Oh, my beloved cousin Monica! Thank Heaven, you are living still, and younger, I think, than I in all things but in years.
And Milly, my dear companion, she is now the happy wife of that good little clergyman, Sprigge Biddlepen. It has been in my power to be of use to them, and he shall have the next presentation to Dawling.
Meg Hawkes, proud and wayward, and the most affectionate creature on earth, was married to Tom Brice a few months after these events; and, as both wished to emigrate, I furnished them with the capital, and I am told they are likely to be rich. I hear from my kind Meg often, and she seems very happy.
My dear old friends, Mary Quince and Mrs. Rusk, are, alas! growing old, but living with me, and very happy. And after long solicitation, I persuaded Doctor Bryerly, the best and truest of ministers, with my dearest friend's concurrence, to undertake the management of the Derbyshire estates. In this I have been most fortunate. He is the very person for such a charge—so punctual, so laborious, so kind, and so shrewd.
In compliance with medical advice, cousin Monica hurried me away to the Continent, where she would never permit me to allude to the terrific scenes which remain branded so awfully on my brain. It needed no constraint. It is a sort of agony to me even now to think of them.
The plan was craftily devised. Neither old Wyat nor Giles, the butler, had a suspicion that I had returned to Bartram. Had I been put to death, the secret of my fate would have been deposited in the keeping of four persons only—the two Ruthyns, Hawkes, and ultimately Madame. My dear cousin Monica had been artfully led to believe in my departure for France, and prepared for my silence. Suspicion might not have been excited for a year after my death, and then would never, in all probability, have pointed to Bartram as the scene of the crime. The weeds would have grown over me, and I should have lain in that deep grave where the corpse of Madame de la Rougierre was unearthed in the darksome quadrangle of Bartram-Haugh.
It was more than two years after that I heard what had befallen at Bartram after my flight. Old Wyat, who went early to Uncle Silas's room, to her surprise—for he had told her that he was that night to accompany his son, who had to meet the mailtrain to Derby at five o'clock in the morning—saw her old master lying on the sofa, much in his usual position.
'There was nout much strange about him,' old Wyat said, 'but that his scent-bottle was spilt on its side over on the table, and he dead.'
She thought he was not quite cold when she found him, and she sent the old butler for Doctor Jolks, who said he died of too much 'loddlum.'
Of my wretched uncle's religion what am I to say? Was it utter hypocrisy, or had it at any time a vein of sincerity in it? I cannot say. I don't believe that he had any heart left for religion, which is the highest form of affection, to take hold of. Perhaps he was a sceptic with misgivings about the future, but past the time for finding anything reliable in it. The devil approached the citadel of his heart by stealth, with many zigzags and parallels. The idea of marrying me to his son by fair means, then by foul, and, when that wicked chance was gone, then the design of seizing all by murder, supervened. I dare say that Uncle Silas thought for a while that he was a righteous man. He wished to have heaven and to escape hell, if there were such places. But there were other things whose existence was not speculative, of which some he coveted, and some he dreaded more, and temptation came. 'Now if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble, every man's work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is.' There comes with old age a time when the heart is no longer fusible or malleable, and must retain the form in which it has cooled down. 'He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; he which is filthy, let him be filthy still.'
Dudley had disappeared; but in one of her letters, Meg, writing from her Australian farm, says: 'There's a fella in toon as calls hisself Colbroke, wi' a good hoose o' wood, 15 foot length, and as by 'bout as silling o' the pearler o' Bartram—only lots o' rats, they do say, my lady—a bying and sellin' of goold back and forred wi' the diggin foke and the marchants. His chick and mouth be wry wi' scar o' burns or vitterel, an' no wiskers, bless you; but my Tom ee toll him he knowed him for Master Doodley. I ant seed him; but he sade ad shute Tom soon is look at 'im, an' denide it, wi' mouthful o' curses and oaf. Tom baint right shure; if I seed un wons i'd no for sartin; but 'appen,'twil best be let be.' This was all.
Old Hawkes stood his ground, relying on the profound cunning with which their actual proceedings had been concealed, even from the suspicions of the two inmates of the house, and on the mystery that habitually shrouded Bartram-Haugh and all its belongings from the eyes of the outer world.
Strangely enough, he fancied that I had made my escape long before the room was entered; and, even if he were arrested, there was no evidence, he was certain, to connect him with the murder, all knowledge of which he would stoutly deny.
There was an inquest on the body of my uncle, and Dr. Jolks was the chief witness. They found that his death was caused by 'an excessive dose of laudanum, accidentally administered by himself.'
It was not until nearly a year after the dreadful occurrences at Bartram that Dickon Hawkes was arrested on a very awful charge, and placed in gaol. It was an old crime, committed in Lancashire, that had found him out. After his conviction, as a last chance, he tried a disclosure of all the circumstances of the unsuspected death of the Frenchwoman. Her body was discovered buried where he indicated, in the inner court of Bartram-Haugh, and, after due legal enquiry, was interred in the churchyard of Feltram.
Thus I escaped the horrors of the witness-box, or the far worse torture of a dreadful secret.
Doctor Bryerly, shortly after Lady Knollys had described to him the manner in which Dudley entered my room, visited the house of Bartram-Haugh, and minutely examined the windows of the room in which Mr. Charke had slept on the night of his murder. One of these he found provided with powerful steel hinges, very craftily sunk and concealed in the timber of the window-frame, which was secured by an iron pin outside, and swung open on its removal. This was the room in which they had placed me, and this the contrivance by means of which the room had been entered. The problem of Mr. Charke's murder was solved.
I have penned it. I sit for a moment breathless. My hands are cold and damp. I rise with a great sigh, and look out on the sweet green landscape and pastoral hills, and see the flowers and birds and the waving boughs of glorious trees—all images of liberty and safety; and as the tremendous nightmare of my youth melts into air, I lift my eyes in boundless gratitude to the God of all comfort, whose mighty hand and outstretched arm delivered me. When I lower my eyes and unclasp my hands, my cheeks are wet with tears. A tiny voice is calling me 'Mamma!' and a beloved smiling face, with his dear father's silken brown tresses, peeps in.
'Yes, darling, our walk. Come away!'
I am Lady Ilbury, happy in the affection of a beloved and noblehearted husband. The shy useless girl you have known is now a mother—trying to be a good one; and this, the last pledge, has lived.
I am not going to tell of sorrows—how brief has been my pride of early maternity, or how beloved were those whom the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. But sometimes as, smiling on my little boy, the tears gather in my eyes, and he wonders, I can see, why they come, I am thinking—and trembling while I smile—to think, how strong is love, how frail is life; and rejoicing while I tremble that, in the deathless love of those who mourn, the Lord of Life, who never gave a pang in vain, conveys the sweet and ennobling promise of a compensation by eternal reunion. So, through my sorrows, I have heard a voice from heaven say, 'Write, from hencefore blessed are the dead that die in the Lord!'
This world is a parable—the habitation of symbols—the phantoms of spiritual things immortal shown in material shape. May the blessed second-sight be mine—to recognise under these beautiful forms of earth the ANGELS who wear them; for I am sure we may walk with them if we will, and hear them speak!