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Title: Revelations of a Detective Author: Andrew Forrester, Jun. * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1901221h.html Language: English Date first posted: December 2019 Most recent update: December 2019 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Number 1. - The Forger’s Escape
Number 2. - Farmer Williams And His Bride; Or, The Matrimonial Agency
Number 3. - A Convict’s Gratitude
Number 4. - The Fraudulent Trustee
Number 5. - Who Stole The Plate?
SOME years ago I was instructed to hunt down a forger, and recover about £3,000, the proceeds of his great experiment, which he then had about his person. He had been a land agent, in a very large way of business, at the West-end of London, and was accounted a man of the highest respectability, although, as it turned out, be had practised a series of frauds upon his customers, and was utterly insolvent, when he resorted to a bold expedient to obtain capital for some new enterprise in a new country.
Notice was given to the police at every port, and every vessel that left London, Liverpool, Bristol, or Hull, was watched for several weeks. The notion then obtained possession of the defrauded that he was concealed in London, or at the farthest on the Continent, waiting his time, perhaps, for a safe voyage to America, or to a Trans-Pacific colony—not as a convict. Ordinary means, such as the offers of rewards, and the employment of common detectives, having failed to discover the delinquent, I was set to work, being told to spare no expense, as the stake was high, and the desire to punish the villain was equally strong.
One evening as I was chatting with my wife, and playing with my two children at home, I was called upon, and told that the fellow had been traced to Southampton, well disguised, and that it was feared he had made good his flight across the Atlantic in one of the steamers from that port.
It was the work of a few minutes to put on my coat, fill a carpet-bag, hail a cab, and make my way to the South-Western Station in time to catch the next train.
That night, as time was of the first importance, I had an interview with the landlord of the small and unpretentious hotel in which it was supposed the forger had put up. He described his guest. The description fitted the broad outline of the man I wanted, but the filling in of the two pictures given me greatly differed. This might easily be accounted for by the skill of the criminal’s disguise. Yet it would hardly do to take a trip to America and back, incurring large expense, and expending a few whole weeks, on mere surmise. If it happened to be a wrong scent, the facilities of escape would be thus increased. I should feel humiliated, and my employers might not be at all pleased.
I saw the host of the hotel knew more than he was prepared to communicate, and the crass stupidity of the man’s intellect made it rather difficult for me to tell how I should extract the secrets he held in reserve. I didn’t want, if I could help it, to let the man share the reward, unless I could persuade myself his aid was so essential, that without it the culprit would get away. This I was not at all convinced of.
He told me that he did not read the papers nor did he know about the forgery, nor did he care about the reward, which last averment was a lie. He said that a gentleman had come over from Winchester about a week ago, and had stayed at his house. Who and what the gentleman was, it was no business of his to ask, nor did he then care to know. The man gave little trouble, and paid his bill. He was fond of the country, and took a fly every day to some place which he, the landlord, thought a pretty or an interesting place. When the ship came, and was ready to start, he went on board, and went off, that was all he knew.
Somebody else, another lodger at the hotel, who had left the morning of that day, knew, or thought he knew a little more about the gentleman. “He came to me,” said the landlord, “after the ship must have got out of the Southampton river, and asked me the name of the gentleman who wore one of the new-fashioned dark straw hats of the shape of common hats. I told him it was Mr. Richards. He said he was blowed if he thought that was his real name. He asked me where he came from. I said Winchester. He said he didn’t believe it was any Mr. Richards of Winchester, but Mr. Wilkinson of London, who had committed forgery, and who had been advertised about.”
This second lodger, who knew Mr. Wilkinson,—what was his name, where did he live? Was he not really then in the hotel? I fear I showed a little impatience.
No, he had gone back to London. Where he lived my host could not tell. He did not even know his name. He was entered in the hotel account-book as “No. 4,” and so his bill was headed.
This was tantalising. Still I was not yet inclined to let this dull lout so far conquer me as to constrain me to let him share the reward. I resolved to sleep on the affair, and turn it over in my mind. Somehow, it often happened that between the small hours of morning, as I lay in bed, I could see things more clearly than at any other moment, under any other circumstances.
I said it was unfortunate that I had missed No. 4, but it couldn’t be helped. I would, if my host pleased, just take a bit of supper and go to bed. I took my supper in the snuggery with my host for companionship. He accepted my invitation to have a glass and a cigar with me, but was evidently not quite at his ease, and nothing more did I get out of him.
Towards the end of our conversation, his wife entered the cosy little room, and he said “Mary, my dear, this officer is to sleep here. I don’t think we have got a room empty, except the one Mr. Richards slept in, and perhaps he won’t feel comfortable in that.” There was an odd leer on his face, just such an expression as an ignorant fellow makes when he thinks he has said a clever thing.
I rather liked the notion of sleeping in that particular room, but of course did not avow any partiality.
I merely said it didn’t matter much, to me. I could sleep comfortably in a haunted house, or on a murdered man’s couch without fear or trembling. So I had No. 9, and had not only the satisfaction of occupying the room for which I had a preference, but, I believe, also slept between the same sheets as the forger’s body had been lately covered by, for they were not exactly as clean as I could have desired.
My waking dreams did not in this instance help me, but I had resolved, before I went to bed, that as soon as daylight permitted, I would make a diligent search of the room, to see if no corner or cranny contained a trifle, such as a comb, a hairbrush, a shirt collar, pocket-handkerchief, scrap of paper, or indeed, anything that might assist in fixing the identity of the Atlantic voyager.
I began this search in the grey twilight of morning. Nothing was in the bed, under it, or in the corners or cupboard of the room. The fireplace was filled up by a board, but not fastened. In the grate was an accumulation of rubbish, deposited by various processes of accident and volition. Among these were some minute particles or fragments of paper, that I discovered to be parts of envelopes torn up small, and, with imperfect caution, not consumed by fire. It is needless to say that I laid hold of these, and as my voyage across the Atlantic would be by way of Liverpool, I thought I might as well examine them further in London, where I arrived by an early morning train.
I called to my assistance in shaping these fragments a man I knew who had a peculiar mathematical genius. He could, by the combinations and analyses of his subtle brain, read almost any cypher, and penetrate the mystery of all those eccentric advertisements which appear so often in the second column of the Times’ supplement. He has told me the secret covered by the announcement of “No door-mat tonight.” He has read off, in familiar English, the cabalistic information or sign embodied in “x z a y p u g 7 f a w 3,” and a multitude of similar advertisements of greater and shorter length.
This man was a sort of philanthropist in his way. The number of crimes already perpetrated before he knew of them is more than I can guess, and the number he has prevented by timely warning or disclosure is also more than I can tell. I know of many intrigues prevented, elopements frustrated, vile schemes broken before entirely hatched, and a number of foolish and incipiently criminal men and women having been turned from their wicked purposes by the salutary terror his penetration and vigilance have inspired. He held fast by the proverbial wisdom that “what is done, can’t be undone,” and held his tongue when to open his mouth would effect no good purpose. He never maintained an unnecessary reserve when to speak would prevent the commission of wickedness or folly. As I have said, I considered him, and still look upon him, as a real philanthropist.
My friend never cared for payment, but I always insisted upon his taking a fee when I availed myself of his assistance. On this occasion he earned his money by the rapidity with which he arranged the fragments of paper I brought from Southampton, and enabled me to read for myself the superscription upon an envelope. The shape of the pieces of paper were so nearly alike, as well as so small, that I believe it would have taken me many weary hours, perhaps some tedious days, to have so arranged them, although I could of course have done this much.
The result was that I found the man I wanted was indeed no other than the guest at the hotel, and it removed all doubt that he had gone off to the United States in the good ship which had so recently taken her departure from Southampton.
It is needless to say that I was instructed to follow him by the next vessel that left England. It was, as I said it would be, a Liverpool steamer.
There had been some gusty weather that did not inflict upon landsmen any of the disasters or inconveniences which excited the lively imagination of Barney Buntline, so renowned in song, but were a premonitory symptom of danger to those who, under a stress of duty, had to go down to the sea in ships. Still, it was not for me to quail, or by delaying my departure, give Mr. Wilkinson a chance of getting from New York into the far West or South of the American continent.
Happily, moreover, the day I started from the Euston Station was bright and cheery. The paper told me that the weather prognosticators had last evening consoled the underwriters and merchants of England by an assurance that the vessels which had been knocking about Spithead and the Solent would be able to depart on their several destinations. It was not unpleasant for me to speculate on the prospect of a pleasant voyage.
When I called at the agent’s office in Liverpool to secure my passage, which I did the moment after my arrival in the town, I found there a telegram to say that the warrants and papers would not arrive by the next train as appointed, and that as I might have to return, I was not, without further instructions, to engage my passage. Next morning brought me a letter to say that I might return to London as soon as was convenient to myself.
This letter annoyed me, but I did not care to show any feeling on the subject. I took a couple of days’ holiday looking at the docks and shipping, and examining the architecture of Birkenhead. When I reached London, I was in no hurry to call upon my instructors. When I did so, I was told with all possible politeness that my services would not, in this matter, be needed any further, and good reasons were assigned for this decision.
The Southampton steamer had sustained some damage in the storm, which, although not serious, the captain prudently thought it wise to repair before he fairly entered upon his voyage. The vessel put into Southampton again. Her return was telegraphed, and the intended victims of the fraud met her as she entered the docks. Mr. Wilkinson, inwardly vexed and anxious it may be fairly assumed, was met by owners of the money he had with him. They found him in a disguise on deck, trying to make himself look as happy and pleasant as a mortal could. He wore a broad straw hat, with a blue band around it, and a brown Holland coat, holding in his hand a musical instrument known as a banjo, with which he had amused his fellow-emigrants during the backward progress of the ship.
Acting upon some extra-legal advice, they introduced themselves to him, and told him it was their intention to give him in custody as a forger, but, through a companion, hinted that they might be disposed to spare him on account of his wife and family connexions, if he made restitution. The landlord of the hotel was also on the look-out, desirous of getting a satisfaction or revenge out of me, by warning the culprit, because I had not invited him to share the reward, which the fool might have secured for himself entire if he had charged the man himself.
The culprit saw his game was up. He whined, and promised the restitution demanded, and (aside) vowed eternal gratitude to the hotel-keeper.
All but about £200 of the money was given up. The wretch was allowed to depart in the same vessel to America in which he had taken his passage. Nobody on board knew anything about the matter. I didn’t altogether like the business, but I was liberally paid, and had no business to disclose the arrangement by which justice was defeated.
I confess that I was polite enough, or hypocritical enough, to profess to believe the reasons given me for the course taken, which were the pleadings of an unfortunate wife, and a regard for the interests of innocent children. I verily believe it was nothing of the kind. It was an apprehension that the uncertainties of the law might by some remote chance let the criminal escape, and that the money might be lost as well as the heavy costs of such a prosecution as this scoundrel’s would have been.
This notion is of course open to cavil or dispute. The reader can, if he pleases, differ from me. All I know is, the object of my search got away, and I have heard that he became a prosperous man in California.
SHORTLY after that eminent person Sir Cresswell Cresswell was placed at the head of the new court for the settlement of matrimonial causes, under and by virtue of an Act of Parliament which destroyed the rich man and woman’s monopoly of divorce, and brought that luxury or privilege within the reach of chimney as well as other sweeps, costermongers, mechanics, and labourers, I was waited upon by a young farmer, who cultivated somewhere about two hundred acres of land, not far from Rochester in the county of Kent, and instructed to trace, if I could, the whereabouts and mode of life of a lady who had, under very peculiar circumstances, obtained authority to wear his name and pledge his credit for all things within the scope of that agency with which the law invests every man’s wife, or the lady who may be held out to the world by him as his wife.
This lady, who shall hereafter be known to the reader as Mrs. Williams, had indeed been lawfully married to my instructor, at the Church of St. Dunstan, in Fleet Street, London, about three years before I heard of the circumstance; but her husband had only shared with her the felicities of matrimony about a month after the ceremony, and had been compelled to pay a very high price, in money and trouble, for these transient delights. Within ten days after the clergyman had declared the couple to be indissolubly united—and had solemnly forbidden any man to put asunder those whom, according to the ritual, God had joined together—incidents of that kind gently described as the results of incompatibility of temper were manifested, and the bridal moon partook more of the flavour of vinegar than honey.
Young Farmer Williams, in fact, told me in language betokening the agricultural mind, that on the fourth day he ascertained the idol of his heart to be a regular termagant. He had well baited his matrimonial trap, and had caught a perfect female tartar.
What has been rather improperly, I think, called the source of all evil in this sublunary world, embittered what should have been the dawn of their domestic bliss. Mrs. Williams displayed a love of dress, appetital requirements, and other tastes, which her spouse thought rather too lofty, wide, and nice for a woman in her station; although he assured me that he was far from niggardly, and had the means as well as the inclination to provide all things fitted to maintain her as she ought to have been maintained.
This lavish expenditure was not the only financial vexation which the young farmer had to endure. He discovered very early that he had wedded himself to debts and liabilities of considerable extent. The spinster’s creditors were not slow to put in force their remedies at law against the married woman’s husband. Lawyers’ letters, five or six in number, were delivered at the farm in rapid succession. Writs followed in the usual order of events. Messrs. Suction and Leech, of the fourth storey at No. 3½, Old Inn, on behalf of their clients—the Benevolent Loan Society—issued out of Her Majesty’s Court of Common Pleas at Westminster a process demanding £55, and interest thereupon from the date of dishonour, with costs of suit upon a long overdue bill of exchange; and the same firm also served upon the farmer a demand, and then a trader-debtor summons in bankruptcy.
This formidable-looking and terribly effective document explained upon the back of it that he was to appear before Mr. Commissioner Bane, at the establishment in Basinghall Street, London, on a day named.
He was then and there before the high, mighty, and cantankerous big-wig, to either admit the demand, or make an affidavit that he had a good legal defence to the claim, or submit to be made a bankrupt after seven days from the day on which he received the polite invitation of the Court to pay, secure, or compound with the Benevolent Loan Society—an institution, by the way, it seemed, wrapped up or embodied in the sole person of one Christian usurer.
What to do in this awful case young Farmer Williams did not know; so, after scratching his head, swearing perhaps a little to himself, but about another person, and having what he called “a flare up” with Mrs. Williams, he went off to London, to ask the Lord Mayor what he should do.
To get at a Lord Mayor is not easy. The janitors who guard the avenues, and the crowds who surround his judgment-seat, are an impassable series of obstacles to the all but the initiated, who have learned the art and mystery of threading the byways of the Mansion House.
A cool, shrewd-looking policeman, eyeing the farmer, inquired his business.
The farmer explained it.
The officer said he thought the Lord Mayor wouldn’t listen to the case, or, if he did, would say that it was out of his power to interfere. The constable thought the farmer had better consult a sharp attorney, who would be just the sort of man to get him out of the mess.
The former muttered something unlike a general compliment to the legal profession, looked puzzled, scratched the side of his head,—an infallible stimulant to wisdom—and added, that if the policeman really thought it desirable, he would speak to a lawyer about the case.
The policeman thought this was only judicious. A sharp lawyer would be sure to “pull him through” such a little affair as that. Now, Mr. Loosetongue—who was in the court, and at that very moment, with a vehemence akin to ferocity, was defending a pickpocket, by cross-examining the prosecutrix (a highly respectable young lady, the daughter of an Oxford- Street tradesman,) as to how she got her living, her chastity, and other cognate and pertinent subjects—was the police constable’s ideal man for such a case as that of Farmer Williams and his wife.
The farmer, after listening to Mr. Loosetongue’s subsequent speech on behalf of his “unfortunate client,” thought “the chap was indeed a devilish clever fellow,” and he resolved to commit all his troubles to the arrangement of that well-known attorney, although, as a matter of fact, the reader may be informed, that the Loosetongue skill and eloquence did not save the pickpocket from the doom prescribed by law for his offence.
A hasty consultation took place—as soon as the pickpocket had been removed to the cells—between the policeman, the farmer, and the attorney. The two last gentlemen then adjourned to Mr. Loosetongue’s offices.
After taking stock of the client, and listening to so much of the story as my instructor was willing to tell him, the attorney informed the farmer that he knew all the parties—that is to say, he was intimately acquainted in his profession with Suction and Leech, with Mr. Gripe (the Benevolent Loan Society), and perhaps with another name—that of a man—on the bill of exchange which led to the proceedings. A long discussion took place between attorney and client, In which the former quite conscientiously advised that, unless he could successfully show that no consideration had been given for the bill it would be useless to try and resist the claim. The best plan was to pay it at once, if that were possible, and if it were not now possible, he might be able—indeed, he had no doubt he could—get time allowed, by paying extra for that additional accommodation.
The farmer could pay in a few days, and he scorned to ask any favour from “the thieves,” as he called the plaintiff and his attorneys.
It was therefore arranged that Mr. Loosetongue should enter an appearance to the writ, as he had the right to do, and that Farmer Williams should avail himself of a privilege which the bankrupt law awards to the candid. He signed and filed an admission to the debt on the day appointed for him to see Mr. Commissioner Bane, and then got seven days’ further time to pay that debt and the costs.
It is needless to explain in detail the nature of the other demands. There was a claim of £105 upon an IOU for money lent by a lady to Miss Frances Smith. There was a demand of £57 for millinery. There was a dressmaker’s bill amounting to £135. There was a jeweller’s bill, the amount of which I have forgotten. There were several claims for board and lodging, with smaller sums of money lent, which together amounted to about £200.
As each demand came in, it is perhaps needless to explain that there was “a scene” at the farm. The farmer’s moral system, I presume, gave way; for he confessed to me that he never swore so much in his life, putting the oaths and years in a lump, as he did to that woman while they lived together.
There was no use in resisting. Mrs. Williams confessed to her indebtedness, and in a tornado of passion, real or assumed, averred that she had been scandalously betrayed and deceived. Her husband’s conduct she denounced as mean, contemptible, and infamous. She thought she was about to marry a man of fortune and a gentleman—not a mean-spirited fellow, who was either almost a pauper, or quite a miser! Of course she owed the money—the little paltry sums, as she called them—which had been demanded of him. No, it was not strange that they should all come upon him at once! She had told her creditors that she was going to be married. They had gone on trusting her, in the belief that when she got married, her husband would pay them. She wound-up by throwing the heaviest hard substance or thing at her husband’s head, and in a grand display of hysterics.
Mr. Loosetongue, on being from time to time consulted, told his client, quite truly, that there was no earthly use in attempting to resist the payment of either of these demands. The money must be paid. There was also no ground for a divorce disclosed by either of these claims. This the farmer considered to prove a grave defect in our statute law. The only thing to be done was to pay the money, and keep the wife. If her conduct had rendered her society distasteful, perhaps, Mr. Loosetongue suggested, she might be willing to separate from him; but, if he might judge of her character, expectations, hopes, and wishes, she would not consent to do so without an allowance.
To this the farmer stoutly objected. It is useless to deny or conceal the truth that the farmer was a man of rude, not to say coarse nature. He grimly smiled as he suggested that she had cost him so much that he wasn’t going to drive her away. He certainly wouldn’t pay more than he was obliged—for nothing, too. He wasn’t, he said, such a fool (with an adjective) as that.
Get the money to settle all the debts and all the costs of legal proceedings. How was this to be done?
He hadn’t got enough money for that.
Mr. Loosetongue advised the farmer to petition the Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors, adding, by way of good cheer, that the deception practised upon him would entitle and secure him the sympathy of even Mr. Commissioner Jaw, if he should have the ill-luck to get sent before his tribunal. Or there were the Maidstone and Canterbury County Courts, in either of which the whitewashing could be done. There was the disadvantage to Mr. Williams that these institutions were near his home, else Canterbury was a nice place for insolvents. The judge was such a reasonable man. He never favoured harsh creditors in their oppositions. Canterbury was in such good odour with debtors, that numerous clients of Mr. Loosetongue, weary and heavily laden with debt, had made pilgrimage to that shrine, where generous legislation, administered by a kindly judge, always gave them the relief they sought.
Farmer Williams did not like the notion of insolvency.
Mr. Loosetongue thought the farmer wiser than he was.
Bankruptcy, suggested the attorney, had advantages, no doubt; and a farmer was eligible for that process.
To show that he was not ignorant of his profession, he explained what the advantages were. Bankruptcy was dearer than insolvency.
The reader will, perhaps, if he does not know the fact, thank us for pausing to explain that the two rival establishments of Portugal Street and Basinghall Street are now united, and that although the competition has ceased, the process of whitewashing is reduced to next to nothing.
Bankruptcy was not more pleasant to the mind of the farmer than insolvency.
The farm cultivated by the unlucky bridegroom was part of it his own freehold. He was lawyer enough to know that he would have to surrender that to his wife’s creditors, and in fact that he was neither insolvent nor bankrupt, although without ready money.
Mr. Loosetongue was, before this interview closed, instructed to get £750 on mortgage of the farm. Out of this amount the debts were paid; the lawyers of the several claimants were satisfied; and Mr. Loosetongue, in compensation for the exercise of his brilliant and laborious services, also took a rather heavy percentage. Farmer Williams, who thought of replacing at his bank the ready cash already drawn out to meet the expenses before and after his wedding, found that impossible, as he had only a few pounds to draw from his eloquent and learned adviser.
When these heavy bills had been settled, the farmer, smarting under the affliction, told his wife the amount her ante-nuptial debts had already cost him. This of course led to another quarrel, in which she upbraided him with meanness, and further deception, declared that he had plenty of money, but was too mean to spend it, boasted that she was glad he had been compelled to part with some of his miserly hoard, and so forth. She made the gratuitous and unnecessary announcement that she didn’t care a pin for him, and, for his further comfort, assured him that he had not paid quite all yet. There were a few things she said he had not heard of, but should do so. She promised to write to all the rest of her creditors, and threatened to get in debt wherever she could, if only to punish him for his villainy to her.
Some letters were posted by Mrs. Williams next day in Rochester, and within a week, half a dozen or so of lawyers’ letters came down to the farm. These letters exasperated the farmer beyond measure. He stormed, swore, raved, and was near the commission of a personal outrage on his wife. A scuffle did ensue. She flew at him, and somehow in the affray the bosom of her dress was torn partially open, so as to disclose one corner of the envelope of a letter concealed near her breast.
The husband’s eyes were lighted up by a fiendish glare! In an instant he seized her with an iron grasp. Her strength was soon expended, and she could offer no resistance.
He drew from his pocket a huge clasp-knife, intending to rip open her dress, and tear out the concealed letter.
She saw the knife. She thought he intended to murder her in his rage. She trembled, threw herself on her knees, shrieked, and implored mercy!
“Give me the letter!” he exclaimed, as he brandished the knife, and malignantly delighted in her groundless fears.
“What letter?” she replied.
“That I saw in your bosom just now!”
“I have no letter! Oh! my God! no—don’t ask for that! It does not concern you;—believe me, it does not!”
“Give it me!”
And again the polished steel of the broad blade passed before her eyes.
She saw it was of no use attempting to hold it, and as he dropped the knife upon the floor, she fell back, and allowed him to take it from her.
It did not reveal the secret he expected, but another, not much, if any, more agreeable to a young husband. It was from the proprietor or keeper of a cheap boarding-school in Berkshire, demanding payment on account of the maintenance of a child of which she was the mother, and her husband was certainly not the father.
This letter went on to complain that the time by which she promised to discharge all arrears had so long passed without anything having been remitted, that the writer—who had learned from her friends of her marriage—would have to send the little girl home to the farm, and hand the bill over to his lawyer, that Mr. Williams might pay it.
Here was a discovery! Farmer Williams had the mare put to his gig at once, and set off for London, where he arrived that night. Next day he consulted Mr. Loosetongue. He told him that the woman was unbearable. It was impossible to live with her. She was more wicked, he thought, than the prince of the nether world; at least she was more fit to be a queen in the infernal regions than the wife of an honest English farmer. He must get rid of her.
There was another lot of letters from her creditors’ lawyers. There was a letter! Would Mr. Loosetongue read that? Wasn’t he astonished? Couldn’t he now get a divorce? Wouldn’t that, if got “right off at once, stop the actions?”
The attorney explained that the little ante-nuptial irregularity would not, per se, be a ground for divorce; and, on the other hand, his client would have to maintain the child of his wife. All the debts yet owing by her he must be understood, in law, as having agreed to pay when he completed the civil contract of marriage in the vestry of St. Dunstan’s. It was impossible to successfully resist—it was highly inexpedient to delay—time would entail expense. The result of this interview was, that Mr. Loosetongue was instructed to prepare a second mortgage on the farm, and out of the proceeds to settle the demands.
The magnitude of the evil, the prospect he thought he saw before him, calmed the irascibility of the farmer; but if the temper of his indignation was not so fiery as it had been, its strength had increased as it cooled
He reached the farm full of strong decision—with a resolution to inflict humiliating punishment on his wife.
She had fled. Where she took herself off to, her husband could not learn. She booked at Rochester by the railway to Gravesend, and from there hastened, by way of Tilbury, to London. She was lost to pursuit in that wilderness of brick and mortar—the Great Metropolis.
I never ascertained, nor could I ever form a satisfactory theory in my own mind as to the cause of this abrupt departure. I should have thought that the woman who could have braved the discovery of so many other peccadilloes would have faced the consequences of the last disclosure. It may have been that pertinacity and unscrupulousness abruptly stopped at this point. It may have been, after all, a nobler feeling yet latent in this designing woman’s breast. Perhaps she could bear to be known as a wantonly extravagant and scheming matrimonial adventuress, and yet not be able to bear the imputation, or proof, of her unchastity. It may have been that she dreaded that the farmer’s knife would cut short the term of her wicked life. It may have been that she dreaded the harshness and cruelty of a rude, unwilling father, or protector, towards her child There is a quickening atom of love in every heart; perhaps that in Mrs. Williams belonged to her daughter.
This was the story I had from the lips of the farmer when he called upon me about three years after the last event described.
I noticed throughout the narrative—which the reader has in briefer form than I originally had it—that he was evidently half afraid or ashamed to tell me how he made the acquaintance of this interesting and very amiable lady. I knew I must have it, but was content to wait for its disclosure; so I allowed him to rattle on with his curious story up to this point. Here I felt it desirable to ask him the important question—
“How did you get acquainted with Miss Jones—your wife—Mr. Williams?”
“Ah,” said he, “of course you must know that.”
“Yes,” I rejoined.
“Well, this way. I saw an advertisement in one of our county papers, the Kentish Firelight, of a concern they called the Matrimonial Agency—you know, up there in—Street—and I wrote for a prospectus, enclosing half-a-crown in postage-stamps for that precious bit of paper. When I got the prospectus, I found that I must pay one guinea for the registration of my name in the books of the association. So I sent that money, with my photograph, and I got a note from the fellow who called himself the secretary, acknowledging the receipt of the picture and the money, and was told that upon payment of a further sum of five pounds, I might inspect a gallery of female portraits in the offices of the society. I came to London, and paid five pounds, saw the miniatures of nearly a hundred ladies, and selected one who, I was told, was that of a Miss Frances Jones.”
“Did they make no representations about her?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, “they read me a written description of the lady. She was described as twenty three years of age—which was under the mark—of fair complexion, auburn hair, and rather slender form.”
“Was that all?” I asked, as I did not like to put the plain question—“Were you looking after a wife with a fortune?”
“I think,” he added, after a slight pause, “they said something about her being a lady-like and well-educated young woman.”
“Did they say nothing about her family, friends, connections, situation, or circumstances in life?”
“Well, no,” he replied; “I thought I would see to all that myself.”
I saw that he was trying to deceive me on one point, and humbugging himself.
“Mr. Williams,” I said, “I am afraid that you misunderstand me, or else you are hardly treating me with that confidence I have a right to expect, and which, I think, is essential to the success of my labours or you.”
“What do you want me to tell you?” he inquired, with an embarrassed air.
“I want to know the whole truth. Were you told that she belonged to a wealthy or a respectable family, that she had property or money, or anything of that sort?”
I saw that he was getting uncomfortable, and although I really wanted this information, I liked to witness his confusion, so I added the interrogatory— “Did you, or did you not, apply to the Association for a wife with money?”
“Well, in fact, I did say, that as I had a little property of my own—a rather snug farm, part freehold you know—that I should like my wife to have a little property also, because, as I have heard my father say, good looks are all very well, but beauty won’t keep the pot boiling, or fill the stomach.”
“Proceed, sir,” I said.
“They did not tell me anything,” he continued, “about her family, or her friends, but they said that she was a lady who had a fortune in her own right—somewhere about £4,000 in the Funds—which would become her husband’s on her marriage.”
“That,” I observed “would have been a nice little addition to your estate. It would have enabled you to farm your land to the best advantage. It is not many farmers who have such a capital”
“The vagabonds! I believe they knew they were duping me,” he said; “although they threw me off my guard by stipulating in honour for a commission of five per cent net of the girl’s pretended fortune.”
“They took care to make a market of you, as it was,” I observed. “Why, they had over £6 out of you before you saw the lady.”
“More than that!” he ejaculated. “After I had said I liked the looks of the lady, and had listened to the secretary’s tale about her fortune, they told me I had better go home, and leave all the rest to them. They would require to prepare Miss Jones for my introduction, as she was rather shy, although, like all other single ladies, very anxious to be married; and the preliminary negotiations, as experience had told them, required the utmost delicacy and care in their management, or ladies would get offended and break off.”
He stopped a moment, and, to lead him on through my instructions—which, although full, were very entertaining—I merely drew the cork from a bottle of port in my cupboard, poured him out a glass, and took one myself.
In continuation, he said, “A day or two afterwards I had from the secretary a letter to say that the matter appeared to him to be going on as satisfactorily as possible, and that they would—if not troubling me too much—like to see me. I came to town at once. The secretary then informed me that Miss Jones had been rather pleased with my portrait, and was on the whole satisfied with their explanations about me; but until she had had time for a little further reflection, she would not consent to an interview. He said he could see our matrimonial negotiation would be a tedious affair to the agency, as its officers could only treat the affair as a pure matter of business, and they were unable to participate in the pleasant anxieties of the lovers whose interests and happiness they promoted. The fellow uttered this in tones of such gravity, that for a moment I thought he had persuaded himself he was a philanthropist, working for the benefit of the human race, and without a thought for himself This notion was, however, removed by his adding that he should gladly give up the case, only he felt that would be neither fair to me nor to Miss Jones, still he thought if I wished him to proceed in the affair, he must ask me for another fee—say a £10 note.
“This took me a little by surprise. I said that I thought he ought to be satisfied for the present with the money I had given them. They were to have a percentage on the fortune I should have with the lady, and I thought that should also be enough for their payment hereafter; but I would not object to make the five per cent, into something more—say seven and a-half per cent.
“To this the secretary observed, that no doubt it appeared a little distrustful of me, but as he had said, the agency must treat the affair as a matter of business to some extent, and be guided by the light of experience. They would leave their compensation mainly on the security of my honour, but they must take care to guard themselves against total loss of time and personal expenses where the negotiations were protracted and so delicate as to call for the exercise of their very best skill.
“I did not like parting with more money, but I confess that I was getting very eager to meet the lady, whose graceful carriage, beauty, conversational powers, and accomplishments the secretary had dexterously referred to in the course of this interview.
“I paid the secretary another ten-pound note, and he promised to use his best offices to bring about an immediate interview, and a consummation that by this time it would be absurd for me to say I did not devoutly wish.”
“ ‘Well,’ I interrupted, ‘then you will see the lady, I suppose, within a day or two?’
“ ‘Not quite so soon,’ ” the secretary said.
“I imagine,” Mr. Williams said, with a sardonic grin, “that it was one of the devices of the agency to work up the tender anxieties of their clients (as they called them) by procrastination and disappointment. I got no letter for a week. I was uneasy, and wrote to know how they were getting on with the affair. I received an answer begging me not to be impatient, or my hurry might prove fatal to the negotiation. Another week rolled away, and no further letter came, so I wrote again to ask how the negotiation was proceeding? I got a reply this time, stating that in a day or two I might, they thought, do well to come to town again, first apprising them of the day and the hour I would call at the agency.”
“This time you saw your hesitating inamorata?” I said.
“No, not this time. A letter had been received by the secretary, suggesting in modest terms, and in a very neat handwriting, the timidity she felt at the proposed interview in the presence of third parties, and at so short a notice. I told the secretary that I thought he had better just give me the lady’s address, and let me write to her, or call, after an appointment. To this he had an unconquerable aversion, but said, that as she seemed willing to spare the agency trouble, he would, after the first meeting, be indeed very glad to leave us to arrange all our courtship and marriage as we liked.
“That word courtship I hated. It looked as if, after paying all my money, and going through all this bother with the agency, I should still have a year or two of fiddle-faddling before I got a wife.”
“And £4,000,” I ventured to add.
“I mentioned something of this to the secretary, who advised me not to pull in my line until my fish was fairly hooked, and then to draw it on safe dry ground as quick as possible. So I made up my mind to insist upon speedy marriage after the ice had been broken at the first interview with my lady-love. I had, however, to return home once more, bitterly tormented with disappointment, and to await another summons to London.
“Two days after this, I was urged to come up next day, as a letter awaited me at the agency from Miss Jones, which the secretary thought it desirable not to post. Of course I obeyed the summons. The note was unsealed, and had been read by the people of the agency.
“It proposed a meeting on the afternoon of my arrival at three o’clock. The trysting-place was the Mall of St James’s Park, and the signal, I am told, was one of the most old-fashioned since the daughters of Eve learned the use of white lawn handkerchiefs.
“We met. My lady blushed a great deal, I believe,—although she was veiled—as she ought to have blushed, at any rate. She tremulously held my arm, and betrayed many signs of real or affected timidity. If I never loved her before, or long afterwards, I swear that I loved her then with all my heart and soul.
It was refreshing to hear the enthusiasm, and sentimentality of my instructor. I merely said “I have no doubt you did, sir,” just to encourage him in getting to the end of the narrative requisite for me, and he proceeded.
“In the course of that interview it was agreed that we should get married as soon as the proper arrangements could be very well made.”
“That was rather hasty, was it not?” I asked.
“Not so very, I think,” he replied, “because I thought the agency had made all proper enquiries for me about her, and she expressed herself quite satisfied with the account she had of me from the secretary.”
“I suppose, in fact,” I continued “that you unconsciously assisted her scheme by your eagerness to get the affair settled.”
“Perhaps I did.”
“At all events you were married?”
“Within a month—at St. Dunstan’s.”
“Who procured the licence and made the little arrangements for the wedding?”
“I went with the secretary to Doctors’ Commons, and made the oath, and got the licence, and he did all the rest, but he charged me stiffly, and I had to pay beforehand. I met my wife near the Church, as it had been agreed with him, and she now had friends with her. But the affair was all conducted as privately as possible.”
“It was an odd mode of picking up a wife, Mr. Williams,” I here remarked, “and I am not astonished that your matrimonial experiment turned out badly. However, your story is now, I suppose, nearly at an end.”
“Nearly. I have not set eyes upon my wife since that day I left the farm to see Mr. Loosetongue about the letter.”
“Ah, that reminds me,” I said, “to what circumstances I am indebted for the honour of your introduction and business? Why did you not consult your lawyer?”
He explained that the attorney’s charges had been, he thought, too high for the work that had been done. I told him that my charges would, in all probability, be much higher. He said, however, that he did not care, for he was quite certain from what he had heard about me that I should do my work conscientiously and efficiently.
He went on to explain that he wanted a divorce. There resided in a town, not twenty miles from his farm, a widow, whose husband had departed this life about three months before the date of his present interview with me, leaving her no children as the memorials of his affection, but money enough to tempt suitors of the class my instructor was a type of.
“You see,” he said, “this thing wouldn’t press so much, because I can’t get married for some nine months to come, as Mrs. Tompkins (my wife that is to be) don’t, she says, think it decent, and, therefore, she won’t have me till her dear Tompkins has been in his grave a year, but the other d—l won’t let me alone. See here.”
He produced a letter from his pocket. I had my clue. This was a case I had no doubt about getting through of my own intuition; but, with the clue of this letter, I saw that all was right.
The letter was an application by a lawyer for £60, for Mrs. Williams’ board and lodging for three months, during an illness at Teignmouth. The attorney carried on business at Plymouth. ‘
I sent the farmer to a respectable London attorney, who, in order to facilitate me, did not threaten a defence outright, but merely wrote about the hardship of the case to his unfortunate client, and asked for consideration, which of course he and I both knew very well he would not get if he wanted it.
I went off to Plymouth next day, and put up at “The Royal.” There I soon got the measurement of the attorney who wrote the letter for payment, but could learn no more. I wrote to London, and desired my solicitor to get me if he could the address of the creditor. The Plymouth attorney was obliged to give this, because having had the impudence to issue a writ at once, my solicitor, as attorney for the defendant, took out a summons for the address and occupation of the plaintiff, which he procured for me. These were telegraphed to me in cipher. I took the next train to Teignmouth within an hour, and paid a visit to the street in which the plaintiff, a lady, lived. It was a street of lodging-houses, and it excited no surprise that, after another visit to “The Royal,” at Plymouth (where I telegraphed for one of my men to come down), I was again early seen engaging lodgings, as an invalid, within thirty yards of the front of the plaintiff’s house. My parlour had a bay window that commanded a view of my opposite neighbours, and the plaintiff’s house was, of course, not difficult to keep under close observation. In order to do this effectually, and without interruption, I showed signs of bad temper all day, got the dislike of the servant-of-all-work, who never came to me unless I rang for her, and I daresay hated me very cordially. At night, once or twice, I found my imaginary neuralgia less tormenting, and was good-natured. I asked my landlady (a widow) to do me the honour of having a glass of wine, or a glass of grog with me; and she doubly honoured me by accepting both. Of course, she talked as she drank. I got from her, voluntarily, the whole history of the entire street, and learned that two persons, the plaintiff, and a friend of hers, were thought by everybody no better than they ought to be. That friend pretended to be the wife of a commercial traveller, but people said he was a gambler, who made his living by cheating the young officers he could pick up at Plymouth. As for my hostess, she didn’t believe they were married at all, nor did she think the world was unjust in saying the hard things it did about both the reputed husband and wife.
A description of the plaintiff’s friend led me to suspect that she was the veritable farmer’s wife. Her present reputed husband was, I thought, the concoctor of the plot, to get a little more money out of the pocket of the farmer. The plaintiff’s aid in this scheme having been secured, no doubt, by a prospect of a share in the product of the swindle.
I was correct. Farmer Williams sent me in a parcel the photograph which he had obtained from the Matrimonial Agency. I now grew bolder in my proceedings. My man, who had arrived, was lucky enough to find lodgings to let in the house of the reputed commercial traveller’s house. We met in the street, quite as by accident, near his door. He invited me in, and we spent a cozy evening. It happened that the traveller was at home, and, perhaps, having an eye to business (in the card line), he ventured to ask if my man, who had proved himself a very amiable fellow, would have a hand at whist—as also his friend—with Mr. and Mrs. Howard. We assented.
There was no mistake about the identity of the lady, who had, according to her story, as related in conversation that night, been twice married, and had two children—one, the eldest, being at a boarding school—the other, the youngest, having, poor creature, died within a week of his birth.
That night I lost a little money, as I was obliged to do—somewhere about three pounds, and my man lost a couple of sovereigns at play. This was on a Monday night. On the following Saturday it was arranged, on my invitation, that we should all go on a picnic party for a few miles in the country. I knew the man would thus be secured at home on the day set apart for a little amusement as well as business.
Letters went to London and to the farm, near Rochester, by the early mail next day.
We had our picnic, and a jolly day we made of it. Nobody enjoyed it more than I did, unless it were my man, who appeared to have more than a poet’s sense of the beautiful in nature, and more than Epicurus’s appreciation of other good material things of earth. Like very respectable people, we got home early, and had a rubber of whist.
While enjoying ourselves in this quiet fashion, a comely rat-tat led me and my man to glance at one another, and led the servant girl to the street door. We were seated in the parlour. The strangers rushed past the girl before she had even time to scream, and in a moment my lawyer, Farmer Williams, and two servants from his farm, crowded the small apartment. There was a scene, and some words; but I prevented the uproar getting too high by a suggestion to the shrewd Mr. Howard, of the danger he would run if he attempted to make any needless disturbance. All the witnesses to identity having satisfied their curiosity by comparing the Mrs. Howard before their eyes with the Mrs. Williams engraven on the tablets of their memories, we withdrew, and a volley of unaffectionate terms assailed our ears until the outer door closed upon me—the last man—prudence having whispered to Mr. Howard of the inexpediency of following up the pursuit by loud words, or overt acts of retaliation.
To make assurance doubly sure, my solicitor took down the evidence which could be given by my Teignmouth landlady and one or two acquaintances, who could show the relationship in which Mrs. Williams stood to Mr. Howard, and then we all returned to London.
My task was practically accomplished. I knew that, in all probability, my evidence would not be wanted in the case, as so many unprofessional witnesses were available.
Farmer Williams was gratified by the confident opinion of his lawyer that he had now a good defence to the action, and also the materials for a divorce from his wife.
The divorce was immediately afterwards sued for, and eventually obtained; but it cost the farmer a pretty penny, one way and another. He had to pay not only his own costs—including, of course, my charges—but he was constrained by law to pay those of his wife’s defence, and the judge granted her (as he was obliged) alimony during the suit, at the rate of £200 a year out of the husband’s income, which she was at liberty to spend, and did spend, with Mr. Howard.
There are a few particulars of the lady and the Matrimonial Agency, which the reader may like to know.
She was the daughter of a tradesman who ran away to Australia, leaving his wife, a son, and this daughter, to shift for themselves, The young man turned out steady, and was able to support his mother. For Frances a situation as shopwoman was obtained, but she could not endure the irksomeness of life behind the counter, and a flirtation with one of the male assistants of the establishment caused the abrupt dismissal of them both. What became of her, or how she lived during the next two years, I did not ascertain, but I traced her afterwards living at St. John’s Wood under the protection of a gentleman. Being ambitious of escaping from this questionable position, and getting into a sphere of respectability, she adopted an expedient not unlike that of her husband. She was a woman of no mean personal attractions, fair education, and more than ordinary natural ability. For some time before her marriage she had mainly lived by scheming. She set herself to entrap some wealthy fool into a marriage, in the belief and intention of extracting money enough out of him for housekeeping and what not to pay her debts, and keep the baby, which had been the result of her earliest indiscretion, at the drapery establishment. She had been a victim to the Matrimonial Agency. The secretary of that concern got £25 out of her as the reward of his services in the plot against Farmer Williams.
After quitting the farm, as I have described, she was involved in great trouble. A pawnbroker supplied her with the means of subsistence for a few weeks, but that source then failed. She had no security to offer him, except the clothes necessary to keep up a decent appearance with, and she was prepared to make any sacrifice rather than that a life of virtue now demanded. I must not explain the mode in which she consequently procured the money she now fared sumptuously upon, until an accident threw her in the way of Mr. Howard, and the partnership, such as it was, between them was effected.
ABOUT four years ago I had occasion to call upon a solicitor in Westminster, and, in the usual manner, sent my name in from the clerks’ office to the principal-sitting-room This it is perhaps needless to inform the reader is a practice adopted by solicitors to avoid unpleasant rencontres. The debtor and creditor, or plaintiff and defendant, who sometimes entertain a lively animosity towards one another, thus avoid collisions. If Mr. Jones, the tailor, happens to be in conference with Mr. Ferret, his attorney, when Mr. Smith, a debtor of Jones’, who has been served with a writ, to recover an unsettled account, calls upon the smart lawyer, the client is always allowed to get clear off before the supplicating customer is admitted to Ferret’s presence. Sometimes, however, it happens that this salutary rule of letting off one gentleman before another is asked to “walk in” is broken. The attorney and his clerks do not imagine that the departing and the awaiting persons can be acquainted with one another, or are at least unconscious of the respective business they have with Mr. Ferret, and in the tacit belief that a casual glance will be not at all embarrassing to either party, they are suffered to meet on the passage, staircase, or lobby. An act of thoughtlessness, or want of precaution, on the occasion I speak of, led to a very disagreeable incident, although it also brought to my knowledge one of the finest illustrations of persistent gratitude that I, or perhaps the reader, ever heard of. My story, I think, fully equals that of Mr. Charles Dickens’s Mr. Pip and the convict, in that able novelist’s “Great Expectations.” My story has also the merit of being true. The great novelist’s narrative is, I suppose, a pure fiction. I am about to tell what did happen, and he has related what at best might have occurred.
After waiting about ten minutes, I was told that Mr. Goodman, the solicitor, who wished to see me, was then disengaged, and that I might walk in. As I entered the private room of this gentleman, through a door communicating with his clerk’s office, another person was quitting the sanctum by a door which opened on the staircase lobby. Our eyes met, and Mr. Goodman’s eyes rested upon us both. Long habit enabled me to suppress the astonishment I felt. It was not so with the retiring gentleman. My eye transfixed him. He stood for a couple of seconds with the door in his hand. During this brief space, the hues, form, and expression of his countenance changed at least half-a-dozen times. A vacant stare passed through the phase of twitching into a deep crimson blush, that itself gave way to a forced smile, and then a half-sardonic grin, which settled down into an ashy paleness, betokening that intense pain which conventional respectability endures when suddenly covered by shame. As soon as he could muster self possession enough—that was, I calculate, about two seconds afterwards—he closed the door, and I suppose went on his way doing anything but rejoice.
Mr. Goodman and I looked at one another significantly and inquiringly. Neither of us could, however, get an answer, or a hint towards the solution of a mystery, from the other.
“Do you know that gentleman?” I was asked.
“Yes,” I laconically answered.
“What do you know about him?”
“Well,” I evasively replied, “that is hardly a proper question, Mr. Goodman, because it might lead to something else, and I might almost, without knowing it, drop a clue to some of my clients’ confidences.”
“Nonsense,” said the solicitor, “you can’t mislead me. That man has been in trouble, and you had something to do with his tribulation. Well,” he continued, musing, “it’s no affair of mine. I don’t want to probe your secrets. I know that he is now living a respectable life, that he moves in very good society, and a kinder-hearted man I never met with.”
I began to feel curious, but said nothing. Mr. Goodman, who was an exceedingly respectable and good-natured man himself, was evidently desirous of creating a favourable opinion in my mind towards his client, proceeded.
“That man, sir, over whose career some blight has, I see, passed, who has been the victim of some profound misfortune, or it may be once perpetrated some offence, would now, I verily believe, travel from London to John O’Groat’s on foot, or stint himself to the barest necessities of life, if by so doing he could keep a deserving fellow-creature.”
I expressed myself as “very delighted to meet such a man.”
“Yes, sir,” continued Mr. Goodman, “that unfortunate man has been for more than three years the prop and sustentation of a whole family who, but for the continuance of his benevolent exertions, and his own contributions, must to-morrow go to the workhouse.”
My curiosity was getting intense. I had formed a different notion of the man, but I yielded up my prejudices. I confessed that I should like to know more about his present character and habits.
“You shall know all I know,” continued the solicitor. “About three years ago a doctor who had a year previously taken a new house, near to my residence at E—, was discovered to be inextricably embarrassed. The poor man was one of that class of persons who never seem to be capable of doing any good for themselves, but whose gentleness and kindliness, or amiability, make them friends in all directions. The gentleman you have just seen leave my office was one of the doctor’s friends. He had, I believe—indeed, I know he had—borrowed money everywhere it was procurable, and lent the doctor all he possibly could of his own money; but as fast as he settled one thing, another became an imperative demand. It would have been only wise on the doctor’s part to have taken the benefit of the Insolvent Act, but although poor and woefully embarrassed, he was proud and anxious to avoid doing what he thought would inflict a stain upon his character or that of his children.
“One day while the duns were pressing—and I believe there was an execution in the house for rent—the sheriff was also in possession under a fi. fa. for an amount there seemed no chance of being able to pay, and a ca. sa. might at any moment be lodged with the officer for his arrest, the unlucky surgeon received a letter from an old acquaintance in New Zealand, advising him to sail at once for that colony, where he must realise a good income out of little work. The letter contained no remittance—nothing, in fact, but advice and encouragement. The surgeon consulted with his substantial and true friend, and they both arrived at the conclusion, that it was desirable the former should try his fortune in the new colony.
The question then arose, how was he to get away?—how pay the mere passage-money and outfit for himself, his wife, and their three children? He had but few debts to collect, and these could only be got in far more slowly than legal processes would overtake him. The furniture in his house, when sold, would go towards satisfying the landlord and the execution creditor. The friends had to solve a hard problem. The only practicable course seemed almost cruel, and yet it was, they thought, on the whole proper and wide to adopt it. The surgeon was to raise enough money, by every fair expedient, to pay his own passage, leaving to his never-failing friend the thankless task of arranging or procuring somehow, from wearied relations, and other persons, the means of sustaining the family until the father could earn in New Zealand, and remit to this country, sufficient for their passages to the land of their adoption. This plan, when laid before the wife, I need scarcely say was a source of grief to her; but painful as the thought of separation was, she did not oppose it, and would have assented to anything which held out a ray of promise to the blighted hopes of the family. The man who has just quitted this room, sir, had to find the whole of the money to take the surgeon out. He put his own name down on the subscription list for an amount that he could very ill indeed spare, and I and others were pertinaciously besought for ‘just another mite, to set up the poor fellow and his family.’ In this way the surgeon got out of the reach of sheriffs’ officers, and was conveyed to the land of promise. The next thing was to raise a provision for his wife and the children. Again the hat was carried round, again the man who has just left this room, sir, threw in the price of a new coat he rather needed. Furniture enough to furnish two rooms in Islington was saved from the wreck of the household. He pointed out to the helpless wife how she might, by the exercise of her talents, make a little money. He induced some good people to take the temporary charge of two of her children—the third she would not part with. In fact, sir, in a way that no ordinary father or brother would do, he undertook the duty of maintaining that surgeon’s family, and he has to this day nobly executed the trust.”
“Three years ago?” I observed, “and has the doctor left his wife and children so long? Why has he not sent for them, or remitted something towards their maintenance?”
“He has not,” continued the solicitor. “I am not satisfied with the doctor. He writes home pretty often, and draws a dismal picture of his own ill success and endurances, but I am convinced that as long he lives he will never do any good for himself I don’t think he is exactly lazy, unprincipled, or positively unfeeling, but there is something deficient or defective in the man’s character, which bars his success in life. I am beginning to be afraid, moreover, that long absence from wife and children may weaken or even destroy the affection I believe he entertained for them.”
“The doctor’s name?” I involuntarily asked.
“Nay, nay,” replied Mr. Goodman, “I have no wish to enlarge your knowledge of my client’s acquaintance, whether that be much or little. I was only desirous of removing, as far as I could, any prejudice against that poor man—who suffered so keenly through your meeting with him just now—by relating truthfully some incidents of his recent career, which have passed under my own eye.”
I have often been sorely touched by the exercise of my vocation, but rarely have I been so moved as I was by this narrative, and I would then have given much to recall half an hour, so that the repentant criminal might have been spared the agony of a recognition at such a time and place.
I assured Mr. Goodman that any prejudice I could have felt against any man would have yielded to such a story as he had told me. He said that he did not ask me to tell him anything, but he did entreat me not to say a word to anybody that could afflict or injure the poor man, whose charity was the best atonement he could offer to society and to Heaven for any wrong he had ever committed. I gave that undertaking, and have hitherto kept it. I still preserve it. The penitent is dead, so that his eyes will never rest on these pages. The solicitor will never supply a clue to inquiries that will establish an identity, which I am also careful to conceal by an alteration of names and localities in this otherwise true story.
After having given this promise to Mr. Goodman, I took his instructions for an investigation, on behalf of another of his clients, and I left him.
It may here be desirable to inform the reader that eleven years before our meeting at Mr. Goodman’s office, I arrested on a charge of forgery the man I now so disconcerted. He was then a solicitor in large practice, at H—, and was accounted a most respectable man.
He was in fact a prosperous and an able practitioner, but on one occasion, being sorely pressed to make up a rather large sum, he had recourse to the expedient of realising a trust fund, and converting it to his own use. He saw his way to make up and restore the money within five or six weeks, and as he had advised a new form of investment, he thought he would have nothing to do when he had got the amount, but ask for a genuine power of attorney, destroy it, and apply the fund as arranged. Something, however, disclosed the forgery within a few days of its perpetration. The criminal was arrested by me, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to transportation beyond the seas for the term of his natural life.
This was all I knew up to the moment of our rencontre, when it became obvious that he had obtained a pardon, and, as I learned, was pursuing a meritorious life.
In less than a week after the interview with Mr. Goodman that I have described, the ex-convict gave me a call. In full reliance, he said, upon my generosity and good feeling, he had come to ask me to preserve the terrible secret of his crime and punishment. I assured him at once, that under no circumstances should I be a party to wantonly hunt down any member of society who, having broken its laws, had also either paid the penalty by enduring the sentence inflicted by a proper tribunal, or who by good conduct had obtained a pardon.
“If,” I continued to observe, “you could have maintained your self possession the other day at Mr. Goodman’s offices, nobody but ourselves, not even that gentleman, need have been let into the secret.”
“Good God!” passionately exclaimed the unfortunate man, as he dropped his bald head between his hands, supported by both elbows upon my table, and his frame shook with an emotion unrelieved by tears. “Then he did see that you knew me before, and he observed my embarrassment!”
It was useless to deny that; fact; but I told him I had not at all strengthened any suspicion in Mr. Goodman’s mind by information about the old disaster, and as I thought it might comfort him to do so, I told him all that had passed between us on the subject. I added that if my visitor had no objection to afford me that knowledge, I should like to know the special cause of his strong attachment to the doctor and his family.
He told me.
After his conviction great efforts were put forth by friends to prevent his being sent out of the country, and as the interests of many clients would have otherwise suffered, a solicitor was allowed to confer with him as to several matters then left uncompleted. He was afterwards sent to Bermuda.
His wife was unceasing in her exertions to procure a mitigation of his sentence, but notwithstanding the influence brought to bear during a series of years, those exertions would, in all human probability, have failed, but for the aid he received from a quarter in which he could not have reasonably hoped to find it. While at Bermuda, doing the rough work assigned to convicts, he was taken dangerously ill, and transferred to the infirmary, where he was placed under the care of a surgeon to whom his wife, who always got to know when and where he was removed, and who had taken up her abode in the island, had addressed herself. Under the careful and skilful treatment of a sympathising hand, he recovered. He was then employed as an assistant in the convict hospital of the settlement, and the same kind-hearted fellow, who knew the rules of the service well, was able, without any breach of duty, to suggest the moment and the mode when and how renewed memorials in his favour could be got up for a remission of his sentence. He was ultimately liberated. Good conduct and a broken constitution were united reasons for the exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy in his case. The convict doctor was the man who afterwards emigrated to New Zealand. The penitent criminal felt that he owed life and liberty to that surgeon. When he obtained his pardon he vowed that one of the first objects of the remainder of his existence should be the promotion, if he had it in his power, of his benefactor’s welfare. His wife’s little fortune enabled him to offer the convict surgeon the means of starting in practice.
The surgeon resigned his appointment, and started on his own account in London, but had not been prosperous. Every misfortune, however, instead of weakening the devotion of the grateful convict, only deepened the hold of the unsuccessful man upon his friend, who concluded his story by informing me that his own dear wife having gone to her eternal rest, and having no children himself, he felt bound to share all he had with the wife and children of the emigrant
Lawyers, that is to say, attorneys and solicitors, are usually looked upon by men of business as (outside certain limits) the most honourable class of persons in the world. I quite coincide in that opinion. The reader must not, however, misunderstand me. Few members of the legal profession comprehend the nice distinctions of moral propriety which high-minded men of other classes—traders, merchants, and professional men in general—are guided by. It may be fairly doubted whether a lawyer’s honesty is not, as a rule, a thing of pure etiquette and expediency. I confess that is my opinion; but I am not going to write an essay on such a theme. The case I am about to relate does, however, go far to establish the theory that when a solicitor is dishonest, beyond the limits which are deemed professional, it is nearly impossible to fathom the depths of his villainy.
Less than twelve-months ago I was employed to test the accuracy of certain facts which a poor man had laid before a London solicitor, who is, I believe, an exception to the rule just laid down. My experience of him, and his relation to this matter, warrants a belief that he is a worthy and generous-hearted man. I believe that his moral code regulates not only his dealings with his clients, but with “the other side”—their opponents. He took the present case in hand, I know, from motives of the purest generosity, with the sole object of wresting an estate from the fraudulent trustee, and recovering it for the heir, and, perhaps, with the laudable design superadded of disgracing if not punishing two dishonourable members of his own honourable profession.
The story would be lengthened and elaborate, if I were to describe the part I played in it, as it was played, so I think it wise to simplify the narrative by almost entirely omitting from it my procedure, and putting the facts in a compacter shape.
One evening in the month of July, 1861, a man really about fifty years old, although his scanty white hair, embrowned, indented, and furrowed cheeks gave him the appearance of greater age, entered the village of B—, not many miles from the prosperous manufacturing town of Leeds in Yorkshire. He was accompanied by his wife, a woman of about his own age, whose feebleness and sorrow-stricken air told the least penetrating observer that the world had not dealt tenderly with her. They put up at a small inn, and it was plain that they had little money.
Who were they? What business had they in B—? These questions were put by Mrs. Boniface to her husband, and Mr. Boniface to his wife. They shook their heads mysteriously, and perhaps wisely.
They agreed that a huge carpet-bag was but an indifferent security for a long score, and resolved to grant only a slight credit to their guests.
The old man and his wife early next morning took a stroll through the village, carefully scrutinising every signboard, name, and inscription, which the advertising genius or enterprise of a tradesman had hung out to view. They wandered through the churchyard and over a few meadows. Nobody accosted them, and they spoke to nobody. They returned to the “Fleece,” and had their breakfast.
While sipping his coffee, our traveller addressed the landlord, who had entered the room for the purpose of repairing the fire, and taking another survey of the “rum customers,” as he called them, behind their backs. This conversation took place in Yorkshire dialect, which I spare the reader.
“Do you know William Johnson, landlord?”
“Well, I did know him when he was alive.”
“What! is he dead! My poor old father dead!’ exclaimed the guest, with more emotion than he might have been thought capable of. “When did he die? Where is he buried?” And the poor man went on sobbing and maundering, while his wife, who seemed to think it only decent to exhibit her grief in a similar mode, brought into use a capacious pocket handkerchief.
The landlord was an undemonstrative if not a rather unfeeling man, with a practical scepticism in his character that made him doubt everybody. In a moment he made up his mind that his guests were impostors trying to work upon his humanity, and resolved not to be done in that style.
“Come, I say, old chap, that won’t do! You’re no son of old Mr. Johnson, I know.”
At this the wife of Wm. Johnson then present and alive, grew indignant, and expressed herself accordingly. Her husband also declared that if he were a younger man, and under other less unpleasant circumstances, he should resent the imputation involved in Boniface’s remark by a proceeding not the most agreeable to the slanderer.
“Well, then, where did you come from, I should like to know?”
“I came from London yesterday, but I came from many parts before that. I’ve been in America and in New Zealand, and in Australia and in California, and many other parts that you never heard of in your life, I dare say.”
“Well, and what have you come here for now?” The publican, who did not yet quite believe in his visitors, was careful not to waste politeness on people who were not likely to spend much money.
“Why, we came here to see my good man’s father, to be sure!” interposed the female customer.
At this moment another person entered the hostelry for a gill of ale, and to see what a Manchester daily newspaper had to say about a political meeting of the previous night in Leeds. This person was deemed an oracle. He knew everybody, and everybody’s business, for a distance of thirty miles round, at least, and the family lore and romance which he carried in his head would, if written out and printed, fill the shelves of a circulating library. Let me not, however, do Mr. Freeman any injustice. He was an intelligent and a kind man. He was always ready to do “a good turn” for a fellow-creature, and he had the special advantage to our travellers of having been rather intimately acquainted with the late Mr. Wm. Johnson, of B—. Unlike the landlord of the “Fleece,” Mr. Freeman had faith in his fellow-creatures.
“Ah! Mr. Freeman, glad to see you this morning,” said Boniface, “who do you think (with a cynical grin) I’ve got here?”
“Don’t know, landlord.”
“Why here’s an old chap from London, as old I’ll swear as your friend Will Johnson that’s dead, who says he’s Will Johnson’s son.”
This was shouted in the presence and hearing of the man and his wife, as the landlord of the “Fleece” stood in the doorway between his bar and the parlour.
What unpleasantness might have followed, can be imagined, if Mr. Freeman had not opportunely stepped forward to the guests, and looking for half a second in the honest eyes of the living Wm. Johnson, then grasping his horny hand, exclaimed—
“This is the lad! How many thousand times your old father and I have talked about you. Yes, there’s no humbug in you, my friend, as the landlord here thinks. I see your father’s face before me again, and if I could scrape off some of that tan from your countenance the landlord would see it too.”
It is needless to say that the two men who understood one another fell into a long conversation about old times and experiences. From Freeman, Johnson learned much about his father, and Johnson related his travels and adventures to his friend, as well as to other persons at the “Fleece,” many times during the few days that he remained there.
It is here desirable to inform the reader that Johnson, when a lad about eleven years of age, under the Robinson Crusoe influence, ran away from his father’s cottage at B—, and journeyed on foot to Hull, where he obtained the object of his then ambition, in an engagement as cabin boy. That would be about forty years before the incident I have just described. During this long period his father nor any member of his family had ever seen or heard of him. He had seldom visited England, and when he had done so he had avoided the channels in which he was likely to be recognised. He had not found the road to fame and fortune on the international highways of the ocean, and pride, which increased as years rolled on—until but the other day—restrained him from all communication with his relatives and the friends of his boyhood. At length, having been obliged by infirmity to retire from the mercantile marine, he had settled down at Hackney with his wife, who had assisted by her industry and frugality in providing a fund on which subsistence could be had during the remnant of their days. He was now in the habit of reflecting at times upon his past career, and old memories of his father, mother, brothers, and sisters would ever and anon float across his mind. These thoughts rendered him uncomfortable. He knew that he must have caused the old people much and bitter anxiety. He could not at all justify his first act of disobedience in running away from his home, but this was, he felt, a venial sin, as compared with the isolation of himself from all his relations.
During the period in which these thoughts were active it happened that he met, at the “Jolly Gardeners,” at Hackney,—where he retired every evening to smoke his pipe and spin his yarn, and entertain a circle of good listeners,—the friend of one of his friends, who came from the town of Leeds, and knew the village of B—. He took this person into his confidence, and learned from him all he knew or thought he knew about the Johnsons of B—. He learned that his mother had been long dead; that his brother and one of his sisters had also gone to their graves; that another sister was married and living in Leeds. He was also told that his father was alive, and although worn down by the weight of years, was, all things considered, a tolerably hale old man.
This news was not very fresh. It was also in one particular incorrect. Old Johnson had died some time before the speaker left Leeds, as Mr. Freeman has already explained. However, he resolved to go down to Yorkshire quietly, with his wife, and see the old man. These rude folks, like some genteeler people, also liked sensations, and they determined to surprise the venerable parent. Hence their arrival at B—, as described.
Among the intelligence supplied by Freeman to Johnson was the fact that his late father always believed he was entitled to a considerable estate, which had been left by two female ancestors a long while ago, under a complex will, upon a variety of what lawyers call uses and limitations. In case of failure of all the parties so entitled, the property was to go to the right heirs-at-law of these ladies for ever. The terms or provisions of this will gave the surviving devisee a life interest in the whole of the estate. At her death a life interest was given to a relative, the Rev. Ebenezer Talker, and at his death the freehold was to pass—
“To the use and behoof of the first son of the body of the said Ebenezer Talker lawfully begotten and to the heirs male of the body of such first son lawfully issuing and for default of such issue then to the second third and every other son of the said Ebenezer Talker successively and in remainder one after the other as they should be in seniority of age and priority of birth and the several and respective heirs male of the body or bodies of every such second third and every other son or sons the elder of such sons and the heirs male of his body being always preferred and to take before any of the younger sons and the heirs male of his and their bodies lawfully issuing.”
And if the not very rational contingency that the Rev. Mr. Talker and all his heirs male should die without leaving any heirs male of their bodies, Mr. Charles Talker, brother to the popular divine, was to have a life interest in the estate of the spinsters. At his death his heirs male and their heirs male—that is, his sons and grandsons—were to become entitled to the estate in the same order of precedence as the sons of Ebenezer were to have enjoyed it. And if this line of contingent uses and estates should also be cut off, or as the will said, “in default of such issue,” two married ladies were to have a life interest therein as tenants in common, with a remainder or descent of the freehold to their sons in the same order as the sons of the Rev. Ebenezer Talker, or his brother, would have had it. And if these ladies should pass out of the world without sons, or these sons and their sons should all die, then in default of such issue, the estate was to pass to Captain Trident, of His Majesty’s frigate the “Slaughterer,” for his life, with remainder or descent of the freehold to his sons, according to the formula already given. And in default of such issue of Captain Trident, his sisters, Dorcas and Betsy, were to have a life interest in the estate, as tenants in common, after which it was to pass to their sons in the order prescribed.
This was the last contingency provided for. The spinster devisors never imagined that all these lines would drop, so they were content to stipulate that afterwards the estate should pass to their right heirs for ever.
Such, at least, were all the beneficial provisions of the will. There was, however, another nominal devise, which, in the sequel, became highly important; but as an explanation of the legal nature of that trust is unnecessary for the purposes of this sketch, I at once proceed with my story,
This was a purely naked trust. Who could so well discharge those technical functions of “preserving the contingent uses and estates” from being defeated or destroyed, and for that purpose to make entries and bring actions, as occasion might require, as a lawyer? Mr. Sleeky, a young but highly respectable solicitor, who drew the will, or who instructed counsel learned in the law to draw it, volunteered to take half that office upon himself if associated with another gentleman of good repute. The suggestion was approved by the old ladies, and they nominated an old gentleman, with their lawyer, as trustees, to execute those nominal functions. The trust ran to them and the survivor of them his and their heirs.
After duly executing and publishing this will, the ladies very soon died in rapid succession, and one of the trustees for preserving contingent remainders died also very soon. This was not Mr. Sleeky. I have never heard it suggested that there was anything remarkable in this rapid succession of deaths, but if they had not happened so long ago, I should certainly have advised the employment of Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor, and have made rigid inquiries for myself into the cause of their speedy mortality. It is also, let me say, en passant, to be regretted that the trustee who died so prematurely was the wrong man for the grave, and the right man to have acquired the title and prerogatives of survivor. Mr. Sleeky could have been spared, without injury to the trust, and perhaps without injury to any one.
A copy of this will had been obtained by the deceased Wm. Johnson, and on his death-bed he had given it to his friend Freeman, with strict injunctions to preserve it, and an emphatic although vague injunction, to see that justice was done some day to “that rascal Sleeky,” son of the first trustee of that name.
During his stay at B—, Johnson and Freeman read over the document many times. Neither could perfectly understand it, and as for the mariner’s wife, it was to her all a mysterious jargon of words.
What had become of the Reverend Ebenezer Talker and all the sons and grandsons contemplated by the will? It was not surprising that, in the lapse of time, the father should have gone to the grave, or that his son should have followed him; but that father, probable son, and possible grandsons should all have gone, was curious. Freeman could not, he said, tell any more than the man in the moon.
What had become of Charles Talker and all the issue and heirs male of his body? The same curious suggestion arose. Mr. Freeman, “for the life of him,” could not tell.
Were the ladies next entitled to a life interest living or dead? Of his own knowledge Freeman could not say, but he imagined that they were dead.
And their sons? If they ever had any, they must, Freeman thought, also, be dead; but he couldn’t say of his own knowledge.
Captain Trident, was he alive or dead? On this head information was uncertain.
His sisters? Freeman thought they were dead. In his own mind he had not the shadow of a doubt on the subject, because his deceased friend professed to know that as a fact.
Did they leave any sons, them surviving? On this Freeman was greatly puzzled. If they or either of them had left a heir male, he was of course entitled before Wm. Johnson, supposing that he became the next heir, in default of a Trident’s issue.
My hero, at this stage of the investigation, sagaciously observed it was a pity that his father was dead, because he could no doubt answer all these inquiries satisfactorily.
Freeman repeated that, in his own mind, he had no doubt issue had failed in every instance directly provided for in the will, and that the estate had, under the last devise, passed to Johnson as the heir-at-law. His reason for supposing that this was the case was contained in a statement made to him by his deceased friend not a couple of years before his death.
In this conversation the deceased had related that, some years before, he had found out the estate was near his reach—if he got his own, that was. Of two ladies, the last devisees, who alone stood before him as the heir-at-law, one had been called to render her final account; so he must have learned that all the others had been cleared off. He considered that he was entitled to half the property at that time, and that he had been humbugged or robbed by the first trustee, the elder Sleeky.
“I went, said your poor father to me,” observed Mr. Freeman, “to the office of Sleeky, Yellowboy, and Starch, in H—, and I asked for Mr. Sleeky. I was shown into his room. He was a neat, spruce, tidy-looking old man, with a bald head, a rosy face, and a smile always about his mouth,—but he was a thief, and a hypocrite, for all that. I told him that I had come about my rights. That as one of the ladies who had had the estate was now dead, I felt I ought now to have half of it. Sleeky said no—I was wrong. I had not, and never could have, any title to any part of it. I was not, he said, the heir-at-law. I asked him who was the heir-at-law, and he said that his wife, Mrs. Sleeky (who had been a Johnson) was. I told him that he was a liar, for I couldn’t help saying so, as I knew he was trying to deceive me. He didn’t get out of temper, though. He never did, he said, get angry—and I believe him there. Then I asked him how he made it out, and he told me a long rigmarole of a pedigree that I knew wasn’t true, but I couldn’t argue with him, so I gave it up then. And he says to me, ‘It don’t matter to you, Johnson, or to me, or Mrs. Sleeky, yet awhile, because as long as the other tenant for life’ (as he called her), ‘lives she enjoys the whole estate, and it will be time enough to discuss who is heir-at-law when she dies.’ ”
“Did my father not mention the name of those ladies,” inquired the mariner.
“Why, of course he did,” said Freeman, “and yet I can’t recollect it. Let me look at the will again, and refresh my memory.”
The copy of the will was examined again. “Captain Trident,” exclaimed Freeman; “that’s the name—his sisters—Miss Tridents. You see your father was right Miss Tridents. They were not married ladies. They couldn’t have heirs male, and unless they had got hold of the property unjustly—which that trustee wasn’t the sort of man to let them do—as all the Talkers were also dead, the estate went at their deaths to the heir-at-law of the ladies who made this will, which your father always thought he was, and no doubt he was; and as you are his eldest son, why you’re now the man who ought to have the estate.”
“I wonder my father stopped there. If I had been in his shoes old Sleeky wouldn’t have got over me like that,” observed Johnson.
“What could he do, my good man, more than he did? He called upon the living Miss Trident. She was an old maid, I dare say. He told me that she looked at him, when he told her his business, as though he wanted to steal away her rights, and snatch the body of her dear dead sister from the grave. All he could get out of her was, that she didn’t know anything about it, but that Mr. Sleeky was a pious, God-fearing man, that he wouldn’t do her or him any wrong to the extent of a farthing, and that he had better go to Mr. Sleeky. Your father said that he had been to that ‘d—d old thief,’ upon which she ran away out of the room, as if frightened, and sent her servant to show him the door.”
“Did my father never talk to the lawyers about this affair?”
“Oh, yes, three or four; but they always wanted money, and your father always doubted them. He went all the way to Manchester to see a lawyer I have read about in the papers—a man who advocates the rights of the working-classes—and he told him that he wasn’t at all sure that Mr. Sleeky wasn’t right in saying that the living Miss Trident was entitled to her dead sister’s share in the estate. The business, he also said, wasn’t in his line, and he told your father that it would cost him a great deal of money to make out his claim, if he had one.”
“I suppose, after that, nothing was done?”
“Oh, yes. Having heard that the other Miss Trident was dead, Sleeky having died before her, and his son Wm Sharp Sleeky having taken the old man’s place in the firm, your father went over again to H—, and saw the young man, who treated him with a polite sort of disdain. He could make nothing of him”
“That was the end of the affair?”
“Yes, pretty nearly so. Your father at this time was a very old man. He said it didn’t matter for himself, and perhaps you were rich enough to do without the estate. If you were not, you were very likely dead. If ever you did turn up, and you wanted it—or that is, if you cared to take the trouble—you could as well recover the estate as he could. Soon after this your father died.”
“Who has the property now?”
“Well, I don’t know, but I suppose that young Sleeky has it.”
My father was right.
* * * * * * * * *
(The passages omitted from this conversation were flavoured by the bad spirit of the “Fleece,” were so highly toned by emphatic nautical expletives, and so grievously violated the Scriptural injunction against swearing, that I will not offend the reader’s eyesight and sense of moral propriety by inserting them.)
It may be enough to here add that the two friends, Freeman and Johnson, agreed it was useless to ask young Sleeky for any explanations, it was of no use consulting the solicitors of the neighbourhood, and that a London lawyer was the man to tackle the wrongful possessor of the estate.
The copy of the will was given to the heir-at-law, and now rightful claimant of the property, with a few odd family papers and relics which Johnson brought home with him to the great metropolis.
On his return to London, Johnson exhausted the aid of all his friends in the search for a lawyer, whose honesty was above reproach or suspicion. At length, through the introduction of the acquaintance of one of these friends, Johnson found, or thought he found, the man he wanted in the person of a Mr. Barking. This gentleman’s winning manner captivated the defrauded heir, as it might have done, and probably had done many shrewder persons.
The personal appearance of Mr. Barking, who carried on business in a small street not far from Westminster Hall, was rather prepossessing. He was tall, and proportionally developed—neither particularly slender nor stout. On his oval face and ruddy cheeks there sat an air of composure delightful to compare with the feverishness of his clients. His bald head inspired Johnson with reverence, and the eyes so deeply overshadowed by the forehead filled him with awe. When he reached home, after the first interview with this astute solicitor, he roundly assured his wife that the case was as good as won. It wouldn’t be long, he said, before he got his rights.
It would be tedious to relate the early interviews between Mr. Barking and Johnson. It was, of course, not extraordinary that the solicitor should ask for money. A preliminary investigation of no trifling magnitude had to be entered upon. A long correspondence, several journeys to Yorkshire and back, searches of registers, agency charges, hotel expenses, railway fares, and numerous et ceteras, would, as Barking truthfully observed, entail upon him heavy “costs out of pocket.” Johnson said he didn’t care if he spent all the little fortune he had saved, and afterwards pawned the under-linen of himself and Mrs. Johnson, provided that he triumphed in the end over the dishonest son of the original fraudulent trustee—the sort of observation, by the way, I think, often unwisely made by similar persons, under like circumstances.
Mr. Barking tested the determination and the resources of the poor mariner. Frequent and sometimes rather large sums were needed to cover “costs out of pocket,” and just leave a trifle for the solicitor’s own purse. These demands went on and were satisfied for a year and a half or so, and the client was begining to show signs of impatience, when his legal adviser informed him that he thought he had now procured evidence upon which he could act, but he would just take counsel’s opinion on the case as it stood.
Another draw upon Johnson’s diminishing investments was made. A written statement of facts, and of the proofs available, was laid before Mr. Closet Worm, of Old Square, Lincoln’s Inn, (brother to a solicitor of that name), who, in due course, wrote an opinion at the end thereof, favourable on the whole to Johnson’s prospects, but also suggesting a few difficulties to be surmounted.
A writ was issued out of Her Majesty’s Court of Common Pleas, in an action of ejectment. Copies of this process were served upon the tenants in possession of the lands and tenements which the spinsters first mentioned had devised in the will already described.
More money was needed to supply the links which Mr. Worm had shown to be wanting in the chain of evidence. The cash was produced, but tardily, and with an apparent reluctance, yet, it was produced, so Mr. Barking went on with the case. Further inquiries were set on foot, further searches for documents were made, further sound and reliable evidence was obtained. Voluminous pleadings were exchanged between the attorneys for plaintiff and defendant, and the parties to the litigation were at length brought to an issue, a tremendous record was engrossed on parchment for the Court’s guidance, and notice of trial was given for the next assizes.
The poor half-witted mariner’s hopes had been depressed by the influence of time, and his faith in Mr. Barking had become weakened by the exhaustive needs of that gentleman, but hope and the faith were revived and strengthened by the prospect of a fight with the assurance of a victory.
The notice of trial had been given several weeks before it was absolutely necessary to give it, which was an act of professional courtesy on the part of the plaintiff’s attorney, and the defendants thus, very fairly, had ample time afforded to get up their defence.
I say their defence, but it is obvious that the real defendants were the younger Sleeky, his sisters and their husbands, who claimed to derive a title to the estate in dispute through a will that the elder Sleeky had made, disposing of this property, among other honestly and ill-gotten gains. They had to provide the means of defence, and bear the brunt of the resistance to Mr. Barking’s operations.
One day, about a fortnight after the delivery of notice of trial in the cause alluded to, Mr. Clearsight (of the firm of Clearsight, Quick, and Stickit, agents in London for the defendants’ attorneys), just looked in, as he said he happened to be in the neighbourhood of Mr. Barking’s offices, and had a conference with poor Johnson’s legal adviser.
The object of this visit by Mr. Clearsight to Mr. Barking was to mention that the defendants were particularly respectable and fair-dealing people, who instructed him to say, that in return for the courtesy of Johnson’s attorney, they were prepared to waive much of their strict right, as defendants, and lay open their grounds of defence to his inspection. Mr. Sleeky, in particular, than whom Mr. Clearsight said there was no more honourable man in that catalogue of worthies, the “Law List,” was prepared to show, without prejudice, all the documentary and other evidence on which they confidently relied for an easy victory. They, in fact, were quite persuaded that Mr. Barking had been consciously (or it might be unconsciously) misled by his instructions from Johnson. The plaintiff, who was a very humble and illiterate man, might be labouring under a delusion about his title, as many hundreds of other claimants to large estates were. Mr. Clearsight, of course, it was needless to inform Mr. Barking, had little or no direct knowledge of the matter. The functions of an attorney’s agent had, so far, been of a purely routine character, but he had not the shadow of a doubt, from the high character and the reputation which his clients enjoyed, that their assertions might be accepted without reserve, and that they were of the same practical value as legal evidence. Mr. Barking admitted none of Mr. Clearsight’s unsupported averments, and expressed his perfect confidence in the plaintiff Johnson’s case. He thanked his visitor for the politeness he had displayed in calling upon him. He remarked that it was exactly such conduct as he expected from so eminent a house as that of Clearsight, Quick, and Stickit, and he thought it very probable that he should avail himself of the invitation to confer with the legal defendant, Mr. Sleeky. A few other compliments were exchanged between the attorneys, and Mr. Clearsight took his leave.
The substance of this conversation was next day frankly communicated to Johnson by Mr. Barking, and the latter expressed his intention to visit H—, and obtain what further information Sleeky could afford.
Johnson did not quite like the proposed journey and conference. He acknowledged his doubts about the usefulness of the step to be taken, but Mr. Barking laughed, or rather smiled away his prejudices. The attorney thought something might come out of the meeting, but if not, no harm could be done by it. If nothing else resulted, Sleeky would ascertain the sort of man he had to deal with in Barking, and that would certainly not increase his disposition to resist a claim founded in justice, and sustained by evidence.
It was at least possible, although not probable, argued Mr. Barking, that Sleeky would be glad to quietly yield up an estate, rather than add the further costs of useless litigation, and the penalties of detection, to the evil consequence of his father’s fraud.
Mr. Barking accordingly left London for H— within a week, and spent a day and a night under the roof of the hospitable enemy.
What took place between the host and guest I am only able to conjecture, and the highly intelligent reader has an opportunity of judging by the report to the plaintiff.
When Mr. Barking returned to town, he repeated to Johnson his faith in the ultimate result of the litigation. He was not a bit frightened by Sleeky’s assertions, and as for proofs of the defendants title, why, he confessed that they were anything but satisfactory to his penetrating and reflective mind. Yet he thought the defendants had a primâ facie case, and he was sure that they would fight to the last. It was also undeniable that law was always very expensive, and always, in some degree, doubtful. He was quite prepared to go on with the action, but it must, he was now aware, be fought stoutly on the plaintiff’s side, or not at all. The other side would be sure to have the best counsel that money could obtain. They would take every legal objection that the forms of law gave them; they would run the gauntlet of appeal, and would never accept, as a final defeat, anything short of an adverse verdict or judgment by a tribunal of the last resort,
Johnson listened to this elaborate report and exposition of his attorney. He did not understand half of it, for he was bewildered. Mr. Barking saw that he was overwhelmed by disappointment, and offered him such consolations as a shrewd attorney could, under the circumstances, render. I omit these in order to curtail the narrative.
“What can I do?” asked Mr. Barking, towards the end of this interview with his client, “Shall I try if the defendants will compromise the affair?”
“No!” shouted Johnson, with a profane expletive, as he violently struck the attorney’s table. “I would rather die in a workhouse,” he continued, “than give up a penny of my rights. I’ll have the estate, and I’ll punish that rascal Sleeky as well, as my poor father wished me to do.”
“Well, well, my friend,” pursued the attorney, in the blandest of tones, “let us see. How is it to be done? You say that you can’t find me much more money, and I tell you it will require a large sum to go to trial. We must have three counsel, and two of them must be first-rate men. I shouldn’t like to give Mr. Analysis Keen, our junior, less than twenty guineas with his brief, say twice that figure for Mr. Serjeant Gawker, and if Mr. Popular Silk, Q.C., the leader I should choose for a case like this, doesn’t get a cheque for something more than fifty with his brief, you may rely upon it he will put the fee in his pocket, and either leave us in the lurch altogether, or what is perhaps worse, hand the brief over to young Pup Raven, who will do us more harm than good. Then,” continued the attorney, searchingly peering at the amazed client, “there will be consultation fees to the three counsel, and their clerks’ fees, and subpoenas, and witnesses’ conduct-money and allowances, hotel expenses, and my law stationer’s bill.”
“Avast!” shouted Johnson, as if aroused from a dream, and perhaps conveyed by a disordered mental retrospect to the hammock of his cabin-boyhood; “how much does all that come to?”
“Why, one way and another, call it £250, costs out of pocket.” The traces of spasmodic vigour left the client’s features. “But,” the attorney went on to say, “up to the present time, I have asked you for very little for myself. I can’t always work myself and work my clerks for nothing. If I am to go on with this case, in the teeth of such opposition as we may expect, I must have something reasonable for myself.”
“How much?” loudly inquired the client, recovering his senses.
“Well, now, let us see, as I said,” euphoniously but drawlingly replied the attorney. “I don’t want to be hard, but really solicitors, like other men, must, you know, Mr. Johnson, live—”
“How much? d—n it, I want to know how much?”
“Now, now, be calm, my dear sir.”
“ ’Pon my word, sir!” now retorted the lawyer, “this is a very improper mode of addressing me, after the attention and zeal I have displayed on your behalf. I tell you I don’t like it, sir! I’m not used to such behaviour by my clients! I am half disposed to throw up the case, but I should be sorry to injure your interests. There, I’ll say a hundred for myself; call it three hundred and fifty in all! If you can let me have three hundred and fifty—yes, I won’t ask for more—say three hundred and fifty, I’ll take the case right on to trial at the assizes. But mind, I can’t go any further for that sum. If there should be any points of law reserved for the full Court, or an application for a new trial, you must be prepared to let me have another advance of cash. I’ll not mislead you, Mr. Johnson. As I have already told you plainly, I have a good opinion of your case, but it’s entangled, and in some respects difficult to uphold by evidence, and we have rich and clever opponents, who will fight to the very last.”
The unfortunate mariner was literally overwhelmed by a sense of the difficulties in which this new demand for a heavy amount of money placed him. To raise it speedily was not possible. In order to raise it at any time, he must almost absorb the remnant of his savings. The money already furnished to Mr. Barking, and the small extravagances into which his hopes had led him, had brought him dangerously near to the poverty which his wile dreaded above all things. He suspected very bad misconduct on the part of his legal adviser, yet he thought he might be unjust in those suspicions. What if Barking should throw up the case? That might not only ruin his hopes, but sacrifice the hard cash already invested in law. He was half disposed to clutch his attorney by the throat, and he was half afraid of offending him. Caution prevailed. An unseen and unfelt agency restrained the violent impulse. A rooted determination, however, not to make nor entertain any thought of compromise had been formed. He would make no terms with the “worst of thieves.” Anything but that he was prepared for.
The interview between the plaintiff and his attorney ended in the latter stating that as the former would not allow him to try and arrange the matter, and as his client could not or did not feel inclined to find the requisite sum for the prosecution of the suit, he must countermand the notice of trial in time to avoid a nonsuit with a judgment for defendant’s costs, and perhaps confinement of the plaintiff in a debtors' jail until they were paid.
The notice of trial was accordingly countermanded by Mr. Barking, the plaintiff’s attorney.
Johnson carried a heavy heart from Westminster to Hackney. He told his wife, in confidence, that he knew his lawyer had “sold him,” that young Sleeky had bribed Barking, and that he would be the death of both of them some day. His suspicions about the treachery of Mr. Barking were not breathed at the “Jolly Gardeners.” It may have been prudence, or it may have been pride, which closed his mouth. He may have dreaded the consequences of such an accusation in the absence of proof of its truthfulness; it may have been a fear that men in their cups would call him a fool that made him disguise the suspicions he entertained.
Nothing further was ever done by the plaintiff to try his right through this action of ejectment. Mr. Barking would not, as I have explained, go on without a large sum of money, and when asked to let another attorney proceed with the case, he refused to deliver up papers and documents on which he had a lien for costs not, he said, a quarter covered by the advances he had obtained from his client
Four years rolled along, and Johnson took no fresh step to recover his estate or punish the son of the fraudulent trustee. He persuaded himself all this while that law and justice were irreconcileable, and was afraid to risk the balance of his savings. His mortification and disappointment were, however, indirectly accomplishing his ruin. He spent more money than formerly at the “Jolly Gardeners,” in trying to drown his cares, and his wife declared that the unfortunate lawsuit would be the speedy ruin of them, unless it could be settled.
Soon after the fourth year of inaction had been completed, he was introduced to an accomplished young solicitor, who was persuaded by the earnestness and simplicity of the man, that he had been unhandsomely treated by Mr. Barking, and who, after investigation, was satisfied that he and his father before him had been victimised through a breach of trust. This gentleman, rather than discharge Mr. Barking’s lien on the papers, preferred to begin again. He brought another action against a new tenant of part of the property, so as to try the right—knowing that the rest of the estate could not be held by the Sleekys after this part had been recovered. Before the action could be brought to trial, the young attorney, who suffered from a disease of the heart, died. The papers were handed over, by his relatives, to a legal friend, who prosecuted all matters which he thought profitable and easy, but looked askant at Johnson’s speculative suit.
This unenterprising gentleman was, nevertheless, a creditable contrast to Mr. Barking. He was ready at any moment to hand over the papers to any other solicitor who would follow up the case, or he would not object to risk part of his own usual charges, if the bulk of the money required to try the action were provided. Very little had been done in this action, and all the outlay had to be incurred. He required that not less than £300 should be provided.
In this dilemma he thought he would consult his friend Freeman. He resolved to visit Yorkshire again, but in the first place he wisely wrote. Freeman had in the meantime discussed the affair with a great many persons, and among those who had been thus interested in it was the vicar of the parish. Freeman, in answering the letter of Johnson, mentioned this fact, and surrounded it with pleasant hopes and fictions coined by his own fertile imagination. He informed his friend, among other similar things, that he had no doubt the reverend gentleman could get some one out of several rich persons named in the letter to advance money to establish his just and lawful pretensions.
Freeman suggested that Johnson should bring with him a letter from the lawyer who might now be said to have the case in hand, expressing his opinion thereupon.
This gentleman, although not inclined to back that opinion by taking the second action to trial at his own risk, was nevertheless quite satisfied that his late friend’s client had an undoubted title to the property in question. He accordingly wrote the letter requested.
Johnson, armed with this epistle, went to Yorkshire, saw Freeman again upon the subject, and was by him introduced to the worthy clergyman through whose aid so much was expected. The reverend gentleman read the epistle with great care, listened with the deepest attention to the oral explanations given, and was greatly interested in the case.
He had reasons which form no part of this story for suspecting the general integrity of the Sleekys.
The worthy minister had, however, no means of aiding the claimant, nor did he know any parishioner or friend upon whom he could call to advance £300 for a stranger from London to prosecute a litigation with.
A few miles from the vicarage, but in another parish, there dwelt and practised two solicitors in partnership, who had the reputation of being at once able and thoroughly respectable. To these gentlemen, Messrs. Smoothy and Grinder, the vicar gave Johnson a letter of introduction, which Johnson and his wife (who had followed him from London) next day presented.
It is desirable to remark that Johnson, who was well satisfied with the London lawyer, merely wished to borrow enough money to carry on the suit. He wished to leave its management in the hands of the gentleman who had taken the business of his deceased legal adviser. This he carefully explained to Mr. Grinder at the interview, and that person merely answered by a request that he would leave the affair in his, the solicitor’s hands; which Johnson interpreted to mean, leave the affair of raising the money wanted to him.
About four or five weeks elapsed, during which Johnson had several interviews with Mr. Grinder, and one day he was desired to call upon the firm, and go over with Mr. Grinder to H—, to see Mr. Sleeky’s partner. Johnson, who, let the truth be told, had been indulging all through a month in strong waters far more than was consistent with any rational idea of temperance, objected to the proposed journey and interview, but yielded up his objections to the force of Mr. Grinder’s arguments and persuasion. He afterwards explained that he thought this gentleman wanted to fortify his opinion of the claimants’ title by the interview. At all events he agreed to go to H—next day.
About nine o’clock on the appointed morning Mr. Grinder and Mr. and Mrs. Johnson went over in a fly to H—. The first person of the party selected an inn to rest at. They were shown into a room (by the request of the solicitor), and the tippling mariner was told by his professional guardian to call for some refreshments. He was further told that he should not have long to wait. Hours rolled along, and no Mr. Sleeky or partner made his appearance. Mr. Grinder, who explained that he had other and very important business to transact in H—, looked in upon them, however, several times, and left them again. Poor Mrs. Johnson, who had misgivings, which she avowed to her husband, but was afraid to express to Mr. Grinder, was all the while in an agony of suspense. Her husband, however, beguiled the time with the assistance of rum, in diffuse expositions of law and justice, in threats and imprecations against Sleeky, and in scolding his unquestionably better and wiser half.
They arrived at the inn at about eleven o’clock in the forenoon. Mr. Grinder looked in several times to see and exchange a word with the Johnsons, and left them as often. At length, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, Johnson being then “three” (or perhaps four) “sheets in the wind,” Mr. Grinder came to them, and said that he wanted to talk to them in the next room. They were then led to the room, in which there were two gentlemen beside their protector, who told him that he had arranged what he wanted, and that he should have the £300. He was told to sign the paper (not parchment) then lying before him, and to do something else which he does not recollect, but which the reader may understand was the completing formality of the execution of a deed. He wanted, drunk as he was, to know what it was all about, and some sort of explanation was given him, the only part of which he can recollect is, that it was to get him payment of £300. His wife, who, although she resolutely refused to drink, had got bewildered hours ago, had also to execute this paper instrument, and after much persuasion, the nature of which she cannot recollect, she did so. Mr. Grinder, who advanced them a few pounds, then ordered them a fly to themselves, and they were driven back to B—, with an instruction to call at the offices of Smoothy and Grinder next day for the money. Grinder told Mrs. Johnson that he thought it better not to give her husband the money then, and she approved of his caution. She knew that her husband would not let her keep it, if she had received it.
It was about two o’clock next day when Johnson and Freeman set out to walk over to the little town in which Messrs. Smoothy and Grinder practised.
Johnson was on that morning afraid he had “put his hand” to something wrong, but honest. Freeman laughed away that apprehension. He was sure the lawyers to whom the vicar had sent his friend could not have played him false. He had heard something about “striking off the rolls,” and he was, he said, “above the prejudice about lawyers.” His own experience led him to believe that although they expected to be well paid for all they did, they never, or at least very seldom indeed, were guilty of downright dishonesty.
They took two hours in the journey to the offices of Smoothy and Grinder. They were shown into Mr. Smoothy’s room. That gentleman was politely asked by Freeman for some explanations. He could not give them. His partner, he said, attended to the business from first to last, but it was, no doubt, quite right. He added, that there was an account, which his partner, who had unfortunately been called to London by a letter received that morning, had prepared. Would they look at it? The figures would doubtless explain all they wanted to know. Freeman looked at it. It admitted the receipt of £300. Freeman particularly noticed the amount. It was the sum received by his friend. That disarmed any suspicion which he might have caught from Johnson. The costs, of which no items were given, were £60. Freeman thought it a large sum, but said that was just like the lawyers, who would always be well paid. Still that did not justify a thought of absolute treachery. Freeman told Johnson to take the money. His London lawyer wouldn’t, he suggested, be so particular. £240 was near enough for the purpose of the London solicitor. After all, £60 was not a large sum off the aggregate or full value of the estate to be recovered. This was the way Freeman’s practical sagacity led him to view the matter. Johnson saw the glittering sovereigns and genuine bank-notes. His hands itched to grasp them. He accordingly took the sum offered him, and on being asked to sign the account, did so without much hesitation.
Freeman and Johnson afterwards returned to B—.
The latter would have remained some time in his native village, but the former, in dread of the money being partially dissipated, advised his friend not to tarry in Yorkshire, and under this advice he left for the metropolis, after just giving a cheap entertainment at the “Fleece” to some new friends.
Shortly after his return to town again, Johnson saw his solicitor, who complained of the conduct of Smoothy and Grinder, and also thought his client had acted with much imprudence, if not a little unfairness towards him. This lawyer was a strictly honourable and a somewhat punctilious man. He refused to take the money which the unlucky mariner was now able to offer him. He said that he did not care about interfering further in the case. In fact, he would much rather not have anything more to do with it. I presume he saw it was not one of those easy matters of routine, calling for the exercise of no brains, giving no real thought or trouble, and yet very lucrative, which are the sort of things out of which attorneys and solicitors have made, and despite law reformers, yet make large incomes, and he would, I can understand, rather not be bothered with it. So, when a canon of his office seemed to be disregarded by the confidence unwisely reposed in Smoothy and Grinder, the eminently respectable London practitioner, who loved his ease as much as any man known to the illustrious Dibdin, was not sorry to have a decent pretext for avoiding the laborious and troublesome pursuit of justice in which some human skill might be called for. From whatever cause it may have arisen, his ultimate determination was to have nothing further to do with the affair,
Poor Johnson was thus once more baffled and defeated by obstacles which it seemed that the enemy had not thrown in his path. What was to be done? His suit was tied up. Justice was checkmated by the law or the lawyers. A torpor seized upon him. For days together he never stirred out of his house, and when be did so he rarely came home sober. In this way the money he had received was being dribbled away, when another high road to fortune was exhibited to him.
A person with whom he was slightly acquainted, who knew his case, and was aware of the money he received in Yorkshire, a Mr. Shearer, called his attention to the brilliant prospectus of a Cornish mine, which promised more liberal returns for the capital invested than a defrauded freeholder could get from the legal recovery of his estates. It did not require much persuasion to induce the half-witted man to sink his money in this adventure, wherein, it was, of coarse, wholly and hopelessly lost. He first risked the balance of the money which he had received from the hands of Smoothy and Grinder, but when calls were demanded in order to just complete some fabulous part of the scheme in which its profits lurked, the victim was led to turn the remnant of his invested savings into loose cash, which followed the other money beyond recall.
The unlucky couple were soon utterly beggared. The workhouse appeared the only resource of livelihood remaining, and from that they were alone saved by the stimulus of revenge. Johnson pottered about Hackney, and got odd jobs of gardening and unskilled labour to do. His wife found a little employment as a char and washerwoman. Johnson commanded virtuous resolution enough to avoid the “Jolly Gardeners,” and their earnings satisfied their frugal needs. The wife declares that the loss of their money was the best thing which ever happened to them. She never knew so much comfort with Johnson since her marriage as after that mining misadventure.
All the while Johnson and his wife toiled he had his mind’s eye fixed upon the estate, and the sole object of his ambition was the realisation of his father’s legacy—the punishment of the trustee by succession.
One Sunday morning, as he strolled over the fields near his cottage, he encountered the friend who had helped him to the mineral sacrifice. Johnson did not like to speak with this person, and yet, as he entertained no revengefulness towards anyone but Mr. Sleeky, he shook hands with the offender, and asked him to come and have a bit of dinner with him. The invitation was accepted. In the course of that afternoon the friends chatted over a variety of topics, among which the mine and its failure, the estate in Yorkshire, and the efforts to recover it, were prominent.
Mr. Shearer, the guest of Johnson, was rejoiced, he said, to know that he could repair in some manner the misfortunes of “the other affair” in which both he and Johnson had been deluded. Now, he knew a lawyer who was just the sort of man for this case. His legal friend, if he might call him by that term, would bring Sleeky to his senses in double quick time. This solicitor was as clever and sharp as Mr. Barking, and had not that gentleman’s faults. He would speak to him about the matter the very next day, and report to Johnson.
The effect of the report next day was favourable. Several interviews afterwards took place between Johnson and Mr. Thriver, of Gravies’ Inn, the solicitor referred to, who ultimately laid another case before counsel for his opinion, which led him to file a bill in the High Court of Chancery. This counsel, learned in the law, advised that, instead of pursuing the actions of ejectment, proceedings should be taken in equity. In reply to this bill, Mr. Sleeky pleaded the deed which Johnson and his wife executed under the circumstances already described. In this deed it was, among other things, recited “that Wm. Johnson had proposed to relinquish and give up all his estate or right and title (if any) in and to the said messuages lands and hereditaments unto the said Wm. Sharp Sleeky and his heirs for and in consideration of the sum of £300 which sum the said Wm. Sharp Sleeky for the purpose of avoiding disturbances and litigation had consented to pay accordingly.”
In the same deed it was also witnessed, “that in pursuance of the said recited contract and agreement and in consideration of the sum of £300 of lawful money of the United Kingdom by the said Wm. Sharp Sleeky paid to the said Wm. Johnson who thereby acknowledged that he had received the same sum and he admitted it to be in full for the absolute purchase of all his estate or right title and interest whatsoever (if any) in and to the messuages lands and other hereditaments intended to be thereby assured and did thereby release the said Wm. Sharp Sleeky his representatives and assigns from the same sum he the said Wm. Johnson did accordingly dispose of and release unto the said Wm. Sharp Sleeky and his heirs all those messuages lands tenements and hereditaments lying and being in or commonly called or known by the name or names of Brownedge and Greentree in the parish of W— in the county of York or by whatsoever name or names the same hereditaments and premises had been theretofore called or known.”
As Johnson and his wife were married prior to the 2nd of January, 1834, she had an inchoate right of dower out of the estate, so that she was made a party to the deed, and her execution had to be, or ought to have been, acknowledged before a commissioner appointed for that purpose by the Lord Chancellor, whose duty it was to examine her apart from her husband, to see if she knew the nature of the instrument she executed, and executed it of heir own free will.
The production of this deed was a complete answer to the prayer of the bill as it stood. Johnson’s counsel, however, advised that the Court would set it aside, or declare it invalid on the ground of fraud, upon the circumstances already described being evidenced. Improvements in the practice of the Court of Chancery enabled the bill of complaint to be amended on payment of a fee of twenty shillings, but somehow or other the solicitor would not incur this extra expense, or move an inch further in the case. The litigation had again been brought to a dead lock.
This last defeat was almost a death-blow to hopes, ambition, and thirst for vengeance on the part of the Johnsons. The poor old Mariner felt the case was hopeless. There was no law or equity for the poor man. Rich men, especially lawyers, might rob people of estates with impunity; What had caused the last solicitor to desert him? Sleekys must have bribed him, as they would bribe others as often as he could otherwise bring his case within the prospect of honest settlement. So reasoned the mortified suitor.
Despairing of ever “getting his rights,” and under the pressure of daily wants, the Johnsons pursued the even tenor of their way,—toiling hard and living frugally for several years, when at length a special providence was vouchsafed them.
I am not prepared to say that virtue is always rewarded, or that vice always receives its punishment in this world. I know that many wrongs go unredressed, and that many a virtuous career ends in embarrassment and suffering. My experience of men and things leads me, nevertheless, to the belief that virtue has enormously the preponderance of chances in the lottery of life, and that vice is not often permanently triumphant. For my own part, I would not, if I could, wrest an estate from its true owner. The anxiety attending the possession of stolen property must always be dreadful. The consequences of such a fraud as that I describe may follow the delinquent beyond the grave, and rest upon his children or remoter descendants. When the rich culprit makes his will or goes to the tomb he cannot be sure that he is not leaving behind him a burden of sorrow instead of consoling wealth to his posterity, as the present case will show.
Mr. Wm. Sharp Sleeky had gone to his grave, and his portion of the spoil had been taken by his children under a will, before justice was reached by the poor mariner. Several years before he died he became a lunatic, and only the good will of an affectionate wife and children saved him from an asylum.
Wm. Johnson, then a man well-nigh stricken in years, and his wife, a very aged woman, had been employed in odd jobs about the garden and household of a solicitor who resided in Hackney, and the story of their fruitless litigation permeating upwards (if that expression be correct) through the household, at length reached and interested the lawyer’s wife. She mentioned it to her husband, who was induced to look into the case. A cursory view of the matter led him to pursue the investigation. After a few salient points of the narrative had been tested, that gentleman was half convinced that a complicated fraud had been long ago effected, and that he could wrest the estate from the possessors, if not obtain some portion of the back rentals from the recipients or their legal representatives.
Another bill was filed in the High Court of Chancery, setting forth all the misconduct of all the parties, inclusive of old Sleeky, Mr. Barking, Smoothy and Grinder, and Mr. Thriver. It was a powerful combination of fraud to break through, and when I read the “bill of complaint,” I thought the gentleman who could undertake such a suit was indeed a bold man. It ought also to be said, that he had no ordinary temptation to do it. He was in large and good practice, and was therefore not in want of business. The old mariner had no money, and could not pay his costs if the suit were unsuccessful. If the plaintiff established his claim, a large portion of the outlay (such as my charges) would not be allowed by the taxing master as costs in the suit, and be so extracted from the defendants. It will be obvious to the reader that the risks and the trouble exceeded any chance of adequate compensation. Yet the suit was prosecuted without stint of money, and with more than usual liberality and efficiency by the professional gentleman who last took the matter up.
I was employed a long time over this case, and I collected more evidence than it was necessary to use in proof of the fraudulent conduct of the parties. Among the facts which also tended to point suspicion of the worst kind to certain parties was, that on the day of Mr. Barking’s arrival at H—, a good sum was drawn by Wm. Sharp Sleeky from his bankers at Leeds, and immediately after the former person’s return to London he was able to satisfy a few pressing demands by angry creditors of his own. I also discovered that on the day before the deed already mentioned was executed, a sum far larger than £300 was drawn out of a bank, where the account of Mr. Sleeky was then kept, and I know that £60 was not all Mr. Grinder made (unknown to Mr. Smoothy) by a transaction already narrated. It was also an odd coincidence, although I could not trace the money to the hands of Mr. Thriver, that about £400 was drawn by Mr. Sleeky from the bank, on a cheque payable to himself, about the time when the defendant’s answer was filed to the bill which the former had prepared. The reader will attach what value he thinks fit to these little circumstances, and if they point any suspicion against individuals, I cannot help it.
In various modes evidence establishing the accuracy of an elaborate pedigree was collected. The bill and answer and all the evidence and pleadings were completed.
When the case had been thus got ready to try, offers of compromise and arrangement were made by the defendants, and declined by the plaintiff’s solicitor. The latter was determined that no advice of his should prevent the course of law or equity from overtaking all the delinquents and all the accessories in this protracted fraud.
At length, on the 19th day of April, 18—, the case came on for hearing before the Master of the Rolls.
The plaintiff prayed, on the strength of the allegations set forth in his bill, that—
1. That the deed already described might be set aside as obtained by Wm. Sharp Sleeky fraudulently and improperly and by surprise and as executed by the plaintiff improvidently and hastily and without adequate consideration and that the defendants might be decreed to execute to the plaintiff a proper re-conveyance of all the messuages lands and hereditaments conveyed by the said deed.
2. That the right of the plaintiff to the said lands tenements and hereditaments as the heir of the said testatrixes might be established by the Court.
3. That upon the right of the plaintiff being so declared the defendants might be directed to give up to the plaintiff possession of the said messuage lands and hereditaments.
4. That an account might be taken of the rents issues and profits of the said lands tenements and hereditaments which have been received and possessed by the said defendants might respectively be decreed to pay to the plaintiff the amount of the rents issues and profits so received and possessed by them respectively after deducting therefrom all just allowances in respect of the outlay incurred and in the proper management and maintenance of the said premises.
5. That the defendants Smoothy and Grinder might furnish full and complete discovery as to the matters alleged against them.
6. That the other defendants might be directed to pay the costs of this suit.
7. That the plaintiff might have such further or other relief as the nature of the case highly require.
The answer of the several defendants denied all the allegations contained in the bill, traversed all the issues raised by the plaintiff, and asked the Court to direct that he should bear all the costs they incurred in resisting his pretensions—which meant practically (looking to the poverty of the plaintiff), that they might seize and imprison his venerable carcass.
The plaintiff being thus daring, and the defendants being thus driven to fight the case in open court, a splendid array of counsel on front and back benches assembled to hear the case argued. Several of these gentlemen in horsehair wigs and silk and stuff gowns held briefs for the plaintiff and the defendants. Others were mere spectators of the fight.
The plaintiff’s case was partially heard on the first, and concluded on the next day. The defendant got through his case in one day.
A multitude of affidavits showed the births, marriages, deaths, and identities of the persons set out in the pedigree through which the plaintiff claimed, and cleared off lines of descent provided for by the will. Other affidavits went to prove the allegations made in this narrative against several persons. Much labour had been expended to show, as I think was shown, that the plaintiff and his wife did not know what they were signing when they executed the deed selling their rights (if any), which Mr. Sleeky, Jun., denied, for £300.
Several affidavits read in court on behalf of the defendants endeavoured to make out their right to the estate, but they did this so imperfectly, that the Master of the Rolls could not help smiling. Other affidavits skillfully prepared showed the anxiety of the drawers and swearers to make out that the plaintiff and his wife knew perfectly well what they were about when they executed—and the one was said to have acknowledged—the deed.
The arguments of the learned counsel for plaintiff and defendant can be well and accurately imagined by the reader.
The Master of the Rolls, at the conclusion of the argument, reserved his decision, in order that he might attentively peruse the whole of the evidence, examine the precedents quoted, and give due consideration to the able arguments of the many learned gentlemen who had addressed him on behalf of the parties to the suit.
The judgment was full and elaborate. His Honour reviewed all arguments of the counsel for the defendants with critical nicety, and held them to be untenable. Much stress had, he said, been laid in the argument upon the statute of limitations, but he held that it did apply. Mr. Sleeky, the elder, obtained possession of the estate, and his son and his successors had also held it dishonestly. No statute of limitations would bar the remedy against fraud. No lapse of time would confer a title upon the present wrongful holders. He warmly reprobated the conduct of the Sleekys, speaking of them as infamous men who had discredited the honourable profession to which they belonged, and had scandalously employed the powers of their trust to effect and cover their heartless robbery of the heirs-at-law. It was true, his Honour observed, that the present defendants were not participators in the original fraud. They were but the children and the husbands of the children of the second trustee. The Court regretted that the Sleekys were beyond the reach of its censure, and that the earthly course of justice had, in this case, been anticipated by the inexorable decrees of the Most High. If, the judge said, he might without profanity express a wish that the course of Providence could have been directed otherwise than it had been, he would have liked to have had the opportunity of degrading those unworthy men, and holding them up to the condemnation of all England. He believed that there had never been a more flagrant and cruel case of breach of trust than the one he had now to consider. The other principal ground of the defence was the deed by which the plaintiff Johnson had agreed to relinquish and give up all his right and title (if any) to the Brownedge and Greentree estates for £300. This, he said, was a part of the case he had more anxiety in deciding upon than that he had already spoken of. The defendants in substance argued that, granting the trustees had defrauded the heirs-at-law of the testatrixes, the plaintiff and his wife had, with their eyes open, condoned that long offence, and sold the estate to their plunderers for the sum of £300. This was a very unpleasant part of the case, because it involved the professional and personal character of Messrs. Smoothy and Grinder, the gentlemen and officers of that honourable court, and the Commissioner who had taken, or professed to have taken, the acknowledgment of the plaintiff’s wife. He would first deal with the conduct of the parties concerned in the execution of that deed. The plaintiff was himself blameworthy. On his own showing, a transaction which he asked the Court to impeach had been facilitated by his own drunkenness. Still that did not mitigate the offence perpetrated by his legal advisers, or Mr. Sleeky, the purchaser. With regard to the Mr. Grinder’s alleged share in the fraud, he should say as little as possible. He thought it had not been strictly proved by evidence, of which the Court could take cognizance, that Mr. Grinder had ordered or directly caused the drink to be supplied to the plaintiff; and he even thought it was open to doubt whether the plaintiff was totally incapable of understanding the effect and the meaning of ordinary transactions at the moment when he executed the deed in question. So far the Court would offer no opinion. Nor would it decide the truthfulness or injustice of the inferences suggested to the prejudice of Mr. Barking and Mr. Thriver. There was a cloud of mystery and of doubt surrounding the parts of the case of the plaintiff, now referred to, which must excuse his pronouncing an opinion either way. It was, however, demonstrated to the perfect satisfaction of the Court that if Mr. Grinder had not been mixed up in a collusion or conspiracy to defraud his own client—the most infamous of all possible acts—he had, from first to last, in the part he had played in this affair, been culpably, shamefully negligent. Of this there could be no doubt, and he preferred to rest the decision of the Court on that aspect of the plaintiff’s solicitor’s conduct. What, then, did that view of Mr. Grinder’s proceedings lead to?
“Here is a poor old illiterate man claiming to be entitled to an estate. He is introduced to a clergyman, who furnishes another introduction to what the reverend gentleman believes to be an eminently respectable firm of solicitors. He calls upon them. He is not, however, wholly unknown to them. One of them (Mr. Grinder) had been the playmate of his infancy. He is not the mere hawker of a grievance, or the vague, indefinite asserter of an undefined claim. I fear Mr. Grinder knew his claim to be a good one. Plaintiff, in one of his affidavits, swears that Mr. Grinder told him the Sleekys had robbed him, and that they had no more right to the Brownedge and Greentree property than he (Mr. Grinder) had. However that may have been, it is in evidence, and uncontradicted, that the plaintiff Johnson’s claim had been investigated by a London solicitor, who conceived it to be an undoubtedly good one. This gentleman, after critically examining the title, arrived at the conclusion that an action of ejectment could be maintained upon it. This was mentioned in a letter handed by Johnson to Grinder, and gave the latter distinct notice that it was, if anything, an estate, and not the chance of winning an estate, that he had to sell, as the defendant’s counsel have ingeniously contended.
“The learned counsel for the defendants have ingeniously, and I do not say unfairly, argued that although £300 was a palpably inadequate consideration for an estate worth £20,000, yet, if the plaintiffs title were uncertain, and if it were but the chance of such an estate that he sold, £300 might be an adequate consideration for such a probability. I say, however, that the skilful hypothesis of the defendant’s counsel will not hold. Mr. Grinder ought to have known (a proper examination into the facts of his client’s case would have shown him) what stands out in distinct relief before my eyes,—that the plaintiff’s title to the Brownedge and Greentree property was as clear as that of any country gentleman or peer in this realm. Again, let us look at the argument, as applied to the other side, of the defendants themselves. It cannot be said that Mr. Wm. Sharp Sleeky thought he was purchasing a mere chance or contingency. He knew when with his own hand he drew the recitals of this deed that the title “if any” as he put it, and which he denied, was a perfect title. This purchaser was the living fraudulent trustee, as his father had been before him They held all the title-deeds. They knew the pedigree of Johnson. They had watched and noted the dropping of each limitation or line of descent provided for by the will—the survivor of them, Mr. Wm. Sharp Sleeky, knew that the deed, if good at all, passed an undeniable fee simple in an estate worth £20,000. It would be a grave defect, amounting to a scandal upon equity jurisprudence, if a fraud so consummate could ever give a title to property, by barring the remedy of the defrauded. I hold that the statute of limitations does not run against the original fraud of the first trustee, Sleeky, and that no title can be derived by the present defendants through him. I hold that whether Mr. Grinder colluded with the younger Sleeky or not, whether the plaintiff was or was not drunk when he executed the deed so often referred to, he was not properly protected by his solicitor, advantage was most probably taken of his necessities, his poverty, and his ignorance. I find in the words of the prayer of the bill that the plaintiff “improvidently and hastily, and without adequate consideration,” executed that deed so craftily drawn by the hand of a fraudulent trustee, and so negligently, or perhaps dishonestly, approved by the solicitors who ought to have watched over and protected his interests. I decree, accordingly, that the plaintiff shall have the relief prayed for in the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth clauses of the prayer of his bill. With regard to the sixth prayer, as the defendants now in possession of the estate, although not concerned in the original frauds, have pertinaciously held the estate against the plaintiff, and compelled him to carry this suit to its termination, for the recovery thereof, I decree that they pay the costs.
* * * * * * * * * *
Poor old Johnson and his wife graced their triumph by the moderation of their treatment of the defendants. They waived their right to the accounts asked for in the fourth prayer of the bill, and spared Smoothy and Grinder the humiliation directed in the sixth paragraph of the decree. A comparatively small sum of money was accepted in lieu of “the rents issues and profits,” and they abandoned all notions of vengeance upon the living offspring of the dead criminal maniac.
Johnson and his wife now live upon the estate. They live simply but happily and affectionately. The old vice of drunkenness is not to be found in the catalogue of his present faults. Mr. Freeman is their almost constant companion, friend, and adviser. I will let the reader into a secret. I am told that Johnson has settled his property so that it will go at his death to his wife (subject to an annuity to Freeman), for her life; and at her death (subject to the annuity to this friend), it goes to the children of the solicitor who rescued it from the kindred of the despoilers.
ONE day, as I sat quietly musing in my office, with comparatively little to do, and was planning a nice trip to Ireland, with my wife, solely for the purpose of our mutual enjoyment, and with no concealed or latent professional intent, I was called upon by a person who bore a letter of introduction from a solicitor who had some time previously made use of my services in probing and extinguishing a gigantic fraud upon young scions of the aristocracy.
The business he came upon seemed to be of the most ordinary kind, but, as the sequel will show the reader, it was one of the funniest little romances of the peerage ever described.
After a few words of preface, on either side, the conversation took this turn—
“His lordship,” observed my visitor, “and Mr. Tomlinson our steward, have been endeavouring to quietly find out who has committed several robberies at the Hall within the last few months. It’s a very curious affair, sir, altogether. First one thing valuable is missed and then another. The countess has lost several articles of jewellery, Lady Jane has lost a good many little fancy odds and ends that are worth a good lot of money, and Lady Emily has been nearly driven out of her senses by losing a sweet little gold watch given her as a birthday present by the earl.”
I was already getting impatient. Did the noble lord want me to give up my excursion, to trace and hunt down some petty thief among his own servants? I had no doubt he would pay a reasonable figure for the service, but it was the sort of job I would rather at any time not undertake; and to sacrifice a rare interval of leisure—a golden opportunity for enjoyment—for such a task, I certainly did not like the notion of at all.
“Yes, sir,” I observed petulantly, “a small affair that. Would it not be wise for his lordship’s steward to consult the police about it?”
“Oh, dear no, sir; that’s what Mr. Tomlinson told me to say, and I’m coming to that in a moment. You see, sir, his lordship and our steward both think it must have been done by one of the old upper servants. So I think. Who else could have done it, you know?”
“Well, that’s really more than I can guess,” was my short answer.
The fellow looked blank, and seemed speechless. I wanted to cut the matter short by getting an excuse to evade or decline the business, so I helped him along a bit.
“I should think—that is to say my suspicions would be at once turned to a lady’s maid, or housekeeper, or a female domestic of some kind, having access to the lady’s apartments.”
“Well, you see ours is an ancient and quiet mansion, and although the family, as you know, sir, is a very old and wealthy one, and the Hall is a very fine place, the family all live in a social kind of way, so that a good many people might, if they wanted to steal, find an opportunity of getting into almost any of the apartments.”
“Really,” I said, “after all, I don’t like to undertake such a small affair as this. I have some very heavy and important matters on hand, which I must, or that is, I ought to attend to myself; and, besides, the police would do such a little job as well as I could.”
“Oh, no, sir, his lordship wouldn’t have the regular police employed, because, I believe, he says he wants to know who did it before he makes up his mind whether he will prosecute or not, and if he calls in the police he doesn’t see how he can really avoid prosecuting, if he hands the case over to them. But,” he went on to say, “excuse me, sir, I don’t think it is a very trifling affair, either.”
“Do you think it is?” he asked.
“Why, yes, I don’t call the loss of an odd trinket or two a heavy business,” I replied.
“Ah! I beg your pardon, sir,” he added; “I ought to have told you, first of all, a great quantity of the family plate, which is valuable, has gone, and what’s more, it’s been in the family a very long time, so that the earl wouldn’t take any money for it.”
My appreciation of the job increased, at all events.
“I don’t suppose, sir, that his lordship would mind your expenses, if you would be so good as to find out the thief for him,” the messenger added.
“Your explanation, I now see, puts a different complexion upon the case. Valuable plate, long in the family, heir-looms, I dare say, prized beyond any common estimate of the weight of the metal, may be worth the expenditure of money by a nobleman to recover. It would also be ungracious on my part towards the noble earl and the gentleman who sent you here, if I were not to exert myself to the utmost to restore such property, and to place the thieves at his mercy, if not in the hands of the proper officers of justice.”
“Thank you, sir. All of us upper servants will, I am sure, be very much obliged to you; for, you see, sir, we all of us feel uncomfortable. We don’t know which of us is suspected. All I know, sir, it isn’t me who did it, and I should like to know who it was. I should like to have them transported to Botany Bay, whoever it is.”
So as to get a clue I was about to pump this loquacious fellow, who was the butler in the household, when he let his suspicions bodily through his mouth in a sentence.
“I dare say many of the servants do feel very uncomfortable, one or two of them, and not without cause, but I am persuaded the family have too much regard for and confidence in you to suspect you in the slightest degree. You need not give yourself the slightest anxiety I can most candidly and sincerely assure you, on that account.”
“No, p’raps not,” he incautiously exclaimed; “but there’s Mr. Tomlinson, now, our steward, who has lived with the family since he was a boy, and whose father was a butler for many many years with ’em, I think he feels, or at least he looks very uncomfortable, as if they suspected him, but I am sure they don’t.”
The emphasis on the word italicised was slight and unintentional, and so was the play of that feeble sneer on the butler’s countenance. I, however, critically noted each, and saw that my visitor believed the old steward, who had grown grey in the service of the noble earl and his father, was a thief, or, at least, had a hand in the plunder. I did not believe this, but it was, I knew, of no use probing this lump of selfishness, ignorance, egotism, jealousy, and prejudice for any rational clue to the disentanglement of a mystery recondite enough, I now felt, to give me a zest for the task.
I promised the butler that the matter should have my earliest and best attention. I wanted, of course, to make my approaches under some disguise. I saw the way of doing this. The creature before me would, I also saw, concur in any plausible scheme I might suggest. Here was my disguise.
Addressing my instructor, I observed—“You’re an honest and a shrewd man.”
The man’s round face beamed complacently.
“I see that your integrity and your intelligence can be trusted I shall confide in you. Now, don’t be startled at what I am about to say. Keep the secret of my suspicions, whether just or unjust, to yourself. Don’t breathe them to a living soul. Don’t mention them to one of your fellow-servants, man or woman—least of all a woman.”
I paused. He looked all amazement. A ghost story couldn’t have had more effect upon him than the overwhelming sense he entertained of my judgment upon his merits, and the vast importance and responsibility with which he saw, or thought, I was about to invest him.
“You promise me rigid secresy, perfect co-operation, and we will soon unravel the mystery.”
“I will do exactly as you want me, sir,” he replied.
“Good. Then I will tell you frankly,” I went on to say, “I suspect that old steward knows more than he would like to tell about this plate.”
The poltroon thought me a magician. His own groundless and vague suspicions were now to him as demonstrated facts, but his wonder and his fears drove him into falsehood.
“Oh, sir, ain’t you mistaken?” he inquired.
“I may be. All men are liable to err. I hope I may be wrong, but I don’t think I am mistaken in this instance.”
The half-witted porpoise grinned horribly, and I proceeded—
“Now, listen to me again. I will soon get the evidence of my correctness or of my error, as the case may be, out of his mouth, or his manner—his embarrassment,” I added. “I must be near him all the while I am at the Hall, and alone with him very much of the time. Now, how is this to be managed? I see, I will drop plump on him. You can just help me in this. Concealing my opinion of his dishonesty, tell him that I think, in order to disguise the object of my visit to your mansion, that I deem it expedient to visit it as his friend and his guest. He will fall into our trap. He will be afraid to object, and he may even be foolish enough to think the arrangement a good one for him, as he may imagine that he can humbug me, or put me on the wrong scent.”
“I am afraid, sir,” stammered my instrument, “that he may object to this plan.”
“No he won’t. We won’t give him time to object. You return home by the next train, and I’ll follow you early to-morrow. Tell him what we have agreed, and if he raises a serious objection we may be sure he is the man.”
The butler had not strength of mind to argue with me. It called for less pluck to combat any reasons of the steward against the plan than my orders in the form I put them.
The servant returned home. I called to thank the earl’s private solicitors for their introduction, and next day I went down into the country to the Hall, as arranged.
The earl was a man of mark in the Peerage. His wealth, his territorial possessions, and his great abilities, had made a brilliant and lasting reputation.
His mansion stood in the centre of an agricultural district, nearly midway between two considerable towns, about eight miles from either. There are not many earls in the peerage, and as I am anxious to avoid a disclosure by suggestion of localities, the reader must be good enough to pardon my indefiniteness as to time and place. I do not say in what county the mansion stood, and I think it desirable not to say which quarter of England I was about to visit. It is enough to observe that the Hall was a spacious and a sumptuous residence, fit in every respect for the abode of one of the old nobility of this great empire. Mine is not an imaginative quill, so I drop the poetical, and will not attempt to sketch the scenery.
Around the house was an ample park, in which deer roamed at their will. Burglars would, I was sure, find the distance between the high road and the house exceedingly unfavourable for their operations. I was sure that the robbery had been in great part, if not entirely, effected by some person or persons in the household.
It was, I saw, lucky that I had thought to borrow the instruments now at the bottom of my not over-genteel portmanteau. They were burglarious tools. The implements of dishonour and dishonesty in a thousand ways are turned to the account of virtue, law, and justice. I hoped, but I could not rely upon the expectation of finding the plunder still on the premises.
The butler, who communicated to the steward my design to play the part of his friend, was relieved at finding no opposition. The old man played the part assigned him at the outset with skill, and grace, and dignity, as he could, I am sure, play many a nobler part in the wonderful drama of human life. He met me at the side entrance to the Hall with the cordiality of an old friend, and I reciprocated that geniality in my own best style. There was a small body of spectators—composed of domestics of the family. We were not, however, I fear, clever enough to deceive them. The butler’s departure and his return was understood to mean something, and my subsequent arrival, I am afraid, established my reputation as “a policeman in disguise” among the family.
The reader has already been told that I did not really suspect the old steward, and knows the motive for a somewhat elaborate contrivance. If it failed I cannot help it, nor did it, after all, matter in the least. I hasten to state that I succeeded, before I left the Hall, in discovering who stole the plate.
I had comfortable quarters, plenty of the best to satisfy and cheer the material part of human nature, and a pleasant companion in my ostensible friend the steward. I had also to bear with some elements of discomfort. The servants treated me with various moody reserve and rude hauteur. Every tone, gesture, mannerism, tacit and open, seemed to say in an unspoken language, “Do you suspect me, Mr. Policeman? Would you like to search my boxes? Dare you arrest me in the Queen’s name? Oh! don’t think you’re deceiving me—I know what you are, Mr. Detective.” In short, they were as unpleasant as they could, or I should rather say, as they dared to be, in the little intercourse I had with them.
The noble earl and his family were at the Hall. He probably avoided me. I certainly did not see him until I asked for and had, at my own distinct request, an interview with him.
I had thought it possible, upon the assumption that the missing plate might still be concealed in some wrong place within the mansion or the adjacent grounds, that the depositor in such odd receptacle might wish to return it to the proper chest, after my arrival at the Hall. I did not care to be thus baulked. Accordingly, in the presence of the butler and the steward, I sealed that chest with my own seal, and kept the seal itself always about my person. I also gave the butler strict orders never to let the closet in which the plate-chest stood be unwatched or unguarded for a moment night or day. This enabled me to walk about very much at my ease, taking observation and stock of such men, women, and things, as fell in my way.
All my instincts and instructions, and all my experience, failed to detect in an ordinary servant a sign or indication which betokened the thief
As I rambled at times about the grounds around the Hall, I saw a gentleman on at least twenty occasions, and it was not long before I discovered that he took especial interest in my movements. After about the second or third apparently casual meeting between us he entered into conversation with me. This was not remarkable. He was a man of peculiar habits. Sometimes he was taciturn, at others extremely affable to all persons. He knew my profession and functions. He spoke to me at once freely on the subject,—expressing his regret at the affair, and inquiring whether or not I thought I was on the track of the culprit, at the same time generously hoping that the earl would not prosecute, especially if the theft should turn out to be the act of an old servant of the house. It was not long before I saw that this pleader for the criminal would have been pleased to have had my back turned upon the Hall, and I do not go too far in saying, that he would have paid the cost of a fly to the railway station, and for a first-class ticket for me thence to London. He was a pale and sickly looking young man, consumed by philanthropic notions, with a character for the practical. During three days, and many interviews, this young gentleman persuaded me, that he was moved by an excess of humanity to his evident dislike of me and my calling, and his desire to spare the uplifted rod from falling on the criminal’s back.
Such opinions of mine about him, however, did not last over that time. I then came to the conclusion that he was the man who had stolen the plate.
Was I right, or was this another intermediate perplexing error of judgment, such as all men engaged in tentative experiments must encounter? Can the reader try his or her patience a bit longer? In the end I succeeded. It is worth while to exercise a little patience. I say that I then set him down as the plate stealer.
Who was this person?
I knew him. It was not the first time I had seen him. Former acquaintance had not, however, led me to form a bad opinion of him. Why did he try to thwart me, or preach his maudlin sentimentalism to me?
Within two more days it became plain to me that my affable acquaintance could not endure me, and I had no love for him, for he was, I thought, the thief. We could not, I felt assured, long remain under the same roof, wide and hospitable as our common shelter might appear to those who do not know the expansiveness of aversion. On the third day following this idiosyncratic detection, a public meeting was to be held at the nearest town (in the morning, for the convenience of the ladies) of “the Society for Mitigating the Severity of Justice towards Juvenile Offenders, and Superseding Whipping by Lollipop Association,” and my sallow-faced acquaintance was moved by the spirit of human kindness, or something else, to attend this demonstration. I had no objection to his going there, or anywhere else out of my way. I was glad when he was gone. I was not to be drawn away myself by him, but as soon as he was gone, I determined to hasten my own departure for London.
When I saw him fairly out of the way, I knew that no person could mar the effect of my demonstration.
Within an hour after my pale-faced acquaintance had left the Hall, and before he had time to open his mouth to advocate the claims of his pet charity upon the purses of ugly old maids and frowsy dowagers, I sent a message to the earl, craving the honour of an interview with him.
That privilege was readily conceded.
I was conducted to his lordship in the library. He received me urbanely. Not five minutes, scarcely ten sentences passed, when we arrived at this point of a dialogue—
“My lord,” I said, “I have discovered the thief, and unless all my experience goes for nothing, I can hand over to your lordship quietly (as I should wish to do) the whole of your missing plate.”
I was to an extent safe in this, because unless I was altogether wrong as to the person who was the thief, I must almost be right in supposing that the plate was still in the mansion.
“I think this office would have been as well performed by my steward,” observed the earl.
“Your lordship will pardon my suggesting that I should esteem it a personal obligation, if your lordship will yourself share my further investigations.”
“In what part of this Hall do you suppose the property to be concealed?”
“I will show your lordship.”
“If you please—But do you know the passages and ways of this house?”
“One of the very first things I informed myself about, my lord.”
“I will follow you, sir,” the earl remarked.
I led the way to the apartments of the sallow-faced young man. I had picklocks of the finest potency. They would open any Chubb or Bramah lock—anything but a guilty conscience.
I stopped at the sallow-faced young man’s door, and turned to furtively scan the earl’s countenance.
An agony, resulting from concentrated grief, hatred, good and evil affections, and impotent vengeance, was to be traced in that nobleman’s face.
“My son’s apartments. You are wrong, sir,” he groaned rather than exclaimed.
“No,” I answered, “I am right.” In pity, I added, “I must discharge my duty. I must perform the work for which you engaged me and brought me here. No living soul knows my suspicions but your lordship.”
Abruptly, as if consoled by the fact, and the assurance of secresy to which it led, and yet too proud to acknowledge so much, he said—“Proceed, sir.”
We entered the apartments. I looked about me. I saw in one room a military portmanteau, which had travelled much. I opened it. There was the missing plate!
The earl did not move a muscle or change colour. He turned to leave the apartments. I followed him, until we arrived near the door of the outer room. I then preceded him. He took my delicate hint. He turned the key upon the evidences of—I think it is called kleptomania. He then walked back to his library. From a drawer he took out his cheque-book, filled up a draft on his bankers, and handed the same to me. I silently, by gesture, expressed my thanks, and went out into the park.
Within an hour I saw the steward. I told him that I saw no use in stopping at the Hall. I informed the old man that I had seen the earl and told him the same thing. I added, that I should get back to London at once. I thought it better not to discuss with that proud nobleman how the plate was to be restored, but left him to act upon his own judgment in that matter. I believe that the plate has not yet been found by anybody, except myself and its lawful owner. I look into the papers, expecting some day to read about a fabulous case of conscience, or a paragraph explaining how thieves carried off a booty from a lordly mansion, and after keeping it a long while, were impelled by the stress of newly awakened righteousness to restore it to its noble proprietor.
* * * * * * * * * *
Since the events which I have just described occurred, I have ascertained, in an accidental way, that the distinguished young nobleman whose peccadilloes at home I found out, had been in trouble several years ago over a similar affair. The case I here refer to arose somehow thus:—The young gentleman held a commission in a regiment of cavalry, then quartered in a distant settlement. He was a favourite, or at least a source of admiration to his brother officers, for although he took no part in their wild adventures, he was far from an unpleasant companion. He was a temperate man, without being ascetical; and as he did not affect the character of a purist, the mess were in no way annoyed by his moderation. He had, in fact, in this way, and by his really superior intelligence, become the most popular man in the regiment, when things happened which precipitated him into disgrace. The officers of his regiment missed a variety of small articles from their quarters, and one of them lost a valuable gold watch. It is needless to say that there was an awful row amongst the officers when it was ascertained that the thief was the favourite of their mess. Some kind friend, however, interfered to screen the delinquent from the worst consequences of his crime. The matter was hushed up. One condition imposed upon the offender was, that he should either become seriously ill, or find out some urgent private business requiring attention in England. He was of course not unwilling to yield this mild demand. It is not unlikely that the detection of his peccadilloes operated upon his mind and body so as to facilitate his application to the doctors for the requisite certificates, which he obtained. Shortly afterwards he returned home on sick leave, and was not long after that allowed to sell out of the regiment.
The ambition of the gentleman seems to have taken a turn at this point of his career. He has not for several years been known to take any interest in military affairs, but he has set up, and been admitted as an authority upon matters of civil government and administration. He sits at this present moment in Parliament, and no important debate, in the House of Commons, finishes without a speech from his lips. I fancy that he must, however, often suffer deep humiliation at the hands of an indelicate opponent. For example, I happen to know that awhile since, at a general election, he was invited to stand for a great constituency. A requisition with more than two thousand signatures was presented to him, but he did not accept the flattering invitation. The reason why he now signed a truce with ambition is to be discovered under his fears. It happened that I was employed on “the other side” to watch the movements of certain persons, and I thought it fair to whisper in the ear of our principal agent the story of the plate. He was naturally delighted, and sent me to inform one of the electors, who was also a trusted and confidential secondary agent in the election. To my surprise I found that he knew something about the forthcoming candidate which I did not. I told him about the loss and discovery of the plate at the old Hall, and he told me about the colonial kleptomania of the distinguished politician.
What should we do? Neither of us wanted to ruin so lofty a man by blurting out the obnoxious facts. We soon determined upon the course to be taken. Our secondary agent was, as I have said, an elector. He wrote a polite letter to the enemy. In this epistle the writer expressed his regret that a sense of his political duty should impose upon him so disagreeable a task as that he undertook in writing on this unpleasant subject, with, it would seem, the prospect of having to take another step far more painful to him than the present. He was, he said, entirely actuated by a stern sense of public duty. No particle or atom of personal ill-will or partisan animosity lurked beneath, his intentions. He would gladly escape from his position, if any honourable road out of it could be shown. He could not see his way out of the difficulty, except by abandoning his duty. Yet, perhaps, he might—it was just possible—he might be altogether spared the unpleasantness he dreaded. The recipient of the requisition might decline to stand. The writer hoped so. That would cut the knot. He should then be spared the necessity of making statements so grievously affecting a man of world-wide reputation. This was the most he could hope. He would cling and adhere to that hope until the last. Still, in candour and in frankness—it was far better to exhibit at the outset than allow the crisis to arrive, and the victim be unwarned—he would say that he should not shrink, if the candidature were so far persisted in, from mounting the hustings and opposing the distinguished candidate, on the grounds that a man who had been compelled to leave the army by peculiarly mean offences, and who was so far afflicted with the mental derangement known as kleptomania as to rob his noble father’s plate-chest, was not a fit and proper person to represent a great constituency in Parliament, The writer again explained that he clung to the hope of being spared this serious and painful duty; but if the necessity arose, he must and would encounter it.
No direct answer was given to that letter. The candidate, however, did not come forward. He declined the invitation on the ground that his former constituents requested a continuance of his services, and he could not part from them. He was returned once more for a pocket-borough of his father’s, and he will, I suppose, remain a Member for that place until he is elevated, by the natural order of succession, to a peerage.
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