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The Priest And The Miser
The Troubles and the Escape of a “Perfect Young Lady”
A Railway “Plant” Blighted
Mrs. Fitzgerald’s Life Policy
Emily H—. A Sad Story
In a portion of the great metropolis, described in the Postmaster-General’s map of London as the North-Western district, is a congeries, or braided mass, of narrow streets, squares, courts, and alleys, the dingy and dilapidated houses of which are thickly tenanted by men, women, and children, who (dock labourers and Spitalfields weavers excepted) perhaps find it harder to make “both ends meet” than any other corresponding number of the Queen’s subjects. The neighbourhood is one in which the O’Mulligan of Bally Mulligan (Mr. Thackeray’s acquaintance) might hope to find lodgings suitable to his means, if not to his taste; but any gentleman residing thereabout might also be reasonably excused if he did not press his hospitality upon his friends, and preferred to give his address at “the club.” Some of my readers may have heard of the district I refer to—a few may know it—under its title of Somers Town.
In a room in one of the best houses standing in one of the best streets of this quarter, described by otherwise conflicting testimony as “a miserable garret,” a few years ago, a lone, unfriended old man was slowly dying. As I am in truth, not writing romance, but history in the garb of fiction, it may be just as well to be a little precise and minute, and say that this narrative opens on the 28th of February, 1847. It was Sunday morning. The old man’s name was Carré— Maturin Carré. He was seventy-seven years of age, and looked quite as old as his baptismal register indicated. He was a native of France, but had been many years in England. He came to London from Jersey, and arrived on that speck of debatable geography from the South of France.
People who knew him best, with one exception, commiserated him most. His age, and the external indications of poverty, elicited many delicate attentions from the needy Irish devotees who frequented the Roman Catholic chapel adjacent to his home, and at the same time it screened him so well from the notice of the richer members of that communion, that neither the lawyer who will figure in this story, nor the priest who afterwards made oath that he had been for three years preceding his death Carré’s spiritual director, was apparently at this exact moment aware of the existence of such a person. It is presumed that he never went to the confessional, and it is said that he attended the chapel more for the purpose of obtaining material relief than spiritual guidance or consolation.
A mystery surrounded the man which nobody cared to penetrate. Rumours had been heard about a marriage to which he had been a party—a child, and a faithless wife; but these reports died away almost as speedily as they were uttered. His principal means of subsistence were unknown. It was thought he earned a few shillings now and then by teaching his native and other languages. He had, in fact, been in his earlier days much employed in that way, and until utterly prostrated by the illness which had brought him into contact with the grim fiend, he made a little income by teaching.
The reader may also perhaps be concerned to know that Maturin Carré was a political refugee. His exile was caused by his attachment to the fallen fortunes of Charles X. He had many years received a pension from a fund which had been raised for the sustenance of the refugees of that party. At one time it was forty pounds a year, but it had dwindled to fifteen pounds.
When his usual reticence forsook him, he would tell stories about Robespierre and the Reign of Terror, and there is no reason for supposing him guilty of untruth when he asserted that, if he had been content to serve under the merciless dictator, he might have played an important part in the terrible drama of the French revolution, instead of being compelled to find safety in a miserable exile.
The interesting rumours about a wife and child were, however, pure fictions. It is doubtful whether that repulsive nature had ever been softened by the gentle emotions of love. He was a bachelor, and for a long time had uniformly betrayed an aversion to the society of women. It is said that as long as possible he performed every domestic office with his own hands, and his bed in Somers Town had never, as far as he knew, been smoothed or adjusted by fairy or crone in human shape. His fare was the simplest and cheapest which markets that contain no luxury offer to a purchaser. If the reader will imagine the most wretched condition that solitary old age could bear, he will have a true conception of the existence led by Maturin Carré.
I described the old man as dying. He was conscious of the fact, but anxious, as nearly all men are—not excepting the most forlorn and wobegone—to prolong the remnant of his days to their utmost span. Christian charity is, after all, not quite so rare as it is often said to be. Medical aid is, at all events, within the reach of the poorest and the most obscure. The doctor’s advice, and his physic, are to be had without pay, by everybody who chooses to ask for them on these terms. Maturin Carré was not a proud old man. He asked for the assistance of a doctor, who belonged to the church he attended, and that gentleman was directed to visit the exile. He called to see him very early on the morning of Sunday, the 28th of March, 1847.
The miserable patient lay stretched on a sort of box, rather than bedstead. When the surgeon, after early mass, looked in to see and prescribe for his necessities, the landlord of the house, who showed the pious son of Esculapius to the garret, was present at an interview between them, and noted their conversation.
Maturin Carré, it was as obvious to the shrewd nonprofessional eye as to the most skilful in diagnosis, had not long to live, and no landlord could be altogether indifferent about the fate of a dying lodger, so that we may excuse his presence as a third party on this occasion. It is to be observed, however, that the hopeless sufferer was not at all desirous to partake of those spiritual consolations that I have been told the Roman Catholic faith can bestow at such a time more liberally than a Protestant creed.
It was not the doctor’s first visit to Carré, and the man of physic had previously recommended that a priest should be called in: but the advice was more unpalatable than the contents of his bottles and pillboxes. On the Sunday morning I speak of, the surgeon repeated the obnoxious suggestion. Bronchitis had almost done its work upon a feeble system. Drugs might as well have been thrown to the dogs, or into the common sewer, as down the wheezy throat of the expiring champion of decayed Bourbonism. The only real means of relief to the sufferer were not kept in gallipots, or the drawer of a surgery. The diet suited to a man in extremis, Carré had no visible funds to purchase, and the doctor had no money at his disposal to expend in obtaining them.
“Well, well,” said the doctor in French—after feeling the pulse of his patient—for he was a Frenchman—“I must tell you, I think you are a little worse than you were the day before yesterday, Shall I ask Father Andrews to call and see you?”
The old man, with an effort, shook his head, and muttered a word of dissent.
“I will send you another draught,” rejoined the surgeon, who observed by the shock his former advice produced, that the approach of death had not excited the latent religious feelings of the patient.
“I think our friend had better let me ask Father Thomas to call,” in a few moments the doctor said, turning his eyes in the direction of the landlord, as if to obtain some further influence from this direction, and in the hope that it might be a personal objection to the priest whose name had been first mentioned, which led to the rejection of his ministrations.
The landlord expressed his concurrence; but the lodger spasmodically ejaculated “No!” and fell backwards.
It was quite plain that M. Carré had no wish to avail himself of the comforts of the faith he professed. May I not say it is certain that he had no faith in the efficacy of the religion he professed! Is it not reasonable to suppose that the dying man had for some time, and up to this moment, been an unbeliever in all religions, and although not unconscious that the hand of death was upon him, its approach had not broken through the gloom which unbelieving selfishness, and the lack of sympathy from and towards his fellows, had engendered during his isolated existence? Without extending hypothesis, it may surely be written down as a truth, that Maturin Carré was not, on that Sunday morning, entitled to be regarded as “a good Catholic.” So thought the Doctor; and although he was not, consequently, disposed to withdraw from attendance at the old man’s bedside, or inclined to then resent the ungracious disbelief in his creed, by stopping the supply of physic, he saw it was useless on this occasion to follow up what had all the appearance of undoubtedly kind, disinterested, and seasonable advice to call in either of the priests he had named.
In a few minutes, after the patient had somewhat recovered himself from the shock produced by this conversation, the doctor withdrew.
As he descended the stairs he observed the landlord close upon his heels. This person had left the garret with the surgeon in order to perform a simple office of courtesy by opening and closing the street-door upon the beneficent visitor. As he did so they exchanged a few words.
“Poor man,” said the surgeon, “it’s little or nothing I can do for him; he wants port wine and arrow-root, and such things; but it’s impossible he can get them. It’s a melancholy case.”
These fragmentary sentences took the landlord by surprise, but why they should have done so is yet unaccountable. All we know is, that the reserve of the auditor forsook him, and that he yielded up at once a real or pretended confidence, which he had long treasured as a secret of value.
“Oh no, sir,” somewhat hastily replied the landlord, “he’s got plenty of money. Order what you think he wants; he can buy anything.”
A critical person, or one skilful in detecting hidden thoughts and half-concealed emotions, might possibly have observed a slight change pass over the countenance of that unimpassioned French Roman Catholic charity doctor. The landlord noticed nothing of the kind. The surgeon shook his learned head, as if he doubted the accuracy of the intelligence. He went on his way, and the landlord closed the door.
The words of the landlord appeared to have had a rather grotesque or eccentric influence upon the mind of the doctor.
While it seemed impossible to procure those small luxuries he prescribed wine and arrow-root; but when told they were at the command of the patient, this medical genius, judging by his conduct, deemed them unnecessary. The reputed wealth of the dying man awakened a new and extraordinary solicitude for his spiritual welfare.
When the doctor first saw his patient, he certainly recommended him to call in a priest, yet, as I have said, he did not press the suggestion; but now, having reason to presume that the dying man had an abundance of cash, it became necessary to save his soul, if that were possible, against his will. The surgeon did not, therefore, return at once to his own house, but went straightway to the chapel hard by, and held a consultation with Father Andrews.
Let me here say a word or two on behalf of this zealous priest. I will not attempt to sketch his features in pen and ink. The portrait of one Roman Catholic clergyman is so very like the picture of another, that I should be needlessly wearying the reader. The discipline, or system, which crushes, or extinguishes, the mental individuality of its professional exponents, somehow mutilates those salient distinctions which Providence marks upon every human face in infancy. Did the reader ever see two Romanist priests walking in the street, side by side? If so, unless there was a great disparity of age between them, or one had the advantage of six inches in stature over his brother, none but a most intimate acquaintance could trace an intelligible line of distinction in their features. The countenances of any two Roman Catholic priests of the same age will, in juxtaposition, be found to resemble each other almost as nearly as two peas extracted from the same pod. It will therefore be enough to say that Father Andrews was a man of portly bearing, who trod the earth like one aware he exercised enormous power over his fellows. He was about fifty years of age, but the cares of life and the severity of his penances had been met by a vigorous constitution, so that he might have been mistaken for a younger man. If it were safe to predicate anything about his character from his physiognomy, it would be that Father Andrews had a resolute will of his own, controlling, if not overpowering, his native caution.
He had the reputation of being a zealous priest, but he was not a Jesuit. He was indeed most anxious the world should know that he looked unfavourably upon the institutions and followers of Ignatius Loyola.
Yet I should be doing him an injustice if. we did not admit—what this narrative demonstrates—that he regarded the advancement of the interests of his Church as the cardinal, or perhaps the sole object of his existence.
This was the person sought without delay by the doctor. He had not long finished the celebration of an early mass when his friend entered the chapel.
“Good morning, doctor,” was the solemn greeting of the priest.
“Good morning,” responded the surgeon, in livelier tones. The worthy men glanced at each other knowingly, and coldly shook hands. There was a slight pause on the threshold of the conversation. The priest may have thought it the business of his subordinate to make the communication he had to make without waiting for the formality of being asked. The doctor being conscious of the value of the suggestion he had to make, was in no hurry to part with it.
The priest broke silence by asking, “What news, doctor? Does any rich patient of thine, standing on the verge of eternity, need the offices of our holy Church?"
“No, reverend father,” replied the surgeon, “but a decrepid old man, who lives in an adjoining street, and reputed so poor that he has partaken of our pious charities, is dying, and I have discovered that he is in fact a cheat and a miser, who has a hoard of wealth. I have urged him to make his peace with God and our holy Church. I think you had better see him, sir.”
The quick-witted priest readily comprehended the urgency of the matter, and promised to give it immediate attention. The clergyman then shook hands rather heartily with the doctor, who went on his round of calls. Father Andrews trotted home, ate a substantial breakfast, and after duly considering the part he was about to engage in, he paid a visit to the dying miser.
Maturin Carré was sitting or leaning, half erect, on his miserable pallet, when Father Andrews entered the room unbidden, within a short hour or two after the doctor had left it. What passed at this solemn interview no living man, except the priest, can tell. I will not draw upon my imagination for a description of the mode by which the strong will of the priest conquered the obstinate selfishness of the exile, or pretend to relate how the hoary-headed sinner was led to penitence. All I have ascertained for a fact is, that Maturin Carré laid open his heart to the ken of his spiritual adviser. He confessed how he had obtained money from time to time, and how, by extreme self-denial, by falsehood, the simulation of poverty, and miserly thrift, he had saved it, invested principal with its usufruct, until the whole amount had reached the total of nearly £10,000, which sum then stood to his credit in the reliable custody of the State. Then, whether on the recommendation of Father Andrews, or in obedience to his own penitential emotions, I offer no opinion, Maturin Carré sought to make his peace with the Almighty by bestowing a small portion of his accumulated wealth upon his poor kindred in France, and the greater part thereof to a Roman Catholic charity. The zealous priest was delighted to perceive that he had already secured the very acceptable sum of £7,000 for the propagation of his holy faith, by a process which relieved the conscience of the testator. Maturin Carré, however, entreated the holy father to bestow upon him, in return for these bequests, the consolations of religion.
The priest hesitated for a moment. There was yet a little secular formality—it might be a test of the penitent’s sincerity—to be gone through ere that boon was granted. Upon a scrap of paper the holy man wrote in pencil a few words; he read them over to the dying penitent, who, in a sort of gasp, conveyed his assent to this appropriation of his estate: and having done all it was that morning possible to do for the advancement of his faith, Father Andrews gave the forlorn miser absolution for a long career of greed and deception. He stayed a few minutes longer, until the wearied penitent, overcome by the trial he had passed through, dropped almost insensible upon his bed, and in the softest tones a priest could utter, he whispered “Good-bye,” urged poor Carré to devote all his thoughts to God, and quitted the house. The scene had been a trying one to both parties, and the conclusion was a relief to each of them.
Let nobody complain that Father Andrews called in the aid of a lawyer on Sunday. The highest authority has declared the lawfulness of doing good on the Sabbath day. M. Carré was in extremis. Time was of the most precious value. The remnant of the miser’s life was reduced to days, perhaps to hours. Even yet death might rob the Church of a penitent’s bequest. The priest therefore sent a trusty messenger to a member of his congregation whose assistance had now become necessary. As this gentleman has gone to render his final account in a court of record where special pleas are not admitted, and where all virtue, as well as vice, is rewarded, we are warranted in believing that justice has been, or will be done to him, according to his merits; but this does not release us, as faithful chroniclers, from doing him immediate justice in this narrative. A cynic has declared that the memory of good men dies with them, and that the evil alone survives fragile mortality. This is a libel or a slander. We believe the poet who says that “the actions of the just smell sweet and blossom from the dust,” is nearer the truth. At all events I will deal honestly with this lawyer. His name shall be emblazoned in type. It was Cooke—John Athanasius Cooke, Esquire, Barrister-at-Law. This gentleman had been for twenty years a member of what is called the “Equity bar,” although some people (notably an illustrious novelist) have questioned the accuracy of the title. He was a famous “Equity draftsman,” which phrase being interpreted for the benefit of the vulgar, means, in this instance, a clever hand at drawing wills and trust-deeds for Roman Catholic religious endowments. One special claim to the admiration of the enlightened British public in this dashing, adventurous age, presented by the life of Mr. Cooke, is the fact that, with a Roman chisel, he carved his way to fame, if not to fortune. He had been an attorney’s clerk, and a Protestant in religion, but had lifted himself or been lifted—by what power we know not, unless it were his own and that of the Romish Church—into an upper sphere of the legal profession, and the loftier faith of the Papacy. For eight years prior to the date of this narrative, Mr. John Athanasius Cooke had also been a member of Father Andrews’ congregation, and so by virtue of long communion, and a reputation for skill in such matters, my lawyer obtained the honour of that reverend gentleman’s confidence on this occasion.
The lawyer obeyed the summons of the priest with alacrity.
That Sunday afternoon witnessed their conference. The task he had to perform was set before him. Mr. Cooke explained that the whole transaction was “a little irregular,” and begged that the form of calling in a solicitor to instruct him might be gone through, just to comply with the etiquette of the profession, which looked upon such matters as this with a critical and suspicious eye. Father Andrews rebuked the lawyer’s scruples, and reminded him of his material obligations to the Church he had adopted. The priest sardonically inquired whether this was the first instance in which our barrister had, with his own hand, and without a solicitor’s intervention, done a little favour of the kind for a dying penitent?
Mr. Cooke yielded up his scruples. He felt that the power which had made could unmake him. He owed all that he possessed to the Church whose humble servant he was; and at whatever risk to his professional status, he must obey the orders of his priest.
Father Andrews drew from his pocket the memorandum he had drawn up in the chamber of M. Carré, and to which that poor wretch had in terror, or perhaps between fear and hope, given his assent.
Mr. Cooke having promised to draw a will according to these instructions, and neatly engross the same with his own hand, so as to limit the circle of confidence, he was allowed to quit the holy father’s presence. I must not, however, neglect to say that arrangements were made to meet next evening at Maturin Carré’s bedside. Evening was selected, because, as Father Andrews stated, a day’s remorseful thought and its exhausting effect upon a worldly mind, might facilitate the pious labour of completing the bequest. The morning was suggested by Mr. Cooke; but the priest replied, that at such a moment the greed and irreligious thoughts of the testator might prevail over all ghostly influence. So the next evening was determined upon for the execution of a will which the barrister agreed to bring in his pocket.
Reader, let us follow this astute lawyer to his chambers. We may be permitted to see the legal craftsman at his work. It will be a novel sight. You have probably seen a few manufacturing processes, but if you are a reflective person, nothing half so unique, and, perhaps interesting (although it certainly is not beautiful), as the machinery by which kindred—oftentimes widows, orphans, and aged parents—have been and are plundered, even in this enlightened country, by unscrupulous lawyers, who are the instruments of designing priests. Will you, dear reader, observe with care the various stages in the manufacture of Carré’s will?
The lawyer rose at daybreak, after a night of imperfect slumber. The conscience of his early manhood had not been moulded into the exact form, or taken the precise colouring, that his new masters could have wished. Yet he did not long hesitate. Some hours before the drowsy, ill-clad, sinister-looking boy, denominated a clerk, arrived, and to the astonishment of a blear-eyed old woman, called a laundress, who was supposed to be cleaning the dingy apartments, Mr. Cooke entered them! After dismissing the crone, he fell into a reverie, and thus soliloquised:—
“Ten thousand pounds! No—seven thousand and three thousand! Good—that is fortunate!”
So it might, indeed, have been fortunate for the priest, as this story will show.
He gazed vacantly at his book-shelves, and from thence to the blackened ceiling. No reproach came from the worthies whose thoughts were enshrined in those goodly tomes, nor through the roof from a just Heaven. Superstition lent her influence to the clients.
“A special Providence has so arranged it. It was not my division, nor that of Father Andrews. The funds are already divided into the proportions we require,” he continued; and this sagacious man half hoodwinked himself into the delusion that there was no trickery herein on his part.
“Seven thousand Reduced Stock; that is for our holy Church. Three thousand Consols; that sum is for relations. Let, me see. One, two, three, four— seven hundred and fifty pounds each. Admirable. Faithful executors will administer the trust, and preserve the secret. How fortunate the money was not all invested in one Stock? The division by us might have awakened inquiry and caused trouble.” Thus proceeded the lawyer’s soliloquy.
Now he rose, paced the floor of his workship; then he paused, sat down, and took a pen in hand.
“No!” he exclaimed, half audibly, but nobody was listening. “Executors are the first consideration, and I usually begin my wills by their appointment. A grim smile passed over his hard features. He recalled an observation by the late Mr. Joseph Miller, of facetious renown,—“ Leave your property to whom you please, if you make me executor.”
He now began to write in a distinct hand, like any clerk. The first executor was the Roman Catholic bishop of the district, then in the quiet enjoyment of a British and not a foreign territorial title.
“Should there be more than one executor? It would be as well.”
“Who shall I name as the second? Myself: why not? It would not, perhaps, look well.”
The lawyer recollected that he had not seen the testator. He thought it possible the old man might object to a lawyer, and Mr. Cooke would not risk a miscarriage of the scheme by collision with such a prejudice. A blank was left for the second name, with the reserved intention to fill it by inserting that of Cooke, and the address of his chambers, if the testator did not object.
The remainder of the document was soon prepared. It would not do to make the £7,000 bequest directly and obviously to the Roman Church; that would render it legally invalid. The wisdom of the Legislature had, by an Act of Parliament, long ago declared this. It would not do to give the priest an apparently beneficial interest in it. The dying testator might object to this; and it was, moreover, against the policy of the Church of Rome. The fund must be left in trust for some pious object, so as to secure the interest or usufruct in perpetuity to the nominees of the Roman College, which undertakes this duty.
An English charity must be named as the beneficial legatee. What institution should it be? There was a girls’ school attached to Father Andrews’ chapel; that would do exceedingly well There was, indeed, something pleasant in the notion. The idea of rescuing £7,000 from a miser, and devoting it to the education of young women, was a pretty idea.
So the lawyer wrote down “that the sum of seven thousand pounds should be given to the executors in trust to apply the dividends and annual income in perpetuity for the benefit of and for the maintenance and support” of the school referred to. That school might not, however, always have an existence. This contingency was easily provided against by the subtle craftsman. What lawyers call “a trust over,” or provision, that if the one school should ever cease to exist, the fund should be held for and applied to some other like charitable institution, got rid at once of the peril of a failing trust.
There was another provision requisite. The artful people who thus extracted funds from the grasp of a dying miser, took care to guard its investment, and keep the proceeds in their own hands. Mr. Cooke inserted a provision, that in case one trustee should die, go to reside abroad, or decline or become incapable to act, the other trustee might appoint a colleague. Is it necessary to show how this would operate? The secular person appointed to save appearances in the eyes of the testator, and of any curious man who should ever go to Doctors’ Commons, and pay a shilling to inspect Mr. Cooke’s skilful performance—a mere creature of the Roman Church—would, or might, be called upon to resign his trust; in which case another priest would, or could be, nominated. Thus the fund would be effectually secured for the Church. It might be applied as a college at Rome, or its servants there, wished. Nobody would know; there was nothing even to suggest inquiry.
Cunning priest, clever lawyer—combination almost omnipotent! You think that the miser’s hoard—or at least more than two-thirds of it—have been snatched from those very poor relations of Maturin Carré, who, a distance off, in the South of France, have only a dim, vague notion that the old exile lives, and think that he has amassed fabulous riches. You, priest and lawyer, are the only persons in England who know the names of Maturin Carré’s relations. There may be time for a sister or a brother to pay a last tribute of affection to the lonely wretch. To such a man, that would, in all probability, be more consoling than the offices of your religion. It would, in any case, be a consolation to any dying man. It is, however, no portion of your plan or policy to let the Carrés in France know anything about their dying brother. You, Father Andrews, assert that he does not entertain any affection for them. You say that he wanted to bequeath the whole of his savings to your Church; that you vindicated the claims of family and of blood; that you induced the penitent to distribute about £3,000 among those poor people. Some folks will be ungenerous enough to doubt the truth of your assertion. I place your statement in this narrative, and leave the reader to judge of its credibility and its value. ’Tis, withal, a pity that your advocacy of family rights stopped short at the point it did. Perhaps you had some higher motive; but I know that you had a wish to save appearances. If you had only contrived, by the exercise of your spiritual influence, to reverse the arrangement—to have given £7,000 to relatives and £3,000 to the Church—the affair would undoubtedly have looked better. But I must not omit to explain all that the legal servant or slave of the Roman Church in England did, with his priest’s concurrence, for Maturin Carré’s relations. Maturin Carré had two brothers and a sister living, or supposed to be living, when this will was made. One sister, after getting married and bearing children, died. To each of the three living kindred, £750 in Stock was given; while between the children of the deceased sister the like amount was divided.
The lawyer, having so far completed his task, rose from his chair again, and went out to enjoy a morning walk in the dusky purlieus of his manufactory. He had done his work skilfully, and perhaps enjoyed the consciousness of that little fact. One satisfaction his patrons might have felt if they were capable of duly appreciating it—the writing was a clear, intelligible, round hand. No other person had been taken into confidence—no heretical copyist had been employed. The advantage of this will be obvious to the reader.
That afternoon the lawyer and the priest were again closeted in the apartments of the latter, and the holy father graciously smiled as he perused the document, and bestowed an approving look upon his faithful friend.
“Well done, my son,” said the priest. “You have performed your duty to our holy Church excellently.”
Over the lawyer’s harsh countenance there glided a faint smile. A compliment was grateful to him. Then his features settled into their usual rigidity. Misgivings as to the propriety of his share in this business disturbed him. What if the plan should miscarry, notwithstanding all their devices and precautions? What if the Benchers of Lincoln’s Inn should hear about it? What if the case should be investigated by them or become sooner or later the subject of judicial investigation? From the first, he could never perfectly shake off that fear of detection.
The priest observed this moodiness with a feeling of contempt for his legal man-of-all-work, and was silent with reference to it.
“We shall require two witnesses, who are to derive no benefit from the will,” suggested Mr. Cooke, a little abruptly.
“Of course we shall. I am lawyer enough to know that, and have provided two of the right sort—persons who won’t see more than I want them to see. They’ll witness the old man’s signature, but see nothing else, I warrant you,” was the ready sardonic answer.
All arrangements had now been made by the friends and servants of the Church.
Shortly afterwards, the two gentlemen called upon the dying man. Maturin Carré was not in the frame of mind they expected. The influences of the day had not reduced him so low as had been calculated. They found him argumentative and stubborn. He doubted whether he had so short a time to live as the doctor had informed him. He said that he did not like to make a will, because it appeared like resigning all hope of recovery, and urged many other common pretexts for not completing the bequest.
During this conversation two ladies called at the house in which Carré lived. One of them was the priest’s housekeeper, the other was a schoolmistress, and a lady under many obligations to him.
Their business may be imagined. Their call explains the half mysterious response of the priest to the lawyer. The holy father knew, as he said, that the pious or charitable bequest would be inoperative unless disinterested persons saw the testator attach his autograph, and also placed their signatures at the foot of the document. Father Andrews, with benign forethought, had asked these ladies to follow him at a respectful distance, to the bedside of the testator. The landlord of the house and his daughter, or some fellow-lodger, might have been relied upon to discharge the trivial obligation of witnessing the dying man’s will, but the priest had sagaciously resolved that none but faithful communicants should have the honour. Beyond doubt no one could have been more gratified to play that humble part in the drama than either of the ladies.
But it was not so ordained. Carré was incurably obstinate.
The priest heard the expected knock of his female friends at the street-door. He presented an appearance at that moment more easily imagined than described. His look half terrified his learned friend, but, strange to say, the enfeebled miser did not quail under the furtive glances of the confessor.
The landlord, who, as the reader may have supposed, did not belong to “the true faith,” had begun to suspect a proceeding not altogether in accordance with his ideas of spiritual propriety. He opened the street-door, and stopped the further progress of the ladies. He would not let them ascend the stairs until he had announced their names to his lodger. The message gave him an opportunity he desired, to see what was going on in the abode of death. His worst suspicions were strengthened.
The messenger announced the names of the fair visitors, and the impatient priest exclaimed:—“Tell them to go home, I don’t want them to-day. I shall soon come after them.”
And he did as he promised. Baffled, humiliated, and crest-fallen, consumed by a rage he strove hard to conceal, it may have been through pride, or it may have been from cunning, and in the hope that disease would soon once more place Maturin Carré’s handwriting in his control, the priest did not prolong the argument or the interview more than ten minutes after the ladies had returned.
The atmosphere of the close room affected him more than it did the expiring miser. The ghostly man longed for a breath of pure air. The lawyer, who had been silent during the latter part of the interview, saw, or fancied he saw, the priest’s wish in the changing tints of his face.
The “equity draughtsman,” like many other people, thought most during taciturn intervals. Although silent, he had now been very thoughtful. He was also a man for emergencies. More legal acumen had been exercised in the quiet breast of the will-maker in Maturin Carré’s garret, and within five minutes, than in his own chambers, where he was at liberty to soliloquise during as many hours. All the possible objections to the will had been concentrated into one brief reflection. All the dangers to himself and his friends flitted across his mental vision like (if the simile be permissible) an electric panorama. He, too, was glad to make his escape from the loathsome presence of his aged victim, and the fetid air of the apartment.
Obstacles had sharpened his wits. He had struck out a new line of procedure. The Church should have its expected legacy, if death alone were not inexorable.
With this resolution in his heart, the lawyer’s facile tongue began to move.
“Well, well, my good man, if you are unwilling to do it, we’ll not press you,” observed Mr. Cooke.
The holy father made a sign, and the old man trembled.
Summoning all his courage again, Maturin Carré, in broken but decided accents, exclaimed—
“I tell you I’m not going to die; I’ll not make a will—you’ll kill me. Leave me.”
“Be calm, my friend,” the lawyer rejoined; “we will leave you to think over the matter for a day or two. There, don’t get excited.”
As he spoke, he assisted the miser to lie down, and with considerable delicacy adjusted the pillow, so that a feverish head might rest upon it.
“Be calm,” he said again, and turned his eyes from the rude couch. His companion readily took the hint.
“We’ll call again in a day or two, say on Thursday, and see how you get on. Pray don’t excite yourself,” were the last words used at this meeting.
Priest and lawyer then quitted the house, without taking leave of the landlord. They went to the priest’s residence, and there discussed what next, and next, should be done to secure the £7,000. The plan agreed upon and pursued will immediately appear.
Two intervening days have elapsed, but they are not taken into account in this narrative. None of the actors, except Mr. Cooke, the versatile and persevering lawyer, took any account of them. The doctor never called during Tuesday and Wednesday upon poor old Maturin Carré to ascertain whether he needed pills, powders, draughts, or lotions, or whether the miser had procured the wine and arrow-root that on Saturday had been considered of more use than physic.
Father Andrews who on Saturday, when informed that a miser was lying in extremis, hastened to the bedside of Carré, never called to see that wretched old man on Tuesday or Wednesday. Poor Maturin was left alone in his attic for two days by doctor, priest, and lawyer; but the last gentleman was not all this while idle. He had, in truth, been somewhat busy.
On Tuesday morning he went to the Bank of England, and bespoke an instrument, or the form of an instrument—called a power of attorney—that would enable the dying man, if he should be so minded, to get the £7,000 transferred from himself to the nominees of his Church, without removing from his bed. The authorities of the Bank, as Mr. Lawyer knew beforehand, required two days to prepare this agent in the transfer. He went himself on Thursday and got the needful paper. He also worked diligently upon two documents which the new plan of operations required he should get ready before he visited Carré again.
On Thursday, after leaving the great institution in Threadneedle Street, the lawyer made the best of his way to the house of the priest in Somers Town.
“Well, I’m glad to see you,” abruptly exclaimed Father Andrews, as his satellite entered; “he’s still alive, I have had the house watched, although I have not been to see him since Monday.”
“I pray that all will be right. I have, I think you will say, done my part to accomplish the task we have set ourselves for the glory and advancement of our holy Church.”
The holy father was testy. In truth he began to fear that the prize would not be carried off, and that the ugly affair might get disclosed.
“You have been long enough about it,” the priest rejoined. “Suppose the old man had died while you were doing your part, our holy Church would not then have had much to thank you for.”
The lawyer timidly explained the fault was not his, but that of the authorities of the Bank; and he went on to show how profitably the time had been used by him.
He drew from his pocket a deed. It had been drafted by him, and neatly engrossed on parchment by a law stationer. The lawyer’s eyes glistened as he looked at this portion of his own work. It was a Deed of Gift. It was a specious document, By this, Carré was to “cut away from himself,” or with the power of attorney transfer the £7,000 at once from his own name to those of trustees. It was no small recommendation in itself of this Deed of Gift over a will that it saved the nice sum of £700, or thereabouts, which, as legacy duty, the Government would otherwise have received; but this was, perhaps, about the least recommendation of it in the eyes of the lawyer. He was consoled by the reflection that such a deed as this, when it passed only personal property, required no registration or enrolment.
As Maturin Carré’s family all dwelt a long way off, and were, very illiterate persons, not at all likely to be able to unravel this wicked plot, its authors had, it would really seem, secured a practical impunity by their own device. All that remained to be done was to get this deed executed. Then the giver might die as soon as the Almighty pleased. If any of the miser’s kindred should visit this country, or instruct a friend to search the records of Doctors’ Commons, they would trace no will containing the remotest direct or indirect reference to this sum of £7,000. Was not this better than a document open to the inspection of any one whose curiosity led him to expend a shilling for that liberty,—a paper, wherein the trusts under which the £7,000 nominally passed would have to be set out? All these things Mr. Cooke expounded to Father Andrews, whose cunning leer of satisfaction was the lawyer’s present reward.
“Then we shan’t require any will?” Father Andrews observed interrogatively, for he, as he said, knew a little law.
“Oh, yes,” said the lawyer; “there is the fund of £3,000 for Carré’s family. It will be desirable to have a will for several reasons.”
“And who are named in the deed as trustees?” inquired the holy father.
“The same persons as were executors in the former will; but I have added a provision by which, after my death, or if I should cease to act as trustee, every other succeeding trustee ‘shall be a bishop or priest of the holy Roman Catholic Church.’ ”
“Good!” ejaculated the priest.
“I hope you also approve of the will?” said the lawyer.
“I do,” replied the priest, who, astonished at the facility with which every species of property, except freehold land, could, under the present law of mortmain, be wrested from its owners, began to crave the remainder of the miser’s property. “But,” he added, “I now almost think it was wrong of us not to have taken the whole. I warrant no part of the old man’s hoard will be preserved save that appropriated to pious uses.” Then, again, recollecting the old man’s positive refusal to sign the former will, the priest was haunted by a dread that he might this evening be as obstinate. So that it was perhaps as well, thought the holy father, to adhere to the original division, and let kindred have a dole of the miser’s wealth.
Looking his lawyer steadily in the face, the priest inquired how the £3,000 was to be disposed of.
“Ah,” said the lawyer, “exactly in the way arranged; it is cut up into four parts of £750 in Stock; You see,” he added, handing in the paper, “it is a very short and simple affair. Taking out the £7,000 has much simplified the will; but it is very complete. Nothing on the face of it can suggest to the inquiring mind that we took a huge slice out of the property just before its owner died.”
The priest was charmed by the skilful arrangement of his lawyer.
Lawyers have told me that no will need have been drawn if the simple purpose of it had been to secure the transmission of the £3,000 in the direction of the bequest. In the ordinary course of law, under letters of administration, it would have been distributed exactly as the will provided. The real, and indeed the sole, object of the will, was to hand over the administration of the £3,000 to friendly executors, who, by being thus brought into communication with the legatees, would stop inquiry into the use of, or indeed the existence of another fund—the £7,000.
The time had not yet quite arrived for calling upon the recalcitrant. All the preparations had, however, been made; so the two worthies who played leading parts in what I shall now venture to style the conspiracy, conceived they were entitled to a little enjoyment: and they had it. The remainder of the chat took a lively turn, as it usually does over a dinner-table when the host provides such good cheer as Father Andrews was able to place before a guest.
When the priest conceived that the proper time for paying another visit to Maturin Carré had arrived, he had been joined at his house by two other persons. One was a lady, already introduced to the reader, whose profession was that of schoolmistress, and who, it may be here also stated, had before this supplemented her ostensible vocation by little odd jobs of the kind now about to be described. The other was a gentleman—that is to say, he was clerk to a private banker who then carried on business in the neighbourhood of Covent Garden market, and was greatly patronised by the Roman Catholic clergy and gentry, who suffered terribly when his bank broke a few years ago.
The lady and gentleman had been invited by Father Andrews to be the witnesses of this nefarious scheme at its culminating point. It was a prudent step thus to conceal from heretical eyes how modern Roman Catholic priests can behave towards penitents who have money, in the days, hours, or moments which precede the soul’s flight to its abiding-place. Father Andrews had truly described these persons. The eyes of these witnesses would be able to see, or would certainly bear testimony to nothing dishonouring to the Church to which they were attached by solid material links, in addition to those of faith.
At length the proper time arrived. Priest, lawyer, and witnesses, all strangers to the testator, all well acquainted with each other, three of them without souls to call their own, but dependent upon the fourth, set out in company for Maturin Carré’s house.
Carré had, however, not been quite so wretched or so feeble in mind or body as some persons hoped, during the interval between my second and third days. He had partially rallied, and was this evening somewhat stronger in intellect and muscle than he had been for a fortnight at least. Whether this was in any degree attributable to the doctor’s non-attendance, the abstinence from physic, or the priest’s forbearance, the reader, who is left by me to determine so many things, may decide. A self-willed spirit may perhaps be in a measure attributable to the influence of that Protestant landlord, who was the marplot of the whole design. He had been very much in the company of his lodger during the period I skip in order to abbreviate our story. This profane man had represented Father Andrews’ conduct in anything but a favourable light, and he had cast shadows of doubt upon the honour of the Roman Church’s standing counsel, Mr. Cooke. Maturin Carré had so been roused to a pitch of irreligious boldness, higher than that he attained on Monday, and had resolved that he would have nothing more to do with the priest, and the lawyer, or their projects. He had instructed the landlord of the house not to admit these pretended friends when they next called.
Upon the arrival of the cortège at Carré’s residence—the priest leading the way, followed by the lawyer and the witnesses—the door was opened by the protecting landlord.
“Mr. Carré is very ill, and can’t see you to-day,” said the host, half dismayed by the numerical, if not the moral, strength of the party.
The astonishment of the visitors at this abrupt announcement was naturally great. The pious schoolmistress afterwards confessed, in language more didactic than scholastic, that she was “regularly non-plushed;” and the Catholic banker’s clerk also naively admitted that he began to fancy “something queer.”
Priest and lawyer glanced at each other and at the landlord who barred the passage, or staircase, from intrusion. There was safety for reputation in delay, risk to character by precipitation. Death was, however, imminent, the hours of the miser were numbered, and hesitation might sacrifice £7,000. The dominant characteristic of Father Andrews prevailed over his caution. In two or three seconds his decision had been, taken. The stake, he thought, was worth the risk.
The priest’s eye measured the landlord from head to foot, in order to judge the probabilities and capacity of resistance, and formed an opinion about them. As to the latter, I shall have occasion to explain what he thought. Of the former, it is enough to say that he saw no reason to apprehend “a scene” if the attack were dashingly made.
Father Andrews, within less time than this description has occupied, threw himself forward, simultaneously exclaiming, “I am not to be treated in this manner,” and by a stroke of the arm removing the impediment from his path.
The priest rushed up stairs, turned the handle of the apartment, and stood before the trembling miser, who yet resisted his ghostly assailant.
The landlord then politely invited the embarrassed witnesses and the lawyer into the parlour, where, by a remarkable coincidence, there happened to be another gentleman, a friend of the host’s, whose presence excited the barrister’s notice, if not his fears.
The reader’s imagination will be good enough to follow me up stairs after the priest.
“Pray let me alone, I can’t do any business to-day. I don’t know what I am about. What do you want?” were sentences, in English, that proceeded through the chattering teeth of the old man.
“Do you revoke your promise—your sacred gift to our holy Church, wretched man?” inquired the priest sternly.
“No, no; but do leave me; call another time. I can’t do it to-day.”
“Not to-day? To-morrow will see your body in the grave, and your soul in—”
“No, no; I will, I will. Where are the papers?” And the dying wretch held out his hand as though he wished to grasp a pen, and by conveying all his worldly wealth to a priest, avert the completion of a sentence.
Father Andrews quickly went outside the room, and over the staircase shouted for the barrister and witnesses to “come up.”
The witnesses proceeded upstairs at once. The lawyer, who would have given half his own expected legacy to have secured the absence of that stranger, and of the marplot landlord of the house, but knowing this desirable intermediate consummation was not practicable, he thought the next best thing was to make them observers, if not parties in the transaction.
He had great faith in the lower motives of the human heart, as nearly all the members of his profession have. It was just possible, he thought, that such a tribute to their self-importance might win over the fidelity or the silence of these persons. The barrister did not exactly know, or even conjecture, the true situation of affairs in “the second floor back” between the priest and the impenitent. The landlord and his friend accepted the invitation.
When the priest saw the landlord enter the room, he was terribly disconcerted, and embarrassment made him additionally rude.
“You are not wanted here,” he said.
The barrister became alarmed. He knew that any deed or will executed by that weak human creature, on the brink of the abyss of death, surrounded as he was by strangers, would be set aside if challenged by the next of kin. He was terrified by remembrance that his own conduct would be severely condemned by the heads of that honourable profession he was degrading, and he knew that public opinion would anathematise all the actors in the conspiracy according to their demerits.
“Let him stay, let everybody remain; I beg he will stay,” said the barrister, and the priest, who conjectured that there were reasons for desiring their company, made no further objection to their presence.
The landlord and his friend did remain, to tell afterwards all that took place.
The barrister, to keep up a show of appearances, and not doubting for a moment that Father Andrews had prepared the way, went to the bedside of Carré with the intention of explaining the documents. The old man who had been more than a little confused by the entrance of so many persons to his room, was frightened by the magnitude and solemnity of this “equity draftsman’s” work. The vulgar mind usually looks upon a parchment deed with something like awe, and Maturin Carré could not have been much more unnerved by the unfolding of a death warrant in which his own name appeared, than he was by the crumpling sound of this pious deed of gift.
His glazed eye wandered rapidly from lawyer to priest, and scanned as well as it could the other strangers, who came, as he thought, at that moment to rob him of his evil accumulations. Again and again, as he looked at the priest, he trembled, and the perspiration oozed freely through his sallow skin. “Leave the papers,” he said, “till another day.”
A sensation ran through the company at this expression of dissatisfaction with the affair, uttered in the presence of the holy father. The lawyer observed it.
“Very well,” said Mr. Cooke, “we will leave them. I can, if you please, make another appointment.”
The lawyer was about to fold up the papers and take his departure, but the priest laid hold of his arm and bade him stay.
The priest stepped up to the wretched bedside, and addressed the dying man. What he said no living person can tell, for he selected a language which nobody else present, except Carré—not even the lawyer—could understand. Father Andrews slowly addressed the dying miser in French. Each word quickened the pulse of old Maturin, set his teeth chattering, and again brought the damp perspiration through his skin.
The French discourse, whatever it may have been, had not proceeded far when the dying wretch exclaimed: —“Yes, yes, I will sign them: don’t leave me.”
After this, Mr. Cooke was anxious to make one or two explanations, which he thought might satisfy the scruples of the heretical witnesses. He explained to Carré the solemn mockery that this deed of gift would not deprive him of the beneficial interest in his £7,000 so long as he lived; that he had a life interest secured to him therein, and that although the trustees would take what lawyers call “the legal estate” in his money, they would have to pay him the interest thereof as long as he lived; that it also contained a power of revocation, so that he could at any time during his life, by another regular deed, call upon the trustees to cancel this one, and hand him back his wealth. All these sage and important announcements were, however, unintelligible to the penitent, and not understood by the landlord or his friend.
The will, too—that was explained. Old Maturin saw his landlord before him, and remembering odd kindnesses he had received from that quarter, requested that everything in the house at the time of his death, money and goods, should be given to him. Neither priest nor lawyer objected to this, because it placed the landlord under recognizances not to disclose the affair.
If the will were set aside, this legacy, worth about £100, would be lost to him as the informer. Father Andrews suggested to the penitent that the lawyer ought also to have a legacy. The poor old wretch agreed to this. Fifty pounds was the amount named. The barrister went through the form of saying that was not necessary, the priest urged it, and it was so written down.
The several documents were formally executed and witnessed, and the heroes of this extraordinary modem romance, as soon as they could with an outward show of decency, withdrew to congratulate themselves on the final success of their scheme.
The execution of these documents by M. Carré was no easy task. He had been so reduced by illness, and so prostrated by the French discourse of the holy father, that it became necessary to assist him. The priest raised him up in his bed, placed the pen in his hand, and supported his back while he feebly traced on each of the three instruments—Deed of Gift, Power of Attorney, and Will—the name of Maturin Carré.
But the transaction was not then quite complete. Suppose Maturin Carré should happen to die before the £7,000 Stock is transferred from his name to those of the trustees. If he should happen to die with what the lawyers call “the legal estate” in that Stock in him, it will pass to his next of kin. There will be a smart race between Death, the patron of the next of kin, and Mr. John Athanasius Cooke, legal servant-of-all-work to the Anglo-Roman Catholic Church.
It was, after all, not a good arrangement on the part of Father Andrews, that the conferences with Maturin should take place in the evening, although it proceeded from an artful design. It prevented anything being done on the same day which might be necessary to give effect to the pious acts of the miser. A day, an hour—or as the result proved—even a few minutes, would determine whether the Roman Church should have the £7,000, or whether the money should legally pass to the kindred of the deceased.
Mr. Cooke did all that he possibly could, as he put it, “in order to carry out the benevolent intentions of the testator.” Nothing could be done at the Bank of England on the Thursday—the third day of my narrative. Nothing effectual could be accomplished until the Saturday—my fourth day.
In the interim, the lawyer made what preparations were necessary. Nothing could possibly exceed the vigilance of this learned gentleman. At the early hour of ten next morning (Friday), he paid a visit, in a cab, to the Bank, in company with a stockbroker of unquestionable orthodoxy, and entreated the officials to lose no time in making the transfer. The officers of the government and company who transact this business for the State are a rather torpid, or slowly moving set. The payment of an extra fee will, however, stimulate them a little. The barrister, duly sensible of the value of time in this instance, paid the “expedition money” and went home. There was no alternative. He could only wait another day, and hope that in the interval the old man would be good enough not to die, and so defeat the object of much labour and cunning.
Carré during the same period, was fast sinking into his grave, and neither doctor nor priest thought to aid or comfort him. Neither of these gentlemen cared to send him physic, nor to soothe him by a prayer, This appears to be a grave mistake. A tonic, or an anodyne, and some dainty nourishing food might have extended the duration of his life, until the lawyer had, beyond all doubt, completed his work. The trial of the third day had much accelerated the crisis. His mind was now an almost total wreck. At moments he would resolve to send for the priest and demand that the papers should be delivered up to him, or cancelled before his eyes; but immediately afterwards he would repent the thought, and derive a scanty sense of pleasure from a partial belief that he had appeased the Almighty by yielding to the priest’s artifices. In this way, but approaching hour by hour nearer and nearer to his end, the Friday was tided over by Maturin Carré, and the Saturday approached.
Saturday, the 6th of March, 1847, beheld the completion of the priestly fraud.
The lawyer rose from his uneasy bed at an early hour; he had slept but little that night. Long training from an immature youth to ripe manhood had not been given him as to a priest, so as to warp his natural understanding, cloud or distort his vision, and prevent his really seeing this odious affair in its real light and situation. If he had not already gone too far, he would have drawn back; this he thought was now impossible. Apart from the hostility he would thus earn from his patrons, and the consequent poverty he would have to brave, he saw the peril of a disclosure from the adoption of such a course. Safety, or the probability of avoiding detection, now assuredly lay in the direction he was expected to take. There was, practically, no course open but that he was pursuing.
By ten o’clock that morning he was in the office of a stockbroker, in one of the narrow thoroughfares of the city. This gentleman had not arrived, and was not expected for at least another hour, from his delightful suburban home.
Here, again, was a vexatious delay. Life was ebbing fast out of that wretched old man in Somers Town; and the barrister, in his impatience, took the clerk at a desk so far into confidence as to explain that “the benevolent intentions of the testator” might be frustrated if the broker should not soon arrive.
At length the stockbroker’s carriage brought that important gentleman to his office door. Mr. Cooke, standing on the threshold, saw his arrival. As he was emerging from the vehicle the lawyer thrust him back, and stepped into the carriage himself.
“To the Bank Transfer Office,” he said to the driver, who knew the place very well.
To the broker a few words of explanation were tendered, and accepted as apology for this unseemly haste.
Two or three minutes at most brought the carriage to the Bank. How long it took to get the transfer completed I am not able to say; but at half-past one o’clock that important ceremony was an accomplished fact.
Intense anxiety was seated on the countenance of the barrister as he passed out of the Bank of England. Was Maturin Carré yet alive? Vital question! Had death anticipated and baffled priest and lawyer? What if the scheme should wholly miscarry at the last stage? Exposure and ruin to him—scandal and injury to the Church. Conscience sorely punished Mr. Cooke that day.
As he halted to reflect an instant, an empty cab moved past. He hailed it, and told Jehu to drive rapidly as he could to a certain street in Somers Town. As the horse was a good one, he travelled over the ground at a pace that would have been pleasant to a railway traveller, but a pace withal that Mr. Cooke considered torturingly slow.
In due course the miser’s abode was reached.
The lawyer alighted, and knocked at the door. It was opened by the landlord in person.
“He is dead, sir,” was the reply to an unspoken inquiry.
“How long has he been dead?”
“About an hour, sir.”
“Are you sure? It can’t be quite so long as that.”
“Perhaps not quite. It might be a little more, it might be a little less.’’
How very tantalizing! Who can wonder that the barrister was a little excited. What a pity for the Church that the old man did not live, say another hour, so that witnesses might have seen him alive—say half-an-hour or so after the transfer of his Stock had been made. What a pity for those needy kindred of the miser in France he did not die an hour earlier, so as to make it clear that he was a corpse when the transfer was effected. One hour more or less, such as those which the remnant of his life was composed of, could not be of importance to the lonely exile and miser.
Wonderful efforts were afterwards made to show that Carré did breathe his last before the transfer of the stock was effected. Equal efforts were made to prove he survived that operation, of which, of course, he was unconscious. The best evidence I think went to show that, in reality, the last breath quitted his attenuated frame, and his pulse ceased to beat, as nearly as possible about ten minutes before the transfer was effected.
* * * * * * * *
The main thread of my story has run out, but there are a few incidents it is worth while adding as a sequel to this strange and true narrative. The landlord of the house and his friend were not satisfied with the proceedings I have described. In a week or two, accordingly, the former wrote to one of the relatives of the deceased, and told the story as well as he could. The family clubbed together their slender means, and deputed one of their number, a nephew of Maturin Carré, whose name, Francois Metarie, has become famous in the legal annals of this country, to visit England and inquire into the affair. Poor man, he was not equal to the task. When Metarie called upon the lawyer, whose address he obtained from the landlord, this gentleman Jesuitically assured him of the literal fact—presuming Carré died before the transfer was effected—that he died worth only £3,000. Metarie was also informed by many shrewd people in London, that even if it were possible to upset the deed of gift, he was not the man to effect this, because he was poor, and the machinery of our courts of equity could only be employed with advantage, if at all, by rich persons. The illiterate Frenchman went back to France. Still the family would not abandon the hope of recovering their due. Again and again Metarie came over here, no less than six times, until at length an eminent solicitor took up the case, and brought a suit into the Court of Chancery to set aside the deed on several grounds, but chiefly on the ground of fraud. I was employed to search into the case, and was not long in getting hold of sufficient facts to warrant a belief, in my own mind, and in that of my immediate employers, that foul play had been used towards the dying man or his relatives.
The primary merit of this discovery, however, belongs to a distinguished nobleman, who has rendered good service to this country, Lord Brougham, who has a chateau in the South of France. Carré’s family got introduced to him. He heard their story, saw the fraud, and knew how it might be defeated. He induced this solicitor, who employed me, to take up the case, and there can be no doubt that all the money might have been recovered if the family of the deceased had not given way. But they had a taste of what else they might have expected from the hands of the priesthood and the mob in France. Francois Metarie was a hand-loom weaver at La Mayenne, near Bretagne. He had a large family. The part he took in this business exposed him to bitter persecution. Two of his children were expelled the communal school; he was pointed at in the streets, and his wife was insulted in public; he was pronounced “a bad man,” and life was rendered so intolerable that he was ultimately driven from France, and had to find a home and a subsistence in this country. In this way the kindred of the miser were induced to compromise the suit. The arrangement was that the family should have a further sum of £4,500, and the priest and his party be allowed to retain the balance.
Of the lawyer it may be well to state that poetical justice overtook him. The censure of professional brethren, who ascertained the real nature of his avocations through these proceedings, the denunciations of Mr. Bethel (the present Lord Chancellor) in open court during the investigation, and the anathemas of the public threw him on to a bed of sickness, and accelerated, if they did not produce his death. Of the priest, it may also be well to explain that he had to endure for awhile in Somers Town treatment very like that Frangois Metarie experienced at La Mayenne. People pointed at him in the streets, and spoke of him in terms the reverse of complimentary or polite. The populace of that demonstrative neighbourhood looked upon him as a thoroughly “bad man;” when they told him so, as they often did, they qualified their opinion by adjectives unfit for reproduction in these pages. The consequence was that his ecclesiastical superiors thought it desirable to remove him to some other locality, where his zeal for the Church was not so notorious. Poor Frangois Metarie brought over his wife and all his children to London, set up in business as a cobbler, and by honest labour in this free and happy land he has been able to provide decently for them.
“Excuse me, ma’m, but I think you have lost something.”
“Lost something, sir! Lor! what do you mean?”
“Have you not lost your purse?”
“Dear me, no, sir; I’ve not lost any purse. I know I had it in my hand just now.”
“Will you oblige me by just feeling in your pocket?”
The lady did as she was asked, and then brushing aside her flounces, cast a glance on the floor.
“It’s not there, ma’m; I know where it is; be kind enough to step out of the room at once, before the next song. I will explain all about it.”
The lady was too much bewildered to reply.
“Your pocket has been picked, ma’m,” the gentleman observed.
Recovering her speech, the lady inquired—“Who could have done it?”
“The young woman who was just sitting next you; but pray don’t let us talk about it here, and make a commotion. If you will step out, I will tell you all about it.
“Oh, that’s impossible, sir! She was a very nice young person,—a perfect young lady, sir.”
With a slight emphasis, not, however, inconsistent with the most delicate politeness, the gentleman then observed, “I must ask you to follow me, ma’m,” and he glided through the bevy of gentlewomen nearly unnoticed, as a cantatrice advanced from the rear to the front of the orchestra, the observed of all observers.
The lady, hesitatingly and tremblingly—as if she were going to receive condemnation for a crime of her own perpetration—followed her interrogator.
This conversation took place one fine morning in the month of August, 1857, in that well-known place of amusement set apart by prescription, usage, or custom, for the upper ten thousand of the metropolis—the Hanover-square Rooms.
A peculiarly select, and withal numerous audience had been brought together by the choice and ample programme which Madame Tuyere had distributed among her aristocratic patronesses and patrons. The company was (perhaps two or three persons excepted,) composed of the fairest, gentlest, and highest ladies in the land, with a sprinkling of elite young manhood, whose possessions or expectations, whose escutcheons and whose ancestors, could be warranted.
One handsome person stood apart, or glided in and out of the assembly. He was about thirty years of age. He had been pronounced rather more than that age, but he might have passed for somewhat less than thirty. He was rather thin and delicately formed, with a pale face, grey eyes, forehead neither high nor low, eyelashes, eyebrows, whiskers, and an undergrowth of beard, which, to save time, and be intelligible, we may say might be reckoned among the great successes of Truefit. His dress was faultless. The white cravat reached Brummell’s ideal of colour and symmetry. The waistcoat was so aesthetical that a Young England politician once asked the wearer for the name of his tailor. The coat and trousers must have been constructed by Stultz and Buckmaster. Those patent leather boots, with imperceptible soles, were doubtless Medwin’s best material and workmanship.
This exquisite, just before he addressed our friend, Mrs. Tenderheart, had been seen, or might have been seen, with apparent listlessness, standing, Dundrearylike, near the door of the concert-room—his taper fingers encased in the neatest and softest white kid gloves—playing languidly with his crushed Gibus.
Who could he be? The order of men to which he belonged, the trade, profession, or pursuit he followed, have been more than suggested. He was a friend of mine, and it is from him I heard the particulars of this interesting little case. I may also, at once inform the reader that he was a police-officer of the detective force. His name was Slimy—Inspector Slimy—but he was commonly called “the ladies’ man.” The special duty allotted him by his grand masters of Scotland Yard, Whitehall, was to scent out, watch, and capture elegant thieves of the gentler sex, who plied their vocation in or about the model parish of St. James’s.
While thus innocently playing with his collapsed chapeau, Inspector Slimy’s grey eye had been running over the crowded seats of the concert-room, and had alighted on the bonnet of the nice young lady who sat next to Mrs. Tenderheart. He was an expert. Something Madame Devey might not have observed, and something he could not have explained, told him that this perfect young lady’s presence at Madame Tuyere’s concert was obnoxious to the administrative reformer’s cardinal principle. She was not an example of the right woman in the right place, or to clothe his ideas in the language of a policeman, he felt sure that she was after no good that fine morning.
With this conviction, he kept the perfect young lady under a keen scrutiny, and his suspicions were soon justified by observing an incident that led him to adopt proceedings not over pleasant to the object of his attentions. Perhaps indiscreetly, she left the concert-room a few minutes after this incident occurred, and on attempting to quit the building she was arrested by a couple of stout officers. When this had been effected, Inspector Slimy returned to his post of observation. Piatti at that moment held the eyes and ears of the assembly captive by his bow. On this performer retiring, the ladies’ man stepped towards Mrs. Tenderheart, and the brief conversation we have noted took place.
The lady who had lost her purse was told she must proceed with my friend the Inspector to a station-house hard by. She did so with reluctance, protesting there must be some mistake, that the young lady could not be a thief; that she—that is, Mrs. Tenderheart—would certainly not prosecute; that she was a mother, and had a mother’s feelings; that the alleged thief was just the same age, as nearly as could be, of a poor dear daughter, who, too good for this world, had been removed to a better, not more than a year and a-half ago. At the station-house the generous soul reiterated her faith and her decision. A purse had been found on the interesting criminal by the female searcher. Its identity was undeniable, and Mrs. Tenderheart scorned to tell a lie by denying her property.
The peculiarity or comparative worthlessness of its contents, removed any shadow of doubt which otherwise the kindness of its real owner might have availed itself of as an escape from the ordeal of prosecution. The unlucky culprit had only extracted from the lady’s pocket a few shillings and three peppermint drops.
“Do you think, as a Christian mother, I am going to transport a young woman for such a trifle?” asked Mrs. Tenderheart, and as the authorities made no answer to her inquiry, she replied to her own interrogatory by an emphatic “No!”
She was told she must sign the charge-sheet, and did so, still protesting that no merciful judge would compel her, perhaps to break a father and a mother’s hearts, taint the ambition of numerous brothers, corrupt as many sisters’ hopes by shame. She left the receptacle of crime with a final and sorrowful declaration that she would not prosecute—no power on earth should make her do it.
Mrs. Tenderheart that afternoon went to her solicitors—the eminent firm of Tomlinson, Cute, Tape, Worm, and Tomlinson. She did not ask their advice; she gave them her instructions. They did not offer their advice; they acted upon her instructions. They did not profess to undertake “criminal business.” When any highly respectable client compelled them, as it were, to institute a prosecution, they went about their work tardily, and did it unskilfully. No dream of costs, therefore, warped their sense of duty in this instance. Mr. Tomlinson the elder, and Mr. Tape were both present at the interview with their client, and complimented her benevolence. They assured her that her instructions should be carried out, if possible, to the letter, and they thought the magistrate would not compel her to prosecute against her will. She had better not attend the police-court, but authorise them to instruct some counsel learned in the law to appear on her behalf.
On the following day, the “perfect young lady” was brought up before Mr. Slingem, a vigilant stipendiary magistrate, charged with having picked Mrs. Tenderheart’s pocket of a purse containing eight shillings and three peppermint drops.
On behalf of the accused, Mr. Tortuous Dodge, the London Thieves’ Attorney-General, was instructed to bully the prosecutor, prattle wildly about his client’s respectable character, and defy all the policemen and all the jailors of England to say that she had ever been charged, or held in custody on suspicion, before the present occasion. This was a fact, as Slimy had explained; for although he knew—but how he knew is yet a mystery I am not at liberty to explain—that she belonged to a “bad lot,” she was yet, he said, “a new hand.”
The prosecutor was not present, because, as Mr. Fitz Gisippus Glum (instructed by Messrs. Tomlinson, Cute, Tape, Worm, and Tomlinson) explained, she was in such a state of nervous excitement over the matter, that her friends dreaded the effect of her appearance in court; and there was, moreover, reason to hope that this affair, if not an accident, a mystery, or “a fortuitous combination of circumstances reconcileable with a theory of innocence,” it was at all events—under the worst aspect—a case of mania, and a first offence on the part of the prisoner. He was, therefore, instructed to ask that the prosecutor might be allowed to withdraw from the prosecution; and as several of the most eminent judges who had ever adorned the incorruptible bench of the Central Criminal Court had laid it down as wrong to set the law in motion for a first offence, and by branding the young criminal as a convict, impede the work of reformation, he was quite certain that the well-tempered judicial mind of a Slingem would say the course Mrs. Tenderheart had elected to pursue was one dictated by lofty Christian philanthropy, and a sincere regard for the interests of the public.
The doctrine about prosecutions for first offences had certainly been laid down in my hearing, in courts of justice and elsewhere by eminent judges and commentators, but Mr. Slingem did not admit its force in this instance. He was inexorable. He would not permit Mrs. Tenderheart to retire from the prosecution, but declared that a duty she owed to society was the conviction of the prisoner if the evidence went to prove her guilt.
So stern and uncompromising was Mr. Slingem, that upon the request of Mr. Inspector Slimy, the vigilant magistrate refused Mr. Tortuous Dodge’s earnest entreaty for the liberation of his interesting client on bail. She was remanded for two days, and Mrs. Tenderheart’s counsel was informed he must produce her evidence at the next examination.
At the adjourned examination of the prisoner sufficient evidence was accordingly produced to warrant Mr. Slingem in sending the accused to take her trial at the next session of the Central Criminal Court. Another urgent entreaty to admit her to bail was disregarded. The “perfect young lady” was removed in the prison van, along with less showy prisoners, and lodged in Newgate. Poor Mrs. Tenderheart was sorely grieved, but found some consolation in the reiterated assurance to all her friends that she “couldn’t help it.”
The day after the perfect young lady’s removal to that famous prison, a rude cart, drawn by an unkempt horse, covered with dust, and bearing on one of its panels the inscription, “John Brown, Farmer, E—, Middlesex,” stopped at the door of Messrs. Tomlinson, Cute, Tape, Worm, and Tomlinson. An old man, dressed in a smock-frock, like one of the last of the farmers of an almost extinct generation, alighted from this primitive vehicle. Mr. Tortuous Dodge, true to an appointment, had arrived at this spot a few minutes earlier, and was sauntering up and down the street to kill time.
After a few words had passed, the “Thieves’ Attorney-General” and the old man, his companion, sought an interview with the firm. The object of this visit was to ask them if, should an application be made to a Judge at Chambers to admit the perfect young lady to bail, the firm would consent to his lordship releasing her.
The venerable white-haired man pleaded so hard on behalf of his unfortunate child, and so vividly, in unlettered eloquence, portrayed the mother’s anguish of mind—threatening a lunatic asylum, if not a grave—that the head of the house, the elder Tomlinson, was inclined to strain a point, and see if he could not safely aid in letting the prisoner out of Newgate for a few weeks until the trial.
Mr. Tape, however, who was also present at this interview, thought the reputation of the house might suffer by any arrangement with a prisoner. The lawyers retired for a few minutes to another room, and discussed the matter.
Upon their return, Mr. Tomlinson announced to the old gentleman their inability to grant his request. The father’s lamentations were exceedingly dolorous; but the firm had taken its resolution, and could not depart from it, however copious the flood of tears that domestic woe might cause.
As the farmer and the attorney drove slowly off in their creaking trap, Mr. Dodge exclaimed — “Two muffs, my boy; they don’t understand criminal practice. It’s all right, leave everything to me. I’ve done it before many times, and I will again.”
Within three days of this visit by the distracted parent to Messrs. Tomlinson, Cute, Tape, Worm, and Tomlinson, an application was made to the Judge, then sitting in Chambers, to make his order for the release of the prisoner on bail. This was supported by an affidavit, setting forth, among other things, that she had never before been accused of a criminal offence.
His lordship asked what the prosecuting solicitors had to say about the matter. The Thieves’ Attorney-General’s clerk explained that, although served with the usual notice, these gentlemen were not present. It was understood, and their absence seemed to prove, that they had no objection to the prisoner’s application. His lordship said, he must have proof that they knew of the application. Mr. Dodge’s clerk said he could produce the affidavit of the person who served the notice. This was procured; and the Judge made an order that, upon finding two sureties who would enter into a bond of £100 each, with her own obligation in £200, she should be liberated until her trial This bond was perfected behind the back of Mrs. Tenderheart’s solicitors; and the perfect young lady walked out of Newgate a temporarily free woman.
In due course the sessions were held, and her name appeared in the calendar, with a statement of the offence for which she was to be tried. Mrs. Tenderheart, being placed under recognizances to prosecute, was in the motley crowd awaiting a call to give evidence. Mr. Fitz Gisippus Glum fluttered about from the New Court to the Old, and the Old Court to the New with his solitary brief—that for the prosecution of this perfect young lady. Mr. Cute had condescendingly come down from his professional standard of reticence to further instruct the learned counsel as the case proceeded. Mr. Inspector Slimy was, of course, in attendance, with other police witnesses.
Everybody regarded the conviction and punishment of the offender as accomplished facts—except Slimy. He declared before the trial that the bird had flown, and said Mr. Glum would have nothing to do but ask that her recognizances should be estreated. The elegant detective was right. No perfect young lady pickpocket surrendered to prove her innocence by the tests of criminal jurisprudence. The case was called on; no prisoner answered. Mr. Cute endeavoured to hide his mortification under a forced smile; Mr. Glum looked very glum indeed, and savagely performed the humble lot assigned to him by the exquisite policeman; Slimy was vexed, but gave no outward sign thereof; and Mrs. Tenderheart, who asked with pathetic significance, “Who could have thought it?” felt more inclination to transport the parties concerned in the bail-trick than to prosecute for the loss of her shillings and peppermint-drops. After a brief running commentary on the matter, all parties separated, and so the story would end, except for an explanation or two afterwards communicated by Mr. Slimy to the eminently legal firm of Tomlinson, Cute, Tape, Worm, and Tomlinson, and which I may now tell my reader.
One day Mr. Cute met the polite inspector on a tour of observation through Regent-street and Bond-street, and exchanged civilities with him. Mr. Slimy availed himself of this opportunity to improve the lawyer’s knowledge of criminal practice.
“I’ve found out how it was done,” he said. “When that fellow, Dodge, saw he had a respectable firm like yours to deal with, sir, he knew he could do what wouldn’t have been safe with the Humphreys, Wontners, Beards, and Lewises. He just got a rascal he calls a clerk of his to swear that he had served upon you the notice of application to admit to bail, which he hadn’t done, of course.”
“No, that he never did,” responded Cute.
“I know that,” added the detective. “But what can a judge do when there’s an affidavit saying that it was served? He says to himself, here’s evidence that the prosecutor knows of this application, and don’t oppose it—silence gives consent. I think as it’s a first offence I ought to let the prisoner out on bail, and so he does. But Dodge wouldn’t, I say, have tried that on with the knowing members of his profession, sir.”
Cute felt humiliated, but said nothing.
“It cost them a pretty penny, though,” continued Slimy. “I have found out all about it. She was, as I said, a young hand, and rather clumsy at her work.
She was the sister-in-law of Joe Atkins, one of the most notorious fences in London. I caught her at her first job, and all the gang she belonged to were in an awful fright lest she should reveal their schemes. They would have spent a thousand pounds, if necessary, and I reckon that five hundred pounds would barely cover what she did cost them. First of all, it wasn’t a trifle they had to give Dodge, the lawyer, for getting that bit of perjury done about the service of the notice at your office, sir; then the bail had to be squared by giving them two hundred pounds to satisfy the Crown, and something handsome for themselves; and then they had to make it right with the young woman and her husband, for she was married, and was the wife of a railway guard. They gave her husband something tidy to be quiet, and sent him and his wife over to Australia or New Zealand, I haven’t learned which.”
Mr. Cute had been musing, and now drily observed, “It’s a pity that scoundrel, Dodge, can’t be hung. He is a monstrous disgrace, Slimy, to my profession. I wouldn’t mind prosecuting him at my own expense.”
“Leave that to me, sir,” said the exquisite policeman. “I’m on his track, sir; and now I know his trick, he’ll not long escape me.”
Slimy was as good as his word. He caught Mr. Tortuous Dodge repeating his affidavit trick, and that marvellously clever attorney got a long term of penal servitude; as a public reward for his ingenuity.
During the summer of 1854, Mr. W. J—, a man of extensive experience in such business, or professional enterprise, was lessee of the Theatre Royal, at B—. Somehow or other, it is not in the power of the most indefatigable and skilful manager of theatres to command success, although we never knew one of that versatile and conscientious order of geniuses, from the great Lumley of operatic renown to Mr. Wilde of peripatetic notoriety, who would not, if the assertion had been made on the threshold of eternity, affirm that he constantly, uniformly, and without exception, endeavoured to deserve it.
Numerous circumstances, over which no management can exercise the slightest control, such as the weather, the state of trade, competitions in the “entertainment line,” and last, but certainly not least, that shifting eccentric, kaleidoscopic, intangible thing called public taste will overthrow preliminary calculations, and turn golden hopes into blank disappointment.
No blame, then, can attach to Mr. W. J—, nor should it excite astonishment in the reader to learn that a more than usually hazardous venture, the summer season, had not up to the moment of our narrative prospered. In truth the spec. had turned out very badly, as every member of Mr. W. J—’s company could tell, at least as well as he could.
One morning, the manager had risen from—or, to speak with more precision—in his bed, to read half a dozen letters just brought him by the post. He grasped them with avidity, for, as he afterwards declared, amid a variety of solemn expletives and adjurations, he had a presentiment that “something good would turn up,” and that “luck was in store for him.”
Mr. W. J— never relates this story without a very ample preface about a dream he had the night before, and an exposition of the reasons why he felt assured the empty exchequer of that and former nights were and must be followed by “glorious triumphs,” “crowded houses,” an abundant exchequer for him, and the rare blessing of a full salary for each member of his company. We spare the reader these details. It is enough for our purpose to say that Mr. W. J— was in the position to reject “no reasonable offer” which might descend from “a star” to his lowly boards—or from any other man or woman. He, therefore, patiently and thoughtfully read over each communication brought to him that morning, although, at least, all but one would, in seasons of prosperity, have been hastily thrown aside with ejaculations more emphatic than elegant. All the present communications were, however, after due consideration set down as unworthy of reply—except the last. That letter ran thus:—
“—Terrace, Islington, London,
“10th July, 1854.
“Sir,—Having perceived, from the frequent encomiums of the impartial critics of the Era newspaper, that you have recently taken the B— theatre for a summer season, and that you have, in a spirit worthy of the reputation you had earned many years before entering upon your present arduous but creditable undertaking, resolved to place upon your stage and before the people of B— only the works of the great Shakspeare and our most celebrated modern legitimate dramatic authors, I am emboldened to make a proposition to you, that will, I hope, be not unacceptable, and which being accepted, will, I hope, assist in rendering your (I may say noble) experiment remunerative to you, as it unquestionably deserves to be.
“I may, without further preface, say that I shall be happy to arrange with you to appear in a series of leading female characters under your spirited management.
“I have not, it is true, had much experience—having only appeared a few times in amateur representations—but I am assured, by two or three very competent advisers, that I have genius and dramatic power, which may, I hope, atone for, if not compensate for my deficiency in practice. At the same time, I admit the force of an objection to my inexperience so fully that I shall be perfectly satisfied to play a role of characters without any remuneration at all, and shall be very willing to treat with you afterwards, in a liberal spirit if my first strictly professional appearances should prove successful, as I certainly hope, and am egotistical enough to think they will be.
“Having so far distinctly and frankly explained my views and wishes, I think it expedient to add, that I do not disregard those aids to effect, which so materially contribute to enlarge and deepen the influence of the truest and highest order of genius. My friends, who share my notions on this point, have, I am happy to say, therefore purchased me a wardrobe of unusual elegance, and appropriate jewellery at great expense.
“Will you be good enough to give this rather long letter your best attention, and oblige me with a line or two in reply at your earliest convenience.
am, Sir, yours very respectfully,
“W— J—, Esq.,
“Theatre Royal, B—.”
“P.S.—I have, in confidence, given you my real name and address; but, I should, of course, not like to have the former appear in the local papers.”
* * * * * * * *
The manager sat firm and rigid in his bed for a few moments. Then he broke out:
“By Jove, a sensible letter, at any rate. A splendid soul that woman has got in her, I’ll be bound. I’m not a marrying man, and I’m getting a little too old for romantic courtship, or I should be inclined to fall in love with Miss Ellen Wilkinson at once, without having seen her. And why not? Professor Somebody, that advertising chap, is right—character is best judged by handwriting and diction. I say she is a splendid woman. I know it as well as if she were my own sister, or—confound it—wife, I was going to say. All! but can she act? That is the question, as Hamlet says. It is not every clever, or even beautiful woman who can make a sensation in these days. Now, what a pity she does not give some further particulars. It’s just like these clever people, these geniuses, as they call themselves, and especially like female geniuses. She writes a devilish clever letter, as I said, but she has left out some particulars she ought to know that I should like to be informed of. I wonder how high she stands in her tiny shoes? Is she fair or dark— slim or buxom—(single I take it for granted she is). But, confound her, I say, she might have told me her age—that is, within a few years, more or less. Yet I think she’ll do. She’s got a fine wardrobe, that’s plain; and jewels, too—that’s good. I’ve no doubt she’s young, and tolerably good looking—slim, graceful, genteel, I fancy. I’ll engage her, at least, for the first role. I can’t do any harm by that. She’ll cost me nothing, and may bring me lots of pewter. The wardrobe and the jewels are a first-rate draw. Won’t the gods applaud if she’s got any of the real stuff in her? My risk is what?—now, let me see exactly—a few advertisements, some bills for the walls, and some for distribution. I’m sure to get as much by her as will pay for these things. I’ll engage her—that’s settled in my own mind; but I must not appear to bite at the offer like a ravenous starving gudgeon would at a fat maggot.”
Thus soliloquised the manager.
He then adjusted his nightcap, and dropped his head upon a snow-white pillow-case, stuffed with genuine down, drew the clean bed-clothes over him, and tried to sleep; but the glaring sun made the visit of its early rays obnoxious to slumber, and the daydream of an overflowing treasury rendered sleep impossible, So, after turning again uneasily, after the method of Dr. Watts’s sluggard, the man of unwearied industry rose and called for breakfast.
This wholesome meal was soon despatched; and with the aid of an old gentleman who had seen better days, but now existed as a supernumerary of the theatre, or a hanger-on of the great manager, that worthy concocted a reply to his fair correspondent, which ran thus
“THEATRE ROYAL, B—,
“11th July, ’54.
“Madam,—I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your very polite and ably written favour of yesterday’s date. That letter, I see, is the production of a highly cultivated mind, and of a lady who entertains an exalted (but very proper) sense of the noble mission which the drama, under conscientious management, is destined to fulfil.
“I am, Madam, almost persuaded by your letter to accept your very fair and reasonable offer, and agree to incur the heavy expenses which the due publicity and other preparations for your appearance in a role of legitimate characters would entail upon me. But I am quite sure you will pardon the slight hesitation which second thoughts (not always the best, although a poet has said they are) have induced. There are a few little matters upon which I desire some information; and if you could either pay a visit to B— yourself (which I humbly venture to suggest would be the best plan), or get some prudent friend—a man who understands business—to come down and see me on your behalf I think there is no doubt an arrangement mutually satisfactory could be effected.
“Be kind enough to let me hear from you further on this subject by return of post, as I was on the point of making other engagements when your letter of yesterday reached me; and if from any cause we should not come to an arrangement, it will be necessary for me to conclude these other engagements at once.
“I am, Madam, your very obedient
“Miss Ellen Wilkinson."
This letter was a source of delight to Miss Ellen Wilkinson and her friends. They saw that the engagement was already practically made.
Miss Wilkinson was, in some respects, a decidedly strong-minded woman. It was resolved by herself and friends in council that she should run down from London to B—, and finish the negotiations. She found this no difficulty. Within half an hour after her arrival in the town she had settled with the manager all she cared to arrange. She was to play a role without fee or reward. The manager tried to get a consideration for allowing her to appear upon his stage. He suggested that he ought to have £50 towards his outlay (which, in fact, did not exceed £10), and he made a stand for a few minutes upon £20 or £25; but the lady assured him that her friends had expended so much upon her wardrobe that she knew it would be impossible to get anything further out of them, and she could not, indeed, ask them. She added, in tones of emphatic sincerity, that if her gratuitous services would not justify the risk of his outlay in advertisements and printing, she must abandon, for the present, the hope of appearing at the Theatre Royal, B—. The manager saw the danger of breaking off a negotiation by which at all events he could not lose more than a trifle, if anything, and might realise a tolerable sum of money. The interview had not led this shrewd and experienced man to expect in Miss Ellen Wilkinson another Miss O’Neill, a Kemble, or a Tree; but his confidence that she would prove a star of the third or fourth magnitude, or, as he expressed it, “a perfect god-send” to him in his emergency, was strengthened. He made a few inquiries— some of which had reference to the wardrobe and the jewels—and in a round of platitudes about the delight it gave him to aid the development of young ambition, and bring out hidden genius, he consented to accept the gratuitous services of the lady.
The reader will not, I hope, expect me to describe the sort of announcements which Mr. W. J— inserted in the journals of B—, and placarded on the walls of that town. This manager believed himself a genius in this line, and I am bound to say, in his favour, that Mr. Vincent Crummles could not have done his work on such an occasion better than Mr. W. J— did. It is, therefore, enough to add, that the new tragedienne’s first appearance on any stage was announced in the most effective style.
The first appearance of Miss Ellen Wilkinson took place under favourable circumstances. No rival attractions were in B— that night. A panorama of the Holy Land intended to exhibit itself in the town that week, but the sight of the Theatre Royal’s big posters alarmed either the sanctity or the financial wisdom of its proprietor, who “moved on” to the next town, where the good picture had no counter-attraction, and did a large stroke of business. The opening night of the engagement was a decided success. The house was in reality half full, which permitted the lively imagination of the manager to advertise a crowded house, and to apologise for the apparent discourtesy of refusing money at his doors. In other respects the engagement was not a failure, and assuredly paid the manager, if not the lady and her friends—about whom, and which financial part of our story, I crave the reader’s patience.
I must not forget to generally describe Miss Ellen Wilkinson’s appearance and her wardrobe. She was about twenty-six years of age, of rather slender form, round but pale features, betraying the signs of extinguished hues, dark eyes set a little back in, or slightly more over-arched by a forehead than is usual with ladies. That forehead was a little broader, and perhaps a little higher—but it was certainly broader—than is customary with her sex. She was rather above the middle height, not tall, imposing, or of a commanding mien. She had received what, for a woman, must be considered a liberal education; but it embraced no remarkable or peculiar width of tuition or development. To sum up her intellectual attainments and powers, and put their description in a familiar phrase, she may be described as “a clever woman,” but a woman without genius, or even a high order of talent. Patience and perseverance were, however, qualities belonging to her, although not conspicuous, for she did not in fact exhibit one decidedly prominent trait, or what in Carlylese, is called individuality. The local critics, who did not violently praise, or at all censure the lady’s performances, severally declared them “creditable, ladylike, careful, well-studied, polished, and appreciative.” One censor encroached near enough upon the offensive to say that the lady was “a respectable sample of the mediocrity common in our day,” but this was the hardest thing said about her. The audiences were tolerably well pleased with her; and her wardrobe, to which gentle reference was made, or rather hinted, in the play-bill, was admired in boxes, pit, and gallery, as it deserved to be.
Time, the destroyer of illusions, the great maker and unmaker of reputations, quickly broke the charm which a manager’s advertising skill had invested this lady with. It became evident in less than a week that Miss Ellen Wilkinson would not make him a fortune, or indeed retrieve the bad luck of a season. She had answered pretty well, but had not realised his expectations. How far she dropped below the anticipations he had created, I would rather not say. So he resolved to get rid of her as soon as the first engagement had run out. But a crisis and a rupture took place before this natural termination of the contract. A week only had elapsed from the first appearance when some little misunderstanding occurred between a female member of the company and our heroine, who appealed to the manager, and found in him not the partisan she hoped to find. This led to a remonstrance, and the remonstrance to a cancelling of the engagement. And here, in justice to both parties be it said, a degree of seemliness, if not of moral dignity, was shown on both sides, which actors and managers do not always display, as the records of a Vice-Chancellor’s Court have, not long ago, testified. Miss Ellen Wilkinson and Mr. W. J— , in the most ladylike and most gentlemanly fashion, agreed to part, and did part. No angry word was uttered on either side. The last sentences were despatched from the hotel of the lady to the green-room of the manager, and were complimentary. The retreat of the tragedy queen was neatly covered by managerial tact. She had fortunately not stirred up his vengeance, which might have led him to adopt a course, with the view of injuring her professional character and hopes, which might have had an injurious recoil upon him. As it was, being able to reason coolly on the subject, the manager saw that his interest, no less than the lady’s, lay in the maintenance of a show of success. He, therefore, gave out that her engagement at his theatre was only an experiment, and that her brilliant triumph in B— would be shortly followed by her appearance in the great metropolis, unless some of her friends (for she was highly connected), who objected to the course of her ambition, prevailed on her to abandon the stage—which he, the manager, thought would be a national calamity.
The mention of the hotel leads to an explanation that the lady hired apartments—a sitting and sleeping-room—in one of the best hotels in the town, and no other town in England can put to shame the two hostelries of B—, in one of which the actress took up her quarters. The incidents of her arrival, and the scene she produced among the ladies and servants of both sexes in the establishment, have not been described That was not necessary; but the reader will be good enough to understand that her departure was an event.
“Mary,” she said, to the upper chambermaid, the night before her departure, “remember that I go to London by the express train to-morrow, and I have a great deal to do, as you see, in arranging and packing my things. Don’t let me lie later than eight o’clock in the morning—and can I get anybody who is trustworthy to help me?”
“I will assist you, miss, if you please,” replied the servant.
“Oh, thank you, I am much obliged; but I should not like to trouble you so much alone. I will accept your offer, but can’t you get another person—one of the under servants—also to assist?”
“No, miss, I’m afraid I can’t spare Susan, the under chambermaid, and the housemaid has so much to do that I am afraid master would blame me if I asked her to help us. But the laundress is a very honest woman, although poor; shall I get her to stay tomorrow morning when she comes?”
“Certainly; a very good thought of yours. And who will see my boxes safely to the station when they are packed? Dear me!” with a sigh, “I wish I had asked one of my cousins to come down and see to these things for me.”
“Well, as for that, miss, our head boots is as honest as the day. You may trust him. Lor’ bless you, miss, why the commercials trust him with ever so many hundreds of pounds every night. You know when a commercial writes his letters, he wants to send home to the house all the money he’s got, and he counts up his sovereigns at night, and he says to our head boots, ‘John, here’s two hundred pound; get me notes for it.’ And our head boots says, ‘Yes, sir;’ and he gets bank-notes sometimes from one place, and sometimes from another. And it isn’t one commercial as does this, nor two either, but many of them does it reg’lar, you know. You may trust our head boots, miss. He wouldn’t, I assure you, steal one of your rings, if they was diamonds—which, I dare say, for the matter of that, they is—and worth a thousand pounds.”
Perhaps the reader has begun to think that the eloquent head chambermaid had a tenderness for the head boots. Perhaps she had; but as that point had nothing to do with the mystery of the loss of the wardrobe, I didn’t stop to investigate it, and can afford no information.
It was finally arranged that the actress should have the united assistance of the head chambermaid and the honest laundress to pack the jewels and wardrobe—head boots, who was to see the precious packages afterwards conveyed to the station, being also engaged, through the agency of his eulogist, to lend a hand, if need be, in the preliminary work.
The head chambermaid took leave of the lady after these arrangements had been settled, and of course related all that had passed, with perhaps an air of importance, to the other servants of the hotel. Some little jealousy was produced by the thought that all the credit, and all the expected profit, of the event were to be monopolised by one upper servant. An intense curiosity was also aroused by the extraordinary account of the richness and brilliancy of the clothes and the gems belonging to the actress, which curiosity was not mitigated by a night’s refreshing slumber.
Next morning, the packing of jewels and wardrobe began about nine o’clock. The two female servitors and the actress set about the work, and head boots kept himself (anticipating a liberal compliment) entirely at the lady’s disposal. A housemaid, too, found herself at leisure, and tendered her additional services. These were not thought requisite by the head chambermaid; but Miss Wilkinson’s anxiety to render the task as light as possible induced her to insist upon the other women availing themselves of this further assistance.
At length gems, not so rare or so extensive as a peeress high in the table of precedence would feel satisfied with, but far more costly than an actress usually possesses, and about the genuineness of which, I have ascertained there could be no doubt, with satins, and silks, and laces, were safely deposited in several boxes. These were each carefully directed, and then handed over to head boots, who followed the truck drawn by under boots from the hotel to the railway station. The trusted agent of the commercial-room also saw the precious luggage put into a van under the eye of the guard, and he—that is, head boots—never left the station or took his eyes off from the van until the train had started. Nothing is plainer, or less open to be challenged, than the fact that the boxes contained the jewels and wardrobe, and that the guard’s van contained the boxes, when the iron horse darted off at express speed to the metropolis, with the property and its owner, along with other persons, at its tail.
A word here about the actress on the morning of her departure.
“Poor soul,” afterwards observed the chambermaid to her fellow-servants, “she was flurried, though. She couldn’t eat no breakfast, and if I hadn’t positively made her, she wouldn’t have taken a mouthful of anything with her; but, as I said, you can’t get anything until you reach London. The train only stops once, at R—, and you won’t get nothing that’s nice there. So I went to our barmaid and says, ‘Cut me a few nice sandwiches for Miss Wilkinson, for she ain’t had anything for breakfast, and she’ll want something before she gets to London.’ So I got her some sandwiches, and I put ’em in her reticule, and I says to her then, ‘Miss, you must take a mouthful of something to eat with you.’ ”
As no accident occurred on the road, the train arrived in due course in the London Station. The breakfastless lady having, it must be presumed, not eaten her sandwiches, began to experience a faintness as she approached the metropolis. Immediately the train stopped she therefore went direct to the refreshment-rooms for a bun, and in a few minutes she returned to get her luggage.
It could not be found; somehow or other these valuable boxes had disappeared! How could that have happened? The lady was distracted; short of losing a husband—and supposing him to be a good one—or a well-beloved child, nothing could wring a woman’s heart so violently as the sudden and total bereavement of wardrobe and jewels in this fashion. She clasped her hands, she paced rapidly up and down the station, exclaiming, “Where are my boxes?— where are they?” and would not be consoled. The few passengers left behind, and the officials, offered various opinions of more or less sagacity; but all agreed that it was a strange matter, and ought to be inquired into.
At length the distracted actress, whose performance in that railway-station had been fine enough to have taken captive the town of B—, got into a cab, and tearfully went home.
Consultation with friends led to consultation with an attorney. He saw what somebody else had seen before him,—that the railway company’s liability was clear, and that the evidence was almost perfect. The value of the wardrobe and the jewels could, in a general way, be shown; precise evidence of value was all he had to procure. The delivery of the boxes to the guard at B— could also be established by a most independent witness, whose honesty scores of commercials knew. The contents of the boxes could be shown by other equally independent testimony. The legal practitioner said he never had a better case. It was for the company to show what had become of the property so distinctly traced to the hands of their agents, How would they do this? The lawyer repeated his question in a kind of soliloquy, and gave it as his very distinct advice that Miss Wilkinson had a remedy against the company, and that nothing short of a miracle could prevent his obtaining her legal rights—full and ample compensation for the lost wardrobe and the costly et ceteras.
The attorney wrote the usual letter, which not being answered by a cheque upon the company’s bankers for the sum demanded, he issued a writ, and carried an action to trial in the Court of Queen’s Bench at Westminster.
The upper chambermaid, the head boots, the honest laundress, the housemaid, and the under boots, related their parts of this tale. Other evidence as to the value of the articles was given, and the company had really no answer to make. They could not dispute the fact that the luggage had been given to their servants, or the value of the contents of the boxes. To have done this would have been to charge with perjury a number of disinterested witnesses whose characters were unimpeachable. All the learned gentlemen who held the defendants briefs could do was to cross-examine the witnesses; which only made the evidence stronger, and in a speech say in effect, that it was a strange and mysterious affair. Yes, there was another topic of commentary. Mr. Lynx, Q.C., the leading counsel for the defendants, did also say, that he was bound to admit the witnesses exhibited all the signs of being honest, truthful witnesses, and he had no complaint as to the witnesses who had been produced, but he thought it remarkable, and very unfair to his clients —not to say a suspicious circumstance—that the fair plaintiff had not been put into the box. His learned friend, Mr. Serjeant Birdlime, had said that this lady could give no evidence in the case. “The jury would see,” continued Mr. Lynx, “that she was not requisite as a witness on her own side—that was got up complete without her—but he thought a cross-examination by him might have been useful to the defendants, that most respectable railway company he had the honour to represent.”
One or two of the jury seemed inclined to resent this attack upon the plaintiff, and appeared to regard it as an attempt to prejudice their judgment. Mr. Serjeant Birdlime was longing for the chance, or lamenting that, as the company called no witnesses, he had not the opportunity of retorting upon what he would have called a most wanton and unscrupulous attack upon a lady of unblemished reputation.
The Judge summed up the evidence, the jury turned round, had two minutes’ conference in their box, and then gave a verdict for the fair plaintiff in the sum of £250, the amount of the value of the lost wardrobe and jewels.
The company’s solicitor was anything but satisfied, although, as he said, he did not see how the jury could have returned any other verdict. He roundly asserted that his clients had been defrauded, and he suspected Miss Ellen Wilkinson to be one of a body of conspirators. He said in an audible whisper to Mr. Lynx, as that learned gentleman returned his brief endorsed with the result of the trial:—“It’s the work of that gang, sir, depend on it.”
The railway company did not pay the money. They succeeded in making out a case upon affidavits sufficiently strong to induce the judges to grant a rule nisi, calling upon the plaintiff to show cause why a new trial should not be had in the cause. That argument would come on in the form of another motion to make that rule for a new trial absolute, and the defendants thus got about three weeks to pursue their investigations.
All the detective agencies of the company were set in motion, but without success. I was then employed, and had no doubt, in my own mind, that I should be able to clear up the mystery, of what I also at once saw was a fraud, but I did not anticipate so easy a task as I had. I did, however, save the exchequer of the company from the legal extortion of conspirators, and cleared up a mystery, although the wretches who perpetrated the crime escaped.
Women have been correctly described as the marplots of conspiracy. This is true enough in a direct sense, but additionally true in the indirect one. The action of jealousy frustrated several of the schemes of the gang to which this histrionic impostor belonged, as we are now at liberty to confess. To this cause, on another occasion, the discovery and punishment of several of its principal members must be attributed. To this cause society is indebted for the ultimate destruction, about three years ago, of the abominable confederacy.
Miss Wilkinson had two admirers in the conspiracy, both privy to this fraud. One of them, smarting under a repulse, had conceived the design of betraying his rival and unkind lady-love, when he ascertained that I had got the matter in hand, and he made my acquaintance. Upon being promised his own safety, he disclosed the scheme to me. He related, circumstantially, how money had been advanced by the capitalist of the conspirators to buy the jewels and the wardrobe; how the scheme had been “put up;” and how executed. He made it appear that the engagement at the B— theatre was a device to give a bonâ fide aspect to the initiation of the fraud, how apartments had been hired at the hotel in order to secure independent testimony, how the fuss about packing up was but a dexterous little manoeuvre to enlist other honest witnesses in the scheme; how every detail, even to the departure, breakfastless, was but a phase of trickery, in the last instance an excuse to account for leaving the platform and going into the refreshment-room—all the while keeping an eye upon the guard’s van that beheld the apparent triumph of the coup, and was ready to cover a mishap if one had taken place.
Nothing is simpler than the dénouement of the plot. The moment when that always punctual express train would arrive was known. A cab drove into the station as the train arrived. A man, presenting the external appearance of a gentleman, alighted, and was merged in the crowd of passengers honestly seeking their own luggage.
He met another man who had entered the station on foot, and who, after hastily shaking hands with his associate, got into the same cab with him. The boxes containing the wardrobe and the jewels were claimed in the hurly-burly by one of the two thieves. The actress, who, of course, knew of the arrangement, saw all this. If the guard had by any chance known and remembered that the boxes had been confided to him by a lady, if by any favourable accident the officers of the company had been induced to challenge the man’s right to the boxes, Miss Wilkinson would have stepped out of the refreshment-room, explained that the gentleman was her husband, and have left with him and the property in the cab.
The plot would in such case have miscarried—a thing tantalizing and annoying enough to the thieves —but that would have been the extent of the mischief they would have had to deplore. Such a catastrophe did not ensue. The lady saw the boxes and her friends carried out of the station in the vehicle. She finished the consumption of her bun, and when she thought her associates beyond the immediate reach of policemen, she began to inquire for her luggage of the porters.
This narrative would, I think, terminate more satisfactorily than it does, if I could inform the reader that the wretches concerned in the plot were punished as they deserved. Truth, however, does not warrant me in saying this. On the contrary, it somehow became known to the lady and her favoured lover that there had been treachery in the gang, so they gave up the legal contest, and hid themselves for awhile. When a motion was made in the Court of Queen’s Bench to make the rule absolute for a new trial, neither Mr. Serjeant Birdlime nor any other man, in silk-gown or stuff, held a brief for the plaintiff. The company escaped the extortion of damages and costs; but public justice was defrauded of its title to submit Miss Wilkinson and a nameless paramour to penal servitude for a few years.
One day I was desired to call upon the Unimpeachable Insurance Company, which at that time had its office in West Strand, London. During an interview with Mr. Bland, the manager and secretary, he laid before me a letter which he had received about six months previously from a gentleman in Dublin named McGrath, applying for the position of agent of the company in Ireland.
“Now, I had some disinclination,” said the manager, “to advise my Board to accept this offer, for I had reason to know that several offices had been robbed by fraudulent insurances from the sister isle. To such extent had these frauds been perpetrated (my informant proceeded to say) that several London offices determined under all circumstances to decline Irish business. As, however, mine was a young office, I thought we could not afford to throw away any reasonable promise of a connection, and I therefore submitted the letter to my Board, the result being that the applicant was duly appointed.”
The letter was handed to me. It in substance alleged that the writer was an estate agent in very considerable practice, and that he could bring to the office insurances on a rather large number of the best lives. I may also remark, that at the head of the letter, was an engraved address, and the words—“Established 1795.”
“Here is a copy of my letter in reply, enclosing a minute of the Board,” said the manager, “and here is a copy of the agent’s acceptance of the office.” He then continued:—“Three weeks after the date of the last communication I have shown you, we received from him a proposal for insurance upon the life of a lady, 56 years of age, for £3,000. This proposal happened to arrive,—unfortunately, I think I may say,—during my temporary absence from the office through illness. Our agent wrote to enquire what he should do, as the lady’s private medical adviser was our local medical officer. This appointment had been made by the agent, under a general authority from us to select a thoroughly respectable man to act as our medical adviser in Dublin. Our reply was, that as we took it for granted he had been careful in the selection of a competent medical man, there could be no objection to his report in the case. The usual papers were accordingly transmitted to London, and laid before our principal medical officer for inspection.
My instructor proceeded,—“Our chief medical officer was a very eminent man, celebrated as a physiologist, while his personal skill in diagnosis, and his authority as a writer, had been brought to my knowledge in several previous cases. Well, the papers were critically examined by him, especially the Irish medical report, a copy of which I have had made for you. You will observe, that in it he describes the lady as being perfectly healthy, of good constitution, in whose habits and mode of life there were no circumstances to shorten the term of existence. One half-year’s premium was paid upon the insurance. The money handed to our agent was duly transmitted to London by his own cheque, and, for the time being, the matter ended.
“When I returned to my desk I desired our clerk to let me see the Policy Register, and I had laid before me the papers relating to all important business transacted during my absence. My eye was arrested as I glanced down the columns of the ‘Policy Register’ by the figures ‘£3,000,’ and the word ‘Dublin.’ I was a little surprised at receiving so heavy a proposal from this agency in the first instance, and no other business up to that moment from that quarter. But the papers allayed my doubts. There could be nothing more satisfactory than the medical report, and the answers made by the two private friends of the assured. I was not a little strengthened in my confidence when I thought of the great ability and experience of our own medical officer in London.
“I should call your attention,” continued the manager, “to the fact that this insurance is effected upon the life of a lady for her own benefit. The proposal distinctly states that no other person is interested in that life. You will be good enough to let that fact be the key to your investigation. And now,” he added, “we have what I cannot help regarding as in itself distinct evidence of fraud. Only four months have elapsed since that proposal for insurance was sent to us, and now we have a claim made upon us for £3,000. I have the strongest suspicion of fraud in this case.”
With these instructions, and taking up the papers which had been so judiciously prepared for my guidance, I started for Dublin, to make an investigation into the circumstances. If the case was a fair sample of what happens to life insurance companies generally through their Irish business, I can readily understand how it comes to pass, as the manager of my office told me, that with all the care exercised by them in the selection of their lives, the rejection of what are discovered to be in the slightest degree unsound, or the insurance of those accepted only at an extra rate—assuring them as five, ten, or fifteen years older than they are, according to circumstances—the mortality among persons whose lives are insured exceeds the average of the whole nation, as shown by the Registrar-General, in which average is included men and women who follow the most injurious occupations, and live under conditions the most unfavourable to longevity.
My inquiries were, of course, carried on secretly for some time. The police, with whom I put myself in communication, would render me no aid, and appeared to not exactly like the notion of an Englishman being employed on what they may have considered their peculiar duty. I am not at all sure that they kept faith with me. I have, on the other hand, a suspicion that some of the officers, who became aware of the mission I was upon, communicated its object in some quarter through which it travelled to the ears of the confederates in this fraud. Without, however, as far as I knew, letting a soul, except the police, guess my business, I ascertained that a woman of the age, and otherwise like the assured, died on the day named at the address given; that she had been attended by the doctor who acted for the insurance company as their medical adviser in Dublin; and, on the face of things, so far as I had yet proceeded, there was nothing to denote fraud.
I reported these investigations and their apparent result to Mr. Bland, the secretary and manager of the company, but added, that the opinion he had created in my mind still remained. I could not say it had not been weakened, but it certainly had not been removed.
Another matter of great urgency at this time demanded my attention. I knew that by one of the conditions of the policy, the office was not bound to pay the amount for six months, and then only to the legal representative of the deceased. Up to the present moment, I learned that no executor, had come forward to prove a will, and that letters of administration had not been applied for. I therefore craved leave from my employers to return to England—after taking one or two further steps, which I advised—and to revisit Dublin a month or two later. This was assented to. Before leaving, I thought however that I would just take another step in the case.
I then adopted an open course of inquiry with the view of throwing the perpetrators of the fraud—if it were a fraud—off their guard. I had my portmanteau removed to the station, as though I was about to return to England by the next rail and boat. After it had been left in charge a few hours, I changed my mind, and had it taken to another hotel, where I took care to arrive at the same time as a number of passengers from Kingstown. After partaking of some refreshment, to keep up, or rather to keep down, the blind, I was driven in a car to the agent’s office. This gentleman, established in—, received me with the well-sustained appearance of an honest man. He said that the case was unfortunate; he especially regretted it. If he had been as fortunate with the agency as he expected to have been, and had sent the company a number of proposals, so that the profit of that “good business” might, in some degree, have atoned for the dropping in of this life so soon, he would not have cared so much.
As it was, however, he seriously meditated resigning the agency. This intention weighed upon me. It looked like saying, my game with the one office is played out. My suspicions were quickened. To disarm his suspicions of me, I said, however, in effect, that I could understand his feelings. The case was, of course, annoying to the company, but although the directors were a little vexed, and anxious for further information about the matter, yet, I supposed it couldn’t be helped. I, as the company’s clerk, instructed to investigate the case, should make my report, and then the money would, no doubt, be paid. As I approached the end of this speech, I critically scanned the features of my man, while I spoke in tones of pretended indifference.
He was wonderfully self-possessed, but I thought I traced a gleam of satisfaction run over his features at the prospect of an easy settlement. Upon this he asked me to dine with him, which I agreed to do, and I passed the rest of the evening with him.
Nothing further transpired that day. Rather early I retired to my hotel, on the plea of fatigue. Next morning, as it was arranged, Mr. Agent and I called upon the doctor and the referees of the deceased.
Here we discovered nothing. The two friends echoed the surprise of the agent at the sudden death of a lady upon whose life, four months ago, either of them would have been prepared to have taken a lease.
The doctor was as much astonished at the unexpected death, after two days’ illness, of a woman who he had thought it sure would have enjoyed considerably more than the number of days which experience said were allotted to human beings of her age. I professed to be satisfied, and said I would report that satisfaction, and left Ireland next day.
The agent, the two friends, and the doctor, and somebody else, no doubt, were highly delighted by the prospect of getting £3,000 from the Saxon shareholders of the Unimpeachable Assurance Company.
I kept my promise to my Irish acquaintances, so far as to faithfully report the tenor of my interviews with them; but I also added to that narrative the expression of my own somewhat strengthened belief that the case, although enveloped in mystery, was tainted by fraud, and I advised that before the money was paid, a rigid inquiry should be pursued.
Shortly after this, as I learned, a will of the deceased was proved, in due form, and a claim against the company (of which notice had already been given to the office) was received from the executor. This executor was also the legatee of the assured. The instrument was copied from one of the precedents in daily use, and it bequeathed to Edward O’Halloran all the estate, both real and personal, of the testatrix. It was not a little remarkable, Mr. Bland thought, and so did I, that the two attesting witnesses to this document were the referees to the insurance company—the persons who, four months before her death, had given so favourable a report as to the health and habits of the deceased. But for this circumstance, the company would have paid the money, as my report on the case had certainly not disclosed any valid excuse for resisting payment.
About three months after the occasion of my first visit to Dublin, in connexion with this affair, I returned there to renew my investigations. My tactics had to be varied. It was no longer of any use to pretend confidence on my own part in the justice of the claim. I had to inform the agent that the company had been led, by a communication to them on the subject, to suspect fraud, and to state I was directed to probe the depths of the case. The agent thereupon assumed an air of injured innocence—which I interpreted into the signs of fear. If I could have made terms with this knave, I have not the least doubt that I should have got a whole confession from him—but it would have been an unprincipled act to enter into a compact with the man who had, I believed, violated his trust as the company’s representative. Beyond asking him the formal question—had he anything to offer in explanation of his share in the transaction, and eliciting for answer, that he certainly had not—nothing passed between us.
For a fortnight I pursued my inquiries, and as I do not wish to claim credit for skill to which I am not entitled, I may confess that I had got no information that would save the pockets of the shareholders in the Unimpeachable Insurance Company. I learned that Edward O’Halloran, the nephew of the deceased, had been a solicitor’s clerk, and a man on whom the police told me they had long had their eyes steadily fixed, as he had no ostensible means of livelihood—although he lived at rather a faster rate than he did formerly when in regular employment. The witnesses to the will were respectable men. The doctor was above reproach. The agent was a man of whom people spoke contemptuously, but he had never figured in the annals of crime, nor did the police regard him as a man likely to perpetrate a crime known to the law.
I confess that I was nearly baffled. At last, as I was not very much limited to time, or at all limited as to expenses, I resolved to concentrate my attentions upon Mr. O’Halloran. I knew a shrewd fellow in London, a native of the sister island, and wrote him to come over and bring his wife with him. I had ascertained that there was a Mrs. O’Halloran, or rather a lady who wore that title, but had no right thereto. The nephew had taken possession of his aunt’s late abode, and to letting lodgings. This might have been a blind, or it might have been a matter of necessity. The deceased had done the same until half a year before her death, when she found the duty of waiting upon lodgers so irksome that she gave them notice. The reputed Mrs. O’Halloran happened to be a vain, an impulsive, a talkative, and a revengeful woman. I thought that with the aid of my man Conroy, and Mrs. Conroy, who was a sharp little body, keen, subtle, and reticent, I should be able to find out, in an uncommonly short space of time, whether or not this claim upon the company was founded in justice or not.
Conroy and his wife came over immediately, and I withdrew from Dublin, as arranged. My absence was remarked. O’Halloran, and others, thought they had quite defeated me, and were jubilant, perhaps I might say, indiscreet. A lawyer, named O’Kavanagh, who had been employed to prosecute the claim, wrote in terms of warm indignation to the Unimpeachable Office, complaining of the unjust and groundless suspicion of his client, and threatening, in consequence, that if the whole amount of £3,000 were not paid on the exact day whereon the company had covenanted to pay it, he should, without delay, or further notice, bring his action to recover the money, and expose the shameful conduct of the office. This letter was handed over by Mr. Bland to Messrs, Oldboy, Pursy, and Twitchem, the company’s solicitors, who curtly acknowledged its receipt, and said they should await his next communication on the subject. I thought it desirable to return to London, as I rather fancied that my presence in my office here would be notified to O’Halloran, and throw him farther off his guard.
On the arrival of Conroy and his wife at Dublin, they put up at a somewhat humble hostelry, where he gave it out that having saved a little money in a situation at Manchester, he intended to begin business in some small way in Dublin. To avoid expense, he thought it desirable to take private lodgings just while he was looking about him. Mine hostess had a son, a sleepy youth; would she let him just go about and show Conroy where he might look for the sort of lodgings he wanted, with a reasonable prospect of finding them? It was such a long time since he had been in Dublin before, that he had almost forgotten his native place.
She was very obliging, as anybody must have been, to such pleasant folks as Mr. and Mrs. Conroy. My shrewd man led the boy, while he pretended to be led by him, until they came to O’Halloran’s house, where he found the apartments he wanted. They were, he thought, just the thing, but he cautiously declined to hire them, although they were not too fine; and sure, he was glad to say, the price, if Mrs. O’Halloran would just ’bate a shilling a week, would not be unreasonable at all. Mrs. Conroy was at the inn, and would come on directly and see the rooms. She did so. After a little fighting about price between the two ladies, they “split the difference.” Mrs. O’Halloran bated sixpence a week in the rent, and the lodgings were entered upon that day.
Of course, Conroy and his wife (who had been a female searcher at a station-house) took care to make themselves agreeable, and also to keep up their assumed character. The men, Conroy and O’Halloran, liked one another at once. Their worldly wisdom made them suitable companions, and if that had been his game the former might have wormed his way, by slow degrees, into the confidence of “my aunt’s sole legatee.” The wives, especially, became affectionate, and within narrow limits, reposed confidence in one another the first time they were left alone.
Mrs. Conroy saw enough of the latent weakness of her new friend to ask on this occasion if she might intrude so far as to request that her servant might fetch a dram of whiskey. Her Mike had virtues she enthusiastically extolled, but he was too particular in respect to a woman’s drinking. Mrs. O’Halloran had no earthly objection to oblige her lodger in this respect. While the liquor was being obtained by the girl, Mrs. O’Halloran reciprocated confidence by a statement that her husband was not unreasonable in the matter of her drinking, and she had not, indeed, any special cause of complaint that she knew of—that is, that she was sure of—but she rather suspected that he had lately been flirting with some “creature.”
Two salient traits in the character of Mr. O’Halloran had now been ascertained. Conroy wrote me word that he should directly “cut in straight,” and I saw that whiskey and jealousy were the instruments he intended to employ.
The real mission of the Conroys was never suspected. My withdrawal was set down to the account of discomfiture. O’Halloran and his associates, who made sure of getting the money, were, as I have said, indiscreet—Mr. Edward O’Halloran particularly so. His imagination saw £3,000 realised, and divisible in a small circle, He took his pleasure in all ways. Most unfortunate of all for him, his desires led him in direct collision with his female partner’s greatest weakness—jealousy.
The reader will spare me the necessity of minutely describing the special occasion and circumstances which induced the lady known as Mrs. O’Halloran to decide on being revenged upon the villain O’Halloran —as she, I think, accurately styled him. It will be enough to say, in print, that she had witnessed with her own eyes what roused a thirst for vengeance, and that the whiskey-bottle, instead of consoling her, only inflamed her passion. Mrs. Conroy worked up her friend’s excitement to the point of frenzy, when the latter poured the story of her wrongs and O’Halloran’s frauds (which his reputed wife said ought to transport him) into the ears of my clever female assistant.
Conroy was, as I have said, a shrewd fellow. He believed the drunken shrew’s story; and, in order to fix her as an ally, he now thought it desirable to work upon her own selfish fears. He told her who and what he really was, and threatened to hand her over to the police at once, unless she turned approver—a course she therefore took, after a slight show of reluctance. Upon this he promised her a pardon, and took down the narrative of the fraud.
The scheme was bold, audacious, and wonderfully perfect, but it was very simple. O’Halloran, who was not an old hand at fraud, but a crafty and reckless man, won over the old-established, although broken-down house agent, and a needy fashionable doctor, to his scheme; then he enlisted his aunt in it. The referees and witnesses to the will were innocent parties, and there was, after all, nothing in the coincidence which I and Mr. Bland attached so much importance to. The plan of the conspiracy was that McGrath should get appointed agent to the insurance company; that he should get the doctor appointed medical adviser for the company, so that no other medical man in Dublin should frustrate the plan, and that a woman who could establish, through referees, (not in the fraud) her perfect healthiness, should be proposed for insurance. This was how the proposal for assurance, and its acceptance by the office, were arranged. That was comparatively easy. The next part was to kill the woman, or get her proven dead, by satisfactory evidence. That was also arranged by the genius of O’Halloran, and the aid of accomplices. Mrs. Fitzgerald, his aunt, took to her bed on an artificial attack of fever, which report alone scared away her many “friends.” Our doctor attended her for a few days. One night she, in fact, disappeared. Report was that she had died of typhus. She had indeed gone off to Liverpool, from whence she sailed, or rather steamed away to America. Another body had been lain in her bed; it was that of a woman of about her own age, bulk, and stature. How was this obtained? The doctor had learned that a woman aged about fifty-five, was dying of cancer, under the hands of a charity doctor in the city. Mrs. Fitzgerald took to her bed, as the old pauper was ascertained to be, beyond all doubt, near her end. She luckily died, or absconded, within an hour after the breath had left the body of the cancerous victim of the grim fiend.
Our doctor knew the undertaker who contracted for the burial of out-door paupers. The son of Esculapius, or rather the pretended disciple of Vesalius, went to the undertaker in a state of great anxiety for such a subject. Cancer was a disease he wished to trace in all its forms. He would give any reasonable sum for the body of this wretched victim of the malady. Would the undertaker let him have it for a couple of pounds? The dark servant of the grave pleaded the law, and talked in ornate periods about his “jewty.” Would he take three pounds? The law and his “jewty,” was the reply. Four pounds? “Jewty” was his pathetic answer. As the insurance risk in the undertaking mind against law had been arrived at, he dropped one objection to the nefarious bargain. Would he take five pounds, golden sovereigns, paid down? “Jewty” yielded to this golden argument. The corpse of the woman who died through cancer was taken to the doctor’s house for a dissection that it never underwent. That body was, an hour after its arrival in the doctor’s surgery, taken by O’Halloran to his aunt’s house, and placed in her bed. The pauper’s coffin was filled with stones, and buried.
The coffin of Mrs. Fitzgerald (supplied by a different undertaker) was filled with the pauper woman’s remains. As Mrs. Fitzgerald was thought to have died of typhus fever, nobody cared to look upon her countenance, except her nephew’s reputed wife, who, by the way, had helped to discolour the skin a little, just for appearance sake. This body was followed to the grave by Mrs. Fitzgerald’s friends, and deposited alongside of her dear departed husband’s rotted bones.
Does the reader want to know what became of Mrs. O’Halloran? I cannot tell. We never troubled ourselves about her after we got such information as would have enabled us to make out a complete case. What became of Mr. McGrath, O’Halloran, and the infamous doctor, I don’t know.
The Unimpeachable Company’s solicitors, after the arrival of Conroy and his clever little wife in London, and I had made my further report, wrote to the Irish solicitor of O’Halloran to say that before he proceeded with any action, he had better either call himself or direct his London agent to call upon them. The Dublin solicitor called upon the company’s solicitor. Mr. O’Kavanagh made a journey from Dublin to London on purpose, and there the matter ended. Were not the conspirators prosecuted? asks my reader. Oh, no!
The Unimpeachable Assurance Company saved their £3,000, and were content.
A FEW years ago I was instructed by an eminent solicitor, the partner in a large house at the West-end of London, to penetrate the mysteries of one of the most cruel frauds that ever came under the range of my professional observation; and the principal facts of this sad case are embodied in the following narrative.
Mr. H— was the senior partner in one of the largest cotton manufactories in the North of England. His mills in the town of W— gave employment to, I believe, nearly 3,000 persons, men, women, and children. He was reputed, and, was, beyond all doubt, a millionaire. The fabrics woven by his looms were famed throughout Great Britain, and all over the world—a distinction yet, I am told, enjoyed by his partners and successors. He was a proud and vulgar man, who in his person and manners realised one of the descriptions of Mrs. Trollope. Popular rumour in the neighbourhood of his residence and factory, charged him with all manner of meanness, petty and sensual vice. But let that pass. It is only important to say that several years before he died, he became a sleeping partner in the business he had created; and that vinous or spiritual indulgence sent him to his grave much earlier than in all human probability he would otherwise have gone there. When he expired, no one lamented his death. The operatives lost an employer, but as the steam-engine only ceased its panting one day, and the looms and spindles only stopped during this brief period, after which all went on as before; and as nobody lost anything worth mentioning by the fact, and nobody cared anything about a selfish old man, he dropped into his grave without the honour of a monument, or the homage of a tear.
The old cotton manufacturer left behind him a widow, two daughters, an ample fortune, and a carefully drawn will. This will deserves mention. It was a rather peculiar sort of instrument. It was compounded of the old man’s mind, and that of his best friends—if he can be said to have had any—put, as he used to say “ship-shape” by Mr. B—, his lawyer, who, in fact, employed a skilful Chancery barrister to perform this work.
The widow and the daughters were each provided with a considerable sum, which each was at liberty to do as she pleased with. Annuities were left to each of them—a comparatively liberal allowance to the widow, and a comparatively small sum to each of the daughters. These annuities were so fenced about that no husband with whom either lady should intermarry would have control over her income, nor would it become liable to his debts or obligations; nor could the annual allowance (paid quarterly) be mortgaged or anticipated. Beyond this, a considerable sum, part of the residuary estate, was vested in trustees for the benefit of the young ladies.
The widest latitude was given as to the allocation of these bequests in the will that was proved by the executors, but I was told that letters, or secret testamentary papers of some kind, expressing the views of the testator, were given to the trustees. In general terms, I may state, I was informed that if either young lady married “an unworthy object,” the trustees were requested to give the bulk of her share in this residuary estate to her sister; to settle what they did grant or give to the young lady so marrying as carefully as they could, in the form of an annuity for her sole benefit, beyond the reach of her spouse; or, indeed, do very nearly as in the exercise of their discretion seemed best.
The old man was decently interred. The will was proved. The executors took possession of the property, and realised the estate; the trustees entered upon the initial exercise of their functions. The will had been duly published, and the young ladies had been given to understand the extent to which they were in the power of their trustees.
Not very long after the old cotton-spinner had gone to his final account, his widow and her daughters were heard to bemoan his loss in lachrymose periods. They could not endure the painful associations they encountered on every hand, at every turn, in the town of W—; and, as they alleged, in order to escape the mental ordeal of their native place, they resolved, under—they also declared—the advice of very dear friends, to take up their abode in the great metropolis.
Some ill-natured people declared that it was pride which drove them from the town in which their fortunes had been made; that they wanted to run riot, in a respectable sort of way, in the giddy pleasures of a London season; and that mamma was privy to a design by the young ladies to catch husbands in a more genteel sphere than the North of England.
I am bound to say that my investigations did not lead me upon any evidence of the truth of these assertions to the disadvantage of the heroines. It is, however, a fact that within a few months after the old man had been buried, the family he left behind him removed to London, and took an elegantly furnished residence at Kensington. The house agent who let it them, styled the cottage a bijou; and the change of scene did exercise a visible and beneficial influence upon the health and spirits of the mother and daughters.
The new arrival caused “a sensation” in Kensington. Tradesmen were on the alert, solicited custom, and bribed servants for patronage. Of this there was no lack, and it is needless to add, that everything consumed or ordered was duly paid for.
The servants who were lucky enough to get situations with this family, declared they were the best mistresses in the world; and as it is not easy to satisfy the inmates of kitchens and pantries, I take it for granted that the domestics were well cared for. Not, however, to weary the reader, I may say that the H— family lived in brilliant style, although on rather a small scale; that their reputation, I mean the fame of their wealth, was a constant theme of speculation and commentary.
Some persons who attended their sumptuous little parties believed all that rumour assigned to the family; other persons, who were not of these parties, affected to disbelieve the reports about the wealth of the Misses H—; and even ladies and gentlemen of the latter set have been heard to throw such epithets as “stuck up,” “snobs,” &c. The élite of Belgravia and of Tyburnia held aloof distrustfully. The Misses H— were not of the ton, and their mother was excessively vulgar in the eyes of these persons. Yet there was no lack of people, deserving to be considered highly genteel, who found what pleased them on the table of the cotton-spinner’s widow.
Among the favoured guests at the widow’s residence was a certain gentleman about twenty-five years of age. He was rather tall, slenderly built, of dark complexion, hair approaching to jet black. His countenance was more than intelligent. It indicated mental activity and strength. There was an expression in the eye which I, who saw him a few months after his first visit to the residence of Mrs. H—, did not much like; and there was also an expression on the face and mouth which betrayed a latent villany of character. I said this when a miniature of the rascal was first put into my hands; and when I made the acquaintance of the original, my first impressions were only confirmed or justified.
People who had met him in company were nearly agreed that he was a pleasant and agreeable companion. Few persons had, however, met him at Mrs. H—’s. Important engagements usually prevented his accepting invitations to the parties. He was almost always obliged to apologise for an absence on these occasions, which, of course, caused him much annoyance. He, however, compensated for his absence from the parties by his frequent attendance at the house when nobody else but the family was there. Many afternoons were thus spent, to the hearty satisfaction of mother and daughters, especially Miss Emily H—, the youngest, who had privately agreed to become the wife of this man within a month of the date of her first interview with him.
Emily H— was a pretty little young woman, twenty-one years of age, just two years younger than her sister. She was a rather pert and simpering girl, whose character exhibited many of the best traits of the stock from which she came, spoiled by the flimsy education of boarding-schools. There she learned a false morality, a dangerous sentimentalism, and a habit of intrigue which, as this sad story shows, proved her utter destruction.
When this suitor, whom I shall now call Charley Edwards (although he went at Kensington by another name), proposed a clandestine courtship, she did not refuse. She knew that, according to the regulations of polite society, her sister ought to be disposed of in marriage before her turn came; and she knew that such was the order of mamma’s programme. This fact was artfully pleaded by the villain of this true story as the pretext and excuse for secresy. When so much of his plan had succeeded, the rest he saw was easy. He knew enough of female human nature to know that a silly girl, if once tempted to break one regulation of social life, will be restrained by no sense of prudence afterwards, unless it be on the threshold of sin, and it was no part of this knave’s project to outrage the young lady, or do her wrong, until he had made her his wife. The correspondence went on for a short time between them as lovers before it was detected, and as I am telling the truth, I may as well state that there was a quarrel, or perhaps half a dozen scenes, in the bijou of Mrs. H— , as violent and as rude as ever occurred in the lowly walks of life.
The mother raved and wept, the elder daughter vented her rage in a variety of modes easier imagined than described. Miss Emily retorted in kind, and would not be convinced of the error of her conduct. On one point she was firm; she was her own mistress. She would incur all risks. She would marry the man she loved whenever she liked. Her mother and her sister need not trouble themselves about her fate or fortune. Marry him she would at once, if he would have her. A drawn battle ended the dispute.
Meanwhile the lovers, who had prepared for such a contingency as this, corresponded and met. Miss Emily’s maid contrived the trysts. A week after the discovery, Emily H— became Mrs. —. She did not then know her husbands name, and the reader must never know it. A secret marriage was the termination of a clandestine correspondence.
All went on pleasantly enough for a short time. The bride had some ready money, and so had the bridegroom. The mother and sister affected an indifference they did not feel, and Mrs. Edwards was too charmed with her new situation and her husband’s friends to care about the relatives in Kensington.
“Dear Charley’s friends,” she said in a letter to a country cousin, “are the divinest fellows I ever met with in my life;” and agreeable companions enough were those she was permitted to see, although it may be here mentioned, that he had another set, or series of sets, whose demeanour and language would have shocked even her notions of propriety, which were not of the most superlative or keen description. They chatted on topics neither above nor below the comprehension of a lady of the stamp of my heroine, smoked the choicest cigars in her presence, and voted her round compliments because she permitted this liberty. They drank, but not too deeply, and played freely, “like gentlemen” she declared.
When the immediate stock of funds had been exhausted, Charley found it not difficult to raise more on his note of hand, and some kind of security or pledge of his wife’s estate.
The three first weeks were spent at Scarborough. On their return the week after, which rolled on for about three months in the way I have described, during all of which time Kensington had not come to Notting Hill, Notting Hill had not been to Kensington. Each party was playing a waiting game, and the old lady might have been reconciled to her daughter, if dear Charley hadn’t so very obstinately refused to make, or let his wife make, the first advance in that direction. It was plain to some people that he didn’t want, and would perhaps rather not have the friendship of his wife’s kindred. It might indeed have embarrassed his plans, and he had good reasons for preferring to be free from their good offices.
One morning Charley was in a dressing-gown, yawning over his coffee, and was listlessly puffing at a meerschaum, as he professed to read the paper, much as a bachelor with a competent independence might do. His darling Emily was trying to kill time with a crochet needle, or working at some “mania,” I forget which. A visitor was announced. It was one of the rattling, jovial, and apparently generous fellows whose praises she had so lauded in her familiar epistle, whose name I will call Robinson.
“What! Charley, my boy, how is this? What was up last night? Eh! Mrs. Edwards,—I beg your ten thousand persons—almost forgot you, I declare.” Thus rattled on the intruder.
“Oh, nothing was up last night, I assure you,” returned Charley, “but,” he added, “it’s confoundedly dull in London just now, and I and Em were just taking out our married bliss quietly, you know, not expecting Rattlebrain here yet for a few hours.”
“Oh, you see I know that I am always welcome, am I not, Mrs. Edwards? and I shall always come when I like; but I say, old fellow, if you find London dull, why don’t you come to Paris with me and Jack Nolan?”
“Are you going to Paris? When?”
“Oh, I don’t know, we haven’t exactly named the day, as the old maid said about her wedding, but in about a week, I suppose. Will you come? Oh don’t pout, Mrs. Edwards; make the wretch take you with him, I say.”
“Well, what do you say about it Em?”
Em was silent. It was that sort of silence which may always be safely defined as consent, and so Charley interpreted her meaning.
“I see Em would like to go, only she’s a little thoughtful about the pocket of her hub. A good wife’s a treasure, young Rattlebrain. When are you really going to get married?”
“Oh, cut that. When shall we go to Paris?”
“Oh, say next Monday.”
“Monday—no, Tuesday—I’ve got an appointment with the governor on Monday.”
“The governor, eh?” And Charley laughed as if he thought that assertion such a very good joke that he might laugh at it without fear.
Fear of what? the reader asks.
Well, of anything like falsehood or guile, my dear reader.
Mrs. Edwards thought it time to say and do something, so, after the manner oftentimes rehearsed, when a girl at what is appropriately called “a finishing establishment,” she pulled “dear Charley’s” whiskers, kissed him, and asked, “When shall we go?”
“Tuesday, if you please; let it be Tuesday—any day you please. It’s all the same to me.”
This point being settled, the conversation was changed to some insipid topic which this precious set of human creatures appeared to enjoy. Mrs. Edwards seemed at last, about one o’clock, to reflect that her appearance was not exactly becoming a deceased millionaire’s daughter, or the wife of such a fine gentleman as dear Charley, so she adjourned to her room upstairs, and left the two men alone.
The conversation now took a more subdued tone and serious air. Rattlebrain was quiet and attentive. Charles was earnest and demonstrative. The reader will be pleased to accept as a reason why I do not relate this discussion, the one so often met with in newspaper reports of debates in Parliament, speeches at political meetings—the speakers’ voices, dear reader, if you please, were not audible to me—for I was not there at the time. Is this explanation unsatisfactory? Wait awhile, and the substance of the discussion, or the plan agreed upon, will all appear in this story.
On Tuesday the party left London for Paris, and arrived in due course at the Hotel A— B— , a leading “English house,” in the Rue C— D— . (The reader must pardon my care to avoid disclosing anything which might fix the identity of innocent persons.)
Ten days or so were passed in the gay capital, before the main incident I am about to describe occurred. Mr. and Mrs. Edwards, Robinson, and Nolan, were conspicuous in every place of public entertainment within certain grades. I do not learn that they obtained admission into the circles of ton, but I ascertained that they visited during the memorable ten days almost all the places described in guide books.
My party were favourites. Edwards’ pleasant manners, Robinson’s frolicksome talk, Nolan’s sparkling wit, and Mrs. Edwards’ modesty—for she was, as she said, or tried to say in French, like a fish out of water—made them agreeable company at the table d’hôte; and as they lacked not money, host and servants were pleased with their guests. One spinster lady, an Englishwoman, about thirty-five years old, somewhat prone to be censorious, declared that Em’s manners were too free. This person afterwards asserted that she had seen Robinson kiss her several times “on the sly.” Of course I don’t believe there was a shadow of truth in this specific charge, although I am bound to admit that she did not exhibit as much circumspection as I think she ought to have done. On the other hand, it may be asked, was she not introduced to Robinson and Nolan by her husband—were they not his friends—had he not thrown her in their way, and almost instructed her to make free with them? The reader will accept for what it is worth my own solemn declaration, that neither in deed or thought was Emily unfaithful to her husband.
An anonymous letter, delivered by post, was received by Edwards, charging his wife with this offence against the proprieties of married life. That letter, I am at liberty to say, was written by the spinster, then residing in the hotel A— B— . He read it unmoved; no change in his manner was visible. He put the letter carefully away in a coat-pocket.
Somewhere about the ninth day of their residence in Paris, Em and Charley formed themselves into what is called in Parliament a committee of ways and means. Her purse was nearly empty, so was his. What should they do? Ask Robinson for a loan? No! Ask Nolan? No! That would be so humiliating. He must return to London, and get another bill done. She must remain in pledge at the hotel until he could redeem her. Three days at most would suffice. She cried or whimpered over her first separation from “dear Charley.” He comforted her by the assurance that he would not be absent from her side more than three or four days. So it was arranged that he should depart at once, that is, within a few hours, and make all possible haste back.
At parting she asked, “You will write to me every night, won’t you, dear Charley?”
“Sweet Em, that’s hardly possible when I shall be in the railway or on the steam-boat all the time I am away, except a few hours.”
An interview took place between the other gentlemen and Edwards, when he informed them of his intended departure for London upon urgent private business, which would detain him, however, only a few days. In the meantime, he left his charming little wife under their care. A similar announcement of the fact, and its cause, was made to the guests at the table d’hôte, and Mr. Edwards took a night train on the Chemin de Fer du Nord. He did not, however, travel so far as London. Did he, on the way, get his purse replenished? did he ascertain that he could do without money, like Becky Sharp of “Vanity Fair?” or did he discover a reserve of good bank-notes in his watch-fob or pocket-book? I lean to the last theory. At any rate, he went no farther than Boulogne, and remained there one entire day.
Next evening, when the night train started from Boulogne to Paris, Mr. Charles Edwards took a ticket, and returned to the French capital. He arrived in Paris about midnight, and went straight to his hotel.
During her husband’s absence, poor Emily had been chaperoned by Robinson, and that evening he and Nolan had invited themselves to pass an hour or two in her sitting-room. She made no objection to the licence her husband’s friends thus granted themselves. She did not see any impropriety in the reception of them, and did her best to make them as comfortable as she could. The evening passed much as other evenings did, when the friends remained in-doors, and before twelve o’clock the little party broke up.
The portress let Mr. Edwards into the hotel, without asking questions, and he went to his bedroom. Immediately afterwards, he closed the door violently, turning the key on the outside, and began shouting like a maniac. His place was filled by Robinson, whose name he shouted, while that villain and Emily slumbered side by side! This noise, at such a time, raised half the inmates, guests, and servants of the house; and when the key was again turned, more than a score of persons saw poor Mrs. Edwards, awakened by the noise, rubbing her eyes, half unconscious, and totally bewildered. Robinson was awakened by a strong punch administered by a bucolic gentleman, whose name will be found in Burke’s “Landed Gentry,” but must not be inserted here. Here was a situation more distressing than that of Bellini’s Amina—more horrible than anything the reader has, I hope, known in his experience.
The patent evidences of Emily’s guilt could be sworn to by a score of the most respectable witnesses who ever gave their testimony before any tribunal in the world. There appeared to the spectators no explanation at all consistent with her innocence. The spinster, who was a witness of this scene, said it was just as she expected things would turn out. She was not at all surprised. She only wondered how poor Mr. Edwards could have been blinded so long to what everybody else could see, and much more of the same kind. Everybody present did remember, now they came to think of it—or said so—that there had been many undue familiarities between Robinson and Emily. Yes! they now perfectly recollected furtive glances between the criminals at the table d’hote. Hundreds of their illicit love stratagems were recounted across the table at the hotel A— B— during the next two or three weeks,
Emily broke out in a violent paroxysm of grief. She was hysterical; but the one idea of her alleged crime haunted her. She talked of nothing else during the time she remained at the hotel The ladies staying there of course left her in disgust, and a kind-hearted Frenchwoman, obtained from somewhere by the host, had charge of her until the proud mother arrived from Kensington. She was then almost immediately removed to England by her mother. The old lady was as stubborn as the rest for a time. She read Emily a host of lectures, showing how one crime leads on to another, and tracing the connexion between the clandestine marriage and adultery like inevitable cause and effect; but so keen was the anguish of the unfortunate daughter, and so intense her protestations of innocence, that at last the mother’s faith was stirred, and she arrived at a new twofold conclusion—Robinson was a villain, and Edwards was, after all, to be pitied, although he had not acted as a gentleman should when he ran away with her child.
Robinson skulked off as well as he could after the dénouement, and I am told he was dexterous enough to escape that night to his own apartment, where nobody thought of following him, with only a braise and a scratch or two, as tokens of the genteel indignation at his crime. Next morning he paid his bill, and went off to Brussels. The landlord was glad to be rid of him without further uproar, so he got away quietly. Scandal would have injured the character of the hostelry, so that “mine host” would have been pleased if the guests had been silent in the public room about the affair. He had, however, at his service, a French proverb, which corresponds to the English saying, “that what can’t be cured must be endured.” As he could not make them keep their mouths shut, and as they were his “kind patrons,” he put up with this unpleasant conversation while it lasted, and kept his own counsel on the subject. One notion consoled him for any actual loss or inconvenience; he knew the names and usual addresses of every guest in his house. The injured husband would want this information, would need a variety of services in getting up evidence against his wife and her paramour. This he should have, but he must pay for it, and liberally, too, like an English gentleman.
Of Mr. Charley Edwards, for the present let me only say that he, too, left the hotel next day, apparently in dreadful grief. He took no leave of his wife. He told the hostess that such a meeting would be too much for him. He begged her to look kindly after Emily until her mother arrived. He wrote a letter, full of manly pathos, to Kensington. He arrived in London by a train from Folkestone on the evening of the day he left Paris.
* * * * * * * * *
Exceedingly soon after the last painful incidents had happened, I was sent for by the solicitor to whom I have referred. He was at his wits’ ends. That a monstrous and cruel hoax and fraud had been committed was, he thought, most probable, and yet the apparent want of motive for destroying the character of the young wife almost led him to conclude she must be guilty. It had been pretty distinctly stated to him by the solicitor for the husband that money would have to be secured to him, if he could be induced to abstain from bringing scandal upon her family and connexions. Yet, as my solicitor observed, the man would have had quite as much, or indeed much more money than he can now get, and a young, pretty, and eminently respectable wife to boot, if this affair had not happened or been brought about. I was also puzzled.
My first difficulty was in getting a clue to Mr. Edwards’ position or antecedents. He was said to be then on the Continent, and a direct application to his solicitor was by me not thought prudent, for it might have put him on his guard. Mrs. H— , Emily’s mother, knew nothing about him. His acquaintance had been made at a flower-show, and he gave his address at an hotel, alleging that he had not long returned from France, where he had resided several years. I could not identify him by a portrait or miniature. Inquiry at the hotel where he lived, while paying his addresses to his wife, could not trace him beyond the day he arrived there, but whence he came nobody knew.
At length I got upon the track, and in a month had so baited my own trap that one of the real criminals, Nolan, walked in. When there, he began, as villains always do, to tremble for his own safety; and as he was the least guilty, I went so far as to promise him a reward if he could satisfy me that he had told everything about the case. If not, I said I should hand him over at once to the police, and gently hinted that I had reason to believe he was wanted for another affair. He told me what I believe was the whole story, I let him off with a note to the solicitor who employed me, in which I suggested that ten pounds should be given him at once, with a pledge to pay him forty pounds more, if his story could be verified in other particular?
Without betraying Nolan, I learned all about Robinson and Mr. Charley Edwards, and the atrocious scheme from first to last.
The conspiracy was briefly this. The arrival of the family at Kensington had been observed by Robinson. Stock had been taken of the mother and daughters. It was calculated that either of the girls, not knowing the upper ten thousand of the metropolis, would embrace the first offer of marriage by one who was thought to be “a real gentleman.” Edwards was selected by his companions to play the part of lover. He was the only one at all capable of sustaining it. What they desired was ready money. Neither of them would have felt happy as the husband of Emily. Each of them had his “attachment,” which he did not care to break, and neither of them could escape from the thraldom of the compact of crime into which he had entered.
The will had been examined before the plot was matured, and after perusing it they came to the conclusion that more ready money could be obtained by the steps they took than in any other mode. If a disgrace could be attached to the family, all its members would concur in any monied arrangement for hushing up the scandal. From first to last everything described in this narrative happened as planned by Edwards, Robinson, and Nolan, except, perhaps, the spinster’s letter, which formed a valuable link in the chain of evidence.
Whether this amiable lady was a member of the confederacy, or an unconscious ally, I did not ascertain from Nolan. I also found out, by enquiry, that Edwards had cohabited with a female for many years, and that she was then the mother of several of his children. This woman had been a consenting party to the immolation of Emily H—. She knew and acted her negative part in the plot by resigning her lover to play his part—that of the bridegroom of a wife he intended to destroy.
All this we could, if necessary, have proved by the oath of Nolan, which would have been confirmed in a variety of material points. How far it would have got over the strong primâ facie case of the independent witnesses at Paris, it is not for me to say, nor do I care to offer an opinion upon the value of the other features of the case that weighed upon the minds and hearts of the unfortunate wife’s family. If we succeeded in preventing the divorce for which it was intended to apply, the effect of our skill would be to invest the scoundrel who had so outraged her with a husband’s rights over her income through her person as long as she lived, unless Providence should release her by first removing him from this world, and then she must drag this odious matrimonial chain until he died.
If, in order to effect her release, we consented to his prayer for a divorce—supposing him willing, in that case, to prosecute it—we then allowed him to brand her, innocent as she was, with the odious title of adultress. This was felt to be an awkward dilemma. Or, supposing that the crime of the three villains were brought within the scope of the criminal law, the horrible scandal would be revealed. To avoid either unpleasantness it was, after many consultations between the solicitor and counsel of the H—family—conferences between Emily’s mother, her trustees, and the solicitor—meetings between the two solicitors of the parties, and much anxious thought by the victim and her friends, that it would be sound policy to get the husband bound under a deed of separation and a bond, the penalties of which should overtake him if he ever broke his engagement, not to molest his deeply injured wife. To obtain the execution of these legal instruments, the trustees and family paid Mr. Charley Edwards the sum of £3,000 sterling.
It is consoling to know that the fiends did not long enjoy their ill-gotten money. All of them fell into the hands of justice at different times. Edwards was transported beyond the seas, and having broken his parole in Australia, turned bushman. While attacking, with some companions, a gold escort from the diggings at Ballarat to Melbourne, he was shot in the heart. Robinson and Nolan are, I believe, alive, and doing penance as convicts. Emily, who finds comfort in charitable deeds, is living under an assumed name in a continental city, where no person is acquainted with her melancholy story.
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