This piece of information had been put in circulation by Caleb Jennings, who was a sort of humble favorite of Mr. Lisle's, or, at all events, was regarded by the misanthrope with less dislike than he manifested towards others. Caleb cultivated a few flowers in a little plot of ground at the back of the house, and Mr. Lisle would sometimes accept a rose or a bunch of violets from him. Other slight services—especially since the recent death of his old and garrulous woman-servant, Esther May, who had accompanied him from London, and with whom Mr. Jennings had always been upon terms of gossiping intimacy—had led to certain familiarities of intercourse; and it thus happened that the inquisitive shoemaker became partially acquainted with the history of the wrongs and griefs which preyed upon, and shortened the life of the prematurely-aged man.
The substance of this every-day, common-place story, as related to us by Jennings, and subsequently enlarged and colored from other sources, may be very briefly told.
Ambrose Lisle, in consequence of an accident which occurred in his infancy, was slightly deformed. His right shoulder—as I understood, for I never saw him—grew out, giving an ungraceful and somewhat comical twist to his figure, which, in female eyes—youthful ones at least—sadly marred the effect of his intelligent and handsome countenance. This personal defect rendered him shy and awkward in the presence of women of his own class of society; and he had attained the ripe age of thirty-seven years, and was a rich and prosperous man, before he gave the slightest token of an inclination towards matrimony. About a twelvemonth previous to that period of his life, the deaths—quickly following each other—of a Mr. and Mrs. Stevens, threw their eldest daughter, Lucy, upon Mr. Lisle's hands. Mr. Lisle had been left an orphan at a very early age, and Mrs. Stevens—his aunt, and then a maiden lady—had, in accordance with his father's will, taken charge of himself and brother till they severally attained their majority. Long, however, before that, she married Mr. Stevens, by whom she had two children—Lucy and Emily. Her husband, whom she survived but two months, died insolvent; and in obedience to the dying wishes of his aunt, for whom he appears to have felt the tenderest esteem, he took the eldest of her orphan children to his home, intending to regard and provide for her as his own adopted child and heiress. Emily, the other sister, found refuge in the house of a still more distant relative than himself.
The Stevenses had gone to live in a remote part of England—Yorkshire, I believe—and it thus fell out, that, till his cousin Lucy arrived at her new home, he had not seen her for more than ten years. The pale, and somewhat plain child, as he had esteemed her, he was startled to find had become a charming woman; and her naturally gay and joyous temperament, quick talents, and fresh young beauty, rapidly acquired an overwhelming influence over him. Strenuously, but vainly, he struggled against the growing infatuation—argued, reasoned with himself—passed in review the insurmountable objections to such a union, the difference of age—he, leading towards thirty-seven, she, barely twenty-one: he, crooked, deformed, of reserved, taciturn temper—she, full of young life, and grace, and beauty. It was useless; and nearly a year had passed in the bootless struggle, when Lucy Stevens, who had vainly striven to blind herself to the nature of the emotions by which her cousin and guardian was animated towards her, intimated a wish to accept her sister Emily's invitation to pass two or three months with her. This brought the affair to a crisis. Buoying himself up with the illusions which people in such an unreasonable frame of mind create for themselves, he suddenly entered the sitting-room set apart for her private use, with the desperate purpose of making his beautiful cousin a formal offer of his hand. She was not in the apartment, but her opened writing-desk, and a partly-finished letter lying on it, showed that she had been recently there, and would probably soon return. Mr. Lisle took two or three agitated turns about the room, one of which brought him close to the writing-desk, and his glance involuntarily fell upon the unfinished letter. Had a deadly serpent leaped suddenly at his throat, the shock could not have been greater. At the head of the sheet of paper was a clever pen-and-ink sketch of Lucy Stevens and himself—he, kneeling to her in a lovelorn, ludicrous attitude, and she, laughing immoderately at his lachrymose and pitiful aspect and speech. The letter was addressed to her sister Emily; and the enraged lover saw not only that his supposed secret was fully known, but that he himself was mocked, laughed at, for his doting folly. At least this was his interpretation of the words which swam before his eyes. At the instant Lucy returned, and a torrent of imprecation burst from the furious man, in which wounded self-love, rageful pride, and long pent-up passion, found utterance in wild and bitter words. Half an hour afterwards Lucy Stevens had left the merchant's house—for ever, as it proved. She, indeed, on arriving at her sister's, sent a letter, supplicating forgiveness for the thoughtless, and, as he deemed it, insulting sketch, intended only for Emily's eye; but he replied merely by a note written by one of his clerks, informing Miss Stevens that Mr. Lisle declined any further correspondence with her.
The ire of the angered and vindictive man had, however, begun sensibly to abate, and old thoughts, memories, duties, suggested partly by the blank which Lucy's absence made in his house, partly by remembrance of the solemn promise he had made her mother, were strongly reviving in his mind, when he read the announcement of marriage in a provincial journal, directed to him, as he believed, in the bride's hand-writing; but this was an error, her sister having sent the newspaper. Mr. Lisle also construed this into a deliberate mockery and insult, and from that hour strove to banish all images and thoughts connected with his cousin, from his heart and memory.
He unfortunately adopted the very worst course possible for effecting this object. Had he remained amid the buzz and tumult of active life, a mere sentimental disappointment, such as thousands of us have sustained and afterwards forgotten, would, there can be little doubt, have soon ceased to afflict him. He chose to retire from business, visited Watley, and habits of miserliness growing rapidly upon his cankered mind, never afterwards removed from the lodgings he had hired on first arriving there. Thus madly hugging to himself sharp-pointed memories, which a sensible man would have speedily cast off and forgotten, the sour misanthrope passed a useless, cheerless, weary existence, to which death must have been a welcome relief.
Matters were in this state with the morose and aged man—aged mentally and corporeally, although his years were but fifty-eight—when Mr. Flint made Mr. Jennings's acquaintance. Another month or so had passed away when Caleb's attention was one day about noon claimed by a young man dressed in mourning, accompanied by a female similarly attired, and from their resemblance to each other he conjectured were brother and sister. The stranger wished to know if that was the house in which Mr. Ambrose Lisle resided. Jennings said it was; and with civil alacrity left his stall and rang the front-door bell. The summons was answered by the landlady's servant, who, since Esther May's death, had waited on the first-floor lodger; and the visitors were invited to go up stairs. Caleb, much wondering who they might be, returned to his stall, and from thence passed into his eating and sleeping-room just below Mr. Lisle's apartments. He was in the act of taking a pipe from the mantel-shelf, in order to the more deliberate and satisfactory cogitation on such an unusual event, when he was startled by a loud shout, or scream rather, from above. The quivering and excited voice was that of Mr. Lisle, and the outcry was immediately followed by an explosion of unintelligible exclamations from several persons. Caleb was up stairs in an instant, and found himself in the midst of a strangely-perplexing and distracted scene. Mr. Lisle, pale as his shirt, shaking in every limb, and his eyes on fire with passion, was hurling forth a torrent of vituperation and reproach at the young woman, whom he evidently mistook for some one else; whilst she, extremely terrified, and unable to stand but for the assistance of her companion, was tendering a letter in her outstretched hand, and uttering broken sentences, which her own agitation and the fury of Mr. Lisle's invectives rendered totally incomprehensible. At last the fierce old man struck the letter from her hand, and with frantic rage ordered both the strangers to leave the room. Caleb urged them to comply, and accompanied them down stairs. When they reached the street, he observed a woman on the other side of the way, dressed in mourning, and much older apparently, though he could not well see her face through the thick veil she wore, than she who had thrown Mr. Lisle into such an agony of rage, apparently waiting for them. To her the young people immediately hastened, and after a brief conference the three turned away up the street, and Mr. Jennings saw no more of them.
A quarter of an hour afterwards the house-servant informed Caleb that Mr. Lisle had retired to bed, and although still in great agitation, and, as she feared, seriously indisposed, would not permit Dr. Clarke to be sent for. So sudden and violent a hurricane in the usually dull and drowsy atmosphere in which Jennings lived, excited and disturbed him greatly; the hours, however, flew past without bringing any relief to his curiosity, and evening was falling, when a peculiar knocking on the floor over-head announced that Mr. Lisle desired his presence. That gentleman was sitting up in bed, and in the growing darkness his face could not be very distinctly seen; but Caleb instantly observed a vivid and unusual light in the old man's eyes. The letter so strangely delivered was lying open before him; and unless the shoe-mender was greatly mistaken, there were stains of recent tears upon Mr. Lisie's furrowed and hollow cheeks. The voice, too, it struck Caleb, though eager, was gentle and wavering. "It was a mistake, Jennings," he said; "I was mad for the moment. Are they gone?" he added in a yet more subdued and gentle tone. Caleb informed him of what he had seen; and as he did so, the strange light in the old man's eyes seemed to quiver and sparkle with a yet intenser emotion than before. Presently he shaded them with his hand, and remained several minutes silent. He then said with a firmer voice, "I shall be glad if you will step to Mr. Sowerby, and tell him I am too unwell to see him this evening. But be sure to say nothing else," he eagerly added, as Caleb turned away in compliance with his request; "and when you come back, let me see you again."
When Jennings returned, he found to his great surprise Mr. Lisle up and nearly dressed; and his astonishment increased a hundred-fold upon hearing that gentleman say, in a quick but perfectly collected and decided manner, that he should set off for London by the mail-train.
"For London—and by night!" exclaimed Caleb, scarcely sure that he heard aright.
"Yes—yes! I shall not be observed in the dark," sharply rejoined Mr. Lisle; "and you, Caleb, must keep my secret from every body, especially from Sowerby. I shall be here in time to see him to-morrow night, and he will be none the wiser." This was said with a slight chuckle; and as soon as his simple preparations were complete, Mr. Lisle, well wrapped up, and his face almost hidden by shawls, locked his door, and assisted by Jennings, stole furtively down stairs, and reached unrecognized the railway station just in time for the train.
It was quite dark the next evening when Mr. Lisle returned; and so well had he managed, that Mr. Sowerby, who paid his usual visit about half an hour afterwards, had evidently heard nothing of the suspicious absence of his esteemed client from Watley. The old man exulted over the success of his deception to Caleb, the next morning, but dropped no hint as to the object of his sudden journey.
Three days passed without the occurrence of any incident tending to the enlightenment of Mr. Jennings upon these mysterious events, which, however, he plainly saw had lamentably shaken the long-since failing man. On the afternoon of the fourth day, Mr. Lisle walked, or rather tottered, into Caleb's stall, and seated himself on the only vacant stool it contained. His manner was confused, and frequently purposeless, and there was an anxious, flurried expression in his face, which Jennings did not at all like. He remained silent for some time, with the exception of partially inaudible snatches of comment or questionings, apparently addressed to himself. At last he said, "I shall take a longer journey to-morrow, Caleb—much longer; let me see—where did I say? Ah, yes! to Glasgow; to be sure to Glasgow!"
"To Glasgow, and to-morrow!" exclaimed the astounded cobbler.
"No, no—not Glasgow; they have removed," feebly rejoined Mr. Lisle. "But Lucy has written it down for me. True—true; and to-morrow I shall set out."
The strange expression of Mr. Lisle's face became momentarily more strongly marked, and Jennings, greatly alarmed, said, "You are ill, Mr. Lisle; let me run for Dr. Clarke."
"No—no," he murmured, at the same time striving to rise from his seat, which he could only accomplish by Caleb's assistance, and so supported, he staggered indoors. "I shall be better to-morrow," he said faintly, and then slowly added, "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow! Ah, me! Yes, as I said, to-morrow, I"—He paused abruptly, and they gained his apartment. He seated himself, and then Jennings, at his mute solicitation, assisted him to bed.
He lay some time with his eyes closed; and Caleb could feel—for Mr. Lisle held him firmly by the hand, as if to prevent his going away—a convulsive shudder pass over his frame. At last he slowly opened his eyes, and Caleb saw that he was indeed about to depart upon the long journey from which there is no return. The lips of the dying man worked inarticulately for some moments; and then with a mighty effort, as it seemed, he said, whilst his trembling hand pointed feebly to a bureau chest of drawers that stood in the room, "There—there, for Lucy; there, the secret place is"—Some inaudible words followed, and then after a still mightier struggle than before, he gasped out, "No word—no word—to—to Sowerby—for her—Lucy."
More was said, but undistinguishable by mortal ear; and after gazing with an expression of indescribable anxiety in the scared face of his awe-struck listener, the wearied eyes slowly reclosed—the deep silence flowed past; then the convulsive shudder came again, and he was dead!
Caleb Jennings tremblingly summoned the house-servant and the landlady, and was still confusedly pondering the broken sentences uttered by the dying man, when Mr. Sowerby hurriedly arrived. The attorney's first care was to assume the direction of affairs, and to place seals upon every article containing or likely to contain anything of value belonging to the deceased. This done, he went away to give directions for the funeral, which took place a few days afterwards; and it was then formally announced that Mr. Sowerby succeeded by will to the large property of Ambrose Lisle; under trust, however, for the family, if any, of Robert Lisle, the deceased's brother, who had gone when very young to India, and had not been heard of for many years—a condition which did not at all mar the joy of the crafty lawyer, he having long since instituted private inquiries, which perfectly satisfied him, that the said Robert Lisle had died, unmarried, at Calcutta.
Mr. Jennings was in a state of great dubiety and consternation. Sowerby had emptied the chest of drawers of every valuable it contained; and unless he had missed the secret receptacle Mr. Lisle had spoken of, the deceased's intentions, whatever they might have been, were clearly defeated. And if he had not discovered it, how could he, Jennings, get at the drawers to examine them? A fortunate chance brought some relief to his perplexities. Ambrose Lisle's furniture was advertised to be sold by auction, and Caleb resolved to purchase the bureau chest of drawers at almost any price, although to do so would oblige him to break into his rent-money, then nearly due. The day of sale came, and, the important lot in its turn was put up. In one of the drawers there were a number of loose newspapers, and other valueless scraps; and Caleb, with a sly grin, asked the auctioneer, if he sold the article with all its contents. "Oh, yes," said Sowerby, who was watching the sale; "the buyer may have all it contains over his bargain, and much good may it do him." A laugh followed the attorney's sneering remark, and the biddings went on. "I want it," observed Caleb "because it just fits a recess like this one in my room underneath." This he said to quiet a suspicion he thought he saw gathering upon the attorney's brow. It was finally knocked down to Caleb at L5 10s., a sum considerably beyond its real value; and he had to borrow a sovereign in order to clear his speculative purchase. This done, he carried off his prize, and as soon as the closing of the house for the night secured him from interruption, he set eagerly to work in search of the secret drawer. A long and patient examination was richly rewarded. Behind one of the small drawers of the secretaire portion of the piece of furniture was another small one, curiously concealed, which contained Bank-of-England notes to the amount of L200, tied up with a letter, upon the back of which was written, in the deceased's hand-writing, "To take with me." The letter which Caleb, although he read print with facility, had much difficulty in making out, was that which Mr. Lisle had struck from the young woman's hand a few weeks before, and proved to be a very affecting appeal from Lucy Stevens, now Lucy Warner, and a widow, with two grown-up children. Her husband had died in insolvent circumstances, and she and her sister Emily, who was still single, were endeavoring to carry on a school at Bristol, which promised to be sufficiently prosperous if the sum of about L150 could be raised, to save the furniture from her deceased husband's creditors. The claim was pressing, for Mr. Warner had been dead nearly a year, and Mr. Lisle being the only relative Mrs. Warner had in the world, she had ventured to entreat his assistance for her mother's sake. There could be no moral doubt, therefore, that this money was intended for Mrs. Warner's relief; and early in the morning Mr. Caleb Jennings dressed himself in his Sunday's suit, and with a brief announcement to his landlady that he was about to leave Watley for a day or two, on a visit to a friend, set off for the railway station. He had not proceeded far when a difficulty struck him—the bank-notes were all twenties; and were he to change a twenty-pound note at the station, where he was well known, great would be the tattle and wonderment, if nothing worse, that would ensue. So Caleb tried his credit again, borrowed sufficient for his journey to London, and there changed one of the notes.
He soon reached Bristol, and blessed was the relief which the sum of money he brought afforded Mrs. Warner. She expressed much sorrow for the death of Mr. Lisle, and great gratitude to Caleb. The worthy man accepted with some reluctance one of the notes, or at least as much as remained of that which he had changed; and after exchanging promises with the widow and her relatives to keep the matter secret, departed homewards. The young woman, Mrs. Warner's daughter, who had brought the letter to Watley, was, Caleb noticed, the very image of her mother, or, rather, of what her mother must have been when young. This remarkable resemblance it was, no doubt, which had for the moment so confounded and agitated Mr. Lisle.
Nothing occurred for about a fortnight after Caleb's return to disquiet him, and he had begun to feel tolerably sure that his discovery of the notes would remain unsuspected, when, one afternoon, the sudden and impetuous entrance of Mr. Sowerby into his stall caused him to jump up from his seat with surprise and alarm. The attorney's face was deathly white, his eyes glared like a wild beast's, and his whole appearance exhibited uncontrollable agitation. "A word with you, Mr. Jennings," he gasped—"a word in private, and at once!" Caleb, in scarcely less consternation than his visitor, led the way into his inner room, and closed the door.
"Restore—give back," screamed the attorney, vainly struggling to dissemble the agitation which convulsed him—"that—that which you have purloined from the chest of drawers!"
The hot blood rushed to Caleb's face and temples; the wild vehemence and suddenness of the demand confounded him; and certain previous dim suspicions that the law might not only pronounce what he had done illegal, but possibly felonious, returned upon him with terrible force, and he quite lost his presence of mind.
"I can't—I can't," he stammered. "It's gone—given away"—
"Gone!" shouted, or, more correctly, howled—Sowerby, at the same time flying at Caleb's throat as if he would throttle him. "Gone—given away! You lie—you want to drive a bargain with me—dog!—liar!—rascal!—thief!"
This was a species of attack which Jennings was at no loss how to meet. He shook the attorney roughly off, and hurled him, in the midst of his vituperation, to the further end of the room.
They then stood glaring at each other in silence, till the attorney, mastering himself as well as he could, essayed another and more rational mode of attaining his purpose:—
"Come, come, Jennings," he said, "don't be a fool. Let us understand each other. I have just discovered a paper, a memorandum of what you have found in the drawers, and to obtain which you bought them. I don't care for the money—keep it; only give me the papers—documents."
"Papers—documents!" ejaculated Caleb, in unfeigned surprise.
"Yes—yes; of use to me only. You, I remember, cannot read writing; but they are of great consequence to me—to me only, I tell you."
"You can't mean Mrs. Warner's letter?"
"No—no; curse the letter! You are playing with a tiger! Keep the money, I tell you; but give up the papers—documents—or I'll transport you!" shouted Sowerby with reviving fury.
Caleb, thoroughly bewildered, could only mechanically ejaculate that he had no papers or documents.
The rage of the attorney when he found he could extract nothing from Jennings was frightful. He literally foamed with passion, uttered the wildest threats; and then suddenly changing his key, offered the astounded cobbler one—two—three thousand pounds—any sum he chose to name, for the papers—documents! This scene of alternate violence and cajolery lasted nearly an hour; and then Sowerby rushed from the house as if pursued by the furies, and leaving his auditor in a state of thorough bewilderment and dismay. It occurred to Caleb, as soon as his mind had settled into something like order, that there might be another secret drawer; and the recollection of Mr. Lisle's journey to London recurred suggestively to him. Another long and eager search, however, proved fruitless; and the suspicion was given up, or, more correctly, weakened.
As soon as it was light the next morning, Mr. Sowerby was again with him. He was more guarded now, and was at length convinced that Jennings had no paper or document to give up. "It was only some important memoranda," observed the attorney carelessly, "that would save me a world of trouble in a lawsuit I shall have to bring against some heavy debtors to Mr. Lisle's estate; but I must do as well as I can without them. Good morning." Just as he reached the door a sudden thought appeared to strike him. He stopped and said, "By the way, Jennings, in the hurry of business I forgot that Mr. Lisle had told me the chest of drawers you bought, and a few other articles, were family relics which he wished to be given to certain parties he named. The other things I have got; and you, I suppose, will let me have the drawers for—say a pound profit on your bargain?"
Caleb was not the acutest man in the world; but this sudden proposition, carelessly as it was made, suggested curious thoughts. "No," he answered; "I shall not part with it. I shall keep it as a memorial of Mr. Lisle."
Sowerby's face assumed as Caleb spoke, a ferocious expression. "Shall you?" said he. "Then, be sure, my fine fellow, that you shall also have something to remember me by as long as you live."
He then went away, and a few days afterwards Caleb was served with a writ for the recovery of the two hundred pounds.
The affair made a great noise in the place; and Caleb's conduct being very generally approved, a subscription was set on foot to defray the cost of defending the action—one Hayling, a rival attorney to Sowerby, having asserted that the words used by the proprietor of the chest of drawers at the sale barred his claim to the money found in them. This wise gentleman was intrusted with the defence; and strange to say, the jury—a common one—spite of the direction of the judge returned a verdict for the defendant, upon the ground that Sowerby's jocular or sneering remark amounted to a serious, valid leave and license to sell two hundred pounds for five pounds ten shillings!
Sowerby obtained, as a matter of course, a rule for a new trial; and a fresh action was brought. All at once Hayling refused to go on, alleging deficiency of funds. He told Jennings that in his opinion it would be better that he should give in to Sowerby's whim, who only wanted the drawers in order to comply with the testator's wishes. "Besides," remarked Hayling in conclusion, "he is sure to get the article, you know, when it comes to be sold under a writ of fi fa." A few days after this conversation it was ascertained that Hayling was to succeed to Sowerby's business, the latter gentleman being about to retire upon the fortune bequeathed him by Mr. Lisle.
At last Caleb, driven nearly out of his senses, though still doggedly obstinate, by the harassing perplexities in which he found himself, thought of applying to us.
"A very curious affair, upon my word," remarked Mr. Flint, as soon as Caleb had unburdened himself of the story of his woes and cares; "and in my opinion by no means explainable by Sowerby's anxiety to fulfill the testator's wishes. He cannot expect to get two hundred pence out of you; and Mrs. Warner, you say, is equally unable to pay. Very odd indeed. Perhaps if we could get time, something might turn up."
With this view Flint looked over the papers Caleb had brought, and found the declaration was in trover—a manifest error—the notes never admittedly having been in Sowerby's actual possession. We accordingly demurred to the form of action, and the proceedings were set aside. This, however, proved of no ultimate benefit. Sowerby persevered, and a fresh action was instituted against the unhappy shoe-mender. So utterly overcrowed and disconsolate was poor Caleb, that he determined to give up the drawers which was all Sowerby even now required, and so wash his hands of the unfortunate business. Previous, however, to this being done, it was determined that another thorough and scientific examination of the mysterious piece of furniture should be made; and for this purpose Mr. Flint obtained a workman skilled in the mysteries of secret contrivances, from the desk and dressing-case establishment in King Street, Holborn, and proceeded with him to Watley.
The man performed his task with great care and skill; every depth and width was guaged and measured, in order to ascertain if there were any false bottoms or backs; and the workman finally pronounced that there was no concealed receptacle in the article.
"I am sure there is," persisted Flint, whom disappointment as usual rendered but the more obstinate; "and so is Sowerby: and he knows too, that it is so cunningly contrived as to be undiscoverable, except by a person in the secret, which he no doubt at first imagined Caleb to be. I'll tell you what we'll do—You have the necessary tools with you. Split the confounded chest of drawers into shreds—I'll be answerable for the consequences."
This was done carefully and methodically, but for some time without result. At length the large drawer next the floor had to be knocked to pieces; and as it fell apart, one section of the bottom, which, like all the others, was divided into two compartments, dropped asunder, and discovered a parchment laid flat between the two thin leaves, which, when pressed together in the grooves of the drawer, presented precisely the same appearance as the rest. Flint snatched up the parchment, and his eager eye had scarcely rested an instant on the writing, when a shout of triumph burst from him. It was the last will and testament of Ambrose Lisle, dated August 21, 1838—the day of his last hurried visit to London. It revoked the former will, and bequeathed the whole of his property, in equal portions, to his cousins Lucy Warner and Emily Stevens, with succession to their children; but with reservation of one-half to his brother Robert or children, should he be alive, or have left offspring.
Great, it may be supposed was the jubilation of Caleb Jennings at this discovery; and all Watley, by his agency, was in a marvelously short space of time in a very similar state of excitement. It was very late that night when he reached his bed; and how he got there at all, and what precisely had happened, except, indeed, that he had somewhere picked up a splitting headache, was, for some time after he awoke the next morning, very confusedly remembered.
Mr. Flint, by reflection, was by no means so exultant as the worthy shoe-mender. The odd mode of packing away a deed of such importance, with no assignable motive for doing so, except the needless awe with which Sowerby was said to have inspired his feeble-spirited client, together with what Caleb had said of the shattered state of the deceased's mind after the interview with Mrs. Warner's daughter, suggested fears that Sowerby might dispute, and perhaps successfully, the validity of this last will. My excellent partner, however, determined, as was his wont, to put a bold face on the matter; and first clearly settling in his own mind what he should and what he should not say, waited upon Mr. Sowerby. The news had preceded him, and he was at once surprised and delighted to find that the nervous crest-fallen attorney was quite unaware of the advantages of his position. On condition of not being called to account for the moneys he had received and expended, about L1200, he destroyed the former will in Mr. Flint's presence, and gave up, at once, all the deceased's papers. From these we learned that Mr. Lisle had written a letter to Mrs. Warner, stating what he had done, and where the will would be found, and that only herself and Jennings would know the secret. Prom infirmity of purpose, or from having subsequently determined on a personal interview, the letter was not posted; and Sowerby subsequently discovered it, together with a memorandum of the numbers of the bank-notes found by Caleb in the secret drawer—the eccentric gentleman appears to have had quite a mania for such hiding-places—of a writing-desk.
The affair was thus happily terminated; Mrs. Warner, her children, and sister, were enriched, and Caleb Jennings was set up in a good way of business in his native place, where he still flourishes. Over the centre of his shop there is a large nondescript sign, surmounted by a golden boot, which upon a close inspection is found to bear a resemblance to a huge bureau chest of drawers, all the circumstances connected with which may be heard, for the asking, and in much fuller detail than I have given, from the lips of the owner of the establishment, by any lady or gentleman who will take the trouble of a journey to Watley for that purpose.
Tempus fugit! The space of but a few brief yesterdays seems to have passed since the occurrence of the following out-of-the-way incidents—out-of-the-way, even in our profession, fertile as it is in startling experiences; and yet the faithful and unerring tell-tale and monitor, Anno Domini 1851, instructs me that a quarter of a century has nearly slipped by since the first scene in the complicated play of circumstances opened upon me. The date I remember well, for the Tower-guns had been proclaiming with their thunder-throats the victory of Navarino but a short time before a clerk announced, "William Martin, with a message from Major Stewart."
This William Martin was a rather sorry curiosity in his way. He was now in the service of our old client, Major Stewart; and a tall, good-looking fellow enough, spite of a very decided cast in his eyes, which the rascal, when in his cups—no unusual occurrence—declared he had caught from his former masters—Edward Thorneycroft, Esq., an enormously rich and exceedingly yellow East India director, and his son, Mr. Henry Thorneycroft, with whom, until lately transferred to Major Stewart's service, he had lived from infancy—his mother and father having formed part of the elder Thorneycroft's establishment when he was born. He had a notion in his head that he had better blood in his veins than the world supposed, and was excessively fond of aping the gentleman; and this he did, I must say, with the ease and assurance of a stage-player. His name was scarcely out of the clerk's lips when he entered the inner office with a great effort at steadiness and deliberation, closed the door very carefully and importantly, hung his hat with much precision on a brass peg, and then steadying himself by the door-handle, surveyed the situation and myself with staring lack-lustre eyes and infinite gravity. I saw what was the matter.
"You have been in the 'Sun,' Mr. Martin?"
A wink, inexpressible by words, replied to me, and I could see by the motion of the fellow's lips that speech was attempted; but it came so thick that it was several minutes before I made out that he meant to say the British had been knocking the Turks about like bricks, and that he had been patriotically drinking the healths of the said British or bricks.
"Have the goodness, sir, to deliver your message, and then instantly leave the office."
"Old Tho-o-o-rney," was the hiccoughed reply, "has smoked the—the plot. Young Thorney's done for. Ma-a-aried in a false name; tra-ansportation—of course."
"What gibberish is this about old Thorney and young Thorney? Do you not come from Major Stewart?"
"Ye-e-es, that's right; the route's arrived for the old trump; wishes to—to see you"
"Major Stewart dying! Why, you are a more disgraceful scamp than I believed you to be. Send this fellow away," I added to a clerk who answered my summons. I then hastened off, and was speedily rattling over the stones towards Baker Street, Portman Square, where Major Stewart resided. As I left the office I heard Martin beg the clerk to lead him to the pump previous to sending him off—no doubt for the purpose of sobering himself somewhat previous to reappearing before the major, whose motives for hiring or retaining such a fellow in his modest establishment I could not understand.
"You were expected more than an hour ago," said Dr. Hampton, who was just leaving the house. "The major is now, I fear, incapable of business."
There was no time for explanation, and I hastily entered the sick-chamber. Major Stewart, though rapidly sinking, recognized me; and in obedience to a gesture from her master the aged, weeping house-keeper left the room. The major's daughter, Rosamond Stewart, had been absent with her aunt, her father's maiden sister, on a visit, I understood, to some friends in Scotland, and had not, I concluded, been made acquainted with the major's illness, which had only assumed a dangerous character a few days previously. The old soldier was dying calmly and painlessly—rather from exhaustion of strength, a general failure of the powers of life, than from any especial disease. A slight flush tinged the mortal pallor of his face as I entered, and the eyes emitted a slightly-reproachful expression.
"It is not more, my dear sir," I replied softly but eagerly to his look, "than a quarter of an hour ago that I received your message."
I do not know whether he comprehended or even distinctly heard what I said, for his feeble but extremely anxious glance was directed whilst I spoke to a large oil-portrait of Rosamond Stewart, suspended over the mantel-piece. The young lady was a splendid, dark-eyed beauty, and of course the pride and darling of her father. Presently wrenching, as it were, his eyes from the picture, he looked in my face with great earnestness, and bending my ear close to his lips, I heard him feebly and brokenly say, "A question to ask you, that's all; read—read!" His hand motioned towards a letter which lay open on the bed; I ran it over, and the major's anxiety was at once explained. Rosamond Stewart had, I found, been a short time previously married in Scotland to Henry Thorneycroft, the son of the wealthy East India director. Finding his illness becoming serious, the major had anticipated the time and mode in which the young people had determined to break the intelligence to the irascible father of the bridegroom, and the result was the furious and angry letter in reply which I was perusing. Mr. Thorneycroft would never, he declared, recognize the marriage of his undutiful nephew—nephew, not son; for he was, the letter announced, the child of an only sister, whose marriage had also mortally offended Mr. Thorneycroft, and had been brought up from infancy as his (Mr. Thorneycroft's) son, in order that the hated name of Allerton, to which the boy was alone legally entitled, might never offend his ear. There was something added insinuative of a doubt of the legality of the marriage, in consequence of the misnomer of the bridegroom at the ceremony.
"One question," muttered the major, as I finished the perusal of the letter—"Is Rosamond's marriage legal?"
"No question about it. How could any one suppose that an involuntary misdescription can affect such a contract?"
"Enough—enough!" he gasped. "A great load is gone!—the rest is with God. Beloved Rosamond"—The slight whisper was no longer audible; sighs, momently becoming fainter and weaker, followed—ceased, and in little more than ten minutes after the last word was spoken, life was extinct. I rang the bell, and turned to leave the room, and as I did so surprised Martin on the other side of the bed. He had been listening, screened by the thick damask curtains, and appeared to be a good deal sobered. I made no remark, and proceeded on down stairs. The man followed, and as soon as we had gained the hall said quickly, yet hesitatingly, "Sir—sir!"
"Well, what have you to say?"
"Nothing very particular, sir. But did I understand you to say just now, that it was of no consequence if a man married in a false name?"
"That depends upon circumstances. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, nothing—nothing; only I have heard it's transportation, especially if there's money."
"Perhaps you are right. Anything else?"
"No," said he, opening the door; "that's all—mere curiosity."
I heard nothing more of the family for some time, except with reference to Major Stewart's personal property, about L4000 bequeathed to his daughter, with a charge thereon of an annuity of L20 a year for Mrs. Leslie, the aged house-keeper; the necessary business connected with which we transacted. But about a twelvemonth after the major's death, the marriage of the elder Thorneycroft with a widow of the same name as himself, and a cousin, the paper stated, was announced; and pretty nearly a year and a half subsequent to the appearance of this ominous paragraph, the decease of Mr. Henry Thorneycroft at Lausanne, in Switzerland, who had left, it was added in the newspaper stock-phrase of journalism, a young widow and two sons to mourn their irreparable loss. Silence again, as far as we were concerned, settled upon the destinies of the descendants of our old military client, till one fine morning a letter from Dr. Hampton informed us of the sudden death by apoplexy, a few days previously, of the East India director. Dr. Hampton further hinted that he should have occasion to write us again in a day or two, relative to the deceased's affairs, which, owing to Mr. Thorneycroft's unconquerable aversion to making a will, had, it was feared, been left in an extremely unsatisfactory state. Dr. Hampton had written to us, at the widow's request, in consequence of his having informed her that we had been the professional advisers of Major Stewart, and were in all probability those of his daughter, Mrs. Henry Allerton.
We did not quite comprehend the drift of this curious epistle; but although not specially instructed, we determined at once to write to Mrs. Rosamond Thorneycroft or Allerton, who with her family was still abroad, and in the meantime take such formal steps in her behalf as might appear necessary.
We were not long in doubt as to the motives of the extremely civil application to ourselves on the part of the widow of the East India director. The deceased's wealth had been almost all invested in land, which went, he having died intestate, to his nephew's son, Henry Allerton; and the personals in which the widow would share were consequently of very small amount. Mrs. Thorneycroft was, therefore, anxious to propose, through us, a more satisfactory and equitable arrangement. We could of course say nothing till the arrival of Mrs. Rosamond Allerton, for which, however, we had only a brief time to wait. There were, we found, no indisposition on that lady's part to act with generosity towards Mr. Thorneycroft's widow—a showy, vulgarish person, by the way, of about forty years of age—but there was a legal difficulty in the way, in consequence of the heir-at-law being a minor. Mrs. Thorneycroft became at length terribly incensed, and talked a good deal of angry nonsense about disputing the claim of Henry Allerton's son to the estates, on the ground that his marriage, having been contracted in a wrong name, was null and void. Several annoying paragraphs got in consequence into the Sunday newspapers, and these brought about a terrible disclosure.
About twelve o'clock one day, the Widow Thorneycroft bounced unceremoniously into the office, dragging in with her a comely and rather interesting-looking young woman, but of a decidedly rustic complexion and accent, and followed by a grave, middle-aged clergyman. The widow's large eyes sparkled with strong excitement, and her somewhat swarthy features were flushed with hot blood.
"I have brought you," she burst out abruptly, "the real Mrs. Allerton, and"—
"No, no!" interrupted the young woman, who appeared much agitated—"Thorneycroft, not Allerton!"—
"I know, child—I know; but that is nothing to the purpose. This young person, Mr. Sharp, is, I repeat, the true and lawful Mrs. Henry Allerton."
"Pooh!" I answered; "do you take us for idiots? This," I added with some sternness, "is either a ridiculous misapprehension or an attempt at imposture, and I am very careless which it may be."
"You are mistaken, sir," rejoined the clergyman mildly. "This young woman was certainly married by me at Swindon church, Wilts, to a gentleman of the name of Henry Thorneycroft, who, it appears from the newspapers, confirmed by this lady, was no other than Mr. Henry Allerton. This marriage, we find, took place six months previously to that contracted with Rosamond Stewart. I have further to say that this young woman, Maria Emsbury, is a very respectable person, and that her marriage-portion, of a little more than eight hundred pounds, was given to her husband, whom she has only seen thrice since her marriage, to support himself till the death of his reputed father, constantly asserted by him to be imminent."
"A story very smoothly told, and I have no doubt in your opinion quite satisfactory; but there is one slight matter which I fancy you will find somewhat difficult of proof—I mean the identity of Maria Emsbury's husband with the son or nephew of the late Mr. Thorneycroft."
"He always said he was the son of the rich East Indian, Mr. Thorneycroft," said the young woman with a hysterical sob; "and here," she added, "is his picture in his wedding-dress—that of an officer of the Gloucestershire Yeomanry. He gave it me the day before the wedding."
I almost snatched the portrait. Sure enough it was a miniature of Henry Allerton—there could be no doubt about that.
Mr. Flint, who had been busy with some papers, here approached and glanced at the miniature.
I was utterly confounded, and my partner, I saw, was equally dismayed; and no wonder, entertaining as we both did the highest respect and admiration for the high-minded and beautiful daughter of Major Stewart.
The Widow Thorneycroft's exultation was exuberant.
"As this only legal marriage," said she, "has been blessed with no issue, I am of course, as you must be aware, the legitimate heiress-at-law, as my deceased husband's nearest blood-relative. I shall, however," she added, "take care to amply provide for my widowed niece-in-law."
The young woman made a profound rustic courtesy, and tears of unaffected gratitude, I observed, filled her eyes.
The game was not, however, to be quite so easily surrendered as they appeared to imagine. "Tut! tut!" exclaimed Mr. Flint bluntly—"this may be mere practice. Who knows how the portrait has been obtained?"
The girl's eyes flashed with honest anger. There was no practice about her I felt assured. "Here are other proofs: My husband's signet-ring, left accidentally, I think, with me, and two letters which I from curiosity took out of his coat-pocket—the day, I am pretty sure it was, after we were married."
"If this cumulative circumstantial evidence does not convince you, gentlemen," added the Rev. Mr. Wishart, "I have direct personal testimony to offer. You know Mr. Angerstein of Bath?"
"Well, Mr. Henry Thorneycroft or Allerton, was at the time this marriage took place, on a visit to that gentleman; and I myself saw the bridegroom, whom I had united a fortnight previously in Swindon church, walking arm-and-arm with Mr. Angerstein in Sydney Gardens, Bath. I was at some little distance, but I recognized both distinctly, and bowed. Mr. Angerstein returned my salutation, and he recollects the circumstance distinctly. The gentleman walking with him in the uniform of the Gloucestershire Yeomanry was, Mr. Angerstein is prepared to depose, Mr. Henry Thorneycroft or Allerton."
"You waste time, reverend sir," said Mr. Flint with an affectation of firmness and unconcern he was, I knew, far from feeling. "We are the attorneys of Mrs. Rosamond Allerton, and shall, I dare say, if you push us to it, be able to tear this ingeniously-colored cobweb of yours to shreds. If you determine on going to law, your solicitor can serve us; we will enter an appearance, and our client will be spared unnecessary annoyance."
They were about to leave, when, as ill-luck would have it, one of the clerks who, deceived by the momentary silence, and from not having been at home when the unwelcome visitors arrived, believed we were disengaged, opened the door, and admitted Mrs. Rosamond Allerton and her aunt, Miss Stewart. Before we could interpose with a word, the Widow Thorneycroft burst out with the whole story in a torrent of exultant Volubility that it was impossible to check or restrain.
For awhile contemptuous incredulity, indignant scorn, upheld the assailed lady; but as proof after proof was hurled at her, reinforced by the grave soberness of the clergyman and the weeping sympathy of the young woman, her firmness gave way, and she swooned in her aunt's arms. We should have more peremptorily interfered but for our unfortunate client's deprecatory gestures. She seemed determined to hear the worst at once. Now, however, we had the office cleared of the intruders without much ceremony and, as soon as the horror-stricken lady was sufficiently recovered, she was conducted to her carriage, and after arranging for an early interview on the morrow, was driven off.
I found our interesting, and, I feared, deeply-injured client much recovered from the shock which on the previous day had overwhelmed her; and although exceedingly pale—lustrously so, as polished Parian marble—and still painfully agitated, there was hope, almost confidence, in her eye and tone.
"There is some terrible misapprehension in this frightful affair, Mr. Sharp," she began. "Henry, my husband, was utterly incapable of a mean or dishonest act, much less of such utter baseness as this of which he is accused. They also say, do they not," she continued, with a smile of haughty contempt, "that he robbed the young woman of her poor dowry—some eight hundred pounds? A proper story!"
"That, I confess, from what little I know of Mr. Henry Thorneycroft, stamps the whole affair as a fabrication; and yet the Reverend Mr. Wishart—a gentleman of high character, I understand—is very positive. The young woman, too, appeared truthful and sincere."
"Yes—it cannot be denied. Let me say also—for it is best to look at the subject on its darkest side—I find, on looking over my letters, that my husband was staying with Mr. Angerstein at the time stated. He was also at that period in the Gloucestershire Yeomanry. I gave William Martin, but the other day, a suit of his regimentals very little the worse for wear."
"You forget to state, Rosamond," said Miss Stewart, who was sitting beside her niece, "that Martin, who was with his young master at Bath, is willing to make oath that no such marriage took place as asserted, at Swindon church."
"That alone would, I fear, my good madam, very little avail. Can I see William Martin?"
"Certainly." The bell was rung, and the necessary order given.
"This Martin is much changed for the better, I hear?"
"O yes, entirely so," said Miss Stewart. "He is also exceedingly attached to us all, the children especially; and his grief and anger, when informed of what had occurred, thoroughly attest his faithfulness and sincerity."
Martin entered, and was, I thought, somewhat confused by my apparently unexpected presence. A look at his face and head dissipated a half-suspicion that had arisen in both Flint's mind and my own.
I asked him a few questions relative to the sojourn of his master at Bath, and then said, "I wish you to go with me and Bee this Maria Emsbury."
As I spoke, something seemed to attract Martin's attention in the street, and suddenly turning round, his arm swept a silver pastil-stand off the table. He stooped down to gather up the dispersed pastils, and as he did so, said, in answer to my request, "that he had not the slightest objection to do so."
"That being the case, we will set off at once, as she and her friends are probably at the office by this time. They are desirous of settling the matter off-hand," I added with a smile, addressing Mrs. Allerton, "and avoiding, if possible, the delays and uncertainties of the law."
As I anticipated, the formidable trio were with Mr. Flint. I introduced Martin, and as I did so, watched, with an anxiety I could hardly have given a reason for, the effect of his appearance upon the young woman. I observed nothing. He was evidently an utter stranger to her, although, from the involuntary flush which crossed his features, it occurred to me that he was in some way an accomplice with his deceased master in the cruel and infamous crime which had, I strongly feared, been perpetrated.
"Was this person present at your marriage?" I asked.
"Certainly not. But I think—now I look at him—that I have seen him somewhere—about Swindon, it must have been."
William Martin mumbled out that he had never been in Swindon; neither, he was sure, had his master.
"What is that?" said the girl, looking sharply up, and suddenly coloring—"What is that?"
Martin, a good deal abashed, again mumbled out his belief that young Mr. Thorneycroft, as he was then called, had never been at Swindon.
The indignant scarlet deepened on the young woman's face and temples, and she looked at Martin with fixed attention and surprise. Presently recovering, as if from some vague confusedness of mind, she said, "What you believe, can be no consequence—truth is truth, for all that."
The Rev. Mr. Wishart here interposed, remarking that as it was quite apparent we were determined to defend the usurpation by Miss Rosamond Stewart—a lady to be greatly pitied, no doubt—of another's right, it was useless to prolong or renew the interview; and all three took immediate leave. A few minutes afterward Martin also departed, still vehemently asserting that no such marriage ever took place at Swindon or anywhere else.
No stone, as people say, was left unturned by us, in the hope of discovering some clue that might enable us to unravel the tangled web of coherent, yet, looking at the character of young Mr. Allerton, improbable circumstance. We were unsuccessful, and unfortunately many other particulars which came to light but deepened the adverse complexion of the case. Two respectable persons living at Swindon were ready to depose on oath that they had on more than one occasion seen Maria Emsbury's sweetheart with Mr. Angerstein at Bath—once especially at the theatre, upon the benefit-night of the great Edmund Kean, who had been playing there for a few nights.
The entire case, fully stated, was ultimately laid by us before eminent counsel—one of whom is now, by the by, a chief-justice—and we were advised that the evidence as set forth by us could not be contended against with any chance of success. This sad result was communicated by me to Mrs. Allerton, as she still unswervingly believed herself to be, and was borne with more constancy and firmness than I had expected. Her faith in her husband's truth and honor was not in the slightest degree shaken by the accumulated proofs. She would not, however, attempt to resist them before a court of law. Something would, she was confident, thereafter come to light that would vindicate the truth, and confiding in our zeal and watchfulness, she, her aunt, and children, would in the meantime shelter themselves from the gaze of the world in their former retreat at Lausanne.
This being the unhappy lady's final determination, I gave the other side notice that we should be ready on a given day to surrender possession of the house and effects in South Audley Street, which the Widow Thorneycroft had given up to her supposed niece-in-law and family on their arrival in England, and to re-obtain which, and thereby decide the whole question in dispute, legal proceedings had already been commenced.
On the morning appointed for the purpose—having taken leave of the ladies the day previously—I proceeded to South Audley Street, to formally give up possession, under protest, however. The niece and aunt were not yet gone. This, I found, was owing to Martin, who, according to the ladies, was so beside himself with grief and rage that he had been unable to expedite as he ought to have done, the packing intrusted to his care. I was vexed at this, as the Widow Thorneycroft, her protegee, and the Rev. Mr. Wishart, accompanied by a solicitor, were shortly expected; and it was desirable that a meeting of the antagonistic parties should be avoided. I descended to the lower regions to remonstrate with and hurry Martin, and found, as I feared, that his former evil habits had returned upon him. It was not yet twelve o'clock, and he was already partially intoxicated, and pale, trembling, and nervous from the effects, it was clear to me, of the previous night's debauch.
"Your mistress is grossly deceived in you!" I angrily exclaimed; "and if my advice were taken, you would be turned out of the house at once without a character. There, don't attempt to bamboozle me with that nonsense; I've seen fellows crying drunk before now."
He stammered out some broken excuses, to which I very impatiently listened; and so thoroughly muddled did his brain appear, that he either could not or would not comprehend the possibility of Mrs. Allerton and her children being turned out of house and home, as he expressed it, and over and over again asked me if nothing could yet be done to prevent it. I was completely disgusted with the fellow, and sharply bidding him hasten his preparations for departure, rejoined the ladies, who were by this time assembled in the back drawing-room, ready shawled and bonneted for their journey. It was a sad sight. Rosamond Stewart's splendid face was shadowed by deep and bitter grief, borne, it is true, with pride and fortitude; but it was easy to see its throbbing pulsations through all the forced calmness of the surface. Her aunt, of a weaker nature, sobbed loudly in the fullness of her grief; and the children, shrinking instinctively in the chilling atmosphere of a great calamity, clung, trembling and half-terrified, the eldest especially, to their mother. I did not insult them with phrases of condolence, but turned the conversation, if such it could be called, upon their future home and prospects in Switzerland. Some time had thus elapsed when my combative propensities were suddenly aroused by the loud dash of a carriage to the door, and the peremptory rat-tat-tat which followed. I felt my cheek flame as I said, "They demand admittance as if in possession of an assured, decided right. It is not yet too late to refuse possession, and take the chances of the law's uncertainty."
Mrs. Allerton shook her head with decisive meaning. "I could not bear it," she said in a tone of sorrowful gentleness. "But I trust we shall not be intruded upon."
I hurried out of the apartment, and met the triumphant claimants. I explained the cause of the delay, and suggested that Mrs. Thorneycroft and her friends could amuse themselves in the garden whilst the solicitor and I ran over the inventory of the chief valuables to be surrendered together.
This was agreed to. A minute or two before the conclusion of this necessary formality, I received a message from the ladies, expressive of a wish to be gone at once, if I would escort them to the hotel; and Martin, who was nowhere to be found, could follow. I hastened to comply with their wishes; and we were just about to issue from the front drawing-room, into which we had passed through the folding-doors, when we were confronted by the widow and her party, who had just reached the landing of the great staircase. We drew back in silence. The mutual confusion into which we were thrown caused a momentary hesitation only, and we were passing on when the butler suddenly appeared.
"A gentleman," he said, "an officer, is at the door, who wishes to see a Miss Maria Emsbury, formerly of Swindon."
I stared at the man, discerned a strange expression in his face, and it glanced across me at the same moment that I had heard no knock at the door.
"See Miss Emsbury!" exclaimed the Widow Thorneycroft, recovering her speech—"there is no such person here!"
"Pardon me, madam," I cried, catching eagerly at the interruption, as a drowning man is said to do at a straw—"this young person was at least Miss Emsbury. Desire the officer to walk up." The butler vanished instantly, and we all huddled back disorderly into the drawing-room, some one closing the door after us. I felt the grasp of Mrs. Allerton's arm tighten convulsively round mine, and her breath I heard, came quick and short. I was hardly less agitated myself.
Steps—slow and deliberate steps—were presently heard ascending the stairs, the door opened, and in walked a gentleman in the uniform of a yeomanry officer, whom at the first glance I could have sworn to be the deceased Mr. Henry Allerton. A slight exclamation of terror escaped Mrs. Allerton, followed by a loud hysterical scream from the Swindon young woman, as she staggered forward towards the stranger, exclaiming, "Oh, merciful God!—my husband!" and then fell, overcome with emotion, in his outstretched arms.
"Yes," said the Rev. Mr. Wishart promptly, "that is certainly the gentleman I united to Maria Emsbury. What can be the meaning of this scene?"
"Is that sufficient, Mr. Sharp?" exclaimed the officer, in a voice that removed all doubt.
"Quite, quite," I shouted—"more than enough!"
"Very well, then," said William Martin, dashing off his black curling wig, removing his whiskers of the same color, and giving his own light, but now cropped head of hair and clean-shaved cheeks to view. "Now, then, send for the police, and let them transport me—I richly merit it. I married this young woman in a false name; I robbed her of her money, and I deserve the hulks, if anybody ever did."
You might have heard a pin drop in the apartment whilst the repentant rascal thus spoke; and when he ceased, Mrs. Allerton, unable to bear up against the tumultuous emotion which his words excited, sank without breath or sensation upon a sofa. Assistance was summoned; and whilst the as yet imperfectly-informed servants were running from one to another with restoratives, I had leisure to look around. The Widow Thorneycroft, who had dropped into a chair, sat gazing in bewildered dismay upon the stranger, who still held her lately-discovered niece-in-law in his arms; and I could see the hot perspiration which had gathered on her brow run in large drops down the white channels which they traced through the thick rouge of her cheeks. But the reader's fancy will supply the best image of this unexpected and extraordinary scene. I cleared the house of intruders and visitors as speedily as possible, well assured that matters would now adjust themselves without difficulty.
And so it proved. Martin was not sent to the hulks, though no question that he amply deserved a punishment as great as that. The self-sacrifice, as he deemed it, which he at last made, pleaded for him, and so did his pretty-looking wife; and the upshot was, that the mistaken bride's dowry was restored, with something over, and that a tavern was taken for them in Piccadilly—the White Bear, I think it was—where they lived comfortably and happily, I have heard, for a considerable time, and having considerably added to their capital, removed to a hotel of a higher grade in the city, where they now reside. It was not at all surprising that the clergyman and others had been deceived. The disguise, and Martin's imitative talent, might have misled persons on their guard, much more men unsuspicious of deception. The cast in the eyes, as well as a general resemblance of features, also of course greatly aided the imposture.
Of Mrs. Rosamond Allerton, I have only to say, for it is all I know, that she is rich, unwedded, and still splendidly beautiful, though of course somewhat passe compared with herself twenty years since. Happy, too, I have no doubt she is, judging from the placid brightness of her aspect the last time I saw her beneath the transept of the Crystal Palace, on the occasion of its opening by the Queen. I remember wondering at the time, if she often recalled to mind the passage in her life which I have here recorded.
THE ONE BLACK SPOT.
On the evening of a bleak, cold March day, in an early year of this century, a woman, scantily clad, led a boy about eight years old, along the high-road towards the old city of Exeter. They crept close to the hedge-side to shelter themselves from the clouds of dust, which the sudden gusts of east wind blew in their faces.
They had walked many miles, and the boy limped painfully. He often looked up anxiously into his mother's face, and asked if they had much farther to go? She scarcely appeared to notice his inquiries; her fixed eyes and sunken cheek gave evidence that sorrow absorbed all her thoughts. When he spoke, she drew him closer to her side, but made no reply; until, at length, the child, wondering at her silence, began to sob. She stopped and looked at her child for a moment, her eyes filled with tears. They had gained the top of a hill, from which was visible in the distance, the dark massive towers of the cathedral and the church-spires of the city; she pointed them out, and said, "We shall soon be there, Ned." Then, sitting down on a tree that was felled by the road-side, she took "Ned" on her lap, and, bending over him, wept aloud.
"Are you very tired, mother?" said the boy, trying to comfort her. "'Tis a long way—but don't cry—we shall see father when we come there."
"Yes—you will see your father once more."
She checked herself; and, striving to dry her tears, sat looking wistfully towards the place of her destination.
The tramp of horses, coming up the hill they had just ascended, drew the boy's attention to that direction. In a moment he had sprung from his mother, and was shouting, with child-like delight, at the appearance of a gay cavalcade which approached. About thirty men on horseback, in crimson liveries, surrounded two carriages, one of which contained two of His Majesty's Judges, accompanied by the High Sheriff of the county, who, with his javelin-men, was conducting them to the city, in which the Lent Assizes were about to be held.
The woman knelt until the carriages and the gaudy javelin-men had turned the corner at the foot of a hill, and were no longer visible; with her hands clasped together, she had prayed to God to temper with mercy the heart of the Judge, before whom her unfortunate husband, now in jail, would have to stand his trial. Then, taking the boy again by the hand—unable to explain to him what he had seen—she pursued her way with him, silently, along the dusty road.
As they drew nearer to the city, they overtook various groups of stragglers, who had deemed it their duty, in spite of the inclement weather to wander some miles out of the city to catch an early glimpse of "My Lord Judge," and the gay Sheriff's officers. Troops, also, of itinerant ballad-singers, rope-dancers, mountebanks, and caravans of wild beasts, still followed the Judges, as they had done throughout the circuit. "Walk more slowly, Ned," said the mother, checking the boy's desire to follow the shows. "I am very tired; let us rest a little here." They lingered until the crowd was far ahead of them—and were left alone on the road.
Late in the evening, as the last stragglers were returning home, the wayfarers found themselves in the suburbs of the city, and the forlorn woman looked around anxiously for a lodging. She feared the noisy people in the streets; and, turning timidly towards an old citizen who stood by his garden-gate, chatting to his housekeeper, and watching the passers-by—there was a kindness in his look which gave her confidence—so, with a homely courtesy, she ventured to inquire of him where she might find a decent resting-place.
"Have you never been here before?" he asked.
"Never but once, sir, when I was a child, many years ago."
"What part of the country do you come from?"
"Uffeulme? How did you get here?"
"We have walked."
"You don't say that you have trudged all the way with that youngster?"
The housekeeper drowned the reply by loudly announcing to the old gentleman that his supper was waiting—"We have no lodgings, my good woman," she said, turning away from the gate.
"Stop, Martha, stop," said the citizen. "Can't we direct them somewhere?—you see they are strangers. I wonder where they could get a lodging?"
"I am sure I don't know," replied Martha, peevishly; "your supper will be cold—come in!"
"We've had no supper," said the boy.
"Poor little fellow!" said the old gentleman; "then I am sure you shall not go without. Martha, the bread and cheese!" And, opening the garden-gate, he made the travelers enter and sit down in the summer-house, whilst he went to fetch them a draught of cider.
In spite of Martha's grumbling, he managed to get a substantial repast; but it grieved him that the woman, though she thanked him very gratefully and humbly, appeared unable to eat.
"Your boy eats heartily," said he, "but I am afraid you don't enjoy it."
With a choking utterance she thanked him, but could not eat.
The good old man was striving, as well as he could, to explain to them their way to a part of the city, where they might find a lodging, when the garden-gate opened, and a young man gave to the host a hearty greeting.
At the sound of his voice, the cup the woman held in her hand, fell to the ground. This drew the youth's attention to her; he looked earnestly at her for a moment, and with an exclamation of surprise, said, "Why, this is Susan Harvey?"
The woman hid her face in her hands, and moaned.
"Do you know her, then, Alfred?" said the uncle.
"She nursed me when I was a little sickly boy," replied the youth; "she lived many years in my father's house."
"Then I am sure you will take her to some lodging to-night, for she is quite a stranger here. There is Martha calling to me again; she is not in the best temper to-night, so I had better go in, and I leave them to your care."
"Oh! tell me, Mr. Gray, have you seen him?" cried the woman eagerly.
"I have been with him to-day, Susan," said Gray, kindly taking her hand—"do not be cast down; all that can be done for Martin, shall be done. Let me take you where you can rest to-night, and to-morrow you can be with him."
The weary little boy had fallen asleep on the seat; the mother strove to arouse him, but Alfred Gray prevented her, by taking the little fellow in his arms. He carried him by her side through the streets; she could utter no words of gratitude, but her tears flowed fast, and told how the young man's sympathy had fallen like balm upon her wounded heart. "God has taken pity on me," she said, when they parted.
With a quick step Alfred regained his uncle's cottage; he had a difficult task to accomplish. Martin Harvey, now awaiting his trial for poaching, and for being concerned in an affray with Sir George Roberts' game-keepers, had once been his father's apprentice. Young Gray had been endeavoring to procure for him all the legal help which the laws then allowed; but his own means were limited, and, when he met Susan and her boy in the garden, he had come to visit his uncle to ask his assistance. He had now returned on the same errand. He pleaded earnestly, and with caution, but was repulsed. It was in vain he urged the poverty of agricultural laborers at that season, and the temptation which an abundance of game afforded to half-starved men and their wretched families.
"Nonsense, Alfred!" said old Mr. Gray. "I would not grudge you the money if you did not want it for a bad purpose. You must not excuse men who go out with guns and fire at their fellow-creatures in the dark."
"Martin did not fire, uncle—that is what I want to prove, and save him, if I can, from transportation. He has a wife and child."
"Wife and child!" repeated the old man thoughtfully. "You did not tell me he had a wife and child; that poor woman came from Uffeulme."
"Providence must have guided her," said the younger Gray. "It was indeed Harvey's wife and son whom you so lately relieved."
"You shall have the money. I have all through life prayed that my heart may not be hardened; and I find, old as I am, that, every day I have fresh lessons to learn."
The next morning, while Alfred held anxious consultation with the lawyers, the wife and husband met within the prison walls. They sat together in silence, for neither could speak a single word of hope. The boy never forgot that long and dreary day, during which he watched, with wondering thoughts, the sad faces of his ruined parents.
The Crown Court of the Castle was next morning crowded to overflowing. Among the struggling crowd that vainly sought to gain admission, was Martin Harvey's wife. She was rudely repulsed by the door-keepers, who "wondered what women wanted in such places." She still strove to keep her ground, and watched with piteous looks the doors of the court. She braved the heat and pressure for some time; but a sickly faintness at length came over her. She was endeavoring to retreat into the open air, when she felt some one touch her shoulder, and turning, saw Alfred Gray making his way toward her. After a moment's pause in the cool air, he led her round to a side-door, through which there was a private entrance into the court. He whispered a word to an officer, who admitted them, and pointed to a seat behind the dock, where they were screened from observation, and where the woman could see her husband standing between his two fellow-prisoners.
The prisoners were listening anxiously to the evidence which the principal game-keeper was offering against them. The first, a man about sixty, excited greater interest than the others. He earnestly attended to what was going on, but gave no sign of fear, as to the result. Brushing back his gray locks, he gazed round the court, with something like a smile. This man's life had been a strange one. Early in his career he had been ejected from a farm which he had held under the father of the present prosecutor, Sir George Roberts; he soon after lost what little property had been left him, and, in despair enlisted—was sent abroad with his regiment—and for many years shared in the toils and achievements of our East Indian warfare. Returning home on a small pension, he fixed his abode in his native village, and sought to indulge his old enmity against the family that had injured him by every kind of annoyance in his power. The present baronet, a narrow-minded tyrannical man, afforded by his unpopularity good opportunity to old Ralph Somers to induce others to join him in his schemes of mischief and revenge. "The game," which was plentiful on the estate, and the preservation of which was Sir George's chief delight, formed the principal object of attack; the poverty of the laborers tempted them to follow the old soldier, who managed affairs so warily, that for nine years he had been an object of the utmost terror and hatred to Sir George and his keepers, whilst all their efforts to detect and capture him had, until now, been fruitless.
Martin Harvey, who stood by his side with his shattered arm in a sling, bore marks of acute mental suffering and remorse; but his countenance was stamped with its original, open, manly expression—a face often to be seen among a group of English farm laborers, expressive of a warm heart, full of both courage and kindness.
The evidence was soon given. The game-keepers, on the night of the 24th of February, were apprised that poachers were in the plantations. Taking with them a stronger force than usual, all well-armed, they discovered the objects of their search, in a lane leading out into the fields, and shouted to them to surrender. They distinctly saw their figures flying before them, and when they approached them, one of the fugitives turned round and fired, wounding one of the keepers' legs with a quantity of small shot. The keeper immediately fired in return, and brought down a poacher; old Ralph's voice was heard shouting to them to desist, and upon coming up they found him standing by the side of Martin Harvey, who had fallen severely wounded. Three guns lay by them, one of which had been discharged, but no one could swear who had fired it; search was made all night for the other man, but without success.
When the prisoners were called on for their defence, they looked at one another for a moment as if neither wished to speak first; Ralph, however, began. He had little to say. Casting a look of defiance at Sir George and his lady, who sat in a side-gallery above the court, he freely confessed that hatred to the man who had injured him in his youth, and who had treated him with harshness on his return from abroad, had been the motive of his encouraging and aiding in these midnight depredations; he expressed sorrow for having occasioned trouble to his neighbor Harvey. "What I can say will be of little use to me here," said Martin Harvey, in a hollow voice; "I am ruined, beyond redress; but I was a very poor man when I first joined, with others, in snaring game; I often wanted bread, and saw my wife and child pinched for food also. The rich people say game belongs to them; but—well—all I can say more is, that I take God to witness I never lifted a murderous gun against my fellow-man; he who did it has escaped; and I have suffered this broken limb—but that I don't mind—I have worse than that to bear—I have broken my wife's heart, and my child will be left an orphan."
His voice failed. There was an uneasy movement among the audience: and a lady, who had been leaning over the rails of the side-gallery listening with deep attention, fainted, and was carried out of court. The prisoner's pale wife, who had bowed her head behind him in silent endurance, heard a whisper among the bystanders that it was Lady Roberts, and a hope entered her mind that the lady's tender heart might feel for them.
"Have you any witnesses to call?" asked the Judge.
Martin looked round with a vacant gaze; the attorney whispered to him, and beckoned to Alfred Gray.
Alfred went into the witness-box, and told of the honesty, sobriety, and good conduct of Martin Harvey, during all the years he was in his father's house—"He was there before I was born," said the young man, "and only left when I was obliged to leave also, sixteen years after. A better man never broke bread—he was beloved by every body who knew him. Till now his character was never tainted. It's the one black spot."
The Judge commenced summing up; it was evident to all who had paid attention to the evidence, that the conviction of two of the prisoners was certain. Alfred Gray knew this, and strove to induce the wife to leave with him before the fatal close of proceedings; but she shook her head and would not go. "I shall have strength to bear it," she said.
He sat down by her side, and heard the fearful verdict of "guilty" pronounced against her husband and Ralph Somers; and then the dreaded doom of transportation for life awarded to them. As they turned to leave the dock, Martin looked down upon the crushed and broken-hearted being whom he had sworn to protect and cherish through life, and in spite of every effort to repress it, a cry of agony burst from his lips; it was answered by a fainter sound, and Alfred Gray lifted the helpless, lifeless woman from the ground, and carried her into the open air.
Months passed; and on the day when the convict ship, with its freight of heavy hearts, began its silent course over the greatwaters, the widowed wife took her fatherless child by the hand, and again traversed the weary road which led them to their desolated home.
The kindness of the Grays had supplied a few immediate necessaries. Some one had told her of women having, by the aid of friends, managed to meet their husbands once more in those distant parts of the earth; and this knowledge once in her agitated mind, raised a hope which inspired her to pursue her daily task without fainting, and to watch an opportunity of making an attempt which she had meditated, even during that dreadful day of Martin's trial. She resolved to seek admission into Sir George Roberts' mansion, and appeal to the pity of his wife. It was told in the village that Lady Roberts had implored her husband to interpose in behalf of the men; that his angry and passionate refusal had caused a breach between them; that they had lived unhappily ever since; that he had strictly forbidden any one to mention the subject, or to convey to Lady Roberts any remarks that were made in the neighborhood.
Susan Harvey trembled when she entered the mansion, and timidly asked leave to speak to Lady Roberts.
The servant she addressed had known her husband, and pitied her distress; and, fearing lest Sir George might pass, he led her into his pantry, watching an opportunity to let the lady know of her being there.
After a time Lady Roberts' maid came, and beckoned her to follow up-stairs. In a few moments the soft voice of the lady of the mansion was cheering her with kind words, and encouraging her to disclose her wishes.
Before she had concluded, a step was heard without, at which the lady started and turned pale. Before there was time for retreat Sir George hastily entered the apartment.
"Who have you here, Lady Roberts?"
"One who has a request to make, I believe," said the lady, mildly. "I wish a few moments with her."
"Have the goodness to walk out of this house," said the baronet to Susan. "Lady Roberts, I know this woman and I will not allow you to harbor such people here."
Although the convict's wife never again ventured into that house, her wants, and those of her child, were, during three years, ministered to by the secret agency of the Good Heart that lived so sadly there; and when, at the expiration of that period, Lady Roberts died, a trusty messenger brought to the cottage a little legacy—sufficient, if ever news came of Martin, to enable the wife and child, from whom he was separated, to make their way across the earth, and to meet him again.
But during those weary years no tidings of his fate had reached either his wife or Alfred Gray—to whom he had promised to write when he reached his destination. Another year dragged its slow course over the home of affliction, and poor Susan's hopes grew fainter day by day. Her sinking frame gave evidence of the sickness that cometh from the heart.
One summer evening, in the next year, Alfred Gray, entered his uncle's garden with a letter, and was soon seated in the summer-house reading it aloud to his uncle and Martha. Tears stood in the old man's eyes, as some touching detail of suffering or privation was related. And, indeed, the letter told of little beside. It was from Martin. Soon after his arrival in the settlement, Martin had written to Alfred, but the letter had never reached England—not an unusual occurrence in those times. After waiting long, and getting no reply, he was driven by harsh treatment, and the degradation attending the life he led, to attempt, with old Ralph, an escape from the settlement. In simple language, he recorded the dreary life they led in the woods; how, after a time, old Ralph sickened and died; and how, in a desolate place, where the footsteps of man had, perhaps, never trod before, Martin Harvey had dug a grave, and buried his old companion. After that, unable to endure the terrible solitude, he had sought his way back to his former master, and had been treated more harshly than before. Fever and disease had wasted his frame, until he had prayed that he might die and be at rest; but God had been merciful to him, and had inclined the heart of one for whom he labored, who listened with compassion to his story, took him under his roof, and restored him to health. And now, Martin had obtained a ticket of leave, and served his kind master for wages, which he was carefully hoarding to send to Alfred Gray, as soon as he should hear from him that those he loved were still preserved, and would come and embrace him once more in that distant land.
"They shall go at once, Alfred," said old Mr. Gray, the moment the last sentence was read; "they shall not wait; we will provide the means—hey, Martha?"
He did not now fear to appeal to his companion. Martha had grown kinder of late, and she confessed she had learned of her cousin what gives most comfort to those who are drawing near their journey's end. "I can help them a little," she said.
"We will all help a little," Alfred replied. "I shall be off at break of day to-morrow, on neighbor Collins's pony, and shall give him no rest until he sets me down at Uffeulme."
Accordingly, early next morning, Alfred Gray was riding briskly along through the pleasant green lanes which led toward his native village. It was the middle of June, bright, warm, sunny weather; and the young man's spirits was unusually gay, everything around him tending to heighten the delight which the good news he carried had inspired him with. The pony stepped out bravely, and was only checked when Alfred came in sight of the dear old home of his childhood, and heard the well-known chimes calling the villagers to their morning service, for it was Sunday. Then for a few moments the young man proceeded more slowly, and his countenance wore a more saddened look, as the blessed recollections of early loves and affections with which the scene was associated in his mind, claimed their power over all other thoughts. The voice of an old friend, from an apple-orchard hard by, recalled him from his reveries.
He shook hands through the hedge. "I will come and see you in the evening, Fred. I must hasten on now. She will go to church this morning, and I must go with her."
"Who?" asked the other.
Alfred pointed to the cottage where Susan Harvey dwelt. "I bring her good news—I have a letter. Martin is living and well."
The friend shook his head.
Alfred dismounted, and walked towards Susan Harvey's cottage. The door was closed, and when he looked through the window he could see no one inside. He lifted the latch softly and entered. There was no one there; but his entrance had been heard, and a moment after, a fine stout lad came out of the inner chamber, took Alfred's proffered hand, and in answer to his inquiries, burst into tears.
"She says she cannot live long, sir; but she told me last night, that before she died, you would come and tell us news of father. She has been saying all the past week that we should hear from him soon."
Whilst the boy spoke, Alfred heard a weak voice, calling his name from the inner room.
"Go in," he said, "and tell her I am here."
The boy did so, and then beckoned him to enter.
Susan's submissive features were but little changed, from the time when her husband was taken from her; but the weak and wasted form that strove to raise itself in vain, as Alfred approached the bed-side, too plainly revealed that the struggle was drawing to a close—that the time of rest was at hand.
"Thank God, you are come," she said; "you have heard from him? Tell me quickly, for my time is short."
"I come to tell you good news, Susan. You may yet be restored to him."
"I shall not see Martin in this world again, Mr. Gray; but I shall close my eyes in peace. If you know where he is, and can tell me that my boy shall go and be with him, and tell him how, through these long weary years, we loved him, and thought of him, and prayed for him—" Here she broke off, and beckoned the boy to her. She held his hands within her own, whilst Alfred Gray read from the letter all that would comfort her.
When he had done, she said, "God will bless you—you have been very good to us in our misery. Now, will you promise me one thing more? Will you send my boy to his father, when I am gone?"
The promise was made; and the boy knelt long by her bedside, listening to the words of love and consolation which, with her latest breath, she uttered for the sake of him who, she hoped, would hear them again from his child's lips.
* * * * *
Nearly forty years have passed since they laid her among the graves of the humble villagers of Uffeulme. Few remain now who remember her story or her name—but, on the other side of the world, amid scenery all unlike to that in which she dwelt, there stands a cheerful settler's home, and under the shadow of tall acacia trees which surround the little garden in which some few English flowers are blooming, there are sitting, in the cool of the summer evening, a group whose faces are all of the Anglo-Saxon mould. A happy looking couple, in the prime of life, are there, with children playing around them; and one little gentle girl, they call Susan, is sitting on the knee of an aged, white-haired man, looking lovingly into his face, and wondering why his eye so watches the setting sun every night, as it sinks behind the blue waters in the distance. Two tall, handsome lads, with guns on their shoulders, enter the garden, and hasten to show the old man the fruits of their day's exploits.
"We have been lucky to-day, grandfather," says the younger; "but Alfred says these birds are not like the birds in old England."
"You should hear the sailors talk about the game in England, Martin," replies the brother.
"Grandfather has told us all about England, except the 'birds.' He thinks we should run away, if he were to describe them."
The old man looks steadily at the boys for a moment, and his eyes fill with tears. "It is a glorious land," he says, with a faltering voice; "it is our country; but, Alfred, Martin, you will never leave this happy home to go there. Birds there are the rich man's property, and you would not dare carry those guns of yours over English ground. If ever you go there, your father will tell you where there is a church-yard—and among the graves of the poor, there is one—"
He stopped, for Edward Harvey came to the place where his father sat, and took his trembling hand within his own; the boys obeyed their mother's signal, and followed her into the house; the two men remained sitting together, until the silent stars came out.
Then the aged man, leaning on his son's arm, rejoined the family at the supper-table—and the peace of God rested on the solitary home. Edward Harvey had faithfully kept within his heart, the memory of his mother's dying commands.
Martin, his father, had nobly effaced the one Black Spot.
THE GENTLEMAN BEGGAR.
One morning, about five years ago, I called by appointment on Mr. John Balance, the fashionable pawnbroker, to accompany him to Liverpool, in pursuit of a Levanting customer—for Balance, in addition to pawning, does a little business in the sixty per cent. line. It rained in torrents when the cab stopped at the passage which leads past the pawning-boxes to his private door. The cabman rang twice, and at length Balance appeared, looming through the mist and rain in the entry, illuminated by his perpetual cigar. As I eyed him rather impatiently, remembering that trains wait for no man, something like a hairy dog, or a bundle of rags, rose up at his feet, and barred his passage for a moment. Then Balance cried out with an exclamation, in answer apparently to a something I could not hear, "What, man alive!—slept in the passage!—there, take that, and get some breakfast, for Heaven's sake!" So saying, he jumped into the "Hansom," and we bowled away at ten miles an hour, just catching the Express as the doors of the station were closing. My curiosity was full set—for although Balance can be free with his money, it is not exactly to beggars that his generosity is usually displayed; so when comfortably ensconced in a coupe I finished with—