which it was not aimed. He visibly trembled, and turned pale.
"She has had time to tell you all then! But be assured, sir, that nothing she has heard or been told, however true it may be—may be, remember, I say—can be legally substantiated except by myself."
What could the man mean? I was fairly puzzled: but, professionally accustomed to conceal emotions of surprise and bewilderment, I coldly replied—"I have left the lady who has sought the protection of her true 'home,' merely to ascertain the reason of this visit."
"The reason of my visit!" he exclaimed with renewed fury: "to reconvey her to South Audley Street. What else? If you refuse to give her up, I shall apply to the police."
I smiled, and approached the bell.
"You will not surrender her then?"
"To judicial process only: of that be assured. I have little doubt that, when I am placed in full possession of all the facts of the case, I shall be quite able to justify my conduct." He did not reply, and I continued: "If you choose to wait here till I have heard Edith's statement, I will at once frankly acquaint you with my final determination."
"Be it so: and please to recollect, sir, that you have to deal with a man not easily baffled or entrapped by legal subtlety or cunning."
I reascended to the drawing-room; and finding Edith—thanks to the ministrations, medicinal and oral, of my bustling and indignant lady—much calmer, and thoroughly satisfied that nobody could or should wrest her from us, begged her to relate unreservedly the cause or causes which had led to her present position. She falteringly complied; and I listened with throbbing pulse and burning cheeks to the sad story of her wedded wretchedness, dating from within two or three months of the marriage; and finally consummated by a disclosure that, if provable, might consign Harlowe to the hulks. The tears, the agony, the despair of the unhappy lady, excited in me a savageness of feeling, an eager thirst for vengeance, which I had believed foreign to my nature. Edith divined my thoughts, and taking my hand, said, "Never, sir, never will I appear against him: the father of my little Helen shall never be publicly accused by me."
"You err, Edith," I rejoined; "it is a positive duty to bring so consummate a villain to justice. He has evidently calculated on your gentleness of disposition, and must be disappointed."
I soon, however, found it was impossible to shake her resolution on this point; and I returned with a heart full of grief and bitterness to Mr. Harlowe.
"You will oblige me, sir," I exclaimed as I entered the room, "by leaving this house immediately: I would hold no further converse with so vile a person."
"How! Do you know to whom you presume to speak in this manner?"
"Perfectly. You are one Harlowe, who, after a few months' residence with a beautiful and amiable girl, had extinguished the passion which induced him to offer her marriage, showered on her every species of insult and indignity of which a cowardly and malignant nature is capable; and who, finding that did not kill her, at length consummated, or revealed, I do not yet know which term is most applicable, his utter baseness by causing her to be informed that his first wife was still living."
"Upon my honor, sir, I believed, when I married Miss Willoughby, that I was a widower."
"Your honor! But except to prove that I do thoroughly know and appreciate the person I am addressing, I will not bandy words with you. After that terrible disclosure—if, indeed, it be a disclosure, not an invention—Ah, you start at that"
"At your insolence, sir; not at your senseless surmises."
"Time and the law will show. After, I repeat, this terrible disclosure or invention, you, not content with obtaining from your victim's generosity a positive promise that she would not send you to the hulks"—
"Sir, have a care."
"Pooh! I say, not content with exacting this promise from your victim, you, with your wife, or accomplice, threatened not only to take her child from her, but to lock her up in a madhouse, unless she subscribed a paper, confessing that she knew, when you espoused her, that you were a married man. Now, sir, do I, or do I not, thoroughly know who and what the man is I am addressing?"
"Sir," returned Harlowe, recovering his audacity somewhat. "Spite of all your hectoring and abuse, I defy you to obtain proof—legal proof—whether what Edith has heard is true or false. The affair may perhaps be arranged; let her return with me."
"You know she would die first; but it is quite useless to prolong this conversation; and I again request you to leave this house."
"If Miss Willoughby would accept an allowance"—
The cool audacity of this proposal to make me an instrument in compromising a felony exasperated me beyond all bounds. I rang the bell violently, and desired the servant who answered it to show Mr. Harlowe out of the house. Finding further persistence useless, the baffled villain snatched up his hat, and with a look and gesture of rage and contempt, hurried out of the apartment.
The profession of a barrister necessarily begets habits of coolness and reflection under the most exciting circumstances; but, I confess, that in this instance my ordinary equanimity was so much disturbed, that it was some time before I could command sufficient composure to reason calmly upon the strange revelations made to me by Edith, and the nature of the measures necessary to adopt in order to clear up the mystery attaching to them. She persisted in her refusal to have recourse to legal measures with a view to the punishment of Harlowe; and I finally determined—after a conference with Mr. Ferret, who, having acted for the first Mrs. Harlowe, I naturally conjectured must know something of her history and connections—to take for the present no ostensible steps in the matter. Mr. Ferret, like myself, was persuaded that the sham resuscitation of his first wife was a mere trick, to enable Harlowe to rid himself of the presence of a woman he no longer cared for. "I will take an opportunity," said Mr. Ferret, "of quietly questioning Richards: he must have known the first wife; Eleanor Wickham, I remember, was her maiden name; and if not bought over by Harlowe—a by-no-means impossible purchase—can set us right at once. I did not understand that the said Eleanor was at all celebrated for beauty and accomplishments, such as you say Miss Willoughby—Mrs. Harlowe, I mean—describes. She was a native of Dorsetshire too, I remember; and the foreign Italian accent you mention, is rarely, I fancy, picked up in that charming county. Some flashy opera-dancer, depend upon it, whom he has contracted a passing fancy for: a slippery gentleman certainly; but, with a little caution, we shall not fail to trip his heels up, clever as he may be."
A stronger wrestler than either of us was upon the track of the unhappy man. Edith had not been with us above three weeks, when one of Mr. Harlowe's servants called at my chambers to say that his master, in consequence of a wound he had inflicted on his foot with an axe, whilst amusing himself with cutting or pruning some trees in the grounds at Fairdown, was seriously ill, and had expressed a wish to see me. I could not leave town; but as it was important Mr. Harlowe should be seen, I requested Mr. Ferret to proceed to Fairdown House. He did so, and late in the evening returned with the startling intelligence that Mr. Harlowe was dead!
"Dead!" I exclaimed, much shocked. "Are you serious?" "As a judge. He expired, about an hour after I reached the house, of tetanus, commonly called locked-jaw. His body, by the contraction of the muscles, was bent like a bow, and rested on his heels and the back part of his head. He was incapable of speech long before I saw him; but there was a world of agonized expression in his eyes!"
"Dreadful! Your journey was useless then?"
"Not precisely. I saw the pretended former wife: a splendid woman, and as much Eleanor Wickham of Dorsetshire as I am. They mean, however, to show fight, I think; for, as I left the place, I observed that delightful knave Richards enter the house. I took the liberty of placing seals upon the desks and cabinets, and directed the butler and other servants to see that nothing was disturbed or removed till Mrs. Harlowe's—the true Mrs. Harlowe's—arrival."
The funeral was to take place on the following Wednesday; and it was finally arranged that both of us would accompany Edith to Fairdown on the day after it had taken place, and adopt such measures as circumstances might render necessary. Mr. Ferret wrote to this effect to all parties concerned.
On arriving at the house, I, Ferret, and Mrs. Harlowe, proceeded at once to the drawing-room, where we found the pretended wife seated in great state, supported on one side by Mr. Richards, and on the other by Mr. Quillet the eminent proctor. Edith was dreadfully agitated, and clung frightened and trembling to my arm. I conducted her to a seat, and placed myself beside her, leaving Mr. Ferret—whom so tremendous an array of law and learning, evincing a determination to fight the matter out a l'outrance, filled with exuberant glee—to open the conference.
"Good-morning, madam," cried he, the moment he entered the room, and quite unaffected by the lady's scornful and haughty stare: "good-morning; I am delighted to see you in such excellent company. You do not, I hope, forget that I once had the honor of transacting business for you?"
"You had transactions of my business!" said the lady, "When, I pray you?"
"God bless me!" cried Ferret, addressing Richards, "what a charming Italian accent; and out of Dorsetshire too!"
"Dorsetshire, sir?" exclaimed the lady.
"Ay, Dorsetshire, to be sure. Why, Mr. Richards, our respected client appears to have forgotten her place of birth! How very extraordinary!"
Mr. Richards now interfered, to say that Mr. Ferret was apparently laboring under a strange misapprehension. "This lady," continued he, "is Madame Giulletta Corelli."
"Whe—e—e—w!" rejoined Ferret, thrown for an instant off his balance by the suddenness of the confession, and perhaps a little disappointed at so placable a termination of the dispute—"Giulletta Corelli! What is the meaning of this array then?"
"I am glad, madam," said I, interposing for the first time in the conversation, "for your own sake, that you have been advised not to persist in the senseless as well as iniquitous scheme devised by the late Mr. Harlowe; but this being the case, I am greatly at a loss to know why either you or these legal gentlemen are here?"
The brilliant eyes of the Italian flashed with triumphant scorn, and a smile of contemptuous irony curled her beautiful lip as she replied—"These legal gentlemen will not have much difficulty in explaining my right to remain in my own house."
"Precisely, sir," replied Mr. Quillet. "This mansion, together with all other property, real and personal, of which the deceased Henry Harlowe died possessed, is bequeathed by will—dated about a month since—to this lady, Giulletta Corelli."
"A will!" exclaimed Mr. Ferret with an explosive shout, and turning to me, whilst his sharp gray eyes danced with irrepressible mirth—"Did I not tell you so?"
"Your usual sagacity, Mr. Ferret, has not in this instance failed you. Perhaps you will permit me to read the will? But before I do so," continued Mr. Quillet, as he drew his gold-rimmed spectacles from their morocco sheath—"you will allow me, if you please, to state that the legatee, delicately appreciating the position of the widow, will allow her any reasonable annuity—say five hundred pounds per annum for life."
"Will she really though?" cried Mr. Ferret, boiling over with ecstacy. "Madam, let me beg of you to confirm this gracious promise."
"Certainly I do."
"Capital!—glorious!" rejoined Ferret; and I thought he was about to perform a salutatory movement, that must have brought his cranium into damaging contact with the chandelier under which he was standing. "Is it not delightful? How every one—especially an attorney—loves a generous giver!"
Mr. Richards appeared to be rendered somewhat uneasy by these strange demonstrations. He knew Ferret well, and evidently suspected that something was wrong somewhere. "Perhaps, Mr. Quillet," said he, "you had better read the will at once."
This was done: the instrument devised in legal and minute form all the property, real and personal, to Giulletta Corelli—a natural-born subject of his majesty, it appeared, though of foreign parentage, and of partially foreign education.
"Allow me to say," broke in Mr. Ferret, interrupting me as I was about to speak—"allow me to say, Mr. Richards, that that will does you credit: it is, I should say, a first-rate affair, for a country practitioner especially. But of course you submitted the draught to counsel?"
"Certainly I did," said Richards tartly.
"No doubt—no doubt. Clearness and precision like that could only have proceeded from a master's hand. I shall take a copy of that will, Richards, for future guidance, you may depend, the instant it is registered in Doctors' Commons."
"Come, come, Mr. Ferret," said I; "this jesting is all very well; but it is quite time the farce should end."
"Farce!" exclaimed Mr. Richards.
"Farce!" growled doubtful Mr. Quillet.
"Farce!" murmured the beautiful Giulletta.
"Farce!" cried Mr. Ferret. "My dear sir, it is about one of the most charming and genteel comedies ever enacted on any stage, and the principal part, too, by one of the most charming of prima donnas. Allow me, sir—don't interrupt me! it is too delicious to be shared; it is, indeed. Mr. Richards, and you, Mr. Quillet, will you permit me to observe that this admirable will has one slight defect?"
"It is really heart-breaking that so much skill and ingenuity should be thrown away; but the fact is, gentlemen, that the excellent person who signed it had no property to bequeath!"
"Not a shilling's worth. Allow me, sir, if you please. This piece of parchment, gentlemen, is, I have the pleasure to inform you, a marriage settlement."
"A marriage settlement!" exclaimed both the men of law in a breath.
"A marriage settlement, by which, in the event of Mr. Harlowe's decease, his entire property passes to his wife, in trust for the children, if any; and if not, absolutely to herself." Ferret threw the deed on the table, and then giving way to convulsive mirth, threw himself upon the sofa, and fairly shouted with glee.
Mr. Quillet seized the document, and, with Richards, eagerly perused it. The proctor then rose, and bowing gravely to his astonished client, said, "The will, madam, is waste paper. You have been deceived." He then left the apartment.
The consternation of the lady and her attorney may be conceived. Madam Corelli, giving way to her fiery passions, vented her disappointment in passionate reproaches of the deceased; the only effect of which was to lay bare still more clearly than before her own cupidity and folly, and to increase Edith's painful agitation. I led her down stairs to my wife, who, I omitted to mention, had accompanied us from town, and remained in the library with the children during our conference. In a very short time afterwards Mr. Ferret had cleared the house of its intrusive guests, and we had leisure to offer our condolences and congratulations to our grateful and interesting client. It was long before Edith recovered her former gaiety and health; and I doubt if she would ever have thoroughly regained her old cheerfulness and elasticity of mind, had it not been for her labor of love in superintending and directing the education of her daughter Helen, a charming girl, who fortunately inherited nothing from her father but his wealth. The last time I remember to have danced was at Helen's wedding. She married a distinguished Irish gentleman, with whom, and her mother, I perceive by the newspapers, she appeared at Queen Victoria's court in Dublin, one, I am sure, of the brightest stars which glittered in that galaxy of beauty and fashion.
THE SECOND MARRIAGE.
A busy day in the assize court at Chester, chequered, as usual, by alternate victory and defeat, had just terminated, and I was walking briskly forth, when an attorney of rather low caste in his profession—being principally employed as an intermediary between needy felons and the counsel practising in the Crown Court—accosted me, and presented a brief; at the same time tendering the fee of two guineas marked upon it.
"I am engaged to-morrow, Mr. Barnes," I exclaimed a little testily, "on the civil side: besides, you know I very seldom take briefs in the Crown Court, even if proffered in due time; and to-morrow will be the last day of the assize in Chester! There are plenty of unemployed counsel who will be glad of your brief."
"It is a brief in an action of ejectment," replied the attorney—"Woodley versus Thorndyke; and is brought to recover possession of a freehold estate now held and farmed by the defendant."
"An action of ejectment to recover possession of a freehold estate! defended, too, I know, by a powerful bar; for I was offered a brief, but declined it. Mr. P —— leads; and you bring me this for the plaintiff, and at the last moment too! You must be crazed."
"I told the plaintiff and her grandfather," rejoined Mr. Barnes, "that it was too late to bespeak counsel's attention to the case; and that the fee, all they have, with much difficulty, been able to raise, was ridiculously small; but they insisted on my applying to you—Oh, here they are!"
We had by this time reached the street, and the attorney pointed towards two figures standing in attitudes of anxious suspense near the gateway. It was dusk, but there was quite sufficient light to distinguish the pale and interesting features of a young female, dressed in faded and scanty mourning, and accompanied by a respectable-looking old man with white hair, and a countenance deeply furrowed by age and grief.
"I told you, Miss Woodley," said the attorney, "that this gentleman would decline the brief, especially with such a fee"—
"It is not the fee, man!" I observed, for I was somewhat moved by the appealing dejection exhibited by the white-haired man and his timid grand-daughter; "but what chance can I have of establishing this person's right—if right she have—to the estate she claims, thus suddenly called upon to act without previous consultation; and utterly ignorant, except as far as this I perceive hastily-scrawled brief will instruct me, both of the nature of the plaintiff's claim and of the defence intended to be set up against it?"
"If you would undertake it, sir," said the young woman with a tremulous, hesitating voice and glistening eyes, "for his sake"—and she glanced at her aged companion—"who will else be helpless, homeless."
"The blessing of those who are ready to perish will be yours, sir," said the grandfather with meek solemnity, "if you will lend your aid in this work of justice and mercy. We have no hope of withstanding the masterful violence and wrong of wicked and powerful men except by the aid of the law, which we have been taught will ever prove a strong tower of defence to those who walk in the paths of peace and right."
The earnestness of the old man's language and manner, and the pleading gentleness of the young woman, forcibly impressed me; and, albeit, it was a somewhat unprofessional mode of business, I determined to hear their story from their own lips, rather than take it from the scrawled brief, or through the verbal medium of their attorney.
"You have been truly taught," I answered; "and if really entitled to the property you claim, I know of no masterful men that in this land of England can hinder you from obtaining possession of it. Come to my hotel in about an hour and a-half from hence: I shall then have leisure to hear what you have to say. This fee," I added, taking the two guineas from the hand of the attorney, who still held the money ready for my acceptance, "you must permit me to return. It is too much for you to pay for losing your cause; and if I gain it—but mind I do not promise to take it into court unless I am thoroughly satisfied you have right and equity on your side—I shall expect a much heavier one. Mr. Barnes, I will see you, if you please, early in the morning." I then bowed, and hastened on.
Dinner was not ready when I arrived at the hotel; and during the short time I had to wait, I more than half repented of having had anything to do with this unfortunate suit. However, the pleadings of charity, the suggestions of human kindness, reasserted their influence; and by the time my new clients arrived, which they did very punctually at the hour I had indicated, I had quite regained the equanimity I had momentarily lost, and, thanks to mine host's excellent viands and generous wine, was, for a lawyer, in a very amiable and benevolent humor indeed.
Our conference was long, anxious, and unsatisfactory. I was obliged to send for Barnes before it concluded, in order to thoroughly ascertain the precise nature of the case intended to be set up for the defendant, and the evidence likely to be adduced in support of it. No ray of consolation or of hope came from that quarter. Still, the narrative I had just listened to, bearing as it did the impress of truth and sincerity in every sentence, strongly disposed me to believe that foul play has been practised by the other side; and I determined, at all hazards, to go into court, though with but faint hope indeed of a present successful issue.
"It appears more than probable," I remarked on dismissing my clients, "that this will is a fabrication; but before such a question had been put in issue before a jury, some producible evidence of its being so should have been sought for and obtained. As it is, I can only watch the defendant's proof of the genuineness of the instrument upon which he has obtained probate: one or more of the attesting witnesses may, if fraud has been practised, break down under a searching cross-examination, or incidentally perhaps disclose matter for further investigation."
"One of the attesting witnesses is, as I have already told you, dead," observed Barnes; "and another, Elizabeth Wareing, has, I hear, to-day left the country. An affidavit to that effect will no doubt be made to-morrow, in order to enable them to give secondary evidence of her attestation, though, swear as they may, I have not the slightest doubt I could find her if time were allowed, and her presence would at all avail us."
"Indeed! This is very important. Would you, Mr. Barnes, have any objection," I added, after a few moments' reflection, "to make oath, should the turn of affairs to-morrow render your doing so desirable, of your belief that you could, reasonable time being allowed, procure the attendance of this woman—this Elizabeth Wareing?"
"Not the slightest: though how that would help us to invalidate the will Thorndyke claims under I do not understand."
"Perhaps not. At all events do not fail to be early in court. The cause is the first in to-morrow's list, remember."
The story confided to me was a very sad, and, unfortunately in many of its features, a very common one. Ellen, the only child of the old gentleman, Thomas Ward, had early in life married Mr. James Woodley, a wealthy yeoman, prosperously settled upon his paternal acres, which he cultivated with great diligence and success. The issue of this marriage—a very happy one, I was informed—was Mary Woodley, the plaintiff in the present action. Mr. Woodley, who had now been dead something more than two years, bequeathed the whole of his property, real and personal, to his wife, in full confidence, as he expressed himself but a few hours before he expired, that she would amply provide for his and her child. The value of the property inherited by Mrs. Woodley under this will amounted, according to a valuation made a few weeks after the testator's decease, to between eight and nine thousand pounds.
Respected as a widow, comfortable in circumstances, and with a daughter to engage her affections, Mrs. Woodley might have passed the remainder of her existence in happiness. But how frequently do women peril and lose all by a second marriage! Such was the case with Mrs. Woodley: to the astonishment of everybody, she threw herself away on a man almost unknown in the district—a person of no fortune, of mean habits, and altogether unworthy of accepting as a husband. Silas Thorndyke, to whom she thus committed her happiness, had for a short time acted as bailiff on the farm; and no sooner did he feel himself master, than his subserviency was changed to selfish indifference, and that gradually assumed a coarser character. He discovered that the property, by the will of Mr. Woodley, was no secured against every chance or casualty to the use and enjoyment of his wife, that it not only did not pass by marriage to the new bridegroom, but she was unable to alienate or divest herself of any portion of it during life. She could, however, dispose of it by will; but in the event of her dying intestate, the whole descended to her daughter, Mary Woodley.
Incredibly savage was Thorndyke when he made that discovery; and bitter and incessant were the indignities to which he subjected his unfortunate wife, for the avowed purpose of forcing her to make a will entirely in his favor, and of course disinheriting her daughter. These persecutions failed of their object. An unexpected, quiet, passive, but unconquerable resistance, was opposed by the, in all other things, cowed and submissive woman, to this demand of her domineering husband. Her failing health—for gently nurtured and tenderly cherished as she had ever been, the callous brutality of her husband soon told upon the unhappy creature—warned her that Mary would soon be an orphan, and that upon her firmness it depended whether the child of him to whose memory she had been, so fatally for herself, unfaithful, should be cast homeless and penniless upon the world, or inherit the wealth to which, by every principle of right and equity, she was entitled. Come what may, this trust at least should not, she mentally resolved, be betrayed or paltered with. Every imaginable expedient to vanquish her resolution was resorted to. Thorndyke picked a quarrel with Ward her father, who had lived at Dale Farm since the morrow of her marriage with Woodley, and the old gentleman was compelled to leave, and take up his abode with a distant and somewhat needy relative. Next Edward Wilford, the only son of a neighboring and prosperous farmer, who had been betrothed to Mary Woodley several months before her father's death, was brutally insulted, and forbidden the house. All, however, failed to shake the mother's resolution; and at length, finding all his efforts fruitless, Thorndyke appeared to yield the point, and upon this subject at least ceased to harass his unfortunate victim.
Frequent private conferences were now held between Thorndyke, his two daughters, and Elizabeth Wareing—a woman approaching middle-age, whom, under the specious pretence that Mrs. Thorndyke's increasing ailments rendered the services of an experienced matron indispensable, he had lately installed at the farm. It was quite evident to both the mother and daughter that a much greater degree of intimacy subsisted between the master and housekeeper than their relative positions warranted; and from some expressions heedlessly dropped by the woman, they suspected them to have been once on terms of confidential intimacy. Thorndyke, I should have mentioned, was not a native of these parts: he had answered Mr. Woodley's advertisement for a bailiff, and his testimonials appearing satisfactory, he had been somewhat precipitately engaged. A young man, calling himself Edward Wareing, the son of Elizabeth Wareing, and said to be engaged in an attorney's office in Liverpool, was also a not unfrequent visitor at Dale Farm; and once he had the insolent presumption to address a note to Mary Woodley, formally tendering his hand and fortune! This, however, did not suit Mr. Thorndyke's views, and Mr. Edward Wareing was very effectually rebuked and silenced by his proposed father-in-law.
Mrs. Thorndyke's health rapidly declined. The woman Wareing, touched possibly by sympathy or remorse, exhibited considerable tenderness and compassion towards the invalid; made her nourishing drinks, and administered the medicine prescribed by the village practitioner—who, after much delay and pooh, poohing by Thorndyke, had been called in—with her own hands. About three weeks previous to Mrs. Thorndyke's death, a sort of reconciliation was patched up through her instrumentality between the husband and wife; and an unwonted expression of kindness and compassion, real or simulated, sat upon Thorndyke's features every time he approached the dying woman.
The sands of life ebbed swiftly with Mrs. Thorndyke. Infolded in the gentle but deadly embrace with which consumption seizes its victims, she wasted rapidly away; and, most perplexing symptoms of all, violent retchings and nausea, especially after taking her medicine—which, according to Davis, the village surgeon, was invariable of a sedative character—aggravated and confirmed the fatal disease which was hurrying her to the tomb.
Not once during this last illness could Mary Woodley, by chance or stratagem, obtain a moment's private interview with her mother, until a few minutes before her decease. Until then, under one pretence or another, either Elizabeth Wareing, one of Thorndyke's daughters, or Thorndyke himself, was always present in the sick-chamber. It was evening: darkness had for some time fallen: no light had yet been taken into the dying woman's apartment; and the pale starlight which faintly illumined the room served, as Mary Woodley softly approached on tiptoe to the bedside of her, as she supposed, sleeping parent, but to deepen by defining the shadows thrown by the full, heavy hangings, and the old massive furniture. Gently, and with a beating heart, Mary Woodley drew back the bed-curtain nearest the window. The feeble, uncertain light flickered upon the countenance, distinct in its mortal paleness, of her parent: the eyes recognized her, and a glance of infinite tenderness gleamed for an instant in the rapidly-darkening orbs: the right arm essayed to lift itself, as for one fast, last embrace. Vainly! Love, love only, was strong, stronger than death, in the expiring mother's heart, and the arm fell feebly back on the bedclothes. Mary Woodley bent down in eager grief, for she felt instinctively that the bitter hour at last was come: their lips met, and the last accents of the mother murmured, "Beloved Mary, I—I have been true to you—no will—no"—A slight tremor shook her frame: the spirit that looked in love from the windows of the eyes departed on its heavenward journey, and the unconscious shell only of what had once been her mother remained in the sobbing daughter's arms.
I will not deny that this narrative, which I feel I have but coldly and feebly rendered from its earnest, tearful tenderness, as related by Mary Woodley, affected me considerably—case-hardened, as, to use an old bar-pun, we barristers are supposed to be; nor will the reader be surprised to hear that suspicions, graver even than those which pointed to forgery, were evoked by the sad history. Much musing upon the strange circumstances thus disclosed, and profoundly cogitative on the best mode of action to be pursued, the "small hours," the first of them at least, surprised me in my arm-chair. I started up, and hastened to bed, well knowing from experience that a sleepless vigil is a wretched preparative for a morrow of active exertion, whether of mind or body.
I was betimes in court the next morning, and Mr. Barnes, proud as a peacock of figuring as an attorney in an important civil suit, was soon at my side. The case had excited more interest than I had supposed, and the court was very early filled, Mary Woodley and her grandfather soon arrived; and a murmur of commiseration ran through the auditory as they took their seats by the side of Barnes. There was a strong bar arrayed against us; and Mr. Silas Thorndyke, I noticed, was extremely busy and important with whisperings and suggestions to his solicitor and counsel—received, of course, as such meaningless familiarities usually are, with barely civil indifference.
Twelve common jurors were called and sworn well and truly to try the issue, and I arose amidst breathless silence to address them. I at once frankly stated the circumstances under which the brief had come into my hands, and observed, that if, for lack of advised preparation, the plaintiff's case failed on that day, another trial, under favor of the court above, would, I doubt not, at no distant period of time reverse the possibly at present unfavorable decision. "My learned friends on the other side," I continued, "smile at this qualified admission of mine: let them do so. If they apparently establish to-day the validity of a will which strips an only child of the inheritance bequeathed by her father, they will, I tell them emphatically, have obtained but a temporary triumph for a person who—if I, if you, gentlemen of the jury, are to believe the case intended to be set up as a bar to the plantiff's claim—has succeeded by the grossest brutality, the most atrocious devices, in bending the mind of the deceased Mrs. Thorndyke to his selfish purposes. My learned friend need not interrupt me; I shall pursue these observations for the present no further—merely adding that I, that his lordship, that you, gentlemen of the jury, will require of him the strictest proof—proof clear as light—that the instrument upon which he relies to defeat the equitable, the righteous claim of the young and amiable person by my side, is genuine, and not, as I verily believe "—I looked, as I spoke, full in the face of Thorndyke—"FORGED."
"My lord," exclaimed the opposing counsel, "this is really insufferable!"
His lordship, however, did not interpose; and I went on to relate, in the most telling manner of which I was capable, the history of the deceased Mrs. Thorndyke's first and second marriages; the harmony and happiness of the first—the wretchedness and cruelty which characterized the second. I narrated also the dying words of Mrs. Thorndyke to her daughter, though repeatedly interrupted by the defendant's counsel, who manifested great indignation that a statement unsusceptible of legal proof should be addressed to the court and jury. My address concluded, I put in James Woodley's will; and, as the opposing counsel did not dispute its validity, nor require proof of Mary Woodley's identity, I intimated that the plaintiff's case was closed.
The speech for the defendant was calm and guarded. It threw, or rather attempted to throw, discredit on the death-bed "fiction," got up, Mr. P —— said, simply with a view to effect; and he concluded by averring that he should be able to establish the genuineness of the will of Ellen Thorndyke, now produced, by irresistible evidence. That done, however much the jury might wish the property had been otherwise disposed of, they would of course return a verdict in accordance with their oaths and the law of the land.
The first witness called was Thomas Headley, a smith, residing near Dale Farm. He swore positively that the late Mrs. Thorndyke, whom he knew well, had cheerfully signed the will now produced, after it had been deliberately read over to her by her husband about a fortnight before her death. Silas Thorndyke, John Cummins, Elizabeth Wareing, and witness, were the only persons present. Mrs. Thorndyke expressed confidence that her husband would provide for Mary Woodley.
"And so I will," said sleek Silas, rising up and looking round upon the auditory. "If she will return, I will be a father to her."
No look, no sound of sympathy or approval, greeted this generous declaration, and he sat down again not a little disconcerted.
I asked this burly, half-drunken witness but one question—"When is your marriage with Rebecca Thorndyke, the defendant's eldest daughter, to be celebrated?"
"I don't know, Mr. Lawyer; perhaps never."
"That will do; you can go down."
Mr. P —— now rose to state that his client was unable to produce Elizabeth Wareing, another of the attesting witnesses to the will, in court. No suspicion that any opposition to the solemn testament made by the deceased Mrs. Thorndyke would be attempted, had been entertained; and the woman, unaware that her testimony would be required, had left that part of the country. Every effort had been made by the defendant to discover her abode without effect. It was believed she had gone to America, where she had relatives. The defendant had filed an affidavit setting forth these facts, and it was now prayed that secondary evidence to establish the genuineness of Elizabeth Wareing's attesting signature should be admitted.
I of course vehemently opposed this demand, and broadly hinted that the witness was purposely kept out of the way.
"Will my learned friend," said Mr. P —— with one of his sliest sneers, "inform us what motive the defendant could possibly have to keep back a witness so necessary to him?"
"Elizabeth Wareing," I curtly replied, "may not, upon reflection, be deemed a safe witness to subject to the ordeal of a cross-examination. But to settle the matter, my lord," I exclaimed, "I have here an affidavit of the plaintiff's attorney, in which he states that he has no doubt of being able to find this important witness if time be allowed him for the purpose; the defendant of course undertaking to call her when produced."
A tremendous clamor of counsel hereupon ensued, and fierce and angry grew the war of words. The hubbub was at last terminated by the judge recommending that, under the circumstances, "a juror should be withdrawn." This suggestion, after some demur, was agreed to. One of the jurors was whispered to come out of the box; then the clerk of the court exclaimed, "My lord, there are only eleven men on the jury;" and by the aid of this venerable, if clumsy expedient, the cause of Woodley versus Thorndyke was de facto adjourned to a future day.
I had not long returned to the hotel, when I was waited upon by Mr. Wilford, senior, the father of the young man who had been forbidden to visit Dale Farm by Thorndyke. His son, he informed me, was ill from chagrin and anxiety—confined to his bed indeed; and Mary Woodley had refused, it seemed, to accept pecuniary aid from either the father or the son. Would I endeavor to terminate the estrangement which had for some time unhappily existed, and persuade her to accept his, Wilford senior's, freely-offered purse and services? I instantly accepted both the mission and the large sum which the excellent man tendered. A part of the money I gave Barnes to stimulate his exertions, and the rest I placed in the hand of Mary Woodley's grandpapa, with a friendly admonition to him not to allow his grandchild to make a fool of herself; an exhortation which produced its effect in due season.
Summer passed away, autumn had come and gone, and the winter assizes were once more upon us. Regular proceedings had been taken, and the action in ejectment of Woodley versus Thorndyke was once more on the cause list of the Chester circuit court, marked this time as a special jury case. Indefatigable as Mr. Barnes had been in his search for Elizabeth Wareing, not the slightest trace of her could he discover; and I went into court, therefore, with but slight expectation of invalidating the, as I fully believed, fictitious will. We had, however, obtained a good deal of information relative to the former history not only of the absent Mrs. Wareing, but of Thorndyke himself; and it was quite within the range of probabilities that something might come out, enabling me to use that knowledge to good purpose. The plaintiff and old Mr. Ward were seated in court beside Mr. Barnes, as on the former abortive trial; but Mary Woodley had, fortunately for herself, lost much of the interest which attaches to female comeliness and grace when associated in the mind of the spectator with undeserved calamity and sorrow. The black dress which she still wore—the orthodox twelve months of mourning for a parent had not yet quite elapsed—was now fresh, and of fine quality, and the pale lilies of her face were interspersed with delicate roses; whilst by her side sat Mr. John Wilford, as happy-looking as if no such things as perjurers, forgers, or adverse verdicts existed to disturb the peace of the glad world. Altogether, we were decidedly less interesting than on the former occasion. Edward Wareing, I must not omit to add, was, greatly to our surprise, present. He sat, in great apparent amity, by the side of Thorndyke.
It was late in the afternoon, and twilight was gradually stealing over the dingy court, when the case was called. The special jury answered to their names, were duly sworn, and then nearly the same preliminary speeches and admissions were made and put in as on the previous occasion. Thomas Headley, the first witness called in support of the pretended will, underwent a rigorous cross-examination; but I was unable to extract anything of importance from him.
"And now," said the defendant's leading counsel, "let me ask my learned friend if he has succeeded in obtaining the attendance of Elizabeth Wareing?"
I was of course obliged to confess that we had been unable to find her; and the judge remarked that in that ease he could receive secondary evidence in proof of her attestation of the will.
A whispered but manifestly eager conference here took place between the defendant and his counsel, occasionally joined in by Edward Wareing. There appeared to be indecision or hesitation in their deliberations; but at last Mr. P —— rose, and with some ostentation of manner addressed the court.
"In the discharge of my duty to the defendant in this action, my lord, upon whose fair fame much undeserved obloquy has been cast by the speeches of the plaintiff's counsel—speeches insupported by a shadow of evidence—I have to state that, anxious above all things to stand perfectly justified before his neighbors and society, he has, at great trouble and expense, obtained the presence here to-day of the witness Elizabeth Wareing. She had gone to reside in France with a respectable English family in the situation of housekeeper. We shall now place her in the witness-box, and having done so, I trust we shall hear no more of the slanderous imputations so freely lavished upon my client. Call Elizabeth Wareing into court."
A movement of surprise and curiosity agitated the entire auditory at this announcement. Mr. Silas Thorndyke's naturally cadaverous countenance assumed an ashy hue, spite of his efforts to appear easy and jubilant; and for the first time since the commencement of the proceedings I entertained the hope of a successful issue.
Mrs. Wareing appeared in answer to the call, and was duly sworn "to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." She was a good-looking woman, of perhaps forty years of age, and bore a striking resemblance to her son. She rapidly, smoothly, and unhesitatingly confirmed the evidence of Headley to a tittle. She trembled, I observed, excessively; and on the examining counsel intimating that he had no more questions to ask, turned hastily to leave the box.
"Stay—stay, my good woman," I exclaimed; "you and I must have some talk together before we part."
She started, and looked at me with frightened earnestness; and then her nervous glances stole towards Mr. Silas Thorndyke. There was no comfort there: in his countenance she only saw the reflex of the agitation and anxiety which marked her own. Sleek Silas, I could see, already repented of the rash move he had made, and would have given a good deal to get his witness safely and quietly out of court.
It was now nearly dark, and observing that it was necessary the court and jury should see as well as hear the witness whilst under examination, I requested that lights should be brought in. This was done. Two candles were placed in front of the witness-box, one on each side of Mrs. Wareing; a few others were disposed about the bench and jury desks. The effect of this partial lighting of the gloomy old court was, that the witness stood out in strong and bright relief from the surrounding shadows, rendering the minutest change or play of her features distinctly visible. Mr. Silas Thorndyke was, from his position, thrown entirely into the shade, and any telegraphing between him and the witness was thus rendered impossible. This preparation, as if for some extraordinary and solemn purpose, together with the profound silence which reigned in the court, told fearfully, as I expected, upon the nerves of Mrs. Elizabeth Wareing. She already seemed as if about to swoon with agitation and ill-defined alarm.
"Pray, madam," said I, "is your name Wareing or Tucker?"
She did not answer, and I repeated the question. "Tucker," she at last replied in a tremulous whisper.
"I thought so. And pray, Mrs. Tucker, were you ever 'in trouble' in London for robbing your lodgings?"
I thought she attempted to answer, but no sound passed her lips. One of the ushers of the court handed her a glass of water at my suggestion, and she seemed to recover somewhat. I pressed my question; and at last she replied in the same low, agitated voice, "Yes, I have been."
"I know you have. Mr. Silas Thorndyke, I believe, was your bail on that occasion, and the matter was, I understand, compromised—arranged—at all events the prosecution was not pressed. Is not that so?"
"Very well: either answer will do. You lived also, I believe, with Mr. Thorndyke, as his housekeeper of course, when he was in business as a concocter and vender of infallible drugs and pills?"
"He was held to be skilful in the preparation of drugs, was he not—well-versed in their properties?"
"Yes—I believe so—I do not know. Why am I asked such questions?"
"You will know presently. And now, woman, answer the question I am about to put to you, as you will be compelled to answer it to God at the last great day—What was the nature of the drug which you or he mixed with the medicine prescribed for the late Mrs. Thorndyke?"
A spasmodic shriek, checked by a desperate effort, partially escaped her, and she stood fixedly gazing with starting eyes in my face.
The profoundest silence reigned in the court as I iterated the question.
"You must answer, woman," said the judge sternly, "unless you know your answer will criminate yourself."
The witness looked wildly round the court, as if in search of counsel or sympathy; but encountering none but frowning and eager faces—Thorndyke she could not discern in the darkness—she became giddy and panic-stricken, and seemed to lose all presence of mind.
"He—he—he," she at last gasped—"he mixed it. I do not know—But how," she added, pushing back her hair, and pressing her hands against her hot temples, "can this be? What can it mean?"
A movement amongst the bystanders just at this moment attracted the notice of the judge, and he immediately exclaimed, "The defendant must not leave the court!" An officer placed himself beside the wretched murderer as well as forger, and I resumed the cross-examination of the witness.
"Now, Mrs. Tucker, please to look at this letter." (It was that which had been addressed to Mary Woodley by her son.) "That, I believe, is your son's handwriting?"
"The body of this will has been written by the same hand. Now, woman, answer. Was it your son—this young man who, you perceive, if guilty, cannot escape from justice—was it he who forged the names of the deceased Mrs. Thorndyke, and of John Cummins attached to it?"
"Not he—not he!" shrieked the wretched woman. "It was Thorndyke—Thorndyke himself." And then with a sudden revulsion of feeling, as the consequences of what she had uttered flashed upon her, she exclaimed, "Oh, Silas, what have I said?—what have I done?"
"Hanged me, that's all, you accursed devil!" replied Thorndyke with gloomy ferocity. "But I deserve it for trusting in such an idiot: dolt and fool that I was for doing so."
The woman sank down in strong convulsions, and was, by direction of the judge, carried out of the hall.
The anxious silence which pervaded the court during this scene, in which the reader will have observed I played a bold, tentative, and happily-successful game, was broken as the witness was borne off by a loud murmur of indignation, followed by congratulatory exclamations on the fortunate termination of the suit. The defendant's counsel threw up their briefs, and a verdict was at once returned for the plaintiff.
All the inculpated parties were speedily in custody; and the body of Mrs. Thorndyke having been disinterred, it was discovered that she had been destroyed by bichloride of mercury, of which a considerable quantity was detected in the body. I was not present at the trial of Thorndyke and his accomplices—he for murder, and Headley for perjury—but I saw by the public prints that he was found guilty, and executed: Headley was transported: the woman was, if I remember rightly, admitted evidence for the crown.
Mary Woodley was of course put into immediate possession of her paternal inheritance; and is now—at least she was about four months ago, when I dined with her and her husband at Dale Farm—a comely, prosperous matron; and as happy as a woman with a numerous progeny and an easy-tempered partner can in this, according to romance writers, vale of grief and tears expect to be. The service I was fortunately enabled to render her forms one of the most pleasing recollections of my life.
In the second year of my connection with the Northern Circuit, when even junior briefs were much less numerous than acceptable, I was agreeably surprised, as I sat musing on the evening of my arrival in the ancient city of York upon the capricious mode in which those powerful personages the attorneys distributed their valuable favors, by the entrance of one of the most eminent of the race practising in that part of the country, and the forthwith tender of a bulky brief in the Crown Court, on which, as my glance instinctively fell on the interesting figures, I perceived that the large fee, in criminal cases, of fifty guineas was marked. The local newspapers, from which I had occasionally seen extracts, had been for some time busy with the case; and I knew it therefore to be, relatively to the condition in life of the principal person implicated, an important one. Rumor had assigned the conduct of the defence to an eminent leader on the circuit—since, one of our ablest judges; and on looking more closely at the brief, I perceived that that gentleman's name had been crossed out, and mine substituted. The fee also—a much less agreeable alteration—had been, I saw, considerably reduced; in accordance, doubtless, with the attorney's appreciation of the difference of value between a silk and a stuff gown.
"You are not, sir, I believe, retained for the prosecution in the crown against Everett?" said Mr. Sharpe in his brief, business manner.
"I am not, Mr. Sharpe."
"In that case, I beg to tender you the leading-brief for the defence. It was intended, as you perceive, to place it in the hands of our great nisi prius leader, but he will be so completely occupied in that court, that he has been compelled to decline it. He mentioned you; and from what I have myself seen of you in several cases, I have no doubt my unfortunate client will have ample justice done him. Mr. Kingston will be with you."
I thanked Mr. Sharpe for his compliment, and accepted his brief. As the commission would be opened on the following morning, I at once applied myself to a perusal of the bulky paper, aided as I read by the verbal explanations and commentaries of Mr. Sharpe. Our conference lasted several hours; and it was arranged that another should be held early the next morning at Mr. Sharpe's office, at which Mr. Kingston would assist.
Dark, intricate, compassed with fearful mystery, was the case so suddenly submitted to my guidance; and the few faint gleams of light derived from the attorney's research, prescience, and sagacity, served but to render dimly visible a still profounder and blacker abyss of crime than that disclosed by the evidence for the crown. Young as I then was in the profession, no marvel that I felt oppressed by the weight of the responsibility cast upon me; or that, when wearied with thinking, and dizzy with profitless conjecture, I threw myself into bed, perplexing images and shapes of guilt and terror pursued me through my troubled sleep! Happily the next day was not that of trial; for I awoke with a throbbing pulse and burning brain, and should have been but poorly prepared for a struggle involving the issues of life and death. Extremely sensitive, as, under the circumstances, I must necessarily have been, to the arduous nature of the grave duties so unexpectedly devolved upon me; the following resume of the chief incidents of the case, as confided to me by Mr. Sharpe, will, I think, fully account to the reader for the nervous irritability under which I for the moment, labored:—
Mr. Frederick Everett, the prisoner about to be arraigned before a jury of his countrymen for the frightful crime of murder, had, with his father, Captain Anthony Everett, resided for several years past at Woodlands Manor-House, the seat of Mrs. Eleanor Fitzhugh, a rich, elderly maiden lady, aunt to the first, and sister by marriage to the last-named gentleman. A generous, pious, high-minded person Mrs. Fitzhugh was represented to have been, but extremely sensitive withal on the score of "family." The Fitzhughs of Yorkshire, she was wont to boast, "came in with the Conqueror;" and any branch of the glorious tree then firmly planted in the soil of England that degraded itself by an alliance with wealth, beauty, or worth, dwelling without the pale of her narrow prejudices, was inexorably cut off from her affections, and, as far as she was able, from her memory. One—the principal of these offenders—had been Mary Fitzhugh, her young, fair, gentle, and only sister. In utter disdain and slight of the dignity of ancestry, she had chosen to unite herself to a gentleman of the name of Mordaunt, who, though possessed of great talents, an unspotted name, and, for his age, high rank in the civil service of the East India Company, had—inexpiable misfortune—a trader for his grandfather! This crime against her "house" Mrs. Eleanor Fitzhugh resolved never to forgive; and she steadily returned, unopened, the frequent letters addressed to her by her sister, who pined in her distant Indian home for a renewal of the old sisterly love which had watched over and gladdened her life from infancy to womanhood. A long silence—a silence of many years—succeeded; broken at last by the sad announcement that the unforgiven one had long since found an early grave in a foreign land. The letter which brought the intelligence bore the London post-mark, and was written by Captain Everett; to whom, it was stated, Mrs. Eleanor Fitzhugh's sister, early widowed, had been united in second nuptials, and by whom she had borne a son, Frederick Everett, now nearly twenty years of age. The long-pent-up affection of Mrs. Fitzhugh for her once idolized sister burst forth at this announcement of her death with uncontrollable violence; and, as some atonement for her past sinful obduracy, she immediately invited the husband and son of her long-lost Mary to Woodlands Manor-House, to be henceforth, she said, she hoped their home. Soon after their arrival, Mrs. Fitzhugh made a will—the family property was entirely at her disposal—revoking a former one, which bequeathed the whole of the real and personal property to a distant relative whom she had never seen, and by which all was devised to her nephew, who was immediately proclaimed sole heir to the Fitzhugh estates, yielding a yearly rental of at least L12,000. Nay, so thoroughly was she softened towards the memory of her deceased sister, that the will—of which, as I have stated, no secret was made—provided, in the event of Frederick dying childless, that the property should pass to his father, Mary Fitzhugh's second husband.
No two persons could be more unlike than were the father and son—mentally, morally, physically. Frederick Everett was a fair-haired, blue-eyed young man, of amiable, caressing manners, gentle disposition, and ardent, poetic temperament. His father, on the contrary, was a dark-featured, cold, haughty, repulsive man, ever apparently wrapped up in selfish and moody reveries. Between him and his son there appeared to exist but little of cordial intercourse, although the highly-sensitive and religious tone of mind of Frederick Everett caused him to treat his parent with unvarying deference and respect.
The poetic temperament of Frederick Everett brought him at last, as poetic temperaments are apt to do, into trouble. Youth, beauty, innocence, and grace, united in the person of Lucy Carrington—the only child of Mr. Stephen Carrington, a respectable retired merchant of moderate means, residing within a few miles of Woodlands Manor-House—crossed his path; and spite of his shield of many quarterings, he was vanquished in an instant, and almost without resistance. The at least tacit consent and approval of Mr. Carrington and his fair daughter secured, Mr. Everett, junior—hasty, headstrong lover that he was—immediately disclosed his matrimonial projects to his father and aunt. Captain Everett received the announcement with a sarcastic smile, coldly remarking, that if Mrs. Fitzhugh was satisfied, he had no objection to offer. But, alas! no sooner did her nephew, with much periphrastic eloquence, in part his passion for the daughter of a mere merchant to his aunt, than a vehement torrent of indignant rebuke broke from her lips. She would die rather than consent to so degrading a mesalliance; and should he persist in yielding to such gross infatuation, she would not only disinherit, but banish him her house, and cast him forth a beggar on the world. Language like this, one can easily understand, provoked language from the indignant young man which in less heated moments he would have disdained to utter; and the aunt and nephew parted in fierce anger, and after mutual denunciation of each other—he as a disobedient ingrate, she as an imperious, ungenerous tyrant. The quarrel was with some difficulty patched up by Captain Everett; and with the exception of the change which took place in the disappointed lover's demeanor—from light-hearted gaiety to gloom and sullenness—things, after a few days, went on pretty nearly as before.
The sudden rupture of the hopes Mrs. Eleanor Fitzhugh had reposed in her nephew as the restorer of the glories of her ancient "house," tarnished by Mary Fitzhugh's marriage, affected dangerously, it soon appeared, that lady's already failing health. A fortnight after the quarrel with her nephew, she became alarmingly ill. Unusual and baffling symptoms showed themselves; and after suffering during eight days from alternate acute pain, and heavy, unconquerable drowsiness, she expired in her nephew's arms. This sudden and fatal illness of his relative appeared to reawaken all Frederick Everett's tenderness and affection for her. He was incessant in his close attendance in the sick-chamber, permitting no one else to administer to his aunt either aliment or medicine. On this latter point, indeed, he insisted, with strange fierceness, taking the medicine with his own hand from the man who brought it; and after administering the prescribed quantity, carefully locking up the remainder in a cabinet in his bed-room.
On the morning of the day that Mrs. Fitzhugh died, her ordinary medical attendant, Mr. Smith, terrified and perplexed by the urgency of the symptoms exhibited by his patient, called in the aid of a locally-eminent physician, Dr. Archer, or Archford—the name is not very distinctly written in my memoranda of these occurrences; but we will call him Archer—who at once changed the treatment till then pursued, and ordered powerful emetics to be administered, without, however, as we have seen, producing any saving or sensible effect. The grief of Frederick Everett, when all hope was over, was unbounded. He threw himself, in a paroxysm of remorse or frenzy, upon the bed, accusing himself of having murdered her, with other strange and incoherent expressions, upon which an intimation soon afterwards made by Dr. Archer threw startling light. That gentleman, conjointly with Mr. Smith, requested an immediate interview with Captain Everett, and Mr. Hardyman, the deceased lady's land-steward and solicitor, who happened to be in the house at the time. The request was of course complied with, and Dr. Archer at once bluntly stated that, in his opinion, poison had been administered to the deceased lady, though of what precise kind he was somewhat at a loss to conjecture—opium essentially, he thought, though certainly not in any of its ordinary preparations—one of the alkaloids probably which chemical science had recently discovered. Be this as it may, a post-mortem examination of the body would clear up all doubts, and should take place as speedily as possible. Captain Everett at once acceded to Dr. Archer's proposal, at the same time observing that he was quite sure the result would entirely disprove that gentleman's assumption. Mr. Hardyman also fully concurred in the necessity of a rigid investigation; and the post-mortem examination should, it was arranged, take place early on the following morning.
"I have another and very painful duty to perform," continued Dr. Archer, addressing Captain Everett. "I find that your son, Mr. Frederick Everett, alone administered medicine and aliment to Mrs. Fitzhugh during her illness. Strange, possibly wholly frenzied expressions, but which sounded vastly like cries of remorse, irrepressible by a person unused to crime, escaped him in my hearing just after the close of the final scene; and—But perhaps, Captain Everett, you had better retire: this is scarcely a subject"—
"Go on, sir," said the captain, over whose countenance a strange expression—to use Dr. Archer's own words—had flashed; "go on: I am better now."
"We all know," resumed Dr. Archer, "how greatly Mr. Frederick Everett gains in wealth by his aunt's death; and that her decease, moreover, will enable him to conclude the marriage to which she was so determinedly opposed. I think, therefore, that, under all the circumstances, we shall be fully justified in placing the young gentleman under such—I will not say custody, but surveillance as will prevent him either from leaving the house, should he imagine himself suspected, or of destroying any evidence which may possibly exist of his guilt, if indeed he be guilty."
"I entirely agree with you, Dr. Archer," exclaimed Mr. Hardyman, who had listened with much excitement to the doctor's narrative; "and will, upon my own responsibility, take the necessary steps for effecting the object you have in view."
"Gentlemen," said Captain Everett, rising from his chair, "you will of course do your duty; but I can take no part, nor offer any counsel, in such a case; I must leave you to your own devices." He then left the apartment.
He had been gone but a few minutes, when Frederick Everett, still in a state of terrible excitement, entered the room, strode fiercely up to Dr. Archer, and demanded how he dared propose, as the butler had just informed him he had done, a dissection of his aunt's body.
"I will not permit it," continued the agitated young man: "I am master here, and I say it shall not be done. What new horror would you evoke? Is it not enough that one of the kindest, best of God's creatures, has perished, but another sacrifice must—What do I say? Enough that I will not permit it. I have seen similar cases-very similar cases in—in India!"
The gentleman so strangely addressed had exchanged significant glances during the delivery of this incoherent speech; and, quite confirmed in their previous impression, Mr. Hardyman, as their spokesman, interrupted the speaker, to inform him that he was the suspected assassin of his aunt! The accusing sentences had hardly passed the solicitor's lips, when the furious young man sprang towards him with the bound of a tiger, and at one blow prostrated him on the floor. He was immediately seized by the two medical gentlemen, and help having been summoned, he was with much difficulty secured, and placed in strict confinement, to await the result of the next day's inquiry.
The examination of the body disclosed the terrible fact, that the deceased lady had perished by acetate of morphine; thus verifying the sagacious guess of Dr. Archer. A minute search was immediately made throughout Mr. Frederick Everett's apartments, and behind one of the drawers of a cabinet in his bedroom—at the back of the shelf or partition upon which the drawer rested, and of course completely hidden by the drawer itself when in its place—was found a flat tin flask, fluted on the outside, and closed with a screw stopper: it was loosely enveloped in a sheet of brown paper, directed "—Everett, Esq., Woodlands Manor-House, Yorkshire;" and upon close examination, a small quantity of white powder, which proved to be acetate of morphine, was found in the flask. Suspicion of young Everett's guilt now became conviction; and, as if to confirm beyond all doubt the soundness of the chain of circumstantial evidence in which he was immeshed, the butler, John Darby, an aged and trusty servant of the late Mrs. Fitzhugh, made on the next day the following deposition before the magistrates:—
"He had taken in, two days before his late mistress was seized with her fatal illness, a small brown paper parcel which had been brought by coach from London, and for which 2s. 10d carriage was charged and paid. The paper found in Mr. Frederick Everett's cabinet was, he could positively swear, from the date and figures marked on it, and the handwriting, the paper wrapper of that parcel. He had given it to young Mr. Everett, who happened to be in the library at the time. About five minutes afterwards, he had occasion to return to the library, to inform him that some fishing-tackle he had ordered was sent home. The door was ajar; and Mr. Frederick did not at first perceive his entrance, as he was standing with his back to the door. The paper parcel he, the butler, had just before delivered was lying open on the table, and Mr. Everett held in one hand a flat tin flask—the witness had no doubt the same found in the cabinet—and in the other a note, which he was reading. He, the witness, coughed, to attract Mr. Everett's attention, who hurriedly turned round, clapped down the flask and the note, shuffling them under the paper wrapper, as if to conceal them, and then, in a very confused manner, and his face as red as flame, asked witness what he wanted there? Witness thought this behavior very strange at the time; but the incident soon passed from his mind, and he had thought no more of it till the finding of the paper and flask as described by the other witnesses."
Mr. Frederick Everett, who had manifested the strangest impassability, a calmness as of despair, throughout the inquiry, which perplexed and disheartened Mr. Sharpe, whose services had been retained by Captain Everett, allowed even this mischievous evidence to pass without a word of comment or explanation; and he was, as a matter of course, fully committed for the wilful murder of his relative. The chain of circumstantial evidence, motive included, was, it was felt, complete—not a link was wanting.
These were the chief incidents disclosed to me by Mr. Sharpe during our long and painful consultation. Of the precise nature of the terrible suspicions which haunted and disturbed me, I shall only in this place say that neither Mr. Sharpe, nor, consequently, myself, would in all probability have guessed or glanced at them, but for the persistent assertions of Miss Carrington, that her lover was madly sacrificing himself from some chimerical motive of honor or duty.
"You do not know, Mr. Sharpe, as I do," she would frequently exclaim with tearful vehemence, "the generous, child-like simplicity, the chivalric enthusiasm, of his character, his utter abnegation of self, and readiness on all occasions to sacrifice his own ease, his own wishes, to forward the happiness of others; and, above all, his fantastic notions of honor—duty, if you will—which would, I feel assured, prompt him to incur any peril, death itself, to shield from danger any one who had claims upon him either of blood or of affection. You know to whom my suspicions point; and how dreadful to think that one so young, so brave, so pious, and so true, should be sacrificed for such a monster as I believe that man to be!"
To all these passionate expostulations the attorney could only reply that vague suspicions were not judicial proofs; and that if Mr. Frederick Everett would persist in his obstinate reserve, a fatal result was inevitable. But Mr. Sharpe readily consented to gratify the wishes of Mr. Carrington and his daughter on one point: he returned the money, not a very large sum, which Captain Everett had sent him, and agreed that Mr. Carrington should supply the funds necessary for the defence of the prisoner.
Our consultation the next day at Mr. Sharpe's was a sad and hopeless one. Nowhere did a gleam of cheerful light break in. The case was overwhelmingly complete against the prisoner. The vague suspicions we entertained pointed to a crime so monstrous, so incredible, that we felt it could not be so much as hinted at upon such, legally considered, slight grounds. The prisoner was said to be an eloquent speaker, and I undertook to draw up the outline of a defence, impugning, with all the dialectic skill I was master of, the conclusiveness of the evidence for the crown. To this, and a host of testimony to character which we proposed to call, rested our faint hopes of "a good deliverance!"
Business was over, and we were taking a glass of wine with Mr. Sharpe, when his chief clerk entered to say that Sergeant Edwards, an old soldier—who had spoken to them some time before relative to a large claim which he asserted he had against Captain Everett, arising out of a legacy bequeathed to him in India, and the best mode of assuring its payment by an annuity, as proposed by the captain—had now called to say that the terms were at last finally arranged, and that he wished to know when Mr. Sharpe would be at leisure to draw up the bond. "He need not fear for his money!" exclaimed Sharpe tartly, "the captain will, I fear, be rich enough before another week has passed over our heads. Tell him to call to-morrow evening; I will see him after I return from court." A few minutes afterwards, I and Mr. Kingston took our leave.
The Crown Court was thronged to suffocation on the following morning, and the excitement of the auditory appeared to be of the intensest kind. Miss Carrington, closely veiled, sat beside her father on one of the side-benches. A true bill against the prisoner had been found on the previous afternoon; and the trial, it had been arranged, to suit the convenience of counsel, should be first proceeded with. The court was presided over by Mr. Justice Grose; and Mr. Gurney—afterwards Mr. Baron Gurney—with another gentleman appeared for the prosecution. As soon as the judge had taken his seat, the prisoner was ordered to be brought in, and a hush of expectation pervaded the assembly. In a few minutes he made his appearance in the dock. His aspect—calm, mournful, and full of patient resignation—spoke strongly to the feelings of the audience, and a low murmur of sympathy ran through the court. He bowed respectfully to the bench, and then his sad, proud eye wandered round the auditory, till it rested on the form of Lucy Carrington, who, overcome by sudden emotion, had hidden her weeping face in her father's bosom. Strong feeling, which he with difficulty mastered, shook his frame, and blanched to a still deeper pallor his fine intellectual countenance. He slowly withdrew his gaze from the agitating spectacle, and his troubled glance meeting that of Mr. Sharpe, seemed to ask why proceedings, which could only have one termination, were delayed. He had not long to wait. The jury were sworn, and Mr. Gurney rose to address them for the crown. Clear, terse, logical, powerful without the slightest pretence to what is called eloquence, his speech produced a tremendous impression upon all who heard it; and few persons mentally withheld their assent to his assertion, as he concluded what was evidently a painful task, "that should he produce evidence substantiating the statement he had made, the man who could then refuse to believe in the prisoner's guilt, would equally refuse credence to actions witnessed by his own bodily eyes."
The different witnesses were then called, and testified to the various facts I have before related. Vainly did Mr. Kingston and I exert ourselves to invalidate the irresistible proofs of guilt so dispassionately detailed. "It is useless," whispered Mr. Sharpe, as I sat down after the cross-examination of the aged butler. "You have done all that could be done; but he is a doomed man, spite of his innocence, of which I feel, every moment that I look at him, the more and more convinced. God help us; we are poor, fallible creatures, with all our scientific machinery for getting at truth!"
The case for the crown was over, and the prisoner was told that now was the time for him to address the jury in answer to the charge preferred against him. He bowed courteously to the intimation, and drawing a paper from his pocket, spoke, after a few preliminary words of course, nearly as follows:—
"I hold in my hand a very acute and eloquent address prepared for me by one of the able and zealous gentlemen who appears to-day as my counsel, and which, but for the iniquitous law which prohibits the advocate of a presumed felon, but possibly quite innocent person, from addressing the jury, upon whose verdict his client's fate depends, would no doubt have formed the subject-matter of an appeal to you not to yield credence to the apparently irrefragable testimony arrayed against me. The substance of this defence you must have gathered from the tenor of the cross-examinations; but so little effect did it produce, I saw, in that form, however ably done, and so satisfied am I that though it were rendered with an angel's eloquence, it would prove utterly impotent to shake the strong conclusions of my guilt, which you, short-sighted, fallible mortals—short-sighted and fallible because mortal!—I mean no disrespect—must have drawn from the body of evidence you have heard, that I will not weary you or myself by reading it. I will only observe that it points especially to the over-roof, so to speak, arrayed against me—to the folly of supposing that an intentional murderer would ostentatiously persist in administering the fatal potion to the victim with his own hands, carefully excluding all others from a chance of incurring suspicion. There are other points, but this is by far the most powerful one; and as I cannot believe that will induce you to return a verdict rescuing me from what the foolish world, judging from appearances, will call a shameful death, but which I, knowing my own heart, feel to be sanctified by the highest motives which can influence man—it would be merely waste of time to repeat them. From the first moment, gentlemen, that this accusation was preferred against me, I felt that I had done with this world; and, young as I am, but for one beloved being whose presence lighted up and irradiated this else cold and barren earth, I should, with little reluctance, have accepted this gift of an apparently severe, but perhaps merciful fate. This life, gentlemen," he continued after a short pause, "it has been well said, is but a battle and a march. I have been struck down early in the combat; but of what moment is that, if it be found by Him who witnesses the world-unnoticed deeds of all his soldiers, that I have earned the victor's crown? Let it be your consolation, gentlemen, if hereafter you should discover that you have sent me to an undeserved death, that you at least will not have hurried a soul spotted with the awful crime of murder before its Maker. And oh," he exclaimed in conclusion, with solemn earnestness, "may all who have the guilt of blood upon them hasten, whilst life is still granted them, to cleanse themselves by repentance of that foul sin, so that not only the sacrifice of one poor life, but that most holy and tremendous one offered in the world's consummate hour, may not for them have been made in vain! My lord and gentlemen, I have no more to say. You will doubtless do your duty: I have done mine."