THE EXPERIENCES OF A BARRISTER,
Confessions of an Attorney.
BY SAMUEL WARREN
THE MARCH ASSIZE
THE NORTHERN CIRCUIT
THE CONTESTED MARRIAGE
THE MOTHER AND SON
"THE WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS"
THE MARRIAGE SETTLEMENT
THE SECOND MARRIAGE
"THE ACCOMMODATION BILL"
THE LIFE POLICY
BIGAMY OR NO BIGAMY
"EVERY MAN HIS OWN LAWYER"
THE CHEST OF DRAWERS
THE ONE BLACK SPOT
THE GENTLEMAN BEGGAR
A FASHIONABLE FORGER
THE YOUNG ADVOCATE
A MURDER IN THE TIME OF THE CRUSADES
CONFESSIONS OF AN ATTORNEY.
THE MARCH ASSIZE.
Something more than half a century ago, a person, in going along Holborn, might have seen, near the corner of one of the thoroughfares which diverge towards Russell Square, the respectable-looking shop of a glover and haberdasher named James Harvey, a man generally esteemed by his neighbors, and who was usually considered well to do in the world. Like many London tradesmen, Harvey was originally from the country. He had come up to town when a poor lad, to push his fortune, and by dint of steadiness and civility, and a small property left him by a distant relation, he had been able to get into business on his own account, and to attain that most important element of success in London—"a connection." Shortly after setting up in the world, he married a young woman from his native town, to whom he had been engaged ever since his school-days; and at the time our narrative commences he was the father of three children.
James Harvey's establishment was one of the best frequented of its class in the street. You could never pass without seeing customers going in or out. There was evidently not a little business going forward. But although, to all appearance, a flourishing concern, the proprietor of the establishment was surprised to find that he was continually pinched in his circumstances. No matter what was the amount of business transacted over the counter, he never got any richer.
At the period referred to, shop-keeping had not attained that degree of organization, with respect to counter-men and cashiers, which now distinguishes the great houses of trade. The primitive till was not yet superseded. This was the weak point in Harvey's arrangements; and not to make a needless number of words about it, the poor man was regularly robbed by a shopman, whose dexterity in pitching a guinea into the drawer, so as to make it jump, unseen, with a jerk into his hand, was worthy of Herr Dobler, or any other master of the sublime art of jugglery.
Good-natured and unsuspicious, perhaps also not sufficiently vigilant, Harvey was long in discovering how he was pillaged. Cartwright, the name of the person who was preying on his employer, was not a young man. He was between forty and fifty years of age, and had been in various situations, where he had always given satisfaction, except on the score of being somewhat gay and somewhat irritable. Privately, he was a man of loose habits, and for years his extravagances had been paid for by property clandestinely abstracted from his too-confiding master. Slow to believe in the reality of such wickedness, Mr. Harvey could with difficulty entertain the suspicions which began to dawn on his mind. At length all doubt was at an end. He detected Cartwright in the very act of carrying off goods to a considerable amount. The man was tried at the Old Bailey for the offence; but through a technical informality in the indictment, acquitted.
Unable to find employment, and with a character gone, the liberated thief became savage, revengeful, and desperate. Instead of imputing his fall to his own irregularities, he considered his late unfortunate employer as the cause of his ruin; and now he bent all the energies of his dark nature to destroy the reputation of the man whom he had betrayed and plundered. Of all the beings self-delivered to the rule of unscrupulous malignity, with whom it has been my fate to come professionally in contact, I never knew one so utterly fiendish as this discomfited pilferer. Frenzied with his imaginary wrongs, he formed the determination to labor, even if it were for years, to ruin his victim. Nothing short of death should divert him from this the darling object of his existence.
Animated by these diabolical passions, Cartwright proceeded to his work. Harvey, he had too good reason to know, was in debt to persons who had made him advances; and by means of artfully-concocted anonymous letters, evidently written by some one conversant with the matters on which he wrote, he succeeded in alarming the haberdasher's creditors. The consequences were—demands of immediate payment, and, in spite of the debtor's explanations and promises, writs, heavy law expenses, ruinous sacrifices, and ultimate bankruptcy. It may seem almost too marvelous for belief, but the story of this terrible revenge and its consequences is no fiction. Every incident in my narrative is true, and the whole may be found in hard outline in the records of the courts with which a few years ago I was familiar.
The humiliated and distressed feelings of Harvey and his family may be left to the imagination. When he found himself a ruined man, I dare say his mental sufferings were sufficiently acute. Yet he did not sit down in despair. To re-establish himself in business in England appeared hopeless; but America presented itself as a scene where industry might find a reward; and by the kindness of some friends, he was enabled to make preparations to emigrate with his wife and children. Towards the end of February he quitted London for one of the great seaports, where he was to embark for Boston. On arriving there with his family, Mr. Harvey took up his abode at a principal hotel. This, in a man of straitened means, was doubtless imprudent; but he afterwards attempted to explain the circumstance by saying, that as the ship in which he had engaged his passage was to sail on the day after his arrival, he had preferred incurring a slight additional expense rather than that his wife—who was now, with failing spirits, nursing an infant—should be exposed to coarse associations and personal discomfort. In the expectation, however, of being only one night in the hotel, Harvey was unfortunately disappointed. Ship-masters, especially those commanding emigrant vessels, were then, as now, habitual promise-breakers; and although each succeeding sun was to light them on their way, it was fully a fortnight before the ship stood out to sea. By that time a second and more dire reverse had occurred in the fortunes of the luckless Harvey.
Cartwright, whose appetite for vengeance was but whetted by his first success, had never lost sight of the movements of his victim; and now he had followed him to the place of his embarkation, with an eager but undefined purpose of working him some further and more deadly mischief. Stealthily he hovered about the house which sheltered the unconscious object of his malicious hate, plotting, as he afterwards confessed, the wildest schemes for satiating his revenge. Several times he made excuses for calling at the hotel, in the hope of observing the nature of the premises, taking care, however, to avoid being seen by Mr. Harvey or his family. A fortnight passed away, and the day of departure of the emigrants arrived without the slightest opportunity occurring for the gratification of his purposes. The ship was leaving her berth; most of the passengers were on board; Mrs. Harvey and the children, with nearly the whole of the luggage, were already safely in the vessel; Mr. Harvey only remained on shore to purchase some trifling article, and to settle his bill at the hotel on removing his last trunk. Cartwright had tracked him all day; he could not attack him in the street; and he finally followed him to the hotel, in order to wreak his vengeance on him in his private apartment, of the situation of which he had informed himself.
Harvey entered the hotel first, and before Cartwright came up, he had gone down a passage into the bar to settle the bill which he had incurred for the last two days. Not aware of this circumstance, Cartwright, in the bustle which prevailed, went up stairs to Mr. Harvey's bedroom and parlor, in neither of which, to his surprise, did he find the occupant; and he turned away discomfited. Passing along towards the chief staircase, he perceived a room of which the door was open, and that on the table there lay a gold watch and appendages. Nobody was in the apartment: the gentleman who occupied it had only a few moments before gone to his bed-chamber for a brief space. Quick as lightning a diabolical thought flashed through the brain of the villain, who had been baffled in his original intentions. He recollected that he had seen a trunk in Harvey's room, and that the keys hung in the lock. An inconceivably short space of time served for him to seize the watch, to deposit it at the bottom of Harvey's trunk, and to quit the hotel by a back stair, which led by a short cut to the harbor. The whole transaction was done unperceived, and the wretch at least departed unnoticed.
Having finished his business at the bar, Mr. Harvey repaired to his room, locked his trunk, which, being of a small and handy size, he mounted on his shoulder, and proceeded to leave the house by the back stair, in order to get as quickly as possible to the vessel. Little recked he of the interruption which was to be presented to his departure. He had got as far as the foot of the stair with his burden, when he was overtaken by a waiter, who declared that he was going to leave the house clandestinely without settling accounts. It is proper to mention that Mr. Harvey had incurred the enmity of this particular waiter in consequence of having, out of his slender resources, given him too small a gratuity on the occasion of paying a former bill, and not aware of the second bill being settled, the waiter was rather glad to have an opportunity of charging him with a fraudulent design. In vain Mr. Harvey remonstrated, saying he had paid for every thing. The waiter would not believe his statement, and detained him "till he should hear better about it."
"Let me go, fellow; I insist upon it," said Mr. Harvey, burning with indignation. "I am already too late."
"Not a step, till I ask master if accounts are squared."
At this moment, while the altercation was at the hottest, a terrible ringing of bells was heard, and above stairs was a loud noise of voices, and of feet running to and fro. A chambermaid came hurriedly down the stair, exclaiming that some one had stolen a gold watch from No. 17, and that nobody ought to leave the house till it was found. The landlord also, moved by the hurricane which had been raised, made his appearance at the spot where Harvey was interrupted in his exit.
"What on earth is all this noise about, John?" inquired the landlord of the waiter.
"Why, sir, I thought it rather strange for any gentleman to leave the house by the back way, carrying his own portmanteau, and so I was making a little breeze about it, fearing he had not paid his bill, when all of a sudden Sally rushes down the stair and says as how No. 17 has missed his gold watch, and that no one should quit the hotel."
No. 17, an old, dry-looking military gentlemen, in a particularly high passion, now showed himself on the scene, uttering terrible threats of legal proceedings against the house for the loss he had sustained.
Harvey was stupified and indignant, yet he could hardly help smiling at the pother. "What," said he, "have I to do with all this? I have paid for everything; I am surely entitled to go away if I like. Remember, that if I lose my passage to Boston, you shall answer for it."
"I very much regret detaining you, sir," replied the keeper of the hotel; "but you hear there has been a robbery committed within the last few minutes, and as it will be proper to search every one in the house, surely you, who are on the point of departure, will have no objections to be searched first, and then be at liberty to go?"
There was something so perfectly reasonable in all this, that Harvey stepped into an adjoining parlor, and threw open his trunk for inspection, never doubting that his innocence would be immediately manifest.
The waiter, whose mean rapacity had been the cause of the detention, acted as examiner. He pulled one article after another out of the trunk, and at length—horror of horrors!—held up the missing watch with a look of triumph and scorn!
"Who put that there?" cried Harvey in an agony of mind which can be better imagined than described. "Who has done me this grievous wrong? I know nothing as to how the watch came into my trunk."
No one answered this appeal. All present stood for a moment in gloomy silence.
"Sir," said the landlord to Harvey on recovering from his surprise, "I am sorry for you. For the sake of a miserable trifle, you have brought ruin and disgrace on yourself. This is a matter which concerns the honor of my house, and cannot stop here. However much it is against my feelings, you must go before a magistrate."
"By all means," added No. 17, with the importance of an injured man. "A pretty thing that one's watch is not safe in a house like this!"
"John, send Boots for a constable," said the landlord.
Harvey sat with his head leaning on his hand. A deadly cold perspiration trickled down his brow. His heart swelled and beat as if it would burst. What should he do? His whole prospects were in an instant blighted. "Oh God! do not desert a frail and unhappy being: give me strength to face this new and terrible misfortune," was a prayer he internally uttered. A little revived, he started to his feet, and addressing himself to the landlord, he said, "Take me to a magistrate instantly, and let us have this diabolical plot unraveled. I court inquiry into my character and conduct."
"It is no use saying any more about it," answered the landlord; "here is Boots with a constable, and let us all go away together to the nearest magistrate. Boots, carry that trunk. John and Sally, you can follow us."
And so the party, trunk and all, under the constable as conductor, adjourned to the house of a magistrate in an adjacent street. There the matter seemed so clear a case of felony—robbery in a dwelling-house—that Harvey, all protestations to the contrary, was fully committed for trial at the ensuing March assizes, then but a few days distant.
At the period at which these incidents occurred, I was a young man going on my first circuits. I had not as yet been honored with perhaps more than three or four briefs, and these only in cases so slightly productive of fees, that I was compelled to study economy in my excursions. Instead of taking up my residence at an inn when visiting ———, a considerable seaport, where the court held its sittings, I dwelt in lodgings kept by a widow lady, where, at a small expense, I could enjoy perfect quietness, free from interruption.
On the evening after my arrival on the March circuit of the year 17—, I was sitting in my lodgings perusing a new work on criminal jurisprudence, when the landlady, after tapping at the door, entered my room.
"I am sorry to trouble you, sir," said she; "but a lady has called to see you about a very distressing law case—very distressing indeed, and a very strange case it is too. Only, if you could be so good as to see her?"
"Who is she?"
"All I know about it is this: she is a Mrs. Harvey. She and her husband and children were to sail yesterday for Boston. All were on board except the husband; and he, on leaving the large hotel over the way, was taken up for a robbery. Word was in the evening sent by the prisoner to his wife to come on shore, with all her children and the luggage; and so she came back in the pilot boat, and was in such a state of distress, that my brother, who is on the preventive service, and saw her land, took pity on her, and had her and her children and things taken to a lodging on the quay. As my brother knows that we have a London lawyer staying here, he has advised the poor woman to come and consult you about the case."
"Well, I'll see what can be done. Please desire the lady to step in."
A lady was shortly shown in. She had been pretty, and was so still, but anxiety was pictured in her pale countenance. Her dress was plain, but not inelegant; and altogether she had a neat and engaging appearance.
"Be so good as to sit down," said I, bowing; "and tell me all you would like to say."
The poor woman burst into tears; but afterwards recovering herself, she told me pretty nearly the whole of her history and that of her husband.
Lawyers have occasion to see so much duplicity, that I did not all at once give assent to the idea of Harvey being innocent of the crime of which he stood charged.
"There is something perfectly inexplicable in the case," I observed, "and it would require sifting. Your husband, I hope has always borne a good character?"
"Perfectly so. He was no doubt unfortunate in business; but he got his certificate on the first examination; and there are many who would testify to his uprightness." And here again my client broke into tears, as if overwhelmed with her recollections and prospects.
"I think I recollect Mr. Harvey's shop," said I soothingly. "It seemed a very respectable concern; and we must see what can be done. Keep up your spirits; the only fear I have arises from the fact of Judge A —— being on the bench. He is usually considered severe, and if exculpatory evidence fail, your husband may run the risk of being—transported." A word of more terrific import, with which I was about to conclude, stuck unuttered in my throat "Have you employed an attorney?" I added.
"No; I have done nothing as yet, but apply to you, to beg of you to be my husband's counsel."
"Well, that must be looked to. I shall speak to a local agent, to prepare and work out the case; and we shall all do our utmost to get an acquittal. To-morrow I will call on your husband in prison."
Many thanks were offered by the unfortunate lady, and she withdrew.
I am not going to inflict on the reader a detailed account of this remarkable trial, which turned, as barristers would say, on a beautiful point of circumstantial evidence. Along with the attorney, a sharp enough person in his way, I examined various parties at the hotel, and made myself acquainted with the nature of the premises. The more we investigated, however, the more dark and mysterious—always supposing Harvey's innocence—did the whole case appear. There was not one redeeming trait in the affair, except Harvey's previous good character; and good character, by the law of England, goes for nothing in opposition to facts proved to the satisfaction of a jury. It was likewise most unfortunate that A —— was to be the presiding judge. This man possessed great forensic acquirements, and was of spotless private character; but, like the majority of lawyers of that day—when it was no extraordinary thing to hang twenty men in a morning at Newgate—he was a staunch stickler for the gallows as the only effectual reformer and safeguard of the social state. At this time he was but partially recovered from a long and severe indisposition, and the traces of recent suffering were distinctly apparent on his pale and passionless features.
Harvey was arraigned in due form; the evidence was gone carefully through; and everything, so far as I was concerned, was done that man could do. But at the time to which I refer, counsel was not allowed to address the court on behalf of the prisoner—a practice since introduced from Scotland—and consequently I was allowed no opportunity to draw the attention of the jury to the total want of any direct evidence of the prisoner's guilt. Harvey himself tried to point out the unlikelihood of his being guilty; but he was not a man gifted with dialectic qualities, and his harangue fell pointless on the understandings of the twelve common-place individuals who sat in the jury-box. The judge finally proceeded to sum the evidence, and this he did emphatically against the prisoner—dwelling with much force on the suspicious circumstance of a needy man taking up his abode at an expensive fashionable hotel; his furtive descent from his apartments by the back stairs; the undoubted fact of the watch being found in his trunk; the improbability of any one putting it there but himself; and the extreme likelihood that the robbery was effected in a few moments of time by the culprit, just as he passed from the bar of the hotel to the room which he had occupied. "If," said he to the jury, in concluding his address, "you can, after all these circumstances, believe the prisoner to be innocent of the crime laid to his charge, it is more than I can do. The thing seems to me as clear as the sun at noonday. The evidence, in short, is irresistible; and if the just and necessary provisions of the law are not enforced in such very plain cases, then society will be dissolved, and security for property there will be none. Gentlemen, retire and make up your verdict."
The jury were not disposed to retire. After communing a few minutes together, one of them stood up and delivered the verdict: it was Guilty! The judge assumed the crowning badge of the judicial potentate—the black cap; and the clerk of arraigns asked the prisoner at the bar, in the usual form, if he had anything to urge why sentence of death should not be passed upon him.
Poor Harvey! I durst scarcely look at him. As the sonorous words fell on his ear, he was grasping nervously with shaking hands at the front of the dock. He appeared stunned, bewildered, as a man but half-awakened from a hideous dream might be supposed to look. He had comprehended, though he had scarcely heard, the verdict; for on the instant, the voice which but a few years before sang to him by the brook side, was ringing through his brain, and he could recognize the little pattering feet of his children, as, sobbing and clinging to their shrieking mother's dress, she and they were hurried out of court The clerk, after a painful pause, repeated the solemn formula. By a strong effort the doomed man mastered his agitation; his pale countenance lighted up with indignant fire, and firm and self-possessed, he thus replied to the fearful interrogatory:—
"Much could I say in the name, not of mercy, but of justice, why the sentence about to be passed on me should not be pronounced; but nothing, alas! that will avail me with you, pride-blinded ministers of death. You fashion to yourselves—out of your own vain conceits do you fashion—modes and instruments, by the aid of which you fondly imagine to invest yourselves with attributes which belong only to Omniscience; and now I warn you—and it is a voice from the tomb, in whose shadow I already stand, which addresses you—that you are about to commit a most cruel and deliberate murder."
He paused, and the jury looked into each other's eyes for the courage they could not find in their own hearts. The voice of conscience spoke, but was only for a few moments audible. The suggestions that what grave parliaments, learned judges, and all classes of "respectability" sanctioned, could not be wrong, much less murderous or cruel, silenced the "still, small" tones, and tranquilized the startled jurors.
"Prisoner at the bar," said the judge with his cold, calm voice of destiny, "I cannot listen to such observations: you have been found guilty of a heinous offence by a jury of your countrymen after a patient trial. With that finding I need scarcely say I entirely agree. I am as satisfied of your guilt as if I had seen you commit the act with my own bodily eyes. The circumstance of your being a person who, from habits and education, should have been above committing so base a crime, only aggravates your guilt. However, no matter who or what you have been, you must expiate your offence on the scaffold. The law has very properly, for the safety of society, decreed the punishment of death for such crimes: our only and plain duty is to execute that law."
The prisoner did not reply: he was leaning with his elbows on the front of the dock, his bowed face covered with his outspread hands; and the judge passed sentence of death in the accustomed form. The court then rose, and a turnkey placed his hand upon the prisoner's arm, to lead him away. Suddenly he uncovered his face, drew himself up to his full height—he was a remarkably tall man—and glared fiercely round upon the audience, like a wild animal at bay. "My lord," he cried, or rather shouted, in an excited voice. The judge motioned impatiently to the jailor, and strong hands impelled the prisoner from the front of the dock. Bursting from them, he again sprang forward, and his arms outstretched, whilst his glittering eye seemed to hold the judge spell-bound, exclaimed, "My lord, before another month has passed away, you will appear at the bar of another world, to answer for the life, the innocent life, which God bestowed upon me, but which you have impiously cast away as a thing of naught and scorn!" He ceased, and was at once borne off. The court, in some confusion, hastily departed. It was thought at the time that the judge's evidently failing health had suggested the prophecy to the prisoner. It only excited a few days' wonder, and was forgotten.
The position of a barrister in such circumstances is always painful. I need hardly say that my own feelings were of a very distressing kind. Conscious that if the unfortunate man really was guilty, he was at least not deserving of capital punishment, I exerted myself to procure a reprieve. In the first place I waited privately on the judge; but he would listen to no proposal for a respite. Along with a number of individuals—chiefly of the Society of Friends—I petitioned the crown for a commutation of the sentence. But being unaccompanied with a recommendation from the judge, the prayer of our petition was of course disregarded: the law, it was said, must take its course. How much cruelty has been exercised under shelter of that remorseless expression!
I would willingly pass over the succeeding events. Unable to save his life, I endeavored to soothe the few remaining hours of the doomed convict, and frequently visited him in the condemned cell. The more I saw of him, the deeper grew my sympathy in his case, which was that of no vulgar felon. "I have been a most unfortunate man," said he one day to me. "A destiny towards ruin in fortune and in life has pursued me. I feel as if deserted by God and man; yet I know, or at least would persuade myself, that Heaven will one day vindicate my innocence of this foul charge. To think of being hanged like a dog for a crime at which my soul revolts! Great is the crime of those imbecile jurors and that false and hard-hearted judge, who thus, by an irreversible decree, consign a fellow-mortal to a death of violence and disgrace. Oh God, help me—help me to sustain that bitter, bitter hour!" And then the poor man would throw himself on his bed and weep.
But the parting with his wife and children. What pen can describe that terrible interview! They knelt in prayer, their wobegone countenances suffused in tears, and with hands clasped convulsively together. The scene was too harrowing and sacred for the eye of a stranger. I rushed from the cell, and buried myself in my lodgings, whence I did not remove till all was over. Next day James Harvey, a victim of circumstantial evidence, and of a barbarous criminal code, perished on the scaffold.
Three weeks afterwards, the court arrived at a populous city in the west of England. It had in the interval visited another assize town, and there Judge A —— had left three for execution. At the trials of these men, however, I had not attended. So shocked had been my feelings with the mournful event which had taken place at ———, that I had gone into Wales for the sake of change of scene. After roaming about for a fortnight amidst the wild solitudes of Caernarvonshire, I took the stage for the city which I knew the court was to visit, and arrived on the day previous to the opening of the assizes.
"Well, are we to have a heavy calendar?" I inquired next morning of a brother barrister on entering the court.
"Rather light for a March assize," replied the impatient counsel as he bustled onward. "There's Cartwright's case—highway robbery—in which I am for the prosecution. He'll swing for it, and perhaps four or five others."
"A good hanging judge is A ——," said the under-sheriff, who at this moment joined us, rubbing his hands, as if pleased with the prospect of a few executions. "No chance of the prophecy yonder coming to pass I suppose?"
"Not in the least," replied the bustling counsel. "He never looked better. His illness has gone completely off. And this day's work will brighten him up."
Cartwright's trial came on. I had never seen the man before, and was not aware that this was the same person whom Harvey had incidentally told me he had discharged for theft; the truth being, that till the last moment of his existence, that unfortunate man had not known how much he had been a sacrifice to this wretch's malice.
The crime of which the villain now stood accused was that of robbing a farmer of the paltry sum of eight shillings, in the neighborhood of Ilfracombe. He pleaded not guilty, but put in no defence. A verdict was recorded against him, and in due form A —— sentenced him to be hanged. An expression of fiendish malignancy gleamed over the haggard features of the felon as he asked leave to address a few words to the court. It was granted. Leaning forward, and raising his heavy, scowling eyes to the judge, he thus began:—"There is something on my mind, my lord—a dreadful crime—which, as I am to die for the eight shillings I took from the farmer, I may as well confess. You may remember Harvey, my lord, whom you hanged the other day at—?"
"What of him, fellow?" replied the judge, his features suddenly flushing crimson.
"Why, my lord, only this—that he was as innocent of the crime for which you hanged him as the child yet unborn! I did the deed! I put the watch in his trunk!" And to the unutterable horror of the entire court he related the whole particulars of the transaction, the origin of his grudge against Harvey, and his delight on bringing him to the gallows.
"Inhuman, execrable villain!" gasped the judge in extreme excitement.
"Cleverly done, though! Was it not, my lord?" rejoined the ruffian with bitter irony. "The evidence, you know, was irresistible; the crime as clear as the sun at noonday; and if in such plain cases, the just and necessary law was not enforced, society would be dissolved, and there would be no security for property! These were your words, I think. How on that occasion I admired your lordship's judgment and eloquence! Society would be dissolved if an innocent man were not hanged! Ha!—ha!—ha! Capital!—capital!" shouted the ferocious felon with demoniac glee, as he marked the effect of his words on the countenance of the judge.
"Remove the prisoner!" cried the sheriff. An officer was about to do so; but the judge motioned him to desist. His lordship's features worked convulsively. He seemed striving to speak, but the words would not come.
"I suppose, my lord," continued Cartwright in low and hissing tones, as the shadow of unutterable despair grew and settled on his face—"I suppose you know that his wife destroyed herself. The coroner's jury said she had fallen accidentally into the water, I know better. She drowned herself under the agonies of a broken heart! I saw her corpse, with the dead baby in its arms; and then I felt, knew, that I was lost! Lost, doomed to everlasting perdition! But, my lord,"—and here the wretch broke into a howl wild and terrific—"we shall go down together—down to where your deserts are known. A—h—h! that pinches you, does it? Hound of a judge! legal murderer! coward! I spurn and spit upon thee!" The rest of the appalling objurgation was inarticulate, as the monster, foaming and sputtering, was dragged by an officer from the dock.
Judge A —— had fallen forwards on his face, fainting and speechless with the violence of his emotions. The black cap had dropped from his brow. His hands were stretched out across the bench, and various members of the bar rushed to his assistance. The court broke up in frightful commotion.
Two days afterwards the county paper had the following announcement:—
"Died at the Royal Hotel, ———, on the 27th instant, Judge A ——, from an access of fever supervening upon a disorder from which he had imperfectly recovered."
The prophecy was fulfilled!
THE NORTHERN CIRCUIT.
About the commencement of the present century there stood, near the centre of a rather extensive hamlet, not many miles distant from a northern seaport town, a large, substantially-built, but somewhat straggling building, known as Craig Farm (popularly Crook Farm) House. The farm consisted of about one hundred acres of tolerable arable and meadow land; and at the time I have indicated, belonged to a farmer of the name of Armstrong. He had purchased it about three years previously, at a sale held, in pursuance of a decree of the High Court of Chancery, for the purpose of liquidating certain costs incurred in the suit of Craig versus Craig, which the said high court had nursed so long and successfully, as to enable the solicitor to the victorious claimant to incarcerate his triumphant client for several years in the Fleet, in "satisfaction" of the charges of victory remaining due after the proceeds of the sale of Craig Farm had been deducted from the gross total. Farmer Armstrong was married, but childless; his dame, like himself, was a native of Devonshire. They bore the character of a plodding, taciturn, morose-mannered couple: seldom leaving the farm except to attend market, and rarely seen at church or chapel, they naturally enough became objects of suspicion and dislike to the prying, gossiping villagers, to whom mystery or reserve of any kind was of course exceedingly annoying and unpleasant.
Soon after Armstrong was settled in his new purchase another stranger arrived, and took up his abode in the best apartments of the house. The new-comer, a man of about fifty years of age, and evidently, from his dress and gait, a sea-faring person, was as reserved and unsocial as his landlord. His name, or at least that which he chose to be known by, was Wilson. He had one child, a daughter, about thirteen years of age, whom he placed at a boarding-school in the adjacent town. He seldom saw her; the intercourse between the father and daughter being principally carried on through Mary Strugnell, a widow of about thirty years of age, and a native of the place. She was engaged as a servant to Mr. Wilson, and seldom left Craig Farm except on Sunday afternoons, when, if the weather was at all favorable, she paid a visit to an aunt living in the town; there saw Miss Wilson; and returned home usually at half-past ten o'clock—later rather than earlier. Armstrong was occasionally absent from his home for several days together, on business, it was rumored, for Wilson; and on the Sunday in the first week of January 1802, both he and his wife had been away for upwards of a week, and were not yet returned.
About a quarter-past ten o'clock on that evening the early-retiring inhabitants of the hamlet were roused from their slumbers by a loud, continuous knocking at the front door of Armstrong's house: louder and louder, more and more vehement and impatient, resounded the blows upon the stillness of the night, till the soundest sleepers were awakened. Windows were hastily thrown open, and presently numerous footsteps approached the scene of growing hubbub. The unwonted noise was caused, it was found, by Farmer Armstrong, who accompanied by his wife, was thundering vehemently upon the door with a heavy black-thorn stick. Still no answer was obtained. Mrs. Strugnell, it was supposed, had not returned from town; but where was Mr. Wilson, who was almost always at home both day and night? Presently a lad called out that a white sheet or cloth of some sort was hanging out of one of the back windows. This announcement, confirming the vague apprehensions which had begun to germinate in the wise heads of the villagers, disposed them to adopt a more effectual mode of obtaining admission than knocking seemed likely to prove. Johnson, the constable of the parish, a man of great shrewdness, at once proposed to break in the door. Armstrong, who, as well as his wife, was deadly pale, and trembling violently, either with cold or agitation, hesitatingly consented, and crowbars being speedily procured, an entrance was forced, and in rushed a score of excited men. Armstrong's wife, it was afterwards remembered, caught hold of her husband's arm in a hurried, frightened manner, whispered hastily in his ear, and then both followed into the house.
"Now, farmer," cried Johnson, as soon as he had procured a light, "lead the way up stairs."
Armstrong, who appeared to have somewhat recovered from his panic, darted at once up the staircase, followed by the whole body of rustics. On reaching the landing-place, he knocked at Mr. Wilson's bedroom door. No answer was returned. Armstrong seemed to hesitate, but the constable at once lifted the latch; they entered, and then a melancholy spectacle presented itself.
Wilson, completely dressed, lay extended on the floor a lifeless corpse. He had been stabbed in two places in the breast with some sharp-pointed instrument. Life was quite extinct. The window was open. On farther inspection, several bundles containing many of Wilson's valuables in jewelry and plate, together with clothes, shirts, silk handkerchiefs, were found. The wardrobe and a secretary-bureau had been forced open. The assassins had, it seemed, been disturbed, and had hurried off by the window without their plunder. A hat was also picked up in the room, a shiny, black hat, much too small for the deceased. The constable snatched it up, and attempted to clap it on Armstrong's head, but it was not nearly large enough. This, together with the bundles, dissipated a suspicion which had been growing in Johnson's mind, and he roughly exclaimed, "You need not look so scared, farmer; it's not you: that's quite clear."
To this remark neither Armstrong nor his wife answered a syllable, but continued to gaze at the corpse, the bundles, and the broken locks, in bewildered terror and astonishment. Presently some one asked if any body had seen Mrs. Strugnell?
The question roused Armstrong, and he said, "She is not come home: her door is locked."
"How do you know that?" cried the constable, turning sharply round, and looking keenly in his face. "How do you know that?"
"Because—because," stammered Armstrong, "because she always locks it when she goes out."
"Which is her room?"
"The next to this."
They hastened out, and found the next door was fast.
"Are you there, Mrs. Strugnell?" shouted Johnson.
There was no reply.
"She is never home till half-past ten o'clock on Sunday evenings," remarked Armstrong in a calmer voice.
"The key is in the lock on the inside," cried a young man who had been striving to peep through the key-hole.
Armstrong, it was afterwards sworn, started as if he had been shot; and his wife again clutched his arm with the same nervous, frenzied gripe as before.
"Mrs. Strugnell, are you there?" once more shouted the constable. He was answered by a low moan. In an instant the frail door was burst in, and Mrs. Strugnell was soon pulled out, apparently more dead than alive, from underneath the bedstead, where she, in speechless consternation, lay partially concealed. Placing her in a chair, they soon succeeded—much more easily, indeed, than they anticipated—in restoring her to consciousness.
Nervously she glanced round the circle of eager faces that environed her, till her eyes fell upon Armstrong and his wife, when she gave a loud shriek, and muttering, "They, they are the murderers!" swooned, or appeared to do so, again instantly.
The accused persons, in spite of their frenzied protestations of innocence, were instantly seized and taken off to a place of security; Mrs. Strugnell was conveyed to a neighbor's close by; the house was carefully secured; and the agitated and wondering villagers departed to their several homes, but not, I fancy, to sleep any more for that night.
The deposition made by Mrs. Strugnell at the inquest on the body was in substance as follows:—
"On the afternoon in question she had, in accordance with her usual custom, proceeded to town. She called on her aunt, took tea with her, and afterwards went to the Independent Chapel. After service, she called to see Miss Wilson, but was informed that, in consequence of a severe cold, the young lady was gone to bed. She then immediately proceeded homewards, and consequently arrived at Craig Farm more than an hour before her usual time. She let herself in with her latch key, and proceeded to her bedroom. There was no light in Mr. Wilson's chamber, but she could hear him moving about in it. She was just about to go down stairs, having put away her Sunday bonnet and shawl, when she heard a noise, as of persons entering by the back way, and walking gently across the kitchen floor. Alarmed as to who it could be, Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong not being expected home for several days, she gently closed her door, and locked it. A few minutes after, she heard stealthy steps ascending the creaking stairs, and presently her door was tried, and a voice in a low hurried whisper said, "Mary, are you there?" She was positive it was Mr. Armstrong's voice, but was too terrified to answer. Then Mrs. Armstrong—she was sure it was she—said also in a whisper, and as if addressing her husband, "She is never back at this hour." A minute or so after there was a tap at Mr. Wilson's door. She could not catch what answer was made; but by Armstrong's reply, she gathered that Mr. Wilson had lain down, and did not wish to be disturbed. He was often in the habit of lying down with his clothes on. Armstrong said, "I will not disturb you, sir; I'll only just put this parcel on the table." There is no lock to Mr. Wilson's door. Armstrong stepped into the room, and almost immediately she heard a sound as of a violent blow, followed by a deep groan and then all was still. She was paralyzed with horror and affright. After the lapse of a few seconds, a voice—Mrs. Armstrong's undoubtedly—asked in a tremulous tone if "all was over?" Her husband answered "Yes: but where be the keys of the writing-desk kept?" "In the little table-drawer," was the reply. Armstrong then came out of the bedroom, and both went into Mr. Wilson's sitting apartment. They soon returned, and crept stealthily along the passage to their own bedroom on the same floor. They then went down stairs to the kitchen. One of them—the woman, she had no doubt—went out the back way, and heavy footsteps again ascended the stairs. Almost dead with fright, she then crawled under the bedstead, and remembered no more till she found herself surrounded by the villagers."
In confirmation of this statement, a large clasp-knife belonging to Armstrong, and with which it was evident the murder had been perpetrated, was found in one corner of Wilson's bedroom; and a mortgage deed, for one thousand pounds on Craig Farm, the property of Wilson, and which Strugnell swore was always kept in the writing-desk in the front room, was discovered in a chest in the prisoner's sleeping apartment, together with nearly one hundred and fifty pounds in gold, silver, and county bank-notes, although it was known that Armstrong had but a fortnight before declined a very advantageous offer of some cows he was desirous of purchasing, under the plea of being short of cash. Worse perhaps than all, a key of the back-door was found in his pocket, which not only confirmed Strugnell's evidence, but clearly demonstrated that the knocking at the door for admittance, which had roused and alarmed the hamlet, was a pure subterfuge. The conclusion, therefore, almost universally arrived at throughout the neighborhood was, that Armstrong and his wife were the guilty parties; and that the bundles, the broken locks, the sheet hanging out of the window, the shiny, black hat, were, like the knocking, mere cunning devices to mislead inquiry.
The case excited great interest in the county, and I esteemed myself professionally fortunate in being selected to hold the brief for the prosecution. I had satisfied myself, by a perusal of the depositions, that there was no doubt of the prisoners' guilt, and I determined that no effort on my part should be spared to insure the accomplishment of the ends of justice. I drew the indictment myself; and in my opening address to the jury dwelt with all the force and eloquence of which I was master upon the heinous nature of the crime, and the conclusiveness of the evidence by which it had been brought home to the prisoners. I may here, by way of parenthesis, mention that I resorted to a plan in my address to the jury which I have seldom known to fail. It consisted in fixing my eyes and addressing my language to each juror one after the other. In this way each considers the address to be an appeal to his individual intelligence, and responds to it by falling into the views of the barrister. On this occasion the jury easily fell into the trap. I could see that I had got them into the humor of putting confidence in the evidence I had to produce.
The trial proceeded. The cause of the death was scientifically stated by two medical men. Next followed the evidence as to the finding of the knife in the bedroom of the deceased; the discovery of the mortgage deed, and the large sum of money, in the prisoners' sleeping apartment; the finding the key of the back-door in the male prisoner's pocket; and his demeanor and expressions on the night of the perpetration of the crime. In his cross-examination of the constable, several facts perfectly new to me were elicited by the very able counsel for the prisoners. Their attorney had judiciously maintained the strictest secrecy as to the nature of the defence, so that it now took me completely by surprise. The constable, in reply to questions by counsel, stated that the pockets of the deceased were empty; that not only his purse, but a gold watch, chain, and seals, which he usually wore, had vanished, and no trace of them had as yet been discovered. Many other things were also missing. A young man of the name of Pearce, apparently a sailor, had been seen in the village once or twice in the company of Mary Strugnell; but he did not notice what sort of hat he generally wore; he had not seen Pearce since the night the crime was committed; had not sought for him.
Mary Strugnell was the next witness. She repeated her previous evidence with precision and apparent sincerity, and then I abandoned her with a mixed feeling of anxiety and curiosity, to the counsel for the defence. A subtle and able cross-examination of more than two hours' duration followed; and at its conclusion, I felt that the case for the prosecution was so damaged, that a verdict of condemnation was, or ought to be, out of the question. The salient points dwelt upon, and varied in every possible way, in this long sifting, were these:—"What was the reason she did not return in the evening in question to her aunt's to supper as usual?"
"She did not know, except that she wished to get home."
"Did she keep company with a man of the name of Pearce?"
"She had walked out with him once or twice."
"When was the last time?"
"She did not remember."
"Did Pearce walk with her home on the night of the murder?"
"Not part of the way?"
"Yes; part of the way."
"Did Pearce sometimes wear a black, shiny hat?"
"No—yes: she did not remember."
"Where was Pearce now?"
"She didn't know."
"Had he disappeared since that Sunday evening?"
"She didn't know."
"Had she seen him since?"
"Had Mr. Wilson ever threatened to discharge her for insolence to Mrs. Armstrong?"
"Yes; but she knew he was not in earnest."
"Was not the clasp-knife that had been found always left in the kitchen for culinary purposes?"
"No—not always; generally—but not this time that Armstrong went away, she was sure."
"Mary Strugnell, you be a false-sworn woman before God and man!" interrupted the male prisoner with great violence of manner.
The outbreak of the prisoner was checked and rebuked by the judge, and the cross-examination soon afterwards closed. Had the counsel been allowed to follow up his advantage by an address to the jury, he would, I doubt not, spite of their prejudices against the prisoners, have obtained an acquittal; but as it was, after a neutral sort of charge from the judge, by no means the ablest that then adorned the bench, the jurors, having deliberated for something more than half an hour, returned into court with a verdict of "guilty" against both prisoners, accompanying it, however, with a strong recommendation to mercy!
"Mercy!" said the judge. "What for? On what ground?"
The jurors stared at each other and at the judge: they had no reason to give! The fact was, their conviction of the prisoners' guilt had been very much shaken by the cross-examination of the chief witness for the prosecution, and this recommendation was a compromise which conscience made with doubt. I have known many such instances.
The usual ridiculous formality of asking the wretched convicts what they had to urge why sentence should not be passed upon them was gone through; the judge, with unmoved feelings, put on the fatal cap; and then a new and startling light burst upon the mysterious, bewildering affair.
"Stop, my lord!" exclaimed Armstrong with rough vehemence. "Hear me speak! I'll tell ye all about it; I will indeed, my lord. Quiet, Martha, I tell ye. It's I, my lord, that's guilty, not the woman. God bless ye, my lord; not the wife! Doant hurt the wife, and I'se tell ye all about it. I alone am guilty; not, the Lord be praised, of murder, but of robbery!"
"John!—John!" sobbed the wife, clinging passionately to her husband, "let us die together!"
"Quiet, Martha, I tell ye! Yes, my lord, I'se tell ye all about it. I was gone away, wife and I, for more nor a week, to receive money for Mr. Wilson, on account of smuggled goods—that money, my lord, as was found in the chest. When we came home on that dreadful Sunday night, my lord, we went in the back way; and hearing a noise, I went up stairs, and found poor Wilson stone-dead on the floor. I were dreadful skeared, and let drop the candle. I called to wife, and told her of it. She screamed out, and amaist fainted away. And then, my lord, all at once the devil shot into my head to keep the money I had brought; and knowing as the keys of the desk where the mortgage writing was kept was in the bedroom, I crept back, as that false-hearted woman said, got the keys, and took the deed; and then I persuaded wife, who had been trembling in the kitchen all the while, that we had better go out quiet again, as there was nobody in the house but us: I had tried that woman's door—and we might perhaps be taken for the murderers. And so we did; and that's the downright, honest truth, my lord. I'm rightly served; but God bless you, doant hurt the woman—my wife, my lord, these thirty years. Five-and-twenty years ago come May, which I shall never see, we buried our two children. Had they lived, I might have been a better man; but the place they left empty was soon filled up by love of cursed lucre, and that has brought me here. I deserve it; but oh, mercy, my lord! mercy, good gentlemen!"—turning from the stony features of the judge to the jury, as if they could help him—"not for me, but the wife. She be as innocent of this as a new-born babe. It's I! I! scoundrel that I be, that has brought thee, Martha, to this shameful pass!" The rugged man snatched his life-companion to his breast with passionate emotion, and tears of remorse and agony streamed down his rough cheeks.
I was deeply affected, and felt that the man had uttered the whole truth. It was evidently one of those cases in which a person liable to suspicion damages his own cause by resorting to a trick. No doubt, by his act of theft, Armstrong had been driven to an expedient which would not have been adopted by a person perfectly innocent. And thus, from one thing to another, the charge of murder had been fixed upon him and his hapless wife. When his confession had been uttered, I felt a species of self-accusation in having contributed to his destruction, and gladly would I have undone the whole day's proceedings. The judge, on the contrary, was quite undisturbed. Viewing the harangue of Armstrong as a mere tissue of falsehood, he cooly pronounced sentence of death on the prisoners. They were to be hanged on Monday. This was Friday.
"A bad job!" whispered the counsel for the defence as he passed me. "That witness of yours, the woman Strugnell, is the real culprit."
I tasted no dinner that day: I was sick at heart; for I felt as if the blood of two fellow-creatures was on my hands. In the evening I sallied forth to the judge's lodgings. He listened to all I had to say; but was quite imperturbable. The obstinate old man was satisfied that the sentence was as it should be. I returned to my inn in a fever of despair. Without the approval of the judge, I knew that an application to the Secretary of State was futile. There was not even time to send to London, unless the judge had granted a respite.
All Saturday and Sunday I was in misery. I denounced capital punishment as a gross iniquity—a national sin and disgrace; my feelings of course being influenced somewhat by a recollection of that unhappy affair of Harvey, noticed in my previous paper. I half resolved to give up the bar, and rather go and sweep the streets for a livelihood, than run the risk of getting poor people hanged who did not deserve it.
On the Monday morning I was pacing up and down my break fast-room in the next assize town, in a state of great excitement, when a chaise-and-four drove rapidly up to the hotel, and out tumbled Johnson the constable. His tale was soon told. On the previous evening, the landlady of the Black Swan, a roadside public-house about four miles distant from the scene of the murder, reading the name of Pearce in the report of the trial in the Sunday county paper, sent for Johnston to state that that person had on the fatal evening called and left a portmanteau in her charge, promising to call for it in an hour, but had never been there since. On opening the portmanteau, Wilson's watch, chains, and seals, and other property, were discovered in it; and Johnson had, as soon as it was possible, set off in search of me. Instantly, for there was not a moment to spare, I, in company with Armstrong's counsel, sought the judge, and with some difficulty obtained from him a formal order to the sheriff to suspend the execution till further orders. Off I and the constable started, and happily arrived in time to stay the execution, and deprive the already-assembled mob of the brutal exhibition they so anxiously awaited. On inquiring for Mary Strugnell, we found that she had absconded on the evening of the trial. All search for her proved vain.
Five months had passed away; the fate of Armstrong and his wife was still undecided, when a message was brought to my chambers in the Temple from a woman said to be dying in St. Bartholomew's Hospital. It was Mary Strugnell; who, when in a state of intoxication, had fallen down in front of a carriage, as she was crossing near Holborn Hill, and had both her legs broken. She was dying miserably, and had sent for me to make a full confession relative to Wilson's murder. Armstrong's account was perfectly correct. The deed was committed by Pearce, and they were packing up their plunder when they were startled by the unexpected return of the Armstrongs. Pearce, snatching up a bundle and a portmanteau, escaped by the window; she had not nerve enough to attempt it, and crawled back to her bedroom, where she, watching the doings of the farmer through the chinks of the partition which separated her room from the passage, concocted the story which convicted the prisoners. Pearce thinking himself pursued, too heavily encumbered for rapid flight, left the portmanteau as described, intending to call for it in the morning, if his fears proved groundless. He, however, had not courage to risk calling again, and made the best of his way to London. He was now in Newgate under sentence of death for a burglary, accompanied by personal violence to the inmates of the dwelling he and his gang had entered and robbed. I took care to have the deposition of the dying wretch put into proper form; and the result was, after a great deal of petitioning and worrying of authorities, a full pardon for both Armstrong and his wife. They sold Craig Farm, and removed to some other part of the country, where, I never troubled myself to inquire. Deeply grateful was I to be able at last to wash my hands of an affair, which had cost me so much anxiety and vexation; albeit the lesson it afforded me of not coming hastily to conclusions, even when the truth seems, as it were, upon the surface of the matter, has not been, I trust, without its uses.
THE CONTESTED MARRIAGE.
I had just escaped to my chambers one winter afternoon from a heavy trial "at bar" in the King's Bench, Westminster, and was poring over a case upon which an "opinion" was urgently solicited, when my clerk entered with a letter which he had been requested to deliver by a lady, who had called twice before during the day for the purpose of seeing me. Vexed at the interruption, I almost snatched the letter from the man's hand, hastily broke the seal, and to my great surprise found it was from my excellent old friend Sir Jasper Thornely of Thornely Hall, Lancashire. It ran as follows:—
"My Dear ——, The bearer of this note is a lady whom I am desirous of serving to the utmost extent of my ability. That she is really the widow she represents herself to be, and her son consequently heir to the magnificent estates now in possession of the Emsdales—you remember how they tripped up my heels at the last election for the borough of ——— I have no moral doubt whatever; but whether her claim can be legally established is another affair. She will tell you the story herself. It was a heartless business; but Sir Harry, who, you have no doubt heard, broke his neck in a steeple-chase about ten months ago, was a sad wild dog. My advice is, to look out for a sharp, clever, persevering attorney, and set him upon a hunt for evidence. If he succeed, I undertake to pay him a thousand pounds over and above his legal costs. He'll nose it out for that, I should think!—Yours, truly,
"P.S.—Emsdale's son, I have just heard—confound their impudence!—intends, upon the strength of this accession of property, to stand for the county against my old friend ——, at the dissolution, which cannot now be far off. If you don't think one thousand pounds enough, I'll double it. A cruelly, ill-used lady! and as to her son, he's the very image of the late Sir Harry Compton. In haste—J.T. I re-open the letter to enclose a cheque for a hundred pounds, which you will pay the attorney on account. They'll die hard, you may be sure. If it could come off next assizes, we should spoil them for the county—J.T."
"Assizes"—"county"—"Sir Harry Compton," I involuntarily murmured, as I finished the perusal of my old friend's incoherent epistle. "What on earth can the eccentric old fox-hunter mean?" "Show the lady in," I added in a louder tone to the clerk. She presently appeared, accompanied by a remarkably handsome boy about six years of age, both attired in deep mourning. The lady approached with a timid, furtive step and glance, as if she were entering the den of some grim ogre, rather than the quiet study of a civilized lawyer of mature age. I was at once struck by her singular and touching loveliness. I have never seen a woman that so completely realized the highest Madonna type of youthful, matronly beauty—its starlight radiance and mild serenity of sorrow. Her voice, too, gentle and low, had a tone of patient sadness in it strangely affecting. She was evidently a person, if not of high birth, of refined manners and cultivated mind; and I soon ceased to wonder at warm-hearted old Sir Jasper's enthusiasm in her cause. Habitually, however, on my guard against first impressions, I courteously, but coldly, invited her first to a seat, and next to a more intelligible relation of her business with me than could be gathered from the letter of which she was the bearer. She complied, and I was soon in possession of the following facts and fancies:—
Violet Dalston and her sister Emily had lived for several years in close and somewhat straitened retirement with their father, Captain Dalston, at Rock Cottage, on the outskirts of a village about six miles distant from Leeds, when Captain Dalston, who was an enthusiastic angler, introduced to his home a gentleman about twenty-five years of age, of handsome exterior and gentlemanly manners, with whom congeniality of tastes and pursuits had made him acquainted. This stranger was introduced to Violet (my interesting client) and her sister, as a Mr. Henry Grainger, the son of a London merchant. The object of his wanderings through the English counties was, he said, to recruit his health, which had become affected by too close application to business, and to gratify his taste for angling, sketching, and so on. He became a frequent visitor; and the result, after the lapse of about three months, was a proposal for the hand of Violet. His father allowed him, he stated, five hundred pounds per annum; but in order not to mortally offend the old gentleman, who was determined, if his son married at all, it should be either to rank or riches, it would be necessary to conceal the marriage till after his death. This commonplace story had been, it appeared, implicitly credited by Captain Dalston; and Violet Dalston and Henry Grainger were united in holy wedlock—not at the village church near where Captain Dalston resided, but in one of the Leeds churches. The witnesses were the bride's father and sister, and a Mr. Bilston, a neighbor. This marriage had taken place rather more than seven years since, and its sole fruit was the fine-looking boy who accompanied his mother to my office. Mr. Grainger, soon after the marriage, persuaded the Dalstons to leave Rock Cottage, and take up their abode in a picturesque village in Cumberland, where he had purchased a small house, with some garden and ornamental grounds attached.
Five years rolled away—not, as I could discern, too happily when the very frequent absences of Violet's husband in London, as he alleged (all her letters to him were directed to the post-office, St. Martin's le Grand—till called for), were suddenly greatly prolonged; and on his return home, after an absence of more than three months, he abruptly informed the family that the affairs of his father, who was dying, had been found to be greatly embarrassed, and that nothing was left for him and them but emigration to America, with such means as might be saved from the wreck of the elder Grainger's property. After much lamentation and opposition on the part of Emily Dalston and her father, it was finally conceded as Violet's husband wished; and the emigration was to have taken place in the following spring, Henry Grainger to follow them the instant he could wind up his father's affairs. About three months before their intended departure—this very time twelvemonth, as nearly as may be—Captain Dalston was suddenly called to London, to close the eyes of an only sister. This sad duty fulfilled, he was about to return, when, passing towards dusk down St. James Street, he saw Henry Grainger, habited in a remarkable sporting-dress, standing with several other gentlemen at the door of one of the club-houses. Hastening across the street to accost him, he was arrested for a minute or so by a line of carriages which turned sharply out of Piccadilly; and when he did reach the other side, young Mr. Grainger and his companions had vanished. He inquired of the porter, and was assured that no Mr. Grainger, senior or junior, was known there. Persisting that he had seen him standing within the doorway, and describing his dress, the man with an insolent laugh exclaimed that the gentleman who wore that dress was the famous sporting baronet, Sir Harry Compton!
Bewildered, and suspecting he hardly knew what, Captain Dalston, in defiance of young Grainger's oft-iterated injunctions, determined to call at his father's residence, which he had always understood to be in Leadenhall Street. No such name was, however, known there; and an examination, to which he was advised, of the "Commercial Directory" failed to discover the whereabout of the pretended London merchant. Heart-sick and spirit-wearied, Captain Dalston returned home only to die. A violent cold, caught by imprudently riding in such bitter weather as it then was, on the outside of the coach, aggravated by distress of mind, brought his already enfeebled frame to the grave in less than two months after his arrival in Cumberland. He left his daughters utterly unprovided for, except by the legal claim which the eldest possessed on a man who, he feared, would turn out to be a worthless impostor. The penalty he paid for consenting to so imprudent a marriage was indeed a heavy and bitter one. Months passed away, and still no tidings of Violet's husband reached the sisters' sad and solitary home. At length, stimulated by apprehensions of approaching destitution—whose foot was already on the threshold—and desirous of gratifying a whim of Emily's, Violet consented to visit the neighborhood of Compton Castle (the seat, her sister had ascertained, of the "celebrated sporting baronet," as the porter called him) on their way to London, where they had relatives who, though not rich, might possibly be able to assist them in obtaining some decent means of maintenance. They alighted at the "Compton Arms," and the first object which met the astonished gaze of the sisters as they entered the principal sitting-room of the inn, was a full-length portrait of Violet's husband, in the exact sporting-dress described to them by their father. An ivory tablet attached to the lower part of the frame informed the gazer that the picture was a copy, by permission, of the celebrated portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, of Sir Harry Compton, Baronet. They were confounded, overwhelmed, bewildered. Sir Harry, they found, had been killed about eight months previously in a steeple-chase; and the castle and estates had passed, in default of direct issue, to a distant relative, Lord Emsdale. Their story was soon bruited about; and, in the opinion of many persons, was confirmed beyond reasonable question by the extraordinary likeness they saw or fancied between Violet's son and the deceased baronet. Amongst others, Sir Jasper Thornely was a firm believer in the identity of Henry Grainger and Sir Harry Compton; but unfortunately, beyond the assertion of the sisters that the portrait of Sir Harry was young Grainger's portrait, the real or imaginary likeness of the child to his reputed father, and some score of letters addressed to Violet by her husband, which Sir Jasper persisted were in Sir Harry's handwriting, though few others did (the hand, I saw at a glance, was a disguised one), not one tittle of evidence had he been able to procure for love or money. As a last resource, he had consigned the case to me, and the vulpine sagacity of a London attorney.
I suppose my countenance must be what is called a "speaking" one, for I had made no reply in words to this statement of a case upon which I and a "London attorney" were to ground measures for wresting a magnificent estate from the clutch of a powerful nobleman, and by "next assizes" too—when the lady's beautiful eyes filled with tears, and turning to her child, she murmured in that gentle, agitating voice of hers, "My poor boy." The words I was about to utter died on my tongue, and I remained silent for several minutes. After all, thought I, this lady is evidently sincere in her expressed conviction that Sir Harry Compton was her husband. If her surmise be correct, evidence of the truth may perhaps be obtained by a keen search for it; and since Sir Jasper guarantees the expenses—I rang the bell. "Step over to Cursitor Street," said I to the clerk as soon as he entered; "and if Mr. Ferret is within, ask him to step over immediately." Ferret was just the man for such a commission. Indefatigable, resolute, sharp-witted, and of a ceaseless, remorseless activity, a secret or a fact had need be very profoundly hidden for him not to reach and fish it up. I have heard solemn doubts expressed by attorneys opposed to him as to whether he ever really and truly slept at all—that is, a genuine Christian sleep, as distinguished from a merely canine one, with one eye always half open. Mr. Ferret had been for many years Mr. Simpkins' managing clerk; but ambition, and the increasing requirements of a considerable number of young Ferrets, determined him on commencing business on his own account; and about six months previous to the period of which I am now writing, a brass door-plate in Cursitor Street, Chancery Lane, informed the public that Samuel Ferret, Esq., Attorney-at-Law, might be consulted within.
Mr. Samuel Ferret was fortunately at home; and after a very brief interval, made his appearance, entering with a short professional bow to me, and a very profound one to the lady, in whom his quick gray eye seemed intuitively to espy a client. As soon as he was seated, I handed him Sir Jasper's letter. He perused it carefully three times, examined the seal attentively, and handed it back with—"An excellent letter as far as it goes, and very much to the point. You intend, I suppose, that I should undertake this little affair?"
"Yes, if, after hearing the lady's case, you feel disposed to venture upon it."
Mr. Samuel Ferret's note-book was out in an instant; and the lady, uninterrupted by a syllable from him, re-told her story.
"Good, very good, as far as it goes," remarked undismayed Samuel Ferret when she concluded; "only it can scarcely be said to go very far. Moral presumption, which, in our courts unfortunately, isn't worth a groat. Never mind. Magna est veritas, and so on. When, madam, did you say Sir Harry—Mr. Grainger—first began to urge emigration?"
"Between two and three years ago."
"Have the goodness, if you please, to hand me the baronetage." I did so. "Good," resumed Ferret, after turning over the leaves for a few seconds, "very good, as far as it goes. It is now just two years and eight months since Sir Harry succeeded his uncle in the title and estates. You would no doubt soon have heard, madam, that your husband was dead. Truly the heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; and yet such conduct towards such a lady"—Ferret intended no mere compliment; he was only giving utterance to the thoughts passing through his brain; but his client's mounting color warned him to change the topic, which he very adroitly did. "You intend, of course," said he, addressing me, "to proceed at law? No rumble—tumble through the spiritual courts?"
"Certainly, if sufficient evidence to justify such a course can be obtained."
"Exactly: Doe, demise of Compton, versus Emsdale; action in ejectment, judgment of ouster. Our friend Doe, madam—a very accommodating fellow is Doe—will, if we succeed, put you in possession as natural guardian of your son. Well, sir," turning to me, "I may as well give you an acknowledgment for that cheque. I undertake the business, and shall, if possible, be off to Leeds by this evening's mail." The acknowledgment was given, and Mr. Ferret, pocketing the cheque, departed in high glee.
"The best man, madam, in all broad London," said I in answer to Mrs. Grainger's somewhat puzzled look, "you could have retained. Fond as he seems, and in fact is, of money—what sensible person is not?—Lord Emsdale could not bribe him with his earldom, now that he is fairly engaged in your behalf, I will not say to betray you, but to abate his indefatigable activity in furtherance of your interests. Attorneys, madam, be assured, whatever nursery tales may teach, have, the very sharpest of them, their points of honor." The lady and her son departed, and I turned again to the almost forgotten "case."
Three weeks had nearly glided by, and still no tidings of Mr. Ferret. Mrs. Grainger, and her sister Emily Dalston, a very charming person, had called repeatedly; but as I of course had nothing to communicate, they were still condemned to languish under the heart-sickness caused by hope deferred. At last our emissary made his wished-for appearance.
"Well, Mr. Ferret," said I, on entering my library, where I found him composedly awaiting my arrival, "what success?"
"Why, nothing of much consequence as yet," replied he; "I am, you know, only, as it were, just commencing the investigation. The Leeds parson that married them is dead, and the old clerk is paralytic, and has lost his memory. If, however, they were both alive, and in sound health of mind and body, they could, I fancy, help us but little, as Bilston tells me neither the Dalstons nor Grainger had ever entered the church till the morning of the wedding; and they soon afterwards removed to Cumberland, so that it is scarcely possible either parson or clerk could prove that Violet Dalston was married to Sir Harry Compton. A very intelligent fellow is Bilston: he was present at the marriage, you remember; and a glorious witness, if he had only something of importance to depose to; powdered hair and a pigtail, double chin, and six feet in girth at least; highly respectable—capital witness, very—only, unfortunately, he can only testify that a person calling himself Grainger married Violet Dalston; not much in that!"
"So, then, your three weeks' labor has been entirely thrown away!"
"Not so fast—not so fast—you jump too hastily at conclusions. The Cumberland fellow that sold Grainger the house—only the equity of redemption of it, by the way—there's a large mortgage on it—can prove nothing. Nobody about there can, except the surgeon; he can prove Mrs. Grainger's accouchement—that is something. I have been killing myself every evening this last week with grog and tobacco smoke at the "Compton Arms," in the company of the castle servants, and if the calves' heads had known anything essential, I fancy I should have wormed it out of them. They have, however, kindly furnished me with a scrawl of introduction to the establishment now in town, some of whom I shall have the honor to meet, in the character of an out-and-out liberal sporting gentleman, at the "Albemarle Arms" this evening. I want to get hold of his confidential valet, if he had one—those go-a-head fellows generally have—a Swiss, or some other foreign animal."
"Is this all?"
"Why, no," rejoined Ferret, with a sharp twinkle of his sharp gray eye, amounting almost to a wink; "there is one circumstance which I cannot help thinking, though I scarcely know why, will put us, by the help of patience and perseverance, on the right track. In a corner of the registry of marriage there is written Z.Z. in bold letters. In no other part of the book does this occur. What may that mean?"
"Had the incumbent of the living a curate at the time?"
"No. On that point I am unfortunately too well satisfied. Neither are there any names with such initials in any of the Leeds churchyards. Still this Z.Z. may be of importance, if we could but discover who he is. But how?—that is the question. Advertise? Show our hands to the opposite players, and find if Z.Z. is really an entity, and likely to be of service, that when we want him in court, he is half way to America. No, no; that would never do."
Mr. Ferret I saw was getting into a brown study; and as I had pressing business to despatch, I got rid of him as speedily as I could, quite satisfied, spite of Z.Z., that Mrs. Grainger's chance of becoming Lady Compton was about equal to mine of ascending the British throne some fine day.
Two days afterwards I received the following note:—
"Dear Sir—Z.Z. is the man! I'm off to Shropshire. Back, if possible, the day after to-morrow. Not a word even to the ladies. Huzza! In haste, Samuel Ferret."
What could this mean? Spite of Mr. Ferret's injunction, I could not help informing the sisters, who called soon after I received the note, that a discovery, esteemed of importance by our emissary, had been made; and they returned home with lightened hearts, after agreeing to repeat their visit on the day Mr. Ferret had named for his return.
On reaching my chambers about four o'clock in the afternoon of that day, I found the ladies there, and in a state of great excitement. Mr. Ferret, my clerk had informed them, had called twice, and seemed in the highest spirits. We had wasted but a few minutes in conjectures when Mr. Ferret, having ascended the stairs two or three at a time, burst, sans ceremonie, into the apartment.
"Good-day, sir. Lady Compton, your most obedient servant; madam, yours! All right! Only just in time to get the writ sealed; served it myself a quarter of an hour ago, just as his lordship was getting into his carriage. Not a day to lose; just in time. Capital! Glorious!"
"What do you mean, Mr. Ferret?" exclaimed Emily Dalston: her sister was too agitated to speak.
"What do I mean? Let us all four step, sir, into your inner sanctum, and I'll soon tell you what I mean."
We adjourned, accordingly, to an inner and more private room. Our conference lasted about half an hour, at the end of which the ladies took their leave: Lady Compton, her beautiful features alternately irradiated and clouded by smiles and tears, murmuring in a broken, agitated voice, as she shook hands with me, "You see, sir, he intended at last to do us justice."
The news that an action had been brought on behalf of an infant son of the late Sir Harry Compton against the Earl of Emsdale, for the recovery of the estates in the possession of that nobleman, produced the greatest excitement in the part of the county where the property was situated. The assize town was crowded, on the day the trial was expected to come on, by the tenantry of the late baronet and their families, with whom the present landlord was by no means popular. As I passed up the principal street, towards the court-house, accompanied by my junior, I was received with loud hurraings and waving of handkerchiefs, something after the manner, I suppose, in which chivalrous steel-clad knights, about to do battle in behalf of distressed damsels, were formerly received by the miscellaneous spectators of the lists. Numerous favors, cockades, streamers, of the Compton colors, used in election contests, purple and orange, were also slyly exhibited, to be more ostentatiously displayed if the Emsdale party should be beaten. On entering the court, I found it crowded, as we say, to the ceiling. Not only every seat, but every inch of standing-room that could be obtained, was occupied, and it was with great difficulty the ushers of the court preserved a sufficiently clear space for the ingress and egress of witnesses and counsel. Lord Emsdale, pale and anxious, spite of manifest effort to appear contemptuously indifferent, sat near the judge, who had just entered the court. The Archbishop of York, whom we had subpoenaed, why, his Grace had openly declared, he knew not, was also of course accommodated with a seat on the bench. A formidable bar, led by the celebrated Mr. S ——, was, I saw, arrayed against us, though what the case was they had to meet, so well had Ferret kept his secret, they knew no more than did their horse-hair wigs. Ferret had solemnly enjoined the sisters to silence, and no hint, I need scarcely say, was likely to escape my lips. The jury, special of course, were in attendance, and the case, "Doe, demise of Compton versus Emsdale," having been called, they were duly sworn to try the issue. My junior, Mr. Frampton, was just rising "to state the case," as it is technically called, when a tremendous shouting, rapidly increasing in volume and distinctness, and mingled with the sound of carriage wheels, was heard approaching, and presently Mr. Samuel Ferret appeared, followed by Lady Compton and her son, the rear of the party brought up by Sir Jasper Thornely, whose jolly fox-hunting face shone like a full-blown peony. The lady, though painfully agitated, looked charmingly; and the timid, appealing glance she unconsciously, as it were, threw round the court, would, in a doubtful case, have secured a verdict. "Very well got up, indeed," said Mr. S ——, in a voice sufficiently loud for the jury to hear—"very effectively managed, upon my word." We were, however, in too good-humor to heed taunts; and as soon as silence was restored, Mr. Frampton briefly stated the case, and I rose to address the jury. My speech was purposely brief, business-like, and confident. I detailed the circumstances of the marriage of Violet Dalston, then only eighteen years of age, with a Mr. Grainger; the birth of a son; and subsequent disappearance of the husband; concluding by an assurance to the jury that I should prove, by incontrovertible evidence, that Grainger was no other person than the late Sir Harry Compton, baronet. This address by no means lessened the vague apprehensions of the other side. A counsel that, with such materials for eloquence, disdained having recourse to it, must needs have a formidable case. The smiling countenances of Mr. S —— and his brethren became suddenly overcast, and the pallor and agitation of Lord Emsdale sensibly increased.
We proved our case clearly, step by step: the marriage, the accouchement, the handwriting of Grainger—Bilston proved this—to the letters addressed to his wife, were clearly established. The register of the marriage was produced by the present clerk of the Leeds church; the initials Z.Z. were pointed out; and at my suggestion the book was deposited for the purposes of the trial with the clerk of the court. Not a word of cross-examination had passed the lips of our learned friends on the other side: they allowed our evidence to pass as utterly indifferent. A change was at hand.
Our next witness was James Kirby, groom to the late baronet and to the present earl. After a few unimportant questions, I asked him if he had ever seen that gentleman before, pointing to Mr. Ferret, who stood up for the more facile recognition of his friend Kirby.
"Oh yes, he remembered the gentleman well; and a very nice, good-natured, soft sort of a gentleman he was. He treated witness at the "Albemarle Arms," London, to as much brandy and water as he liked, out of respect to his late master, whom the gentleman seemed uncommon fond of."
"Well, and what return did you make for so much liberality?"
"Return! very little I do assure ye. I told un how many horses Sir Harry kept, and how many races he won; but I couldn't tell un much more, pump as much as he would, because, do ye see, I didn't know no more."
An audible titter from the other side greeted the witness as he uttered the last sentence. Mr. S ——, with one of his complacent glances at the jury-box, remarking in a sufficiently loud whisper, "That he had never heard a more conclusive reason for not telling in his life."
"Did you mention that you were present at the death of the late baronet?"
"Yes I did. I told un that I were within about three hundred red yards of late master when he had that ugly fall; and that when I got up to un, he sort of pulled me down, and whispered hoarse-like, 'Send for Reverend Zachariah Zimmerman.' I remembered it, it was sich an outlandish name like."
"Oh, oh," thought I, as Mr. S —— reached across the table for the parish register, "Z.Z. is acquiring significance I perceive."
"Well, and what did this gentleman say to that?"
"Say? Why, nothing particular, only seemed quite joyful 'mazed like; and when I asked un why, he said it was such a comfort to find his good friend Sir Harry had such pious thoughts in his last moments."
The laugh, quickly suppressed, that followed these words, did not come from our learned friends on the other side.
"Sir Harry used those words?"
"He did; but as he died two or three minutes after, it were of course no use to send for no parson whatsomever."
"Exactly. That will do, unless the other side have any questions to ask." No question was put, and the witness went down. "Call," said I to the crier of the court—"call the Reverend Zachariah Zimmerman."
This was a bomb-shell. Lord Emsdale, the better to conceal his agitation, descended from the bench and took his seat beside his counsel. The Reverend Zachariah Zimmerman, examined by Mr. Frampton, deponed in substance as follows:—"He was at present rector of Dunby, Shropshire, and had been in holy orders more than twenty years. Was on a visit to the Reverend Mr. Cramby at Leeds seven years ago, when one morning Mr. Cramby, being much indisposed, requested him to perform the marriage ceremony for a young couple then waiting in church. He complied, and joined in wedlock Violet Dalston and Henry Grainger. The bride was the lady now pointed out to him in court; the bridegroom he had discovered, about two years ago, to be no other than the late Sir Harry Compton, baronet. The initials Z.Z. were his, and written by him. The parish clerk, a failing old man, had not officiated at the marriage; a nephew, he believed, had acted for him, but he had entered the marriage in the usual form afterwards."