The Woman in White
Part 12 out of 14
as I am myself? Some of these days there will be an accident
happen, and when the register's lost, then the parish will find
out the value of my copy.' He used to take his pinch of snuff
after that, and look about him as bold as a lord. Ah! the like of
him for doing business isn't easy to find now. You may go to
London and not match him, even THERE. Which year did you say,
sir? Eighteen hundred and what?"
"Eighteen hundred and four," I replied, mentally resolving to give
the old man no more opportunities of talking, until my examination
of the register was over.
The clerk put on his spectacles, and turned over the leaves of the
register, carefully wetting his finger and thumb at every third
page. "There it is, sir," said he, with another cheerful smack on
the open volume. "There's the year you want."
As I was ignorant of the month in which Sir Percival was born, I
began my backward search with the early part of the year. The
register-book was of the old-fashioned kind, the entries being all
made on blank pages in manuscript, and the divisions which
separated them being indicated by ink lines drawn across the page
at the close of each entry.
I reached the beginning of the year eighteen hundred and four
without encountering the marriage, and then travelled back through
December eighteen hundred and three--through November and October--
No! not through September also. Under the heading of that month
in the year I found the marriage.
I looked carefully at the entry. It was at the bottom of a page,
and was for want of room compressed into a smaller space than that
occupied by the marriages above. The marriage immediately before
it was impressed on my attention by the circumstance of the
bridegroom's Christian name being the same as my own. The entry
immediately following it (on the top of the next page) was
noticeable in another way from the large space it occupied, the
record in this case registering the marriages of two brothers at
the same time. The register of the marriage of Sir Felix Glyde
was in no respect remarkable except for the narrowness of the
space into which it was compressed at the bottom of the page. The
information about his wife was the usual information given in such
cases. She was described as "Cecilia Jane Elster, of Park-View
Cottages, Knowlesbury, only daughter of the late Patrick Elster,
Esq., formerly of Bath."
I noted down these particulars in my pocket-book, feeling as I did
so both doubtful and disheartened about my next proceedings. The
Secret which I had believed until this moment to be within my
grasp seemed now farther from my reach than ever.
What suggestions of any mystery unexplained had arisen out of my
visit to the vestry? I saw no suggestions anywhere. What progress
had I made towards discovering the suspected stain on the
reputation of Sir Percival's mother? The one fact I had
ascertained vindicated her reputation. Fresh doubts, fresh
difficulties, fresh delays began to open before me in interminable
prospect. What was I to do next? The one immediate resource left
to me appeared to be this. I might institute inquiries about
"Miss Elster of Knowlesbury," on the chance of advancing towards
the main object of my investigation, by first discovering the
secret of Mrs. Catherick's contempt for Sir Percival's mother.
"Have you found what you wanted, sir?" said the clerk, as I closed
"Yes," I replied, "but I have some inquiries still to make. I
suppose the clergyman who officiated here in the year eighteen
hundred and three is no longer alive?"
"No, no, sir, he was dead three or four years before I came here,
and that was as long ago as the year twenty-seven. I got this
place, sir," persisted my talkative old friend, "through the clerk
before me leaving it. They say he was driven out of house and
home by his wife--and she's living still down in the new town
there. I don't know the rights of the story myself--all I know is
I got the place. Mr. Wansborough got it for me--the son of my old
master that I was tell you of. He's a free pleasant gentleman as
ever lived--rides to the hounds, keeps his pointers and all that.
He's vestry-clerk here now as his father was before him."
"Did you not tell me your former master lived at Knowlesbury?" I
asked, calling to mind the long story about the precise gentleman
of the old school with which my talkative friend had wearied me
before he opened the register-book.
"Yes, to be sure, sir," replied the clerk. "Old Mr. Wansborough
lived at Knowlesbury, and young Mr. Wansborough lives there too."
"You said just now he was vestry-clerk, like his father before
him. I am not quite sure that I know what a vestry-clerk is."
"Don't you indeed, sir?--and you come from London too! Every
parish church, you know, has a vestry-clerk and a parish-clerk.
The parish-clerk is a man like me (except that I've got a deal
more learning than most of them--though I don't boast of it). The
vestry-clerk is a sort of an appointment that the lawyers get, and
if there's any business to be done for the vestry, why there they
are to do it. It's just the same in London. Every parish church
there has got its vestry-clerk--and you may take my word for it
he's sure to be a lawyer."
"Then young Mr. Wansborough is a lawyer, I suppose?"
"Of course he is, sir! A lawyer in High Street, Knowlesbury--the
old offices that his father had before him. The number of times
I've swept those offices out, and seen the old gentleman come
trotting in to business on his white pony, looking right and left
all down the street and nodding to everybody! Bless you, he was a
popular character!--he'd have done in London!"
"How far is it to Knowlesbury from this place?"
"A long stretch, sir," said the clerk, with that exaggerated idea
of distances, and that vivid perception of difficulties in getting
from place to place, which is peculiar to all country people.
"Nigh on five mile, I can tell you!"
It was still early in the forenoon. There was plenty of time for
a walk to Knowlesbury and back again to Welmingham; and there was
no person probably in the town who was fitter to assist my
inquiries about the character and position of Sir Percival's
mother before her marriage than the local solicitor. Resolving to
go at once to Knowlesbury on foot, I led the way out of the
"Thank you kindly, sir," said the clerk, as I slipped my little
present into his hand. "Are you really going to walk all the way
to Knowlesbury and back? Well! you're strong on your legs, too--
and what a blessing that is, isn't it? There's the road, you can't
miss it. I wish I was going your way--it's pleasant to meet with
gentlemen from London in a lost corner like this. One hears the
news. Wish you good-morning, sir, and thank you kindly once
We parted. As I left the church behind me I looked back, and
there were the two men again on the road below, with a third in
their company, that third person being the short man in black whom
I had traced to the railway the evening before.
The three stood talking together for a little while, then
separated. The man in black went away by himself towards
Welmingham--the other two remained together, evidently waiting to
follow me as soon as I walked on.
I proceeded on my way without letting the fellows see that I took
any special notice of them. They caused me no conscious
irritation of feeling at that moment--on the contrary, they rather
revived my sinking hopes. In the surprise of discovering the
evidence of the marriage, I had forgotten the inference I had
drawn on first perceiving the men in the neighbourhood of the
vestry. Their reappearance reminded me that Sir Percival had
anticipated my visit to Old Welmingham church as the next result
of my interview with Mrs. Catherick--otherwise he would never have
placed his spies there to wait for me. Smoothly and fairly as
appearances looked in the vestry, there was something wrong
beneath them--there was something in the register-book, for aught
I knew, that I had not discovered yet.
Once out of sight of the church, I pressed forward briskly on my
way to Knowlesbury.
The road was, for the most part, straight and level. Whenever I
looked back over it I saw the two spies steadily following me.
For the greater part of the way they kept at a safe distance
behind. But once or twice they quickened their pace, as if with
the purpose of overtaking me, then stopped, consulted together,
and fell back again to their former position. They had some
special object evidently in view, and they seemed to be hesitating
or differing about the best means of accomplishing it. I could
not guess exactly what their design might be, but I felt serious
doubts of reaching Knowlesbury without some mischance happening to
me on the way. These doubts were realised.
I had just entered on a lonely part of the road, with a sharp turn
at some distance ahead, and had just concluded (calculating by
time) that I must be getting near to the town, when I suddenly
heard the steps of the men close behind me.
Before I could look round, one of them (the man by whom I had been
followed in London) passed rapidly on my left side and hustled me
with his shoulder. I had been more irritated by the manner in
which he and his companion had dogged my steps all the way from
Old Welmingham than I was myself aware of, and I unfortunately
pushed the fellow away smartly with my open hand. He instantly
shouted for help. His companion, the tall man in the gamekeeper's
clothes, sprang to my right side, and the next moment the two
scoundrels held me pinioned between them in the middle of the
The conviction that a trap had been laid for me, and the vexation
of knowing that I had fallen into it, fortunately restrained me
from making my position still worse by an unavailing struggle with
two men, one of whom would, in all probability, have been more
than a match for me single-handed. I repressed the first natural
movement by which I had attempted to shake them off, and looked
about to see if there was any person near to whom I could appeal.
A labourer was at work in an adjoining field who must have
witnessed all that had passed. I called to him to follow us to
the town. He shook his head with stolid obstinacy, and walked
away in the direction of a cottage which stood back from the high-
road. At the same time the men who held me between them declared
their intention of charging me with an assault. I was cool enough
and wise enough now to make no opposition. "Drop your hold of my
arms," I said, "and I will go with you to the town." The man in
the gamekeeper's dress roughly refused. But the shorter man was
sharp enough to look to consequences, and not to let his companion
commit himself by unnecessary violence. He made a sign to the
other, and I walked on between them with my arms free.
We reached the turning in the road, and there, close before us,
were the suburbs of Knowlesbury. One of the local policemen was
walking along the path by the roadside. The men at once appealed
to him. He replied that the magistrate was then sitting at the
town-hall, and recommended that we should appear before him
We went on to the town-hall. The clerk made out a formal summons,
and the charge was preferred against me, with the customary
exaggeration and the customary perversion of the truth on such
occasions. The magistrate (an ill-tempered man, with a sour
enjoyment in the exercise of his own power) inquired if any one on
or near the road had witnessed the assault, and, greatly to my
surprise, the complainant admitted the presence of the labourer in
the field. I was enlightened, however, as to the object of the
admission by the magistrate's next words. He remanded me at once
for the production of the witness, expressing, at the same time,
his willingness to take bail for my reappearance if I could
produce one responsible surety to offer it. If I had been known
in the town he would have liberated me on my own recognisances,
but as I was a total stranger it was necessary that I should find
The whole object of the stratagem was now disclosed to me. It had
been so managed as to make a remand necessary in a town where I
was a perfect stranger, and where I could not hope to get my
liberty on bail. The remand merely extended over three days,
until the next sitting of the magistrate. But in that time, while
I was in confinement, Sir Percival might use any means he pleased
to embarrass my future proceedings--perhaps to screen himself from
detection altogether--without the slightest fear of any hindrance
on my part. At the end of the three days the charge would, no
doubt, be withdrawn, and the attendance of the witness would be
My indignation, I may almost say, my despair, at this mischievous
check to all further progress--so base and trifling in itself, and
yet so disheartening and so serious in its probable results--quite
unfitted me at first to reflect on the best means of extricating
myself from the dilemma in which I now stood. I had the folly to
call for writing materials, and to think of privately
communicating my real position to the magistrate. The
hopelessness and the imprudence of this proceeding failed to
strike me before I had actually written the opening lines of the
letter. It was not till I had pushed the paper away--not till, I
am ashamed to say, I had almost allowed the vexation of my
helpless position to conquer me--that a course of action suddenly
occurred to my mind, which Sir Percival had probably not
anticipated, and which might set me free again in a few hours. I
determined to communicate the situation in which I was placed to
Mr. Dawson, of Oak Lodge.
I had visited this gentleman's house, it may be remembered, at the
time of my first inquiries in the Blackwater Park neighbourhood,
and I had presented to him a letter of introduction from Miss
Halcombe, in which she recommended me to his friendly attention in
the strongest terms. I now wrote, referring to this letter, and
to what I had previously told Mr. Dawson of the delicate and
dangerous nature of my inquiries. I had not revealed to him the
truth about Laura, having merely described my errand as being of
the utmost importance to private family interests with which Miss
Halcombe was concerned. Using the same caution still, I now
accounted for my presence at Knowlesbury in the same manner, and I
put it to the doctor to say whether the trust reposed in me by a
lady whom he well knew, and the hospitality I had myself received
in his house, justified me or not in asking him to come to my
assistance in a place where I was quite friendless.
I obtained permission to hire a messenger to drive away at once
with my letter in a conveyance which might be used to bring the
doctor back immediately. Oak Lodge was on the Knowlesbury side of
Blackwater. The man declared he could drive there in forty
minutes, and could bring Mr. Dawson back in forty more. I
directed him to follow the doctor wherever he might happen to be,
if he was not at home, and then sat down to wait for the result
with all the patience and all the hope that I could summon to help
It was not quite half-past one when the messenger departed.
Before half-past three he returned, and brought the doctor with
him. Mr. Dawson's kindness, and the delicacy with which he
treated his prompt assistance quite as a matter of course, almost
overpowered me. The bail required was offered, and accepted
immediately. Before four o'clock, on that afternoon, I was
shaking hands warmly with the good old doctor--a free man again--
in the streets of Knowlesbury.
Mr. Dawson hospitably invited me to go back with him to Oak Lodge,
and take up my quarters there for the night. I could only reply
that my time was not my own, and I could only ask him to let me
pay my visit in a few days, when I might repeat my thanks, and
offer to him all the explanations which I felt to be only his due,
but which I was not then in a position to make. We parted with
friendly assurances on both sides, and I turned my steps at once
to Mr. Wansborough's office in the High Street.
Time was now of the last importance.
The news of my being free on bail would reach Sir Percival, to an
absolute certainty, before night. If the next few hours did not
put me in a position to justify his worst fears, and to hold him
helpless at my mercy, I might lose every inch of the ground I had
gained, never to recover it again. The unscrupulous nature of the
man, the local influence he possessed, the desperate peril of
exposure with which my blindfold inquiries threatened him--all
warned me to press on to positive discovery, without the useless
waste of a single minute. I had found time to think while I was
waiting for Mr. Dawson's arrival, and I had well employed it.
Certain portions of the conversation of the talkative old clerk,
which had wearied me at the time, now recurred to my memory with a
new significance, and a suspicion crossed my mind darkly which had
not occurred to me while I was in the vestry. On my way to
Knowlesbury, I had only proposed to apply to Mr. Wansborough for
information on the subject of Sir Percival's mother. My object
now was to examine the duplicate register of Old Welmingham
Mr. Wansborough was in his office when I inquired for him.
He was a jovial, red-faced, easy-looking man--more like a country
squire than a lawyer--and he seemed to be both surprised and
amused by my application. He had heard of his father's copy of
the register, but had not even seen it himself. It had never been
inquired after, and it was no doubt in the strong room among other
papers that had not been disturbed since his father's death. It
was a pity (Mr. Wansborough said) that the old gentleman was not
alive to hear his precious copy asked for at last. He would have
ridden his favourite hobby harder than ever now. How had I come
to hear of the copy? was it through anybody in the town?
I parried the question as well as I could. It was impossible at
this stage of the investigation to be too cautious, and it was
just as well not to let Mr. Wansborough know prematurely that I
had already examined the original register. I described myself,
therefore, as pursuing a family inquiry, to the object of which
every possible saving of time was of great importance. I was
anxious to send certain particulars to London by that day's post,
and one look at the duplicate register (paying, of course, the
necessary fees) might supply what I required, and save me a
further journey to Old Welmingham. I added that, in the event of
my subsequently requiring a copy of the original register, I
should make application to Mr. Wansborough's office to furnish me
with the document.
After this explanation no objection was made to producing the
copy. A clerk was sent to the strong room, and after some delay
returned with the volume. It was of exactly the same size as the
volume in the vestry, the only difference being that the copy was
more smartly bound. I took it with me to an unoccupied desk. My
hands were trembling--my head was burning hot--I felt the
necessity of concealing my agitation as well as I could from the
persons about me in the room, before I ventured on opening the
On the blank page at the beginning, to which I first turned, were
traced some lines in faded ink. They contained these words--
"Copy of the Marriage Register of Welmingham Parish Church.
Executed under my orders, and afterwards compared, entry by entry,
with the original, by myself. (Signed) Robert Wansborough,
vestry-clerk." Below this note there was a line added, in another
handwriting, as follows: "Extending from the first of January,
1800, to the thirtieth of June, 1815."
I turned to the month of September, eighteen hundred and three. I
found the marriage of the man whose Christian name was the same as
my own. I found the double register of the marriages of the two
brothers. And between these entries, at the bottom of the page?
Nothing! Not a vestige of the entry which recorded the marriage of
Sir Felix Glyde and Cecilia Jane Elster in the register of the
My heart gave a great bound, and throbbed as if it would stifle
me. I looked again--I was afraid to believe the evidence of my
own eyes. No! not a doubt. The marriage was not there. The
entries on the copy occupied exact]y the same places on the page
as the entries in the original. The last entry on one page
recorded the marriage of the man with my Christian name. Below it
there was a blank space--a space evidently left because it was too
narrow to contain the entry of the marriages of the two brothers,
which in the copy, as in the original, occupied the top of the
next page. That space told the whole story! There it must have
remained in the church register from eighteen hundred and three
(when the marriages had been solemnised and the copy had been
made) to eighteen hundred and twenty-seven, when Sir Percival
appeared at Old Welmingham. Here, at Knowlesbury, was the chance
of committing the forgery shown to me in the copy, and there, at
Old Welmingham) was the forgery committed in the register of the
My head turned giddy--I held by the desk to keep myself from
falling. Of all the suspicions which had struck me in relation to
that desperate man, not one had been near the truth.
The idea that he was not Sir Percival Glyde at all, that he had no
more claim to the baronetcy and to Blackwater Park than the
poorest labourer who worked on the estate, had never once occurred
to my mind. At one time I had thought he might be Anne
Catherick's father--at another time I had thought he might have
been Anne Catherick's husband--the offence of which he was really
guilty had been, from first to last, beyond the widest reach of my
The paltry means by which the fraud had been effected, the
magnitude and daring of the crime that it represented, the horror
of the consequences involved in its discovery, overwhelmed me.
Who could wonder now at the brute-restlessness of the wretch's
life--at his desperate alternations between abject duplicity and
reckless violence--at the madness of guilty distrust which had
made him imprison Anne Catherick in the Asylum, and had given him
over to the vile conspiracy against his wife, on the bare
suspicion that the one and the other knew his terrible secret? The
disclosure of that secret might, in past years, have hanged him--
might now transport him for life. The disclosure of that secret,
even if the sufferers by his deception spared him the penalties of
the law, would deprive him at one blow of the name, the rank, the
estate, the whole social existence that he had usurped. This was
the Secret, and it was mine! A word from me, and house, lands,
baronetcy, were gone from him for ever--a word from me, and he was
driven out into the world, a nameless, penniless, friendless
outcast! The man's whole future hung on my lips--and he knew it by
this time as certainly as I did!
That last thought steadied me. Interests far more precious than
my own depended on the caution which must now guide my slightest
actions. There was no possible treachery which Sir Percival might
not attempt against me. In the danger and desperation of his
position he would be staggered by no risks, he would recoil at no
crime--he would literally hesitate at nothing to save himself.
I considered for a minute. My first necessity was to secure
positive evidence in writing of the discovery that I had just
made, and in the event of any personal misadventure happening to
me, to place that evidence beyond Sir Percival's reach. The copy
of the register was sure to be safe in Mr. Wansborough's strong
room. But the position of the original in the vestry was, as I
had seen with my own eyes, anything but secure.
In this emergency I resolved to return to the church, to apply
again to the clerk, and to take the necessary extract from the
register before I slept that night. I was not then aware that a
legally-certified copy was necessary, and that no document merely
drawn out by myself could claim the proper importance as a proof.
I was not aware of this, and my determination to keep my present
proceedings a secret prevented me from asking any questions which
might have procured the necessary information. My one anxiety was
the anxiety to get back to Old Welmingham. I made the best
excuses I could for the discomposure in my face and manner which
Mr. Wansborough had already noticed, laid the necessary fee on his
table, arranged that I should write to him in a day or two, and
left the office, with my head in a whirl and my blood throbbing
through my veins at fever heat.
It was just getting dark. The idea occurred to me that I might be
followed again and attacked on the high-road.
My walking-stick was a light one, of little or no use for purposes
of defence. I stopped before leaving Knowlesbury and bought a
stout country cudgel, short, and heavy at the head. With this
homely weapon, if any one man tried to stop me I was a match for
him. If more than one attacked me I could trust to my heels. In
my school-days I had been a noted runner, and I had not wanted for
practice since in the later time of my experience in Central
I started from the town at a brisk pace, and kept the middle of
A small misty rain was falling, and it was impossible for the
first half of the way to make sure whether I was followed or not.
But at the last half of my journey, when I supposed myself to be
about two miles from the church, I saw a man run by me in the
rain, and then heard the gate of a field by the roadside shut to
sharply. I kept straight on, with my cudgel ready in my hand, my
ears on the alert, and my eyes straining to see through the mist
and the darkness. Before I had advanced a hundred yards there was
a rustling in the hedge on my right, and three men sprang out into
I drew aside on the instant to the footpath. The two foremost men
were carried beyond me before they could check themselves. The
third was as quick as lightning. He stopped, half turned, and
struck at me with his stick. The blow was aimed at hazard, and
was not a severe one. It fell on my left shoulder. I returned it
heavily on his head. He staggered back and jostled his two
companions just as they were both rushing at me. This
circumstance gave me a moment's start. I slipped by them, and
took to the middle of the road again at the top of my speed.
The two unhurt men pursued me. They were both good runners--the
road was smooth and level, and for the first five minutes or more
I was conscious that I did not gain on them. It was perilous work
to run for long in the darkness. I could barely see the dim black
line of the hedges on either side, and any chance obstacle in the
road would have thrown me down to a certainty. Ere long I felt
the ground changing--it descended from the level at a turn, and
then rose again beyond. Downhill the men rather gained on me, but
uphill I began to distance them. The rapid, regular thump of
their feet grew fainter on my ear, and I calculated by the sound
that I was far enough in advance to take to the fields with a good
chance of their passing me in the darkness. Diverging to the
footpath, I made for the first break that I could guess at, rather
than see, in the hedge. It proved to be a closed gate. I vaulted
over, and finding myself in a field, kept across it steadily with
my back to the road. I heard the men pass the gate, still
running, then in a minute more heard one of them call to the other
to come back. It was no matter what they did now, I was out of
their sight and out of their hearing. I kept straight across the
field, and when I had reached the farther extremity of it, waited
there for a minute to recover my breath.
It was impossible to venture back to the road, but I was
determined nevertheless to get to Old Welmingham that evening.
Neither moon nor stars appeared to guide me. I only knew that I
had kept the wind and rain at my back on leaving Knowlesbury, and
if I now kept them at my back still, I might at least be certain
of not advancing altogether in the wrong direction.
Proceeding on this plan, I crossed the country--meeting with no
worse obstacles than hedges, ditches, and thickets, which every
now and then obliged me to alter my course for a little while--
until I found myself on a hillside, with the ground sloping away
steeply before me. I descended to the bottom of the hollow,
squeezed my way through a hedge, and got out into a lane. Having
turned to the right on leaving the road, I now turned to the left,
on the chance of regaining the line from which I had wandered.
After following the muddy windings of the lane for ten minutes or
more, I saw a cottage with a light in one of the windows. The
garden gate was open to the lane, and I went in at once to inquire
Before I could knock at the door it was suddenly opened, and a man
came running out with a lighted lantern in his hand. He stopped
and held it up at the sight of me. We both started as we saw each
other. My wanderings had led me round the outskirts of the
village, and had brought me out at the lower end of it. I was
back at Old Welmingham, and the man with the lantern was no other
than my acquaintance of the morning, the parish clerk.
His manner appeared to have altered strangely in the interval
since I had last seen him. He looked suspicious and confused--his
ruddy cheeks were deeply flushed--and his first words, when he
spoke, were quite unintelligible to me.
"Where are the keys?" he asked. "Have you taken them?"
"What keys?" I repeated. "I have this moment come from
Knowlesbury. What keys do you mean?"
"The keys of the vestry. Lord save us and help us! what shall I
do? The keys are gone! Do you hear?" cried the old man, shaking
the lantern at me in his agitation, "the keys are gone!"
"How? When? Who can have taken them?"
"I don't know," said the clerk, staring about him wildly in the
darkness. "I've only just got back. I told you I had a long
day's work this morning--I locked the door and shut the window
down--it's open now, the window's open. Look! somebody has got in
there and taken the keys."
He turned to the casement window to show me that it was wide open.
The door of the lantern came loose from its fastening as he swayed
it round, and the wind blew the candle out instantly.
"Get another light," I said, "and let us both go to the vestry
together. Quick! quick!"
I hurried him into the house. The treachery that I had every
reason to expect, the treachery that might deprive me of every
advantage I had gained, was at that moment, perhaps, in process of
accomplishment. My impatience to reach the church was so great
that I could not remain inactive in the cottage while the clerk
lit the lantern again. I walked out, down the garden path, into
Before I had advanced ten paces a man approached me from the
direction leading to the church. He spoke respectfully as we met.
I could not see his face, but judging by his voice only, he was a
perfect stranger to me.
"I beg your pardon, Sir Percival----" he began.
I stopped him before he could say more.
"The darkness misleads you," I said. "I am not Sir Percival."
The man drew back directly.
"I thought it was my master," he muttered, in a confused, doubtful
"You expected to meet your master here?"
"I was told to wait in the lane."
With that answer he retraced his steps. I looked back at the
cottage and saw the clerk coming out, with the lantern lighted
once more. I took the old man's arm to help him on the more
quickly. We hastened along the lane, and passed the person who
had accosted me. As well as I could see by the light of the
lantern, he was a servant out of livery.
"Who's that?" whispered the clerk. "Does he know anything about
"We won't wait to ask him," I replied. "We will go on to the
The church was not visible, even by daytime, until the end of the
lane was reached. As we mounted the rising ground which led to
the building from that point, one of the village children--a boy--
came close up to us, attracted by the light we carried, and
recognised the clerk.
"I say, measter," said the boy, pulling officiously at the clerk's
coat, "there be summun up yander in the church. I heerd un lock
the door on hisself--I heerd un strike a loight wi' a match."
The clerk trembled and leaned against me heavily.
"Come! come!" I said encouragingly. "We are not too late. We
will catch the man, whoever he is. Keep the lantern, and follow
me as fast as you can."
I mounted the hill rapidly. The dark mass of the church-tower was
the first object I discerned dimly against the night sky. As I
turned aside to get round to the vestry, I heard heavy footsteps
close to me. The servant had ascended to the church after us. "I
don't mean any harm," he said, when I turned round on him, "I'm
only looking for my master." The tones in which he spoke betrayed
unmistakable fear. I took no notice of him and went on.
The instant I turned the corner and came in view of the vestry, I
saw the lantern-skylight on the roof brilliantly lit up from
within. It shone out with dazzling brightness against the murky,
I hurried through the churchyard to the door.
As I got near there was a strange smell stealing out on the damp
night air. I heard a snapping noise inside--I saw the light above
grow brighter and brighter--a pane of the glass cracked--I ran to
the door and put my hand on it. The vestry was on fire!
Before I could move, before I could draw my breath after that
discovery, I was horror-struck by a heavy thump against the door
from the inside. I heard the key worked violently in the lock--I
heard a man's voice behind the door, raised to a dreadful
shrillness, screaming for help.
The servant who had followed me staggered back shuddering, and
dropped to his knees. "Oh, my God!" he said, "it's Sir Percival!"
As the words passed his lips the clerk joined us, and at the same
moment there was another and a last grating turn of the key in the
"The Lord have mercy on his soul!" said the old man. "He is
doomed and dead. He has hampered the lock."
I rushed to the door. The one absorbing purpose that had filled
all my thoughts, that had controlled all my actions, for weeks and
weeks past, vanished in an instant from my mind. All remembrance
of the heartless injury the man's crimes had inflicted--of the
love, the innocence, the happiness he had pitilessly laid waste--
of the oath I had sworn in my own heart to summon him to the
terrible reckoning that he deserved--passed from my memory like a
dream. I remembered nothing but the horror of his situation. I
felt nothing but the natural human impulse to save him from a
"Try the other door!" I shouted. "Try the door into the church!
The lock's hampered. You're a dead man if you waste another
moment on it."
There had been no renewed cry for help when the key was turned for
the last time. There was no sound now of any kind, to give token
that he was still alive. I heard nothing but the quickening
crackle of the flames, and the sharp snap of the glass in the
I looked round at my two companions. The servant had risen to his
feet--he had taken the lantern, and was holding it up vacantly at
the door. Terror seemed to have struck him with downright idiocy--
he waited at my heels, he followed me about when I moved like a
dog. The clerk sat crouched up on one of the tombstones,
shivering, and moaning to himself. The one moment in which I
looked at them was enough to show me that they were both helpless.
Hardly knowing what I did, acting desperately on the first impulse
that occurred to me, I seized the servant and pushed him against
the vestry wall. "Stoop!" I said, "and hold by the stones. I am
going to climb over you to the roof--I am going to break the
skylight, and give him some air!"
The man trembled from head to foot, but he held firm. I got on
his back, with my cudgel in my mouth, seized the parapet with both
hands, and was instantly on the roof. In the frantic hurry and
agitation of the moment, it never struck me that I might let out
the flame instead of letting in the air. I struck at the
skylight, and battered in the cracked, loosened glass at a blow.
The fire leaped out like a wild beast from its lair. If the wind
had not chanced, in the position I occupied, to set it away from
me, my exertions might have ended then and there. I crouched on
the roof as the smoke poured out above me with the flame. The
gleams and flashes of the light showed me the servant's face
staring up vacantly under the wall--the clerk risen to his feet on
the tombstone, wringing his hands in despair--and the scanty
population of the village, haggard men and terrified women,
clustered beyond in the churchyard--all appearing and
disappearing, in the red of the dreadful glare, in the black of
the choking smoke. And the man beneath my feet!--the man,
suffocating, burning, dying so near us all, so utterly beyond our
The thought half maddened me. I lowered myself from the roof, by
my hands, and dropped to the ground.
"The key of the church!" I shouted to the clerk. "We must try it
that way--we may save him yet if we can burst open the inner
"No, no, no!" cried the old man. "No hope! the church key and the
vestry key are on the same ring--both inside there! Oh, sir, he's
past saving--he's dust and ashes by this time!"
"They'll see the fire from the town," said a voice from among the
men behind me. "There's a ingine in the town. They'll save the
I called to that man--HE had his wits about him--I called to him
to come and speak to me. It would be a quarter of an hour at
least before the town engine could reach us. The horror of
remaining inactive all that time was more than I could face. In
defiance of my own reason I persuaded myself that the doomed and
lost wretch in the vestry might still be lying senseless on the
floor, might not be dead yet. If we broke open the door, might we
save him? I knew the strength of the heavy lock--I knew the
thickness of the nailed oak--I knew the hopelessness of assailing
the one and the other by ordinary means. But surely there were
beams still left in the dismantled cottages near the church? What
if we got one, and used it as a battering-ram against the door?
The thought leaped through me like the fire leaping out of the
shattered skylight. I appealed to the man who had spoken first of
the fire-engine in the town. "Have you got your pick-axes handy?"
Yes, they had. "And a hatchet, and a saw, and a bit of rope?"
Yes! yes! yes! I ran down among the villagers, with the lantern in
my hand. "Five shillings apiece to every man who helps me!" They
started into life at the words. That ravenous second hunger of
poverty--the hunger for money--roused them into tumult and
activity in a moment. "Two of you for more lanterns, if you have
them! Two of you for the pickaxes and the tools! The rest after me
to find the beam!" They cheered--with shrill starveling voices
they cheered. The women and the children fled back on either
side. We rushed in a body down the churchyard path to the first
empty cottage. Not a man was left behind but the clerk--the poor
old clerk standing on the flat tombstone sobbing and wailing over
the church. The servant was still at my heels--his white,
helpless, panic-stricken face was close over my shoulder as we
pushed into the cottage. There were rafters from the torn-down
floor above, lying loose on the ground--but they were too light.
A beam ran across over our heads, but not out of reach of our arms
and our pickaxes--a beam fast at each end in the ruined wall, with
ceiling and flooring all ripped away, and a great gap in the roof
above, open to the sky. We attacked the beam at both ends at
once. God! how it held--how the brick and mortar of the wall
resisted us! We struck, and tugged, and tore. The beam gave at
one end--it came down with a lump of brickwork after it. There
was a scream from the women all huddled in the doorway to look at
us--a shout from the men--two of them down but not hurt. Another
tug all together--and the beam was loose at both ends. We raised
it, and gave the word to clear the doorway. Now for the work! now
for the rush at the door! There is the fire streaming into the
sky, streaming brighter than ever to light us! Steady along the
churchyard path--steady with the beam for a rush at the door.
One, two, three--and off. Out rings the cheering again,
irrepressibly. We have shaken it already, the hinges must give if
the lock won't. Another run with the beam! One, two, three--and
off. It's loose! the stealthy fire darts at us through the
crevice all round it. Another, and a last rush! The door falls in
with a crash. A great hush of awe, a stillness of breathless
expectation, possesses every living soul of us. We look for the
body. The scorching heat on our faces drives us back: we see
nothing--above, below, all through the room, we see nothing but a
sheet of living fire.
"Where is he?" whispered the servant, staring vacantly at the
"He's dust and ashes," said the clerk. "And the books are dust
and ashes--and oh, sirs! the church will be dust and ashes soon."
Those were the only two who spoke. When they were silent again,
nothing stirred in the stillness but the bubble and the crackle of
A harsh rattling sound in the distance--then the hollow beat of
horses' hoofs at full gallop--then the low roar, the all-
predominant tumult of hundreds of human voices clamouring and
shouting together. The engine at last.
The people about me all turned from the fire, and ran eagerly to
the brow of the hill. The old clerk tried to go with the rest,
but his strength was exhausted. I saw him holding by one of the
tombstones. "Save the church!" he cried out faintly, as if the
firemen could hear him already.
Save the church!
The only man who never moved was the servant. There he stood, his
eyes still fastened on the flames in a changeless, vacant stare.
I spoke to him, I shook him by the arm. He was past rousing. He
only whispered once more, "Where is he?"
In ten minutes the engine was in position, the well at the back of
the church was feeding it, and the hose was carried to the doorway
of the vestry. If help had been wanted from me I could not have
afforded it now. My energy of will was gone--my strength was
exhausted--the turmoil of my thoughts was fearfully and suddenly
stilled, now I knew that he was dead.
I stood useless and helpless--looking, looking, looking into the
I saw the fire slowly conquered. The brightness of the glare
faded--the steam rose in white clouds, and the smouldering heaps
of embers showed red and black through it on the floor. There was
a pause--then an advance all together of the firemen and the
police which blocked up the doorway--then a consultation in low
voices--and then two men were detached from the rest, and sent out
of the churchyard through the crowd. The crowd drew back on
either side in dead silence to let them pass.
After a while a great shudder ran through the people, and the
living lane widened slowly. The men came back along it with a
door from one of the empty houses. They carried it to the vestry
and went in. The police closed again round the doorway, and men
stole out from among the crowd by twos and threes and stood behind
them to be the first to see. Others waited near to be the first
to hear. Women and children were among these last.
The tidings from the vestry began to flow out among the crowd--
they dropped slowly from mouth to mouth till they reached the
place where I was standing. I heard the questions and answers
repeated again and again in low, eager tones all round me.
"Have they found him?" "Yes."--" Where?" "Against the door, on his
face."--"Which door?" "The door that goes into the church. His
head was against it--he was down on his face."--"Is his face
burnt?" "No." "Yes, it is." "No, scorched, not burnt--he lay on
his face, I tell you."--"Who was he? A lord, they say." "No, not a
lord. SIR Something; Sir means Knight." "And Baronight, too."
"No." "Yes, it does."--"What did he want in there?" "No good, you
may depend on it."--"Did he do it on purpose?"--" Burn himself on
purpose!"--"I don't mean himself, I mean the vestry."--"Is he
dreadful to look at?" "Dreadful!"--"Not about the face, though?"
"No, no, not so much about the face. Don't anybody know him?"
"There's a man says he does."--"Who?" "A servant, they say. But
he's struck stupid-like, and the police don't believe him."--
"Don't anybody else know who it is?" "Hush----!"
The loud, clear voice of a man in authority silenced the low hum
of talking all round me in an instant.
"Where is the gentleman who tried to save him?" said the voice.
"Here, sir--here he is!" Dozens of eager faces pressed about me--
dozens of eager arms parted the crowd. The man in authority came
up to me with a lantern in his hand.
"This way, sir, if you please," he said quietly.
I was unable to speak to him, I was unable to resist him when he
took my arm. I tried to say that I had never seen the dead man in
his lifetime--that there was no hope of identifying him by means
of a stranger like me. But the words failed on my lips. I was
faint, and silent, and helpless.
"Do you know him, sir?"
I was standing inside a circle of men. Three of them opposite to
me were holding lanterns low down to the ground. Their eyes, and
the eyes of all the rest, were fixed silently and expectantly on
my face. I knew what was at my feet--I knew why they were holding
the lanterns so low to the ground.
"Can you identify him, sir?"
My eyes dropped slowly. At first I saw nothing under them but a
coarse canvas cloth. The dripping of the rain on it was audible
in the dreadful silence. I looked up, along the cloth, and there
at the end, stark and grim and black, in the yellow light--there
was his dead face.
So, for the first and last time, I saw him. So the Visitation of
God ruled it that he and I should meet.
The inquest was hurried for certain local reasons which weighed
with the coroner and the town authorities. It was held on the
afternoon of the next day. I was necessarily one among the
witnesses summoned to assist the objects of the investigation.
My first proceeding in the morning was to go to the post-office,
and inquire for the letter which I expected from Marian. No
change of circumstances, however extraordinary, could affect the
one great anxiety which weighed on my mind while I was away from
London. The morning's letter, which was the only assurance I
could receive that no misfortune had happened in my absence, was
still the absorbing interest with which my day began.
To my relief, the letter from Marian was at the office waiting for
Nothing had happened--they were both as safe and as well as when I
had left them. Laura sent her love, and begged that I would let
her know of my return a day beforehand. Her sister added, in
explanation of this message, that she had saved "nearly a
sovereign" out of her own private purse, and that she had claimed
the privilege of ordering the dinner and giving the dinner which
was to celebrate the day of my return. I read these little
domestic confidences in the bright morning with the terrible
recollection of what had happened the evening before vivid in my
memory. The necessity of sparing Laura any sudden knowledge of
the truth was the first consideration which the letter suggested
to me. I wrote at once to Marian to tell her what I have told in
these pages--presenting the tidings as gradually and gently as I
could, and warning her not to let any such thing as a newspaper
fall in Laura's way while I was absent. In the case of any other
woman, less courageous and less reliable, I might have hesitated
before I ventured on unreservedly disclosing the whole truth. But
I owed it to Marian to be faithful to my past experience of her,
and to trust her as I trusted herself.
My letter was necessarily a long one. It occupied me until the
time came for proceeding to the inquest.
The objects of the legal inquiry were necessarily beset by
peculiar complications and difficulties. Besides the
investigation into the manner in which the deceased had met his
death, there were serious questions to be settled relating to the
cause of the fire, to the abstraction of the keys, and to the
presence of a stranger in the vestry at the time when the flames
broke out. Even the identification of the dead man had not yet
been accomplished. The helpless condition of the servant had made
the police distrustful of his asserted recognition of his master.
They had sent to Knowlesbury over-night to secure the attendance
of witnesses who were well acquainted with the personal appearance
of Sir Percival Glyde, and they had communicated, the first thing
in the morning, with Blackwater Park. These precautions enabled
the coroner and jury to settle the question of identity, and to
confirm the correctness of the servant's assertion; the evidence
offered by competent witnesses, and by the discovery of certain
facts, being subsequently strengthened by an examination of the
dead man's watch. The crest and the name of Sir Percival Glyde
were engraved inside it.
The next inquiries related to the fire.
The servant and I, and the boy who had heard the light struck in
the vestry, were the first witnesses called. The boy gave his
evidence clearly enough, but the servant's mind had not yet
recovered the shock inflicted on it--he was plainly incapable of
assisting the objects of the inquiry, and he was desired to stand
To my own relief, my examination was not a long one. I had not
known the deceased--I had never seen him--I was not aware of his
presence at Old Welmingham--and I had not been in the vestry at
the finding of the body. All I could prove was that I had stopped
at the clerk's cottage to ask my way--that I had heard from him of
the loss of the keys--that I had accompanied him to the church to
render what help I could--that I had seen the fire--that I had
heard some person unknown, inside the vestry, trying vainly to
unlock the door--and that I had done what I could, from motives of
humanity, to save the man. Other witnesses, who had been
acquainted with the deceased, were asked if they could explain the
mystery of his presumed abstraction of the keys, and his presence
in the burning room. But the coroner seemed to take it for
granted, naturally enough, that I, as a total stranger in the
neighbourhood, and a total stranger to Sir Percival Glyde, could
not be in a position to offer any evidence on these two points.
The course that I was myself bound to take, when my formal
examination had closed, seemed clear to me. I did not feel called
on to volunteer any statement of my own private convictions, in
the first place, because my doing so could serve no practical
purpose, now that all proof in support of any surmises of mine was
burnt with the burnt register; in the second place, because I
could not have intelligibly stated my opinion--my unsupported
opinion--without disclosing the whole story of the conspiracy, and
producing beyond a doubt the same unsatisfactory effect an the
mind of the coroner and the jury, which I had already produced on
the mind of Mr. Kyrle.
In these pages, however, and after the time that has now elapsed,
no such cautions and restraints as are here described need fetter
the free expression of my opinion. I will state briefly, before
my pen occupies itself with other events, how my own convictions
lead me to account for the abstraction of the keys, for the
outbreak of the fire, and for the death of the man.
The news of my being free on bail drove Sir Percival, as I
believe, to his last resources. The attempted attack on the road
was one of those resources, and the suppression of all practical
proof of his crime, by destroying the page of the register on
which the forgery had been committed, was the other, and the
surest of the two. If I could produce no extract from the
original book to compare with the certified copy at Knowlesbury, I
could produce no positive evidence, and could threaten him with no
fatal exposure. All that was necessary to the attainment of his
end was, that he should get into the vestry unperceived, that he
should tear out the page in the register, and that he should leave
the vestry again as privately as he had entered it.
On this supposition, it is easy to understand why he waited until
nightfall before he made the attempt, and why he took advantage of
the clerk's absence to possess himself of the keys. Necessity
would oblige him to strike a light to find his way to the right
register, and common caution would suggest his locking the door on
the inside in case of intrusion on the part of any inquisitive
stranger, or on my part, if I happened to be in the neighbourhood
at the time.
I cannot believe that it was any part of his intention to make the
destruction of the register appear to be the result of accident,
by purposely setting the vestry on fire. The bare chance that
prompt assistance might arrive, and that the books might, by the
remotest possibility, be saved, would have been enough, on a
moment's consideration, to dismiss any idea of this sort from his
mind. Remembering the quantity of combustible objects in the
vestry--the straw, the papers, the packing-cases, the dry wood,
the old worm-eaten presses--all the probabilities, in my
estimation, point to the fire as the result of an accident with
his matches or his light.
His first impulse, under these circumstances, was doubtless to try
to extinguish the flames, and failing in that, his second impulse
(ignorant as he was of the state of the lock) had been to attempt
to escape by the door which had given him entrance. When I had
called to him, the flames must have reached across the door
leading into the church, on either side of which the presses
extended, and close to which the other combustible objects were
placed. In all probability, the smoke and flame (confined as they
were to the room) had been too much for him when he tried to
escape by the inner door. He must have dropped in his death-
swoon, he must have sunk in the place where he was found, just as
I got on the roof to break the skylight window. Even if we had
been able, afterwards, to get into the church, and to burst open
the door from that side, the delay must have been fatal. He would
have been past saving, long past saving, by that time. We should
only have given the flames free ingress into the church--the
church, which was now preserved, but which, in that event, would
have shared the fate of the vestry. There is no doubt in my mind,
there can be no doubt in the mind of any one, that he was a dead
man before ever we got to the empty cottage, and worked with might
and main to tear down the beam.
This is the nearest approach that any theory of mine can make
towards accounting for a result which was visible matter of fact.
As I have described them, so events passed to us out-side. As I
have related it, so his body was found.
The inquest was adjourned over one day--no explanation that the
eye of the law could recognise having been discovered thus far to
account for the mysterious circumstances of the case.
It was arranged that more witnesses should be summoned, and that
the London solicitor of the deceased should be invited to attend.
A medical man was also charged with the duty of reporting on the
mental condition of the servant, which appeared at present to
debar him from giving any evidence of the least importance. He
could only declare, in a dazed way, that he had been ordered, on
the night of the fire, to wait in the lane, and that he knew
nothing else, except that the deceased was certainly his master.
My own impression was, that he had been first used (without any
guilty knowledge on his own part) to ascertain the fact of the
clerk's absence from home on the previous day, and that he had
been afterwards ordered to wait near the church (but out of sight
of the vestry) to assist his master, in the event of my escaping
the attack on the road, and of a collision occurring between Sir
Percival and myself. It is necessary to add, that the man's own
testimony was never obtained to confirm this view. The medical
report of him declared that what little mental faculty he
possessed was seriously shaken; nothing satisfactory was extracted
from him at the adjourned inquest, and for aught I know to the
contrary, he may never have recovered to this day.
I returned to the hotel at Welmingham so jaded in body and mind,
so weakened and depressed by all that I had gone through, as to be
quite unfit to endure the local gossip about the inquest, and to
answer the trivial questions that the talkers addressed to me in
the coffee-room. I withdrew from my scanty dinner to my cheap
garret-chamber to secure myself a little quiet, and to think
undisturbed of Laura and Marian.
If I had been a richer man I would have gone back to London, and
would have comforted myself with a sight of the two dear faces
again that night. But I was bound to appear, if called on, at the
adjourned inquest, and doubly bound to answer my bail before the
magistrate at Knowlesbury. Our slender resources had suffered
already, and the doubtful future--more doubtful than ever now--
made me dread decreasing our means unnecessarily by allowing
myself an indulgence even at the small cost of a double railway
journey in the carriages of the second class.
The next day--the day immediately following the inquest--was left
at my own disposal. I began the morning by again applying at the
post-office for my regular report from Marian. It was waiting for
me as before, and it was written throughout in good spirits. I
read the letter thankfully, and then set forth with my mind at
ease for the day to go to Old Welmingham, and to view the scene of
the fire by the morning light.
What changes met me when I got there!
Through all the ways of our unintelligible world the trivial and
the terrible walk hand in hand together. The irony of
circumstances holds no mortal catastrophe in respect. When I
reached the church, the trampled condition of the burial-ground
was the only serious trace left to tell of the fire and the death.
A rough hoarding of boards had been knocked up before the vestry
doorway. Rude caricatures were scrawled on it already, and the
village children were fighting and shouting for the possession of
the best peep-hole to see through. On the spot where I had heard
the cry for help from the burning room, on the spot where the
panic-stricken servant had dropped on his knees, a fussy flock of
poultry was now scrambling for the first choice of worms after the
rain; and on the ground at my feet, where the door and its
dreadful burden had been laid, a workman's dinner was waiting for
him, tied up in a yellow basin, and his faithful cur in charge was
yelping at me for coming near the food. The old clerk, looking
idly at the slow commencement of the repairs, had only one
interest that he could talk about now--the interest of escaping
all blame for his own part on account of the accident that had
happened. One of the village women, whose white wild face I
remembered the picture of terror when we pulled down the beam, was
giggling with another woman, the picture of inanity, over an old
washing-tub. There is nothing serious in mortality! Solomon in
all his glory was Solomon with the elements of the contemptible
lurking in every fold of his robes and in every corner of his
As I left the place, my thoughts turned, not for the first time,
to the complete overthrow that all present hope of establishing
Laura's identity had now suffered through Sir Percival's death.
He was gone--and with him the chance was gone which had been the
one object of all my labours and all my hopes.
Could I look at my failure from no truer point of view than this?
Suppose he had lived, would that change of circumstance have
altered the result? Could I have made my discovery a marketable
commodity, even for Laura's sake, after I had found out that
robbery of the rights of others was the essence of Sir Percival's
crime? Could I have offered the price of MY silence for HIS
confession of the conspiracy, when the effect of that silence must
have been to keep the right heir from the estates, and the right
owner from the name? Impossible! If Sir Percival had lived, the
discovery, from which (In my ignorance of the true nature of the
Secret) I had hoped so much, could not have been mine to suppress
or to make public, as I thought best, for the vindication of
Laura's rights. In common honesty and common honour I must have
gone at once to the stranger whose birthright had been usurped--I
must have renounced the victory at the moment when it was mine by
placing my discovery unreservedly in that stranger's hands--and I
must have faced afresh all the difficulties which stood between me
and the one object of my life, exactly as I was resolved in my
heart of hearts to face them now!
I returned to Welmingham with my mind composed, feeling more sure
of myself and my resolution than I had felt yet.
On my way to the hotel I passed the end of the square in which
Mrs. Catherick lived. Should I go back to the house, and make
another attempt to see her. No. That news of Sir Percival's
death, which was the last news she ever expected to hear, must
have reached her hours since. All the proceedings at the inquest
had been reported in the local paper that morning--there was
nothing I could tell her which she did not know already. My
interest in making her speak had slackened. I remembered the
furtive hatred in her face when she said, "There is no news of Sir
Percival that I don't expect--except the news of his death." I
remembered the stealthy interest in her eyes when they settled on
me at parting, after she had spoken those words. Some instinct,
deep in my heart, which I felt to be a true one, made the prospect
of again entering her presence repulsive to me--I turned away from
the square, and went straight back to the hotel.
Some hours later, while I was resting in the coffee-room, a letter
was placed in my hands by the waiter. It was addressed to me by
name, and I found on inquiry that it had been left at the bar by a
woman just as it was near dusk, and just before the gas was
lighted. She had said nothing, and she had gone away again before
there was time to speak to her, or even to notice who she was.
I opened the letter. It was neither dated nor signed, and the
handwriting was palpably disguised. Before I had read the first
sentence, however, I knew who my correspondent was--Mrs.
The letter ran as follows--I copy it exactly, word for word:--
THE STORY CONTINUED BY MRS. CATHERICK
SIR,--You have not come back, as you said you would. No matter--I
know the news, and I write to tell you so. Did you see anything
particular in my face when you left me? I was wondering, in my own
mind, whether the day of his downfall had come at last, and
whether you were the chosen instrument for working it. You were,
and you HAVE worked it.
You were weak enough, as I have heard, to try and save his life.
If you had succeeded, I should have looked upon you as my enemy.
Now you have failed, I hold you as my friend. Your inquiries
frightened him into the vestry by night--your inquiries, without
your privity and against your will, have served the hatred and
wreaked the vengeance of three-and-twenty vears. Thank you, sir,
in spite of yourself.
I owe something to the man who has done this. How can I pay my
debt? If I was a young woman still I might say, "Come, put your
arm round my waist, and kiss me, if you like." I should have been
fond enough of you even to go that length, and you would have
accepted my invitation--you would, sir, twenty years ago! But I am
an old woman now. Well! I can satisfy your curiosity, and pay my
debt in that way. You HAD a great curiosity to know certain
private affairs of mine when you came to see me--private affairs
which all your sharpness could not look into without my help--
private affairs which you have not discovered, even now. You
SHALL discover them--your curiosity shall be satisfied. I will
take any trouble to please you, my estimable young friend!
You were a little boy, I suppose, in the year twenty-seven? I was
a handsome young woman at that time, living at Old Welmingham. I
had a contemptible fool for a husband. I had also the honour of
being acquainted (never mind how) with a certain gentleman (never
mind whom). I shall not call him by his name. Why should I? It
was not his own. He never had a name: you know that, by this
time, as well as I do.
It will be more to the purpose to tell you how he worked himself
into my good graces. I was born with the tastes of a lady, and he
gratified them--in other words, he admired me, and he made me
presents. No woman can resist admiration and presents--especially
presents, provided they happen to be just the thing she wants. He
was sharp enough to know that--most men are. Naturally he wanted
something in return--all men do. And what do you think was the
something? The merest trifle. Nothing but the key of the vestry,
and the key of the press inside it, when my husband's back was
turned. Of course he lied when I asked him why he wished me to
get him the keys in that private way. He might have saved himself
the trouble--I didn't believe him. But I liked my presents, and I
wanted more. So I got him the keys, without my husband's
knowledge, and I watched him, without his own knowledge. Once,
twice, four times I watched him, and the fourth time I found him
I was never over-scrupulous where other people's affairs were
concerned, and I was not over-scrupulous about his adding one to
the marriages in the register on his own account.
Of course I knew it was wrong, but it did no harm to me, which was
one good reason for not making a fuss about it. And I had not got
a gold watch and chain, which was another, still better--and he
had promised me one from London only the day before, which was a
third, best of all. If I had known what the law considered the
crime to be, and how the law punished it, I should have taken
proper care of myself, and have exposed him then and there. But I
knew nothing, and I longed for the gold watch. All the conditions
I insisted on were that he should take me into his confidence and
tell me everything. I was as curious about his affairs then as
you are about mine now. He granted my conditions--why, you will
This, put in short, is what I heard from him. He did not
willingly tell me all that I tell you here. I drew some of it
from him by persuasion and some of it by questions. I was
determined to have all the truth, and I believe I got it.
He knew no more than any one else of what the state of things
really was between his father and mother till after his mother's
death. Then his father confessed it, and promised to do what he
could for his son. He died having done nothing--not having even
made a will. The son (who can blame him?) wisely provided for
himself. He came to England at once, and took possession of the
property. There was no one to suspect him, and no one to say him
nay. His father and mother had always lived as man and wife--none
of the few people who were acquainted with them ever supposed them
to be anything else. The right person to claim the property (if
the truth had been known) was a distant relation, who had no idea
of ever getting it, and who was away at sea when his father died.
He had no difficulty so far--he took possession, as a matter of
course. But he could not borrow money on the property as a matter
of course. There were two things wanted of him before he could do
this. One was a certificate of his birth, and the other was a
certificate of his parents' marriage. The certificate of his
birth was easily got--he was born abroad, and the certificate was
there in due form. The other matter was a difficulty, and that
difficulty brought him to Old Welmingham.
But for one consideration he might have gone to Knowlesbury
His mother had been living there just before she met with his
father--living under her maiden name, the truth being that she was
really a married woman, married in Ireland, where her husband had
ill-used her, and had afterwards gone off with some other person.
I give you this fact on good authority--Sir Felix mentioned it to
his son as the reason why he had not married. You may wonder why
the son, knowing that his parents had met each other at
Knowlesbury, did not play his first tricks with the register of
that church, where it might have been fairly presumed his father
and mother were married. The reason was that the clergyman who
did duty at Knowlesbury church, in the year eighteen hundred and
three (when, according to his birth certificate, his father and
mother OUGHT to have been married), was alive still when he took
possession of the property in the New Year of eighteen hundred and
twenty-seven. This awkward circumstance forced him to extend his
inquiries to our neighbourhood. There no such danger existed, the
former clergyman at our church having been dead for some years.
Old Welmingham suited his purpose as well as Knowlesbury. His
father had removed his mother from Knowlesbury, and had lived with
her at a cottage on the river, a little distance from our village.
People who had known his solitary ways when he was single did not
wonder at his solitary ways when he was supposed to be married.
If he had not been a hideous creature to look at, his retired life
with the lady might have raised suspicions; but, as things were,
his hiding his ugliness and his deformity in the strictest privacy
surprised nobody. He lived in our neighbourhood till he came in
possession of the Park. After three or four and twenty years had
passed, who was to say (the clergyman being dead) that his
marriage had not been as private as the rest of his life, and that
it had not taken place at Old Welmingham church?
So, as I told you, the son found our neighbourhood the surest
place he could choose to set things right secretly in his own
interests. It may surprise you to hear that what he really did to
the marriage register was done on the spur of the moment--done on
His first notion was only to tear the leaf out (in the right year
and month), to destroy it privately, to go back to London, and to
tell the lawyers to get him the necessary certificate of his
father's marriage, innocently referring them of course to the date
on the leaf that was gone. Nobody could say his father and mother
had NOT been married after that, and whether, under the
circumstances, they would stretch a point or not about lending him
the money (he thought they would), he had his answer ready at all
events, if a question was ever raised about his right to the name
and the estate.
But when he came to look privately at the register for himself, he
found at the bottom of one of the pages for the year eighteen
hundred and three a blank space left, seemingly through there
being no room to make a long entry there, which was made instead
at the top of the next page. The sight of this chance altered all
his plans. It was an opportunity he had never hoped for, or
thought of--and he took it--you know how. The blank space, to
have exactly tallied with his birth certificate, ought to have
occurred in the July part of the register. It occurred in the
September part instead. However, in this case, if suspicious
questions were asked, the answer was not hard to find. He had
only to describe himself as a seven months' child.
I was fool enough, when he told me his story, to feel some
interest and some pity for him--which was just what he calculated
on, as you will see. I thought him hardly used. It was not his
fault that his father and mother were not married, and it was not
his father's and mother's fault either. A more scrupulous woman
than I was--a woman who had not set her heart on a gold watch and
chain--would have found some excuses for him. At all events, I
held my tongue, and helped to screen what he was about.
He was some time getting the ink the right colour (mixing it over
and over again in pots and bottles of mine), and some time
afterwards in practising the handwriting. But he succeeded in the
end, and made an honest woman of his mother after she was dead in
her grave! So far, I don't deny that he behaved honourably enough
to myself. He gave me my watch and chain, and spared no expense
in buying them; both were of superior workmanship, and very
expensive. I have got them still--the watch goes beautifully.
You said the other day that Mrs. Clements had told you everything
she knew. In that case there is no need for me to write about the
trumpery scandal by which I was the sufferer--the innocent
sufferer, I positively assert. You must know as well as I do what
the notion was which my husband took into his head when he found
me and my fine-gentleman acquaintance meeting each other privately
and talking secrets together. But what you don't know is how it
ended between that same gentleman and myself. You shall read and
see how he behaved to me.
The first words I said to him, when I saw the turn things had
taken, were, "Do me justice--clear my character of a stain on it
which you know I don't deserve. I don't want you to make a clean
breast of it to my husband--only tell him, on your word of honour
as a gentleman, that he is wrong, and that I am not to blame in
the way he thinks I am. Do me that justice, at least, after all I
have done for you." He flatly refused, in so many words. He told
me plainly that it was his interest to let my husband and all my
neighbours believe the falsehood--because, as long as they did so
they were quite certain never to suspect the truth. I had a
spirit of my own, and I told him they should know the truth from
my lips. His reply was short, and to the point. If I spoke, I
was a lost woman, as certainly as he was a lost man.
Yes! it had come to that. He had deceived me about the risk I ran
in helping him. He had practised on my ignorance, he had tempted
me with his gifts, he had interested me with his story--and the
result of it was that he made me his accomplice. He owned this
coolly, and he ended by telling me, for the first time, what the
frightful punishment really was for his offence, and for any one
who helped him to commit it. In those days the law was not so
tender-hearted as I hear it is now. Murderers were not the only
people liable to be hanged, and women convicts were not treated
like ladies in undeserved distress. I confess he frightened me--
the mean impostor! the cowardly blackguard! Do you understand now
how I hated him? Do you understand why I am taking all this
trouble--thankfully taking it--to gratify the curiosity of the
meritorious young gentleman who hunted him down?
Well, to go on. He was hardly fool enough to drive me to
downright desperation. I was not the sort of woman whom it was
quite safe to hunt into a corner--he knew that, and wisely quieted
me with proposals for the future.
I deserved some reward (he was kind enough to say) for the service
I had done him, and some compensation (he was so obliging as to
add) for what I had suffered. He was quite willing--generous
scoundrel!--to make me a handsome yearly allowance, payable
quarterly, on two conditions. First, I was to hold my tongue--in
my own interests as well as in his. Secondly, I was not to stir
away from Welmingham without first letting him know, and waiting
till I had obtained his permission. In my own neighbourhood, no
virtuous female friends would tempt me into dangerous gossiping at
the tea-table. In my own neighbourhood, he would always know
where to find me. A hard condition, that second one--but I
What else was I to do? I was left helpless, with the prospect of a
coming incumbrance in the shape of a child. What else was I to
do? Cast myself on the mercy of my runaway idiot of a husband who
had raised the scandal against me? I would have died first.
Besides, the allowance WAS a handsome one. I had a better income,
a better house over my head, better carpets on my floors, than
half the women who turned up the whites of their eyes at the sight
of me. The dress of Virtue, in our parts, was cotton print. I
So I accepted the conditions he offered me, and made the best of
them, and fought my battle with my respectable neighbours on their
own ground, and won it in course of time--as you saw yourself.
How I kept his Secret (and mine) through all the years that have
passed from that time to this, and whether my late daughter, Anne,
ever really crept into my confidence, and got the keeping of the
Secret too--are questions, I dare say, to which you are curious to
find an answer. Well! my gratitude refuses you nothing. I will
turn to a fresh page and give you the answer immediately. But you
must excuse one thing--you must excuse my beginning, Mr.
Hartright, with an expression of surprise at the interest which
you appear to have felt in my late daughter. It is quite
unaccountable to me. If that interest makes you anxious for any
particulars of her early life, I must refer you to Mrs. Clements,
who knows more of the subject than I do. Pray understand that I
do not profess to have been at all over-fond of my late daughter.
She was a worry to me from first to last, with the additional
disadvantage of being always weak in the head. You like candour,
and I hope this satisfies you.
There is no need to trouble you with many personal particulars
relating to those past times. It will be enough to say that I
observed the terms of the bargain on my side, and that I enjoyed
my comfortable income in return, paid quarterly.
Now and then I got away and changed the scene for a short time,
always asking leave of my lord and master first, and generally
getting it. He was not, as I have already told you, fool enough
to drive me too hard, and he could reasonably rely on my holding
my tongue for my own sake, if not for his. One of my longest
trips away from home was the trip I took to Limmeridge to nurse a
half-sister there, who was dying. She was reported to have saved
money, and I thought it as well (in case any accident happened to
stop my allowance) to look after my own interests in that
direction. As things turned out, however, my pains were all
thrown away, and I got nothing, because nothing was to be had.
I had taken Anne to the north with me, having my whims and
fancies, occasionally, about my child, and getting, at such times,
jealous of Mrs. Clements' influence over her. I never liked Mrs.
Clements. She was a poor, empty-headed, spiritless woman--what
you call a born drudge--and I was now and then not averse to
plaguing her by taking Anne away. Not knowing what else to do
with my girl while I was nursing in Cumberland, I put her to
school at Limmeridge. The lady of the manor, Mrs. Fairlie (a
remarkably plain-looking woman, who had entrapped one of the
handsomest men in England into marrying her), amused me
wonderfully by taking a violent fancy to my girl. The consequence
was, she learnt nothing at school, and was petted and spoilt at
Limmeridge House. Among other whims and fancies which they taught
her there, they put some nonsense into her head about always
wearing white. Hating white and liking colours myself, I
determined to take the nonsense out of her head as soon as we got
Strange to say, my daughter resolute]y resisted me. When she HAD
got a notion once fixed in her mind she was, like other half-
witted people, as obstinate as a mule in keeping it. We
quarrelled finely, and Mrs. Clements, not liking to see it, I
suppose, offered to take Anne away to live in London with her. I
should have said Yes, if Mrs. Clements had not sided with my
daughter about her dressing herself in white. But being
determined she should NOT dress herself in white, and disliking
Mrs. Clements more than ever for taking part against me, I said
No, and meant No, and stuck to No. The consequence was, my
daughter remained with me, and the consequence of that, in its
turn, was the first serious quarrel that happened about the
The circumstance took place long after the time I have just been
writing of. I had been settled for years in the new town, and was
steadily living down my bad character and slowly gaining ground
among the respectable inhabitants. It helped me forward greatly
towards this object to have my daughter with me. Her harmlessness
and her fancy for dressing in white excited a certain amount of
sympathy. I left off opposing her favourite whim on that account,
because some of the sympathy was sure, in course of time, to fall
to my share. Some of it did fall. I date my getting a choice of
the two best sittings to let in the church from that time, and I
date the clergyman's first bow from my getting the sittings.
Well, being settled in this way, I received a letter one morning
from that highly born gentleman (now deceased) in answer to one of
mine, warning him, according to agreement, of my wishing to leave
the town for a little change of air and scene.
The ruffianly side of him must have been uppermost, I suppose,
when he got my letter, for he wrote back, refusing me in such
abominably insolent language, that I lost all command over myself,
and abused him, in my daughter's presence, as "a low impostor whom
I could ruin for life if I chose to open my lips and let out his
Secret." I said no more about him than that, being brought to my
senses as soon as those words had escaped me by the sight of my
daughter's face looking eagerly and curiously at mine. I
instantly ordered her out of the room until I had composed myself
My sensations were not pleasant, I can tell you, when I came to
reflect on my own folly. Anne had been more than usually crazy
and queer that year, and when I thought of the chance there might
be of her repeating my words in the town, and mentioning HIS name
in connection with them, if inquisitive people got hold of her, I
was finely terrified at the possible consequences. My worst fears
for myself, my worst dread of what he might do, led me no farther
than this. I was quite unprepared for what really did happen only
the next day.
On that next day, without any warning to me to expect him, he came
to the house.
His first words, and the tone in which he spoke them, surly as it
was, showed me plainly enough that he had repented already of his
insolent answer to my application, and that he had come in a
mighty bad temper to try and set matters right again before it was
too late. Seeing my daughter in the room with me (I had been
afraid to let her out of my sight after what had happened the day
before) he ordered her away. They neither of them liked each
other, and he vented the ill-temper on HER which he was afraid to
show to ME.
"Leave us," he said, looking at her over his shoulder. She looked
back over HER shoulder and waited as if she didn't care to go.
"Do you hear?" he roared out, "leave the room." "Speak to me
civilly," says she, getting red in the face. "Turn the idiot
out," says he, looking my way. She had always had crazy notions
of her own about her dignity, and that word "idiot " upset her in
a moment. Before I could interfere she stepped up to him in a
fine passion. "Beg my pardon, directly," says she, "or I'll make
it the worse for you. I'll let out your Secret. I can ruin you
for life if I choose to open my lips." My own words!--repeated
exactly from what I had said the day before--repeated, in his
presence, as if they had come from herself. He sat speechless, as
white as the paper I am writing on, while I pushed her out of the
room. When he recovered himself----
No! I am too respectable a woman to mention what he said when he
recovered himself. My pen is the pen of a member of the rector's
congregation, and a subscriber to the "Wednesday Lectures on
Justification by Faith"--how can you expect me to employ it in
writing bad language? Suppose, for yourself, the raging, swearing
frenzy of the lowest ruffian in England, and let us get on
together, as fast as may be, to the way in which it all ended.
It ended, as you probably guess by this time, in his insisting on
securing his own safety by shutting her up.
I tried to set things right. I told him that she had merely
repeated, like a parrot, the words she had heard me say and that
she knew no particulars whatever, because I had mentioned none. I
explained that she had affected, out of crazy spite against him,
to know what she really did NOT know--that she only wanted to
threaten him and aggravate him for speaking to her as he had just
spoken--and that my unlucky words gave her just the chance of
doing mischief of which she was in search. I referred him to
other queer ways of hers, and to his own experience of the
vagaries of half-witted people--it was all to no purpose--he would
not believe me on my oath--he was absolutely certain I had
betrayed the whole Secret. In short, he would hear of nothing but
shutting her up.
Under these circumstances, I did my duty as a mother. "No pauper
Asylum," I said, "I won't have her put in a pauper Asylum. A
Private Establishment, if you please. I have my feelings as a
mother, and my character to preserve in the town, and I will
submit to nothing but a Private Establishment, of the sort which
my genteel neighbours would choose for afflicted relatives of
their own." Those were my words. It is gratifying to me to
reflect that I did my duty. Though never overfond of my late
daughter, I had a proper pride about her. No pauper stain--thanks
to my firmness and resolution--ever rested on MY child.
Having carried my point (which I did the more easily, in
consequence of the facilities offered by private Asylums), I could
not refuse to admit that there were certain advantages gained by
shutting her up. In the first place, she was taken excellent care
of--being treated (as I took care to mention in the town) on the
footing of a lady. In the second place, she was kept away from
Welmingham, where she might have set people suspecting and
inquiring, by repeating my own incautious words.
The only drawback of putting her under restraint was a very slight
one. We merely turned her empty boast about knowing the Secret
into a fixed delusion. Having first spoken in sheer crazy
spitefulness against the man who had offended her, she was cunning
enough to see that she had seriously frightened him, and sharp
enough afterwards to discover that HE was concerned in shutting
her up. The consequence was she flamed out into a perfect frenzy
of passion against him, going to the Asylum, and the first words
she said to the nurses, after they had quieted her, were, that she
was put in confinement for knowing his Secret, and that she meant
to open her lips and ruin him, when the right time came.
She may have said the same thing to you, when you thoughtlessly
assisted her escape. She certainly said it (as I heard last
summer) to the unfortunate woman who married our sweet-tempered,
nameless gentleman lately deceased. If either you, or that
unlucky lady, had questioned my daughter closely, and had insisted
on her explaining what she really meant, you would have found her
lose all her self-importance suddenly, and get vacant, and
restless, and confused--you would have discovered that I am
writing nothing here but the plain truth. She knew that there was
a Secret--she knew who was connected with it--she knew who would
suffer by its being known--and beyond that, whatever airs of
importance she may have given herself, whatever crazy boasting she
may have indulged in with strangers, she never to her dying day
Have I satisfied your curiosity? I have taken pains enough to
satisfy it at any rate. There is really nothing else I have to
tell you about myself or my daughter. My worst responsibilities,
so far as she was concerned, were all over when she was secured in
the Asylum. I had a form of letter relating to the circumstances
under which she was shut up, given me to write, in answer to one
Miss Halcombe, who was curious in the matter, and who must have
heard plenty of lies about me from a certain tongue well
accustomed to the telling of the same. And I did what I could
afterwards to trace my runaway daughter, and prevent her from
doing mischief by making inquiries myself in the neighbourhood
where she was falsely reported to have been seen. But these, and
other trifles like them, are of little or no interest to you after
what you have heard already.
So far, I have written in the friendliest possible spirit. But I
cannot close this letter without adding a word here of serious
remonstrance and reproof, addressed to yourself.
In the course of your personal interview with me, you audaciously
referred to my late daughter's parentage on the father's side, as
if that parentage was a matter of doubt. This was highly improper
and very ungentlemanlike on your part! If we see each other again,
remember, if you please, that I will allow no liberties to be
taken with my reputation, and that the moral atmosphere of
Welmingham (to use a favourite expression of my friend the
rector's) must not be tainted by loose conversation of any kind.
If you allow yourself to doubt that my husband was Anne's father,
you personally insult me in the grossest manner. If you have
felt, and if you still continue to feel, an unhallowed curiosity
on this subject, I recommend you, in your own interests, to check
it at once, and for ever. On this side of the grave, Mr.
Hartright, whatever may happen on the other, THAT curiosity will
never be gratified.
Perhaps, after what I have just said, you will see the necessity
of writing me an apology. Do so, and I will willingly receive it.
I will, afterwards, if your wishes point to a second interview
with me, go a step farther, and receive you. My circumstances
only enable me to invite you to tea--not that they are at all
altered for the worse by what has happened. I have always lived,
as I think I told you, well within my income, and I have saved
enough, in the last twenty years, to make me quite comfortable for
the rest of my life. It is not my intention to leave Welmingham.
There are one or two little advantages which I have still to gain
in the town. The clergyman bows to me--as you saw. He is
married, and his wife is not quite so civil. I propose to join
the Dorcas Society, and I mean to make the clergyman's wife bow to
If you favour me with your company, pray understand that the
conversation must be entirely on general subjects. Any attempted
reference to this letter will be quite useless--I am determined
not to acknowledge having written it. The evidence has been
destroyed in the fire, I know, but I think it desirable to err on
the side of caution, nevertheless.
On this account no names are mentioned here, nor is any signature
attached to these lines: the handwriting is disguised throughout,
and I mean to deliver the letter myself, under circumstances which
will prevent all fear of its being traced to my house. You can
have no possible cause to complain of these precautions, seeing
that they do not affect the information I here communicate, in
consideration of the special indulgence which you have deserved at
my hands. My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered
toast waits for nobody.
THE STORY CONTINUED BY WALTER HARTRIGHT
My first impulse, after reading Mrs. Catherick's extraordinary
narrative, was to destroy it. The hardened shameless depravity of
the whole composition, from beginning to end--the atrocious
perversity of mind which persistently associated me with a
calamity for which I was in no sense answerable, and with a death
which I had risked my life in trying to avert--so disgusted me,
that I was on the point of tearing the letter, when a
consideration suggested itself which warned me to wait a little
before I destroyed it.
This consideration was entirely unconnected with Sir Percival.
The information communicated to me, so far as it concerned him,
did little more than confirm the conclusions at which I had
He had committed his offence, as I had supposed him to have
committed it, and the absence of all reference, on Mrs.
Catherick's part, to the duplicate register at Knowlesbury,
strengthened my previous conviction that the existence of the
book, and the risk of detection which it implied, must have been
necessarily unknown to Sir Percival. My interest in the question
of the forgery was now at an end, and my only object in keeping
the letter was to make it of some future service in clearing up
the last mystery that still remained to baffle me--the parentage
of Anne Catherick on the father's side. There were one or two
sentences dropped in her mother's narrative, which it might be
useful to refer to again, when matters of more immediate
importance allowed me leisure to search for the missing evidence.
I did not despair of still finding that evidence, and I had lost
none of my anxiety to discover it, for I had lost none of my
interest in tracing the father of the poor creature who now lay at
rest in Mrs. Fairlie's grave.
Accordingly, I sealed up the letter and put it away carefully in
my pocket-book, to be referred to again when the time came.
The next day was my last in Hampshire. When I had appeared again
before the magistrate at Knowlesbury, and when I had attended at
the adjourned inquest, I should be free to return to London by the
afternoon or the evening train.
My first errand in the morning was, as usual, to the post-office.
The letter from Marian was there, but I thought when it was handed
to me that it felt unusually light. I anxiously opened the
envelope. There was nothing inside but a small strip of paper
folded in two. The few blotted hurriedly-written lines which were
traced on it contained these words:
"Come back as soon as you can. I have been obliged to move. Come
to Gower's Walk, Fulham (number five). I will be on the look-out
for you. Don't be alarmed about us, we are both safe and well.
But come back.--Marian."
The news which those lines contained--news which I instantly
associated with some attempted treachery on the part of Count
Fosco--fairly overwhelmed me. I stood breathless with the paper
crumpled up in my hand. What had happened? What subtle wickedness
had the Count planned and executed in my absence? A night had
passed since Marian's note was written--hours must elapse still
before I could get back to them--some new disaster might have
happened already of which I was ignorant. And here, miles and
miles away from them, here I must remain--held, doubly held, at
the disposal of the law!
I hardly know to what forgetfulness of my obligations anxiety and
alarm might not have tempted me, but for the quieting influence of
my faith in Marian. My absolute reliance on her was the one
earthly consideration which helped me to restrain myself, and gave
me courage to wait. The inquest was the first of the impediments
in the way of my freedom of action. I attended it at the
appointed time, the legal formalities requiring my presence in the
room, but as it turned out, not calling on me to repeat my
evidence. This useless delay was a hard trial, although I did my
best to quiet my impatience by following the course of the
proceedings as closely as I could.
The London solicitor of the deceased (Mr. Merriman) was among the
persons present. But he was quite unable to assist the objects of
the inquiry. He could only say that he was inexpressibly shocked
and astonished, and that he could throw no light whatever on the
mysterious circumstances of the case. At intervals during the
adjourned investigation, he suggested questions which the Coroner
put, but which led to no results. After a patient inquiry, which
lasted nearly three hours, and which exhausted every available
source of information, the jury pronounced the customary verdict
in cases of sudden death by accident. They added to the formal
decision a statement, that there had been no evidence to show how
the keys had been abstracted, how the fire had been caused, or
what the purpose was for which the deceased had entered the
vestry. This act closed the proceedings. The legal
representative of the dead man was left to provide for the
necessities of the interment, and the witnesses were free to
Resolved not to lose a minute in getting to Knowlesbury, I paid my
bill at the hotel, and hired a fly to take me to the town. A
gentleman who heard me give the order, and who saw that I was
going alone, informed me that he lived in the neighbourhood of
Knowlesbury, and asked if I would have any objection to his
getting home by sharing the fly with me. I accepted his proposal
as a matter of course.
Our conversation during the drive was naturally occupied by the
one absorbing subject of local interest.
My new acquaintance had some knowledge of the late Sir Percival's
solicitor, and he and Mr. Merriman had been discussing the state
of the deceased gentleman's affairs and the succession to the
property. Sir Percival's embarrassments were so well known all
over the county that his solicitor could only make a virtue of
necessity and plainly acknowledge them. He had died without
leaving a will, and he had no personal property to bequeath, even
if he had made one, the whole fortune which he had derived from
his wife having been swallowed up by his creditors. The heir to
the estate (Sir Percival having left no issue) was a son of Sir
Felix Glyde's first cousin, an officer in command of an East
Indiaman. He would find his unexpected inheritance sadly
encumbered, but the property would recover with time, and, if "the
captain" was careful, he might be a rich man yet before he died.
Absorbed as I was in the one idea of getting to London, this
information (which events proved to be perfectly correct) had an
interest of its own to attract my attention. I thought it
justified me in keeping secret my discovery of Sir Percival's
fraud. The heir, whose rights he had usurped, was the heir who
would now have the estate. The income from it, for the last
three-and-twenty years, which should properly have been his, and
which the dead man had squandered to the last farthing, was gone
beyond recall. If I spoke, my speaking would confer advantage on
no one. If I kept the secret, my silence concealed the character
of the man who had cheated Laura into marrying him. For her sake,
I wished to conceal it--for her sake, still, I tell this story
under feigned names.
I parted with my chance companion at Knowlesbury, and went at once
to the town-hall. As I had anticipated, no one was present to
prosecute the case against me--the necessary formalities were
observed, and I was discharged. On leaving the court a letter
from Mr. Dawson was put into my hand. It informed me that he was
absent on professional duty, and it reiterated the offer I had
already received from him of any assistance which I might require
at his hands. I wrote back, warmly acknowledging my obligations
to his kindness, and apologising for not expressing my thanks
personally, in consequence of my immediate recall on pressing
business to town.
Half an hour later I was speeding back to London by the express
It was between nine and ten o'clock before I reached Fulham, and
found my way to Gower's Walk.
Both Laura and Marian came to the door to let me in. I think we
had hardly known how close the tie was which bound us three
together, until the evening came which united us again. We met as
if we had been parted for months instead of for a few days only.
Marian's face was sadly worn and anxious. I saw who had known all
the danger and borne all the trouble in my absence the moment I
looked at her. Laura's brighter looks and better spirits told me
how carefully she had been spared all knowledge of the dreadful
death at Welmingham, and of the true reason of our change of
The stir of the removal seemed to have cheered and interested her.
She only spoke of it as a happy thought of Marian's to surprise me
on my return with a change from the close, noisy street to the
pleasant neighbourhood of trees and fields and the river. She was
full of projects for the future--of the drawings she was to
finish--of the purchasers I had found in the country who were to
buy them--of the shillings and sixpences she had saved, till her
purse was so heavy that she proudly asked me to weigh it in my own
hand. The change for the better which had been wrought in her
during the few days of my absence was a surprise to me for which I
was quite unprepared--and for all the unspeakable happiness of
seeing it, I was indebted to Marian's courage and to Marian's
When Laura had left us, and when we could speak to one another
without restraint, I tried to give some expression to the
gratitude and the admiration which filled my heart. But the
generous creature would not wait to hear me. That sublime self-
forgetfulness of women, which yields so much and asks so little,
turned all her thoughts from herself to me.
"I had only a moment left before post-time," she said, "or I
should have written less abruptly. You look worn and weary,
Walter. I am afraid my letter must have seriously alarmed you?"
"Only at first," I replied. "My mind was quieted, Marian, by my
trust in you. Was I right in attributing this sudden change of
place to some threatened annoyance on the part of Count Fosco?"
"Perfectly right," she said. "I saw him yesterday, and worse than
that, Walter--I spoke to him."
"Spoke to him? Did he know where we lived? Did he come to the
"He did. To the house--but not upstairs. Laura never saw him--
Laura suspects nothing. I will tell you how it happened: the
danger, I believe and hope, is over now. Yesterday, I was in the
sitting-room, at our old lodgings. Laura was drawing at the
table, and I was walking about and setting things to rights. I
passed the window, and as I passed it, looked out into the street.
There, on the opposite side of the way, I saw the Count, with a
man talking to him----"
"Did he notice you at the window?"
"No--at least, I thought not. I was too violently startled to be
"Who was the other man? A stranger?"
"Not a stranger, Walter. As soon as I could draw my breath again,
I recognised him. He was the owner of the Lunatic Asylum."
"Was the Count pointing out the house to him?"
"No, they were talking together as if they had accidentally met in
the street. I remained at the window looking at them from behind
the curtain. If I had turned round, and if Laura had seen my face
at that moment----Thank God, she was absorbed over her drawing!
They soon parted. The man from the Asylum went one way, and the
Count the other. I began to hope they were in the street by
chance, till I saw the Count come back, stop opposite to us again,
take out his card-case and pencil, write something, and then cross
the road to the shop below us. I ran past Laura before she could
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