Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Lord Oakburn's daughters - Part 29
LORD OAKBURN’S DAUGHTERS.
BY THE AUTHOR OF "EAST LYNNE."
CHAPTER LVII.THE REMAND.
The copy of the certificate of a marriage solemnised at St. Pancras Old Church early in the month of July, 1847, between Lewis Carlton and Clarice Beauchamp.
The magistrates gazed on the document as they sat on the bench, and handed it about from one to another, and glanced at Mr. Carlton. Even so. It was that gentleman’s marriage certificate with the unhappy lady of whom he had denied all knowledge, whom—there could be no doubt now—he had destroyed.
The magistrates glanced at Mr. Carlton. A change had come over his face, as much change as could come over so impassive a one, and a fanciful observer might have said that he cowered. He knew that all was over, that any attempt to struggle against his fate and the condemning facts heaping themselves one after another upon his head, would be utterly futile. Nevertheless, he rallied his spirits after the first moment’s shock, and raised himself to his full height—cold, uncompromising, ready to hold out to the last. Of the sea of eyes bent upon him from every part of the crowded hall, he disliked most to meet those of Frederick Grey; he remembered the boy’s open, honest accusation of him in the years gone by.
The gentleman who had brought the paper into the hall was called forward and sworn. His name was James Chesterton, he said; he had been articled clerk to Mr. Friar, the solicitor, of Bedford Row, and was with him still, though the term of his articles had expired. In consequence of a telegram received the previous night from Mr. Drone, he had gone the first thing that morning to search the register of Old St. Pancras Church, and found in it the marriage-entry of which that certificate was a copy.
“You certify that this is a true copy?” asked the chief magistrate.
“A true copy,” replied the witness, “exact in every particular. The clerk who was with me when I copied it said he was present when the marriage took place, and remembered the parties quite well. He had a suspicion that it was a stolen marriage, and that caused him to observe them particularly. The lady———"
“And pray what cause had he to suspect that it was a stolen marriage?” sharply interrupted Lawyer Billiter.
“I asked him the same question,” quietly answered the witness. “He said that the parties came to the church quite alone, and the young lady was dressed in every-day clothes. He could not help looking at her, he said, she was so beautiful.”
“And that was the clerk, you say?”
“I supposed him to be the clerk; if not the actual clerk, some deputy acting for him.
Lawyer Billiter fired up. He was about to deny that the Lewis Carlton then present was obliged to have been that bridegroom, when he was silenced by the bench. The chief magistrate read the certificate aloud for Mr. Carlton’s benefit, and then turned to him.
“Prisoner,” said he,—and it was the first time they had called him prisoner—“what have you to say to this?”
“I shall not say anything,” returned the prisoner. “If evidence is to be brought against me about which I know nothing, how can I be prepared to refute it?”
“You cannot say that you know nothing of the marriage to which this certificate refers. Can you still deny that the unfortunate young lady was your wife?”
There was a pause. It is possible that a gleam of doubt was passing through Mr. Carlton’s mind as to whether he could still deny that fact. If so, it might be abandoned as useless. There were certain officials connected with St. Pancras Church still—and he knew it—who could swear to his person.
“If she was my wife, that does not prove that I—poisoned her,” he returned, making the pause in the sentence, as put.
“It goes some way towards it, though,” said the magistrate, forgetting official reticence in the moment’s heat.
The words were swallowed up in a loud murmur that burst simultaneously from many parts of the hall, and bore an unpleasant sound. It was not unlike a threatening of popular opinion, boding no good feeling to the prisoner. John Bull is apt to be on occasions inconveniently impulsive, and Mr. Carlton was losing his ground.
“Silence!” shouted the chairman, in his anger.
“Prisoner,” he added, turning to Mr. Carlton as the sounds died away, “if my memory serves me right, you swore before the Coroner at the inquest that you knew nothing of this letter or of its handwriting. What do you say now?”
What could he say, with that certificate lying there? In spite of the high tone he assumed, he stood there a sorry picture of convicted guilt. Just at that moment, however, the fact of the production of the letter was occupying his mind more than anything else, for he believed its resuscitation to be nothing short of a miracle.
“I do know nothing of the letter,” replied the prisoner, in answer to the chairman’s question. “Some conspiracy must have been got up against me, and I am the victim: it may be cleared yet.”
That was the most reasonable acknowledgement they could get from him; but, of course, plain as the proofs were, he was not bound to criminate himself. Lawyer Billiter, whose zeal rose with the danger and the necessity for exertion in his client’s cause, talked himself hoarse in the throat, and twisted the evidence of the witnesses into various plausible contortions. All in vain. The case, with the production of that marriage-certificate, had assumed altogether a different complexion, and the deferent leniency with which the justices of South Wennock had been at first inclined to treat Mr. Carlton, was exchanged for uncompromising official firmness.
The examination lasted until dark, when candles were brought in; the twilight of a winter’s evening steals upon us all too quickly. The town hall had not yet been improved by gas or lamps—South Wennock was but a slow country place—and there were no means of lighting it, if lights were required, save by candles. Four of them were brought, to be stuck in any place convenient: Mr. Drone’s clerk got one on his desk, the acting beadle held another in his hand, and the other two were disposed of where they could be. The hall—or court, as South Wennock was wont to call it—presented a strange view in that vague and glimmering light: the densely packed crowd and their lifted faces, the excited aspect of those taking part in the proceedings, the hot defiance of Lawyer Billiter’s countenance, and the calmly impassive countenance of the prisoner.
But it was shortly found not practicable to conclude the examination that day, and the magistrates remanded it until the morrow. That would be the close, and there was not a shadow of doubt on any mind present, including the zealous one of Lawyer Billiter, that Lewis Carlton would then be committed to the county jail to take his trial for the wilful murder of Clarice Beauchamp, otherwise Clarice Beauchamp Chesney, otherwise Clarice Beauchamp Carlton. The various names were being bandied about the court in an undertone in disquisition, carping spirits had already mooted the question—could the young Lady have been his real wife in point of law, as sit had not been married in the name of Chesney?
“The prisoner is remanded, and the magistrates will meet at ten o’clock to-morrow,” came forth the announcement after the Bench had conferred together for a few moments.
“Of course your worships will take bail,” said Lawyer Billiter, boldly.
“Bail!” repeated the magistrates, wondering whether the like demand in a parallel case had ever been made before to a bench in its senses. “Not if the whole town were to offer it.”
The whole town apparently had no intention of doing anything of the sort. Rather the contrary. A certain portion of it—not the most respectable, you may be sure—were anticipating the pleasure of escorting Mr. Carlton to his place of lodging for the night, and in a manner more emphatic than agreeable.
“Let them get off first, the unwashed ruffians,” whispered Lawyer Billiter to Mr. Carlton. “You shall stop here until the coast’s clear.”
The hall was emptying itself. Gentlemen, whether magistrates, audience, or lawyers, stood in groups to say a word on the disclosed marvels of that day. They were indeed scarcely believable, and half South Wennock had a latent impression, lying deep in the bottom of their minds, that they should wake up in the morning and find the charge against Mr. Carlton to have been nothing more than a dream. One of that audience, however, gave himself no time to say a word to anybody: he got away with all the speed he could, dashed into the Red Lion, and nearly into the arms of its landlady, who was as excited as anybody.
“Has the omnibus started, Mrs. Fitch?”
“This ten minutes ago, sir.”
“There! I feared it would be so. Well, you must let me have a conveyance of some sort, a gig or carriage, anything that will go quick.”
“Surely you are not going away to London to-night, Mr. Frederick?”
“Not I. I shall stay now to see this unhappy play out. No, I’ll tell you a secret, but don’t you go and let it out to the town. I have telegraphed for my father, and expect he will be down by the seven o’clock train. It will be something, won’t it, to be cleared in the eyes of South Wennock.”
“You expect Sir Stephen down!” she exclaimed, in excitement. “I should think you do want a carriage for him. He shan’t come into the town obscurely on a joyful occasion like this—joyful to him. You shall have out that new barouche and pair, Mr. Frederick, and if I had got four horses———"
"Just do be sensible," interrupted Frederick with a laugh. "A barouche and four! you'd not get Sir Stephen into it. Look here, Mrs. Fitch," he added, gravely. "If Sir Stephen has cause to rejoice at his own clearing, think how sad the news will be to him for the sake of others!—how intimate he is with some of the Chesney family."
"True, true; soon to be connected with them," murmured Mrs. Fitch. "Well, you shall have the barouche out soberly, Mr. Frederick. And indeed it comes to that, or nothing, this evening, for every other vehicle I've got is in use."
Whether this was quite true, mightquestioned. Mrs. Fitch hurried off, and the barouche, with a pair of post horses, came out. Too impatient to care much how he got to Great Wennock, provided he did get there, Frederick Grey jumped in, and was driven off. He would not for the world have missed being the first to impart the tidings to his father.
The train came in, and Sir Stephen with it. "You are grand!" he exclaimed, surveying the barouche and pair as his son hurried him to it.
"Mrs. Fitch had no other conveyance at liberty. At least she said so. Get in, sir."
"And what have you got to say for yourself, young gentleman—hindering so much time down here?" inquired Sir Stephen, as they drove back.
"I was coming up to-day, but for something that has happened," returned Frederick. "I'll go back when you go, if you like, sir."
"And what's the business you have brought me down upon? What has turned up?"
"Your exoneration, sir, for one thing, has turned up. I hope the town won't eat you, but it is on its wild stilts to-night. And next, the true delinquent has turned up; if that's not Irish, considering that he has never been turned down, but has been close at hand all the while. He who dropped the prussic acid into your wholesome mixture."
"Dropped it purposely?"
"Purposely, there's no doubt; intending, I fear, to kill Mrs. Crane."
"And where was it done?" again interrupted Sir Stephen, too eager to listen patiently. "Dick was not waylaid, surely, after all his protestations to the contrary?"
"Dick delivered the medicine safely, and what was added to it was added to it after it was in the house; while the bottle waited in the room adjoining the sick chamber."
"That face on the stairs!" exclaimed Sir Stephen in excitement. "I knew it was no illusion. A matter-of-fact, common-sense man, like Carlton, could not have fancied such a thing. It was her husband, I suppose?"
"It was her husband, sure enough, who tampered with the medicine; but that person on the stairs, a living, breathing person, was not her husband. Father, I know I shall shock you. He who was, it's to be feared, guilty—the husband—was Lewis Carlton."
Sir Stephen roused himself from his corner of the barouche, and stared at his son's face, as well as he could in the starry night.
"What nonsense are you talking now, Frederick?"
"I wish it was nonsense, sir, for the sake of our common humanity. If this tale is true, one can't help feeling that Carlton is a disgrace to it."
"Let me hear the grounds of suspicion," said Sir Stephen, when he recovered his breath. "It will take strong proof, I can tell you, Fred, before I shall believe this of Carlton."
Frederick Grey told the story as circumstantially as he knew how. It was scarcely ended when they reached South Wennock. Sir Stephen, whether he believed it or not, was most profoundly struck with it; it excited him in no common degree. It was only fit for a romance, he remarked, not for an episode of real life.
"One of the most remarkable features in it, Frederick, assuming the guilt of Mr. Carlton, is that he should never once have been suspected by anybody!"
"I suspected him," was the answer.
"I did, indeed," said Frederick, in a low tone. "A suspicion of him arose in my mind at the moment when we stood around Mrs. Crane as she lay dead. And he saw that I doubted him, too! Do you remember that he wanted to get me out of the room that night; but Uncle John spoke up and said I might be trusted?"
"Good gracious!" cried Sir Stephen, in his simple way, "I can't understand all this. What did you suspect him of?"
"I don't know. I did not know at the time. What I felt sure of was, that he was not true in the matter; that he knew more about it than he would say. I saw it in his manner; I heard it in his voice; I was sure of it when he gave his evidence afterwards at the inquest. I told my mother this; but she wouldn't listen to me."
"You must have been a strange sort of young gentleman, Frederick!"
"So Mr. Carlton thought, when I told him. You know when he laid that cane about my shoulders, and you assured me, by way of consolation, that I must have brought it upon myself by some insolence? In one sense I had; for I had been telling him that I suspected him of having something to do with Mrs. Crane’s death. Lady Jane Chesney heard me say it, for the encounter took place at her garden gate, and she happened to be there. No wonder he caned me. The only marvel to me now is, looking back, that he did not three parts kill me. I know I was too insolent. But there’s something worse than all behind, that I have not yet spoken of.”
“What’s that?” asked Sir Stephen.
“Well, it’s very dreadful: not altogether pleasant to talk about. That first wife, that poor Mrs. Crane, turns out to have been the lost daughter of the Earl of Oakburn.”
Sir Stephen felt confounded. “My boy! what is it that you are telling me?”
“Nothing but the miserable truth. She was Clarice Chesney. You may guess what this discovery is, altogether, for Lady Jane. So far, however, Mr. Carlton must be exonerated. From what can be gleaned, it would appear that he never knew she was connected with them,—never knew her for a Chesney,—only as Miss Beauchamp, and she married him under that name alone.”
“I never heard anything so painful in my life,” exclaimed Sir Stephen. “But why should—Frederick, what in the world’s all this?”
He might well exclaim! They had turned into the street at South Wennock, and found themselves in the midst of a dense and shouting crowd. The fact was, Mrs. Fitch, who was no more capable of keeping a secret than are ladies in general, had spread the news abroad amidst the public that Sir Stephen Grey was coming in, in a barouche and pair; and she hoped they’d cheer him.
The recommendation was needless. Gathered there to wait for the carriage, the mob broke out with one loud shout of acclamation when it came in sight. “Long live Sir Stephen Grey! Would he ever pardon them for having suspected him?—they’d never forgive themselves. Health, and joy, and long life to Sir Stephen Grey!”
They pressed round the barouche as they shouted. Sir Stephen was not eaten, but his hands were pretty nearly shaken off. And before he was at all aware of what the mob were about, they had unharnessed the horses, sent them away by the post-boy, and were harnessing themselves to the carriage, squabbling and fighting which and how many should enjoy the honour. In this manner, shouting, hurrahing, and gesticulating, they commenced drawing Sir Stephen towards his brother’s.
Frederick did not admire being made much of. He opened the door to leap out, but with that dense mob, extending for some yards round about, it could not be done without danger. He remonstrated, and Sir Stephen remonstrated, but only to draw forth fresh cheers and an increased rate of speed in the transit; so they were obliged, perforce, to resign themselves to their fate, the good-humoured Sir Stephen laughing and bowing incessantly.
Suddenly there was a halt, a stoppage, a summary check to the triumphal car. The mob had come in contact with another mob, who had been waiting all that while round the town hall for Mr. Carlton to emerge from it. That gentleman, escorted by the whole force of the South Wennock police, consisting of about six, was in front, with the attendant mob dancing around. The two mobs joined voice, and the shouts for Sir Stephen Grey changed into yells of anger.
They were close abreast, the barouche and the prisoner, and neither could stir one road or the other, for the mob had it all their own way. The few policemen were quite powerless.
“Down with him! Let’s seize him! Let’s have lynch law over here for once! What right had he, that Carlton, knowing what he’d done, to come into our houses, a-doctoring of our wives and children? Let’s serve him out, as he served out her! Here goes!”
Another moment, and Mr. Carlton would have been in their hands, at their cruel mercy, but Sir Stephen Grey rose up to the rescue. He stood on the seat of the carriage and bared his head while he addressed the excited mob; the flaring gas light from a butcher’s shop shining full on his face.
“If you touch Mr. Carlton by so much as a finger, you are not my fellow townsmen, my own dear old neighbours of South Wennock, and I will never again meet you as such. I thought you were Englishmen! If Mr. Carlton be accused of crime, is there not the law of his country to judge him? You are not the law; you are not his accusers; he has not injured you. My friends, in this moment, when you have made me so happy by your welcome, don’t do anything to mar it; don’t make me ashamed of you!”
“It was he druv you from the town, Sir Stephen; it was he, with his canting lies again you, made us think ill of you, and turn our backs upon the truest friend we ever had.”
“That’s not your affair; that’s mine; he did not drive you from it. If I forgive and forget the past, surely you can do it. Carlton,” he impulsively said, “I do forgive you heartily for any wrong they think you may have done me, and I wish you well, and I hope you’ll get off—that is, if you can feel that you ought to,” Sir Stephen added, unpleasant reminiscences of what his son had said intruding into his frank good nature. “I wish you no ill, I’m sure; I wish you hearty good luck. And, my men, as you have undertaken to escort me to my brother’s, I desire that you’ll go on with me, that I may wish you no ill. Come! don’t keep me here, perched in the cold.”
His half-careless, half-authoritative, and wholly kind tone had the desired effect; the barouche was dragged on again, and the mob, to a man, followed after it, setting up their cheers again.
“Thank you, Sir Stephen,” said Mr. Carlton, throwing back the words as he resumed his walk between the policemen.
A minute more, and there was another interruption; of sound, at any rate. A band, whence hunted up on the spur of the moment, the excited South Wennock natives, or perhaps Mrs. Fitch, alone could tell, came into sight and hearing, to welcome Sir Stephen to his own town.
“A band!” he groaned, sinking into the corner of the carriage. “For me! What on earth do they take me for. People must have gone mad to-night.”
Frederick could not stand that. He had had enough, as it was. Jumping out at the risk of all consequences, he got away with a laugh, leaving Sir Stephen to make the best of it.
But the band had not come to a proper understanding with itself. In point of fact, it had been enjoying a sharp quarrel. The one half of it being of opinion that the welcoming strains to Sir Stephen should be of a personal character and significance, such as “See the Conquering Hero comes,” the other half holding that the music should partake more of a national nature, and suggested “Rule Britannia.” As neither side would give way, each played its own tune, a convenient way of showing independence. The result, as Sir Stephen’s ears testified, was unique; the more especially as each division played its loudest, hoping to drown the noise of the adversary.
And thus, amidst cheering, shouting, running, laughing, and remonstrating, Sir Stephen Grey was drawn in state to the house of his brother—Sir Stephen, who had been hunted from the town but a few short years before.
And Mr. Carlton, who had been the original cause of it all, and had certainly done his part in the hunting, was conducted by his attendants to his house of sojourn for the night; a strong place, popularly called in South Wennock the Lock-up.
CHAPTER LVIII.MR. POLICEMAN BOWLER’S SELF-DOUBT.
The lock-up in South Wennock was one of the institutions of the days gone by. The new police station—new, speaking by comparison—was a small, confined place, and remanded prisoners were still conveyed to the lock-up until they should be consigned to the county prison. The lock-up, on the contrary, was a good-sized habitation, containing five or six rooms—one of them an ugly cell enough—and all on the ground floor; for it was built somewhat after the manner of a huge barn, which had been divided into compartments afterwards. The building had never had any other name than Lock-up in the memory of South Wennock, and it was situated at the end of the town, near Mr. Carlton’s residence.
He, Mr. Carlton, was conducted to this place. In the days gone by he had occasionally been called into it to visit sick prisoners; from his proximity to the spot he was nearly always sent for when a doctor was required, in preference to Mr. Grey, who lived farther off. What a contrast, that time and this! The police, deferent to Mr. Carlton yet, but feeling their responsibility, marshalled him into the identical cell spoken of, and bowed to him as he went in. Mr. Carlton knew the room, and drew in his lips, but he said nothing. None but criminals accused of very heinous crimes were ever put into it; it was called the strong room, and was supposed to be a security against any chance of escape, from the fact of its possessing no windows. In fact, once locked into this compartment, there was no chance of it whatever.
The first thing the police did was to search Mr. Carlton, apologising as they did so for its being the “custom.” He offered no resistance; he seemed rather inclined to joke than otherwise. Barely was this done, when Lawyer Billiter arrived, and was allowed to be closeted with the prisoner.
“And now,” said Mr. Carlton, beginning upon the subject that, to his mind, was the greatest puzzle of all, as he sat down on the only chair the room contained, and the lawyer made himself content with the edge of the iron bedstead, “be so good as tell me, the first thing, where that letter came from.”
“I did tell you when we were in the hall; it was found in your iron safe.”
“That’s impossible,” returned Mr. Carlton; “it never was in the safe.”
“Look here, Carlton,” returned the lawyer; “it’s of no good mincing matters to me. I can never pull a client out of any mess whatever, if I am kept in the dark.”
“It is I who am kept in the dark,” said Mr. Carlton. “I am telling you the truth when I say that the letter never was in my safe at all, and that its production is to me utterly incomprehensible.”
“But it was in your safe,” persisted Lawyer Billiter. “If you did not know of it, that’s another matter: it was certainly there; your wife, Lady Laura, got it out of it.”
“The tale is this,” said the lawyer, speaking without any reserve, for he could not divest himself of the idea that Mr. Carlton did know the facts. “Her ladyship has had some jealous feeling upon her lately with regard to———; but I needn’t go into that. She suspected you of some escapade or other, it seems, and thought she should like to see what you kept in that safe; and she went down one night—only a night or so ago—and got it open, and fished out this letter, and recognised it for the handwriting of her lost sister Clarice. She had no idea of its meaning; she supposed it had got into one of your envelopes by some unaccountable mistake; but she showed it to Lady Jane Chesney, and Lady Jane showed it to the woman Smith. And she, Smith, it is who has done all the mischief.”
Mr. Carlton gazed with open eyes, in which there was now more of speculative reminiscence than of wonder. For the first time it had occurred to him that there was a possibility of his having put up the wrong letter that long past night; that he might have burnt the letter from his father, and kept the dangerous one. A strange sort of pang shot through his heart. Was it his wife, then, who had been the traitor?—his wife whom he had, in his fashion, certainly loved.
“And Lady Laura made the letter public!” he exclaimed, breaking a long pause; and Mr. Billiter could not help remarking the tone of bitter pain in which the words were spoken.
“Not intending to injure you. She had no idea what the letter could mean; and, as I say, thought it had got into your possession by some mistake. She showed it to Lady Jane only because it was the handwriting of her sister Clarice.”
“I never knew it,” he said, in a dreamy tone; “I never knew it.” But whether he meant that he never knew Clarice was her sister, or that he never knew that the letter was amidst his papers, must be left to conjecture. Mr. Billiter resumed.
“Nothing would have been known of the precise manner in which the letter came to light, but for Lady Laura’s self-reproach when she found the letter had led to your arrest. Just after you were taken to-day, Mother Pepperfly was at your house—by what accident I’m sure I don’t know—and Lady Jane Chesney entered while she was there. Lady Laura broke into a storm of self-reproach in her sister’s arms, confessing how she had procured a skeleton key, and picked the lock of your safe, and so found the letter. The fat old woman heard it all, and came forth with it. I met her, and she told me; and it seems the next she met was one of the police, and she told him, and he went straight up to Drone, and imparted it to him: and that’s how it got to the ears of the magistrates. It seems as if the hand of Fate had been at work over the letter,” concluded Lawyer Billiter, somewhat irascibly.
Perhaps the “hand of Fate” had been at work with the letter, though in a different way from what Mr. Billiter meant. He had but spoken in the carelessness of the moment’s vexation. What would he have said, had he known how strangely the letter had been preserved, when Mr. Carlton had all along thought it was destroyed?
Nothing more could be done until the morning, and Mr. Billiter wished his client good night. Some gentlemen—former acquaintances—called to see Mr. Carlton: he was not yet abandoned; but the officials declined to admit any one to his presence, save his lawyer, civilly saying it was not the custom at the lock-up. Mr. Carlton was asked what he would like for supper; but he said he preferred not to take any supper, and requested the use of writing materials. They were supplied him, together with a small table to write upon, and the further use of the lamp, which latter favour would most likely not have been accorded to a prisoner of less account. In fact, the police could not all at once learn to treat Mr. Carlton as a prisoner; and perhaps it might be excused to them, considering the position he had, up to the last twelve hours, held at South Wennock, and that he was as yet only under remand.
There was a youngish man who had rather lately joined the force. His name was Bowler. Mr. Carlton had attended him in an illness since, and been very kind to him, and Bowler was now especially inclined to be deferent and attentive to the prisoner. He entered the room quite late at night, the last thing, to inquire whether the prisoner wanted anything, and saw on the table a letter addressed to the Lady Laura Carlton.
“Did you want it delivered to her ladyship to-night, sir?” asked the man.
“Oh, no,” said Mr. Carlton; “to-morrow morning will do. Let it be sent the first thing, Bowler.”
So the man left him for the night, double-locking and barring the door, after civilly wishing him good rest: which, under the circumstances, might perhaps be regarded as a superfluous compliment. It was this same attentive official—and the man really did wish to be attentive to Mr. Carlton, and to soothe his incarceration by any means not strictly illegitimate—who was the first to enter the cell in the morning. He was coming with an offer of early coffee; but the prisoner seemed to be in a fast sleep.
“No cause to wake him up just yet,” thought Bowler; “he can have another hour of it. Perhaps he haven’t long got to sleep.”
He was silently stealing out of the cell again when he remembered the letter for Lady Laura which Mr. Carlton had wished delivered early. The man turned, took it from the table, where it still lay, and carried it to an officer, older and more responsible than himself.
“I suppose I may go with it?” said he, showing the letter. “Mr. Carlton said he wanted it took the first thing in the morning. He ain’t awake yet.”
The older one laid hold of the letter, and turned it over and over. Every little matter connected with such a prisoner as Mr. Carlton bore an interest even for these policemen. The envelope was securely fastened down with its gum. If a thought crossed the officer that he should like to unfasten it, and see what was written there,—if an idea arose that it might be in his duty to examine any letter of the prisoner’s before sending it out, he did not act upon it.
“You may take it at once,” he said.
But policemen, however favourably they may be disposed to prisoners under their charge, are very rarely inclined to forego the comfort of their own meals, where there’s a possibility of getting them; and Bowler thought he might just as well eat his roll and drink his coffee before he started, as not. This accomplished over the stove of the lock-up, he went out of that unpopular building, asking a question as he went.
“Am I to wait and bring back any answer?”
“Yes, if there is one. You can inquire.”
Mr. Bowler went down the street, stoically self-possessed to appearance, but full of importance inwardly at being the porter of the letter which was hidden from the gaze of public curiosity in a safe pocket. It was a regular winter’s morning, a little frosty, the sky dull and cloudy, with a patch of blue here and there. South Wennock street was already alive with early bustle: every soul in the place had resolved to obtain a footing inside the town hall that day, however unsuccessful they might have been the previous one; and they probably thought that the earlier they got up, the more chance there was of their accomplishing it.
Mr. Bowler went through Mr. Carlton’s gate and gave two knocks and a ring at his front door, after the manner of the London postmen. The servant who answered it was Jonathan.
“Can I see Lady Laura Carlton?”
“No,” said Jonathan, and shook his head. With so uncompromising a denial, Mr. Bowler did not see his way quite clear to get to her ladyship and to gratify his own self-importance by answering any questions she might put to him. “Could this be give to her at once then?” said he; “and say if there’s any answer I shall be happy to take it back to Mr. Carlton.”
“My lady’s not here,” said the man. “She’s at Cedar Lodge. She went there yesterday evening with Lady Jane.”
Mr. Bowler stood a moment while he digested the news. He then returned the letter to its hiding-place, preparatory to proceeding to Cedar Lodge. Jonathan arrested him as he was turning away.
“I say, Mr. Bowler, will it turn bad again master, do you think?” he asked, with an anxious face. “If you don’t mind saying?”
Mr. Bowler condescendingly replied that it might or it mightn’t: these charges was always ticklish, though folks did sometimes come out of them triumphant.
With that, he resumed his march to Cedar Lodge, where Lady Laura was. He told his business to Judith, and was admitted to the presence of her mistress. Jane was in the breakfast-room, doing what Mr. Bowler had recently done—drinking a cup of coffee. She had not been in bed, for Laura had remained in a state of excitement all night; now bewailing her husband and reproaching herself as the cause of all this misery; now casting hard words to him for his treachery in the days gone by. There was one advantage in this excitement: that it would spend itself the sooner. Passion with Laura, of whatever nature, was hot and uncontrollable while it lasted, but it never lasted very long.
Calm, gentle, pale, her manner subdued even more than usual with the dark distress that was upon them, what a contrast Jane presented to her impulsive sister! As Mr. Bowler spoke to her, he seemed to have entered into a calmer world. Half that night had been passed, by Jane, with One who can give tranquillity in the darkest moments.
“Mr. Carlton desired that it should be sent to Lady Laura the first thing this morning, my lady," said the man, standing with his glazed hat in his hand. "So I came off with it at once."
Jane received the letter from him and looked at its address. "Is—is Mr. Carlton pretty well this morning?" she asked, in a low tone.
"Mr. Carlton's not awake yet, my lady. He seemed very well last night."
"Not awake!" involuntarily exclaimed Jane, scarcely believing it within the range of possibility that Mr. Carlton could sleep at all with that dreadful charge upon him.
"Leastways, he wasn't awake when I come out of the lock-up," returned Bowler, somewhat qualifying his words. "We often do find our prisoners sleep late in the morning, my lady; some of them only gets to sleep when they ought to be awaking."
Jane could not resist another question. In spite of her long-rooted and unaccountable dislike to Mr. Carlton, in spite of this dreadful discovery, she pitied him from her heart, as a humane Christian woman must pity such criminals.
"Does he—appear to feel it very much, Bowler?" she asked, in a low tone. "To be overwhelmed by the thought of his position?"
"We didn't notice nothing of that, my lady," was the man's answer—and it may as well be remarked that he had been engaged in a little matter of business with Lady Jane Chesney some three or four months before: the son of a poor woman in whom she was interested having got into trouble concerning certain tempting apples in a garden on the Rise. "He was quite brisk yesterday evening when he come in, my lady: there didn't seem no difference in him at all from ord'nary. Of course it have got to be proved yet whether he did it or not."
Jane sighed, and left him to carry the letter to Laura, telling him she would bring back the answer if there was any. She had hesitated for a moment whether to give it to her at all, lest it might add to her state of excitement. But she felt that she had no right to keep it back. Who, in a case like this, the law excepted, could intercept a communication between a husband and wife?
Laura—it might be that she had heard the policeman in the house, was sitting up in bed in a dressing-gown, with wild dark eyes and a crimson face. Jane would have broken the news to her gently—that there was a letter from Mr. Carlton—and so have prepared her to receive it; but Laura snatched the letter from Jane's hand and tore it open.
"Forgive me, Laura, for the disgrace and wretchedness this trouble will entail upon you. Full of perplexity and doubt as this moment is, it is of you I think, more than of myself. Whatever I may have done wrong in the past, as connected with this matter, I did it for your sake. With the production of the certificate brought forward to-day, it would seem to be useless of me to deny that I married Clarice Beauchamp. But mind! whatever confession I may make to you, I make none to the world; let them fight out the truth for themselves if they can. I never knew her but as Clarice Beauchamp; I never knew that she had claim to a higher position in life than that of a governess. She was always utterly silent to me on the subject of her family and connections, and I assumed that she was an orphan. I admired Miss Beauchamp; I was foolish enough to marry her secretly; and not until I was afterwards introduced to you, did I find out that I had mistaken admiration for love.
"How passionately I grew to love you, I leave you to remember: you have not forgotten it. I was already scheming in my heart the ways and means by which my hasty marriage might be dissolved, when she forced herself down to South Wennock. The news came upon me like a thunderbolt; the same spot contained her and you, and in the dread of discovery, the fear that you might come to know I had already a wife, I went mad. Laura, hear me! it is the honest truth, so far as I have ever since, looking back, believed———that I went mad in my desperation.
"And there's the whole. When my senses came to me—and they came the same night—I awoke from what seemed an impossible dream. All that could be done then was to guard, if I might, the secret, and to put on an armour against the whole human race, a case of steel to stand between myself and the outer world.
"It is you, Laura, who have at length brought discovery upon me. Oh, why could you not have trusted me wholly? Whatever clouds there might have been in our married life, I declare upon my honour that they had passed, and any late suspicions you may have entertained were utterly groundless. Had you come honestly to me and said 'I want to see what you keep in that safe in the drug-room,' I would have given you the key heartily. There was nothing in the safe, so far as I knew, that you and all the world might not have seen; nothing that could work me harm; for this letter, that it seems you found, I had thought burnt long ago. But, having found the letter, why did you not bring it to me and ask an explanation, rather than give it to Lady Jane? surely a husband should stand nearer than a sister! I might not have told you the truth; it is not likely that I should; but I should have explained sufficient to satisfy you, and on my part I should have learnt the inconceivable fact, that Clarice Beauchamp was Clarice Chesney. Now and then there has been something in Lucy's face—ay, and in yours—that has put me in mind of her. "But, my darling, if I allude to this—your finding of the letter—I do it not to reproach you. On the contrary, I write only to give you my full and free forgiveness. The betrayal of me, I am certain, was not intentional, and I know that you are feeling it keenly. I forgive you, Laura, with all my loving heart. "I could not go to rest without this word of explanation. Think of me with as little harshness as you can, Laura.
"Your unhappy husband,
Lady Jane returned to the policeman. There was no answer then, she said; but bade him tell Mr. Carlton that Lady Laura would write to him in the course of the day.
Mr. Policeman Bowler recommenced his promenade back again. Inclining his head with gracious condescension from side to side when the public greeted him, as it was incumbent on an officer confidentially engaged in so important a cause to do. Half a hundred would have assailed him with questions and remarks, but Mr. Bowler knew his dignity better than to respond, and bore on, his blue body erect, and his glazed head in the air.
Little Wilkes the barber was standing at his shop door and ran up to him; the two were on terms of private friendship, and Mr. Bowler was sometimes regaling himself surreptitiously with supper in the barber's back parlour when he was supposed to be on zealous duty. "I say, Bowler, do tell! Is the hour ten or eleven that the case is coming on?"
"Ten, sharp," replied Bowler. "I'll get you a place if you are there an hour beforehand."
As he spoke the last words, and went on, a slight turning in the street brought him in view of the lock-up. And there appeared to be some sort of stir going on within that official building. A hum of voices could be heard even at this distance, and three or four persons were dashing out of it in a state of commotion.
"What's up?" cried Mr. Bowler to himself, as he increased his speed. "What's up?" he repeated aloud, catching hold of the first runner he met.
"It's something about Mr. Carlton," was the answer. "They are saying he has escaped. There seems a fine hubbub in the lock-up."
Escaped! Mr. Carlton escaped! Mr. Policeman Bowler did the least sensible thing he could have done while a prisoner was escaping: he stood still and stared. A question was rushing wildly through his mind: could he—he himself, have left by misadventure the strong room unbarred?