The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 106/Griffith Gaunt; or, Jealousy
GRIFFITH GAUNT; OR, JEALOUSY.
He went straight to the stable, and saddled Black Dick.
But, in the very act, his nature revolted. What, turn his back on her the moment he had got hold of her money, to take to the other. He could not do it.
He went back to her room, and came so suddenly that he caught her crying. He asked her what was the matter.
"Nothing," said she, with a sigh: "only a woman's foolish misgivings. I was afraid perhaps you would not come back. Forgive me."
"No fear of that," said he. "However, I have taken a resolve not to go to-day. If I go to-morrow, I shall be just in time; and Dick wants a good day's rest."
Mrs. Gaunt said nothing; but her expressive face was triumphant.
Griffith and she took a walk together; and he, who used to be the more genial of the two, was dull, and she full of animation.
This whole day she laid herself out to bewitch her husband, and put him in high spirits.
It was up-hill work; but when such a woman sets herself in earnest to delight a man, she reads our sex a lesson in the art, that shows us we are all babies at it.
However, it was at supper she finally conquered.
Here the lights, her beauty set off with art, her deepening eyes, her satin skin, her happy excitement, her wit and tenderness, and joyous sprightliness, enveloped Griffith in an atmosphere of delight, and drove everything out of his head but herself; and with this, if the truth must be told, the sparkling wines co-operated.
Griffith plied the bottle a little too freely. But Mrs. Gaunt, on this one occasion, had not the heart to check him. The more he toasted her, the more uxorious he became, and she could not deny herself even this joy; but, besides, she had less of the prudent wife in her just then than of the weak, indulgent mother. Anything rather than check his love: she was greedy of it.
At last, however, she said to him, "Sweetheart, I shall go to bed; for, I see, if I stay longer, I shall lead thee into a debauch. Be good now; drink no more when I am gone. Else I'll say thou lovest thy bottle more than thy wife."
He promised faithfully. But, when she was gone, modified his pledge by drinking just one bumper to her health, which bumper let in another; and, when at last he retired to rest, he was in that state of mental confusion wherein the limbs appear to have a memory independent of the mind.
In this condition do some men's hands wind up their watches, the mind taking no appreciable part in the ceremony.
By some such act of what physicians call "organic memory," Griffith's feet carried him to the chamber he had slept in a thousand times, and not into the one Mrs. Rider had taken him to the night before.
The next morning he came down rather late for him, and found himself treated with a great access of respect by the servants.
His position was no longer doubtful; he was the master of the house.
Mrs. Gaunt followed in due course, and sat at breakfast with him, looking young and blooming as Hebe, and her eye never off him long.
She had lived temperately, and had not yet passed the age when happiness can restore a woman's beauty and brightness in a single day.
As for him, he was like a man in a heavenly dream: he floated in the past and the present: the recent and the future seemed obscure and distant, and comparatively in a mist.
But that same afternoon, after a most affectionate farewell, and many promises to return as soon as ever he had discharged his obligations, Griffith Gaunt started for the "Packhorse," to carry to Mercy Leicester, alias Vint, the money Catharine Gaunt had saved by self-denial and economy.
And he went south a worse man than he came.
When he left Mercy Leicester, he was a bigamist in law, but not at heart. Kate was dead to him: he had given her up forever, and was constant and true to his new wife.
But now he was false to Mercy, yet not true to Kate; and, curiously enough, it was a day or two passed with his lawful wife that had demoralized him. His unlawful wife had hitherto done nothing but improve his character.
A great fault once committed is often the first link in a chain of acts that look like crimes, but are, strictly speaking, consequences.
This man, blinded at first by his own foible, and after that the sport of circumstances, was single-hearted by nature; and his conscience was not hardened. He desired earnestly to free himself and both his wives from the cruel situation; but to do this, one of them, he saw, must be abandoned entirely; and his heart bled for her.
A villain or a fool would have relished the situation; many men would have dallied with it; but, to do this erring man justice, he writhed and sorrowed under it, and sincerely desired to end it.
And this was why he prized Kate's money so. It enabled him to render a great service to her he had injured worse than he had the other, to her he saw he must abandon.
But this was feeble comfort, after all. He rode along a miserable man; none the less wretched and remorseful, that, ere he got into Lancashire, he saw his way clear. This was his resolve: to pay old Vint's debts with Kate's money; take the "Packhorse," get it made over to Mercy, give her the odd two hundred pounds and his jewels, and fly. He would never see her again; but would return home, and get the rest of the two thousand pounds from Kate, and send it Mercy by a friend, who should tell her he was dead, and had left word with his relations to send her all his substance.
At last the "Packhorse" came in sight. He drew rein, and had half a mind to turn back; but, instead of that, he crawled on, and very sick and cold he felt.
Many a man has marched to the scaffold with a less quaking heart than he to the "Packhorse."
His dejection contrasted strangely with the warm reception he met from everybody there. And the house was full of women; and they seemed, somehow, all cock-a-hoop, and filled with admiration of him.
"Where is she?" said he, faintly.
"Hark to the poor soul!" said a gossip. "Dame Vint, where's thy daughter? gone out a-walking be-like?"
At this, the other women present chuckled and clucked.
"I'll bring you to her," said Mrs. Vint; "but prithee be quiet and reasonable; for to be sure she is none too strong."
There was some little preparation, and then Griffith was ushered into Mercy's room, and found her in bed, looking a little pale, but sweeter and comelier than ever. She had the bedclothes up to her chin.
"You look wan, my poor lass," said he; "what ails ye?"
"Naught ails me now thou art come," said she, lovingly.
Griffith put the bag on the table. "There," said he, "there's five hundred pounds in gold. I come not to thee empty-handed."
"Nor I to thee," said Mercy, with a heavenly smile. "See!"
And she drew down the bedclothes a little, and showed the face of a babe scarcely three days old,—a little boy.
She turned in the bed, and tried to hold him up to his father, and said, "Here's my treasure for thee!" And the effort, the flush on her cheek, and the deep light in her dove-like eyes, told plainly that the poor soul thought she had contributed to their domestic wealth something far richer than Griffith had with his bag of gold.
The father uttered an ejaculation, and came to her side, and, for a moment, Nature overpowered everything else. He kissed the child; he kissed Mercy again and again.
"Now God be praised for both," said he, passionately; "but most for thee, the best wife, the truest friend—" Here, thinking of her virtues, and the blow he had come to strike her, he broke down, and was almost choked with emotion; whereupon Mrs. Vint exerted female authority, and bundled him out of the room. "Is that the way to carry on at such an a time?" said she. "'T was enow to upset her altogether. O, but you men have little sense in women's matters. I looked to you to give her courage, not to set her off into hysterics after a manner. Nay, keep up her heart, or keep your distance, say I, that am her mother."
Griffith took this hint, and ever after took pity on Mercy's weak condition; and, suspending the fatal blow, did all he could to restore her to health and spirits.
Of course, to do that, he must deceive her; and so his life became a lie.
For, hitherto, she had never looked forward much; but now her eyes were always diving into futurity; and she lay smiling and discussing the prospects of her boy; and Griffith had to sit by her side, and see her gnaw the boy's hand, and kiss his feet, and anticipate his brilliant career. He had to look and listen with an aching heart, and assent with feigned warmth, and an inward chill of horror and remorse.
One Drummond, a travelling artist, called; and Mercy, who had often refused to sit to him, consented now; "for," she said, "when he grows up, he shall know how his parents looked in their youth, the very year their darling was born." So Griffith had to sit with her, and excellent likenesses the man produced; but a horrible one of the child. And Griffith thought, "Poor soul! a little while and this picture will be all that shall be left to thee of me."
For all this time he was actually transacting the preliminaries of separation. He got a man of law to make all sure. The farm, the stock, the furniture and good-will of the "Packhorse," all these he got assigned to Mercy Leicester for her own use, in consideration of three hundred and fifty pounds, whereof three hundred were devoted to clearing the concern of its debts, the odd fifty was to sweeten the pill to Harry Vint.
When the deed came to be executed, Mercy was surprised, and uttered a gentle remonstrance. "What have I to do with it?" said she. "'T is thy money, not mine."
"No matter," said Griffith; "I choose to have it so."
"Your will is my law," said Mercy.
"Besides," said Griffith, "the old folk will not feel so sore, nor be afraid of being turned out, if it is in thy name."
"And that is true," said Mercy. "Now who had thought of that, but my good man?" And she threw her arms lovingly round his neck, and gazed on him adoringly.
But his lion-like eyes avoided her dove-like eyes; and an involuntary shudder ran through him.
The habit of deceiving Mercy led to a consequence he had not anticipated. It tightened the chain that held him. She opened his eyes more and more to her deep affection, and he began to fear she would die if he abandoned her.
And then her present situation was so touching. She had borne him a lovely boy; that must be abandoned too, if he left her; and somehow the birth of this child had embellished the mother; a delicious pink had taken the place of her rustic bloom; and her beauty was more refined and delicate. So pure, so loving, so fair, so maternal, to wound her heart now, it seemed like stabbing an angel.
One day succeeded to another, and still Griffith had not the heart to carry out his resolve. He temporized; he wrote to Kate that he was detained by the business; and he stayed on and on, strengthening his gratitude and his affection, and weakening his love for the absent, and his resolution; till, at last, he became so distracted and divided in heart, and so demoralized, that he began to give up the idea of abandoning Mercy, and babbled to himself about fate and destiny, and decided that the most merciful course would be to deceive both women. Mercy was patient. Mercy was unsuspicious. She would content herself with occasional visits, if he could only feign some plausible tale to account for long absences.
Before he got into this mess, he was a singularly truthful person; but now a lie was nothing to him. But, for that matter, many a man has been first made a liar by his connection with two women; and by degrees has carried his mendacity into other things.
However, though now blessed with mendacity, he was cursed with a lack of invention; and sorely puzzled how to live at Hernshaw, yet visit the "Packhorse."
The best thing he could hit upon was to pretend to turn bagman; and so Mercy would believe he was travelling all over England, when all the time he was quietly living at Hernshaw.
And perhaps these long separations might prepare her heart for a final parting, and so let in his original plan a few years hence.
He prepared this manœuvre with some art: he told her, one day, he had been to Lancaster, and there fallen in with a friend, who had as good as promised him the place of a commercial traveller for a mercantile house there.
"A traveller!" said Mercy. "Heaven forbid! If you knew how I wearied for you when you went to Cumberland!"
"To Cumberland! How know you I went thither?"
"O, I but guessed that; but now I know it, by your face. But go where thou wilt, the house is dull directly. Thou art our sunshine. Isn't he, my poppet?"
"Well, well; if it kept me too long from thee, I could give it up. But, child, we must think of young master. You could manage the inn, and your mother the farm, without me; and I should be earning money on my side. I want to make a gentleman of him."
"Anything for him," said Mercy: "anything in the world." But the tears stood in her eyes.
In furtherance of this deceit, Griffith did one day actually ride to Lancaster, and slept there. He wrote to Kate from that town, to say he was detained by a slight illness, but hoped to be home in a week: and the next day brought Mercy home some ribbons, and told her he had seen the merchant, and his brother, and they had made him a very fair offer. "But I've a week to think of it," said he; "so there's no hurry."
Mercy fixed her eyes on him in a very peculiar way, and made no reply. You must know that something very curious had happened whilst Griffith was gone to Lancaster.
A travelling pedler, passing by, was struck with the name on the signboard. "Hallo!" said he, "why here's a namesake of mine; I'll have a glass of his ale any way."
So he came into the public room, and called for a glass; taking care to open his pack, and display his inviting wares. Harry Vint served him. "Here's your health," said the pedler. "You must drink with me, you must."
"And welcome," said the old man.
"Well," said the pedler, "I do travel five counties; but for all that, you are the first namesake I have found. I am Thomas Leicester, too, as sure as you are a living sinner."
The old man laughed, and said, "Then no namesake of mine are you; for they call me Harry Vint. Thomas Leicester, he that keeps this inn now, is my son-in-law: he is gone to Lancaster this morning."
The pedler said that was a pity, he should have liked to see his namesake, and drink a glass with him.
"Come again to-morrow," said Harry Vint, ironically. "Dame," he cried, "come hither. Here's another Thomas Leicester for ye, wants to see our one."
Mrs. Vint turned her head, and inspected the pedler from afar, as if he was some natural curiosity.
"Where do you come from, young man?" said she.
"Well, I came from Kendal last; but I am Cumberland born."
"Why, that is where t'other comes from," suggested Paul Carrick, who was once more a frequenter of the house.
"Like enow," said Mrs. Vint.
With that she dropped the matter as one of no consequence, and retired. But she went straight to Mercy, in the parlor, and told her there was a man in the kitchen that called himself Thomas Leicester.
"Well, mother?" said Mercy, with high indifference, for she was trying new socks on King Baby.
"He comes from Cumberland."
"Well, to be sure, names do run in counties."
"That is true; but, seems to me, he favors your man: much of a height, and—There, do just step into the kitchen a moment."
"La, mother," said Mercy, "I don't desire to see any more Thomas Leicesters than my own: 'tis the man, not the name. Isn't it, my lamb?"
Mrs. Vint went back to the kitchen discomfited; but, with quiet pertinacity, she brought Thomas Leicester into the parlor, pack and all.
"There, Mercy," said she, "lay out a penny with thy husband's namesake."
Mercy did not reply, for at that moment Thomas Leicester caught sight of Griffith's portrait, and gave a sudden start, and a most extraordinary look besides.
Both the women's eyes happened to be upon him, and they saw at once that he knew the original.
"You know my husband?" said Mercy Vint, after a while.
"Not I," said Leicester, looking askant at the picture.
"Don't tell no lies," said Mrs. Vint. "You do know him well." And she pointed her assertion by looking at the portrait.
"O, I know him whose picture hangs there, of course," said Leicester.
"Well, and that is her husband."
"O, that is her husband, is it?" And he was unaffectedly puzzled.
Mercy turned pale. "Yes, he is my husband," said she, "and this is our child. Can you tell me anything about him? for he came a stranger to these parts. Belike you are a kinsman of his?"
"So they say."
This reply puzzled both women.
"Any way," said the pedler, "you see we are marked alike." And he showed a long black mole on his forehead.
Mercy was now as curious as she had been indifferent. "Tell me all about him," said she: "how comes it that he is a gentleman and thou a pedler?"
"Well, because my mother was a gypsy, and his a gentlewoman."
"What brought him to these parts?"
"Trouble, they say."
"Nay, I know not." This after a slight but visible hesitation.
"But you have heard say."
"Well, I am always on the foot, and don't bide long enough in one place to learn all the gossip. But I do remember hearing he was gone to sea: and that was a lie, for he had settled here, and married you. I'fackins, he might have done worse. He has got a bonny buxom wife, and a rare fine boy, to be sure."
And now the pedler was on his guard, and determined he would not be the one to break up the household he saw before him, and afflict the dove-eyed wife and mother. He was a good-natured fellow, and averse to make mischief with his own hands. Besides, he took for granted Griffith loved his new wife better than the old one; and, above all, the punishment of bigamy was severe, and was it for him to get the Squire indicted, and branded in the hand for a felon?
So the women could get nothing more out of him; he lied, evaded, shuffled, and feigned utter ignorance; pleading, adroitly enough, his vagrant life.
All this, however, aroused vague suspicions in Mrs. Vint's mind, and she went and whispered them to her favorite, Paul Carrick. "And, Paul," said she, "call for what you like, and score it to me; only treat this pedler till he leaks out summut: to be sure he'll tell a man more than he will us."
Paul entered with zeal into this commission: treated the pedler to a chop, and plied him well with the best ale.
All this failed to loose the pedler's tongue at the time, but it muddled his judgment: on resuming his journey, he gave his entertainer a wink. Carrick rose and followed him out.
"You seem a decent lad," said the pedler, "and a good-hearted one. Wilt do me a favor?"
Carrick said he would, if it lay in his power.
"O, it is easy enow," said the pedler. "'T is just to give young Thomas Leicester, into his own hand, this here trifle as soon as ever he comes home." And he handed Carrick a hard substance wrapped up in paper. Carrick promised.
"Ay, ay, lad," said the pedler, "but see you play fair, and give it him unbeknown. Now don't you be so simple as show it to any of the womenfolk. D' ye understand?"
"All right," said Carrick, knowingly. And so the boon companions for a day shook hands and parted.
And Carrick took the little parcel straight to Mrs. Vint, and told her every word the pedler had said.
And Mrs. Vint took the little parcel straight to Mercy, and told her what Carrick said the pedler had said.
And the pedler went off flushed with beer and self-complacency; for he thought he had drawn the line precisely; had faithfully discharged his promise to his lady and benefactress, but not so as to make mischief in another household.
Such was the power of Ale—in the last century.
Mercy undid the paper and found the bullet, on which was engraved
"I LOVE KATE."
As she read these words a knife seemed to enter her heart, the pang was so keen.
But she soon took herself to task. "Thou naughty woman," said she. "What! jealous of the dead?"
She wrapped the bullet up; put it carefully away; had a good cry; and was herself again.
But all this set her watching Griffith, and reading his face. She had subtle, vague misgivings, and forbade her mother to mention the pedler's visit to Griffith yet awhile. Womanlike she preferred to worm out the truth.
On the evening of his return from Lancaster, as he was smoking his pipe, she quietly tested him. She fixed her eyes on him, and said, "One was here to-day that knows thee, and brought thee this." She then handed him the bullet, and watched his face.
Griffith undid the paper carelessly enough; but, at sight of the bullet, uttered a loud cry, and his eyes seemed ready to start out of his head.
He turned as pale as ashes, and stammered piteously, "What? what? what d'ye mean? In Heaven's name, what is this? How? Who?"
Mercy was surprised, but also much concerned at his distress; and tried to soothe him. She also asked him piteously, whether she had done wrong to give it him. "God knows," said she, "'t is no business of mine to go and remind thee of her thou hast loved better mayhap than thou lovest me. But to keep it from thee, and she in her grave,—O, I had not the heart."
But Griffith's agitation increased instead of diminishing; and, even while she was trying to soothe him, he rushed wildly out of the room, and into the open air.
Mercy went, in perplexity and distress, and told her mother.
Mrs. Vint, not being blinded by affection, thought the whole thing had a very ugly look, and said as much. She gave it as her opinion that this Kate was alive, and had sent the token herself, to make mischief between man and wife.
"That shall she never," said Mercy, stoutly; but now her suspicions were thoroughly excited, and her happiness disturbed.
The next day, Griffith found her in tears. He asked her what was the matter. She would not tell him.
"You have your secrets," said she; "and so now I have mine."
Griffith became very uneasy.
For now Mercy was often in tears, and Mrs. Vint looked daggers at him.
All this was mysterious and unintelligible, and, to a guilty man, very alarming.
At last he implored Mercy to speak out. He wanted to know the worst.
Then Mercy did speak out. "You have deceived me," said she. "Kate is alive. This very morning, between sleeping and waking, you whispered her name; ay, false man, whispered it like a lover. You told me she was dead. But she is alive, and has sent you a reminder, and the bare sight of it hath turned your heart her way again. What shall I do? Why did you marry me, if you could not forget her? I did not want you to desert any woman for me. The desire of my heart was always for your happiness. But O Thomas, deceit and falsehood will not bring you happiness, no more than they will me. What shall I do? what shall I do?"
Her tears flowed freely, and Griffith sat down, and groaned with horror and remorse, beside her.
He had not the courage to tell her the horrible truth,—that Kate was his wife, and she was not.
"Do not thou afflict thyself," he muttered. "Of course, with you putting that bullet in my hand so sudden, it set my fancy a wandering back to other days."
"Ah!" said Mercy, "if it be no worse than that, there's little harm. But why did thy namesake start so at sight of thy picture?"
"My namesake!" cried Griffith, all aghast.
"Ay, he that brought thee that love-token,—Thomas Leicester. Nay, for very shame, feign not ignorance of him. Why, he hath thy very mole on his temple, and knew thy picture in a moment. He is thy half-brother; is he not?"
"I am a ruined man," cried Griffith, and sank into a chair without power of motion.
"God help me, what is all this?" cried Mercy. "O Thomas, Thomas, I could forgive thee aught but deceit: for both our sakes speak out, and tell me the worst. No harm shall come near thee while I live."
"How can I tell thee? I am an unfortunate man. The world will call me a villain; yet I am not a villain at heart. But who will believe me? I have broken the law. Thee I could trust, but not thy folk; they never loved me. Mercy, for pity's sake, when was that Thomas Leicester here?"
"Four days ago."
"Which way went he?"
"I hear he told Paul he was going to Cumberland."
"If he gets there before me, I shall rot in gaol."
"Now God forbid! O Thomas, then mount and ride after him."
"I will, and this very moment."
He saddled Black Dick, and loaded his pistols for the journey; but, ere he went, a pale face looked out into the yard, and a finger beckoned. It was Mercy. She bade him follow her. She took him to her room, where their child was sleeping; and then she closed and even locked the door.
"No soul can hear us," said she; "now look me in the face, and tell me God's truth. Who and what are you?"
Griffith shuddered at this exordium; he made no reply.
Mercy went to a box and took out an old shirt of his,—the one he wore when he first came to the "Packhorse." She brought it to him and showed him "G. G." embroidered on it with a woman's hair. (Ryder's.)
"Here are your initials," said she; "now leave useless falsehoods; be a man, and tell me your real name."
"My name is Griffith Gaunt."
Mercy, sick at heart, turned her head away; but she had the resolution to urge him on. "Go on," said she, in an agonized whisper: "if you believe in God and a judgment to come, deceive me no more. The truth, I say! the truth!"
"So be it," said Griffith, desperately: "when I have told thee what a villain I am, I can die at thy feet, and then thou wilt forgive me.
"Who is Kate?" was all she replied.
"Kate is my wife."
"I thought her false; who could think any other? appearances were so strong against her: others thought so beside me. I raised my hand to kill her; but she never winced. I trampled on him I believed her paramour: I fled, and soon I lay a-dying in this house for her sake. I told thee she was dead. Alas! I thought her dead to me. I went back to our house (it is her house) sore against the grain, to get money for thee and thine. Then she cleared herself, bright as the sun, and pure as snow. She was all in black for me; she had put by money, against I should come to my senses and need it. I told her I owed a debt in Lancashire, a debt of gratitude as well as money: and so I did. How have I repaid it? The poor soul forced five hundred pounds on me. I had much ado to keep her from bringing it hither with her own hands. O, villain! villain! Then I thought to leave thee, and send thee word I was dead, and heap money on thee. Money! But how could I? thou wast my benefactress, my more than wife. All the riches of the world can make no return to thee. What, what shall I do? Shall I fly with thee and thy child across the seas? Shall I go back to her? No; the best thing I can do is to take this good pistol, and let the life out of my dishonorable carcass, and free two honest women from me by one resolute act."
In his despair he cocked the pistol; and, at a word from Mercy, this tale had ended.
But the poor woman, pale and trembling, tottered across the room, and took it out of his hand. "I would not harm thy body, nor thy soul," she gasped. "Let me draw my breath and think."
She rocked herself to and fro in silence.
Griffith stood trembling like a criminal before his judge.
It was long ere she could speak, for anguish. Yet when she did speak, it was with a sort of deadly calm.
"Go tell the truth to her, as you have done to me; and, if she can forgive you, all the better for you. I can never forgive you, nor yet can harm you. My child! my child! Thy father is our ruin. O, begone, man, or the sight of you will kill us both."
Then he fell at her knees; kissed, and wept over her cold hand; and, in his pity and despair, offered to cross the seas with her and her child, and so repair the wrong he had done her.
"Tempt me not," she sobbed. "Go, leave me! None here shall ever know thy crime, but she whose heart thou hast broken, and ruined her good name."
He took her in his arms, in spite of her resistance, and kissed her passionately; but, for the first time, she shuddered at his embrace; and that gave him the power to leave her.
He rushed from her, all but distracted,[Pg 212] and rode away to Cumberland; but not to tell the truth to Kate, if he could possibly help it.
At this particular time, no man's presence was more desired in that county than Griffith Gaunt's.
And this I need not now be telling the reader, if I had related this story on the plan of a miscellaneous chronicle. But the affairs of the heart are so absorbing, that, even in a narrative, they thrust aside important circumstances of a less moving kind.
I must therefore go back a step, before I advance further. You must know that forty years before our Griffith Gaunt saw the light, another Griffith Gaunt was born in Cumberland: a younger son, and the family estate entailed; but a shrewd lad, who chose rather to hunt fortune elsewhere than to live in miserable dependence on his elder brother. His godfather, a city merchant, encouraged him, and he left Cumberland. He went into commerce, and in twenty years became a wealthy man,—so wealthy that he lived to look down on his brother's estate, which he had once thought opulence. His life was all prosperity, with a single exception; but that a bitter one. He laid out some of his funds in a fashionable and beautiful wife. He loved her before marriage; and, as she was always cold to him, he loved her more and more.
In the second year of their marriage she ran away from him; and no beggar in the streets of London was so miserable as the wealthy merchant.
It blighted the man, and left him a sore heart all his days. He never married again; and railed on all womankind for this one. He led a solitary life in London till he was sixty-nine; and then, all of a sudden, Nature, or accident, or both, changed his whole habits. Word came to him that the family estate, already deeply mortgaged, was for sale, and a farmer who had rented a principal farm on it, and held a heavy mortgage, had made the highest offer.
Old Griffith sent down Mr. Atkins, his solicitor, post haste, and snapped the estate out of that purchaser's hands.
When the lands and house had been duly conveyed to him, he came down, and his heart seemed to bud again, in the scenes of his childhood.
Finding the house small, and built in a valley instead of on rising ground, he got an army of bricklayers, and began to build a mansion with a rapidity unheard of in those parts; and he looked about for some one to inherit it.
The name of Gaunt had dwindled down to three, since he left Cumberland; but a rich man never lacks relations. Featherstonhaughs, and Underhills, and even Smiths, poured in, with parish registers in their laps, and proved themselves Gauntesses, and flattered and carneyed the new head of the family.
Then the perverse old gentleman felt inclined to look elsewhere. He knew he had a namesake at the other side of the county, but this namesake did not come near him.
This independent Gaunt excited his curiosity and interest. He made inquiries, and heard that young Griffith had just quarrelled with his wife, and gone away in despair.
Griffith senior took for granted that the fault lay with Mrs. Gaunt, and wasted some good sympathy on Griffith junior.
On further inquiry he learned that the truant was dependent on his wife. Then, argued the moneyed man, he would not run away from her but that his wound was deep.
The consequence of all this was, that he made a will very favorable to his absent and injured (?) namesake. He left numerous bequests; but made Griffith his residuary legatee; and, having settled this matter, urged on, and superintended his workmen.
Alas! just as the roof was going on, a narrower house claimed him, and he made good the saying of the wise bard,—
"Tu secanda marmora
Locas sub ipsum funus et sepulchri
Immemor struis domos."
The heir of his own choosing could not be found to attend his funeral; and Mr. Atkins, his solicitor, a very worthy man, was really hurt at this. With the quiet bitterness of a displeased attorney, he merely sent Mrs. Gaunt word her husband inherited something under the will, and she would do well to produce him, or else furnish him (Atkins) with proof of his decease.
Mrs. Gaunt was offended by this cavalier note, and replied very like a woman, and very unlike Business.
"I do not know where he is," said she, "nor whether he is alive or dead. Nor do I feel disposed to raise the hue and cry after him. But favor me with your address, and I shall let you know should I hear anything about him."
Mr. Atkins was half annoyed, half amused, at this piece of indifference. It never occurred to him that it might be all put on.
He wrote back to say that the estate was large, and, owing to the terms of the will, could not be administered without Mr. Griffith Gaunt; and, in the interest of the said Griffith Gaunt, and also of the other legatees, he really must advertise for him.
La Gaunt replied, that he was very welcome to advertise for whomsoever he pleased.
Mr. Atkins was a very worthy man; but human. To tell the truth, he was himself one of the other legatees. He inherited (and, to be just, had well deserved) four thousand guineas, under the will, and could not legally touch it without Griffith Gaunt. This little circumstance spurred his professional zeal.
Mr. Atkins advertised for Griffith Gaunt, in the London and Cumberland papers, and in the usual enticing form. He was to apply to Mr. Atkins, Solicitor, of Gray's Inn, and he would hear of something greatly to his advantage.
These advertisements had not been out a fortnight, when Griffith Gaunt came home, as I have related.
But Mr. Atkins had punished Mrs. Gaunt for her insouciance, by not informing her of the extent of her good fortune; so she merely told Griffith, casually, that old Griffith Gaunt had left him some money, and the solicitor, Mr. Atkins, could not get on without him. Even this information she did not vouchsafe until she had given him her £500, for she grudged Atkins the pleasure of supplying her husband with money.
However, as soon as Griffith left her, she wrote to Mr. Atkins to say that her husband had come home in perfect health, thank God; had only stayed two days, but was to return in a week.
When ten days had elapsed, Atkins wrote to inquire.
She replied he had not yet returned; and this went on till Mr. Atkins showed considerable impatience.
As for Mrs. Gaunt, she made light of the matter to Mr. Atkins; but, in truth, this new mystery irritated her and pained her deeply.
In one respect she was more unhappy than she had been before he came back at all. Then she was alone; her door was closed to commentators. But now, on the strength of so happy a reconciliation, she had re-entered the world, and received visits from Sir George Neville, and others; and, above all, had announced that Griffith would be back for good in a few days. So now his continued absence exposed her to sly questions from her own sex, to the interchange of glances between female visitors, as well as to the internal torture of doubt and suspense.
But what distracted her most was the view Mrs. Ryder took of the matter.
That experienced lady had begun to suspect some other woman was at the bottom of Griffith's conduct; and her own love for Griffith was now soured. Repeated disappointments and affronts, spretæque injuria formæ, had not quite extinguished it, but had mixed so much spite with it that she was equally ready to kiss or to stab him.
So she took every opportunity to instil into her mistress, whose confidence she had won at last, that Griffith was false to her.
"That is the way with these men that are so ready to suspect others. Take my word for it, Dame, he has carried your money to his leman. 'Tis still the honest woman that must bleed for some nasty trollop or other."
She enforced this theory by examples drawn from her own observations in families, and gave the very names; and drove Mrs. Gaunt almost mad with fear, anger, jealousy, and cruel suspense. She could not sleep, she could not eat; she was in a constant fever.
Yet before the world she battled it out bravely, and indeed none but Ryder knew the anguish of her spirit, and her passionate wrath.
At last there came a most eventful day.
Mrs. Gaunt had summoned all her pride and fortitude, and invited certain ladies and gentlemen to dine and sup.
She was one of the true Spartan breed, and played the hostess as well as if her heart had been at ease. It was an age in which the host struggled fiercely to entertain the guests; and Mrs. Gaunt was taxing all her powers of pleasing in the dining-room, when an unexpected guest strolled into the kitchen: the pedler, Thomas Leicester.
Jane welcomed him cordially, and he was soon seated at a table eating his share of the feast.
Presently Mrs. Ryder came down, dressed in her best, and looking handsomer than ever.
At sight of her, Tom Leicester's affection revived; and he soon took occasion to whisper an inquiry whether she was still single.
"Ay," said she, "and like to be."
"Waiting for the master still? Mayhap I could cure you of that complaint. But least said is soonest mended."
This mysterious hint showed Ryder he had a secret burning his bosom. The sly hussy said nothing just then, but plied him with ale and flattery; and, when he whispered a request for a private meeting out of doors, she cast her eyes down, and assented.
And in that meeting she carried herself so adroitly, that he renewed his offer of marriage, and told her not to waste her fancy on a man who cared neither for her nor any other she in Cumberland.
"Prove that to me," said Ryder, cunningly, "and may be I'll take you at your word."
The bribe was not to be resisted. Tom revealed to her, under a solemn promise of secrecy, that the Squire had got a wife and child in Lancashire; and had a farm and an inn, which latter he kept under the name of—Thomas Leicester.
In short, he told her, in his way, all the particulars I have told in mine.
Which told it the best will never be known in this world.
She led him on with a voice of very velvet. He did not see how her cheek paled and her eyes flashed jealous fury.
When she had sucked him dry, she suddenly turned on him, with a cold voice, and said, "I can't stay any longer with you just now. She will want me."
"You will meet me here again, lass?" said Tom, ruefully.
"Yes, for a minute, after supper."
She then left him, and went to Mrs. Gaunt's room, and sat crouching before the fire, all hate and bitterness.
What? he had left the wife he loved, and yet had not turned to her!
She sat there, waiting for Mrs. Gaunt, and nursing her vindictive fury, two mortal hours.
At last, just before supper, Mrs. Gaunt came up to her room, to cool her fevered hands and brow, and found this creature crouched by her fire, all in a heap, with pale cheek, and black eyes that glittered like basilisk's.
"What is the matter, child?" said Mrs. Gaunt. "Good heavens! what hath happened?"
"Dame!" said Ryder, sternly, "I have got news of him."
"News of him?" faltered Mrs. Gaunt. "Bad news?"
"I don't know whether to tell you or not," said Ryder, sulkily, but with a touch of human feeling.
"What cannot I bear? What have I not borne? Tell me the truth."
The words were stout, but she trembled all over in uttering them.
"Well, it is as I said, only worse. Dame, he has got a wife and child in another county; and no doubt been deceiving her, as he has us."
"A wife!" gasped Mrs. Gaunt, and one white hand clutched her bosom, and the other the mantel-piece.
"Ay, Thomas Leicester, that is in the kitchen now, saw her, and saw his picture hanging aside hers on the wall. And he goes by the name of Thomas Leicester. That was what made Tom go into the inn, seeing his own name on the signboard. Nay, Dame, never give way like that. Lean on me,—so. He is a villain,—a false, jealous, double-faced villain."
Mrs. Gaunt's head fell back on Ryder's shoulder, and she said no word; but only moaned and moaned, and her white teeth clicked convulsively together.
Ryder wept over her sad state: the tears were half impulse, half crocodile.
She applied hartshorn to the sufferer's nostrils, and tried to rouse her mind by exciting her anger. But all was in vain. There hung the betrayed wife, pale, crushed, and quivering under the cruel blow.
Ryder asked her if she should go down and excuse her to her guests.
She nodded a feeble assent.
Ryder then laid her down on the bed with her head low, and was just about to leave her on that errand, when hurried steps were heard outside the door; and one of the female servants knocked; and, not waiting to be invited, put her head in, and cried, "O, Dame, the Master is come home. He is in the kitchen."
Mrs. Ryder made an agitated motion with her hand, and gave the girl such a look withal, that she retired precipitately.
But Mrs. Gaunt had caught the words, and they literally transformed her. She sprang off the bed, and stood erect, and looked a Saxon Pythoness: golden hair streaming down her back, and gray eyes gleaming with fury.
She caught up a little ivory-handled knife, and held it above her head.
"I'll drive this into his heart before them all," she cried, "and tell them the reason afterwards."
Ryder looked at her for a moment in utter terror. She saw a woman with grander passions than herself; a woman that looked quite capable of executing her sanguinary threat. Ryder made no more ado, but slipped out directly to prevent a meeting that might be attended with terrible consequences.
She found her master in the kitchen, splashed with mud, drinking a horn of ale after his ride, and looking rather troubled and anxious; and, by the keen eye of her sex, she saw that the female servants were also in considerable anxiety. The fact is, they had just extemporized a lie.
Tom Leicester, being near the kitchen window, had seen Griffith ride into the court-yard.
At sight of that well-known figure, he drew back, and his heart quaked at his own imprudence, in confiding Griffith's secret to Caroline Ryder.
"Lasses," said he, hastily, "do me a kindness for old acquaintance. Here's the Squire. For Heaven's sake, don't let him know I am in the house, or there will be bloodshed between us. He is a hasty man, and I'm another. I'll tell ye more by and by."
The next moment Griffith's tread was heard approaching the very door, and Leicester darted into the housekeeper's room, and hid in a cupboard there.
Griffith opened the kitchen door, and stood upon the threshold.
The women courtesied to him, and were loud in welcome.
He returned their civilities briefly; and then his first word was, "Hath Thomas Leicester been here?"
You know how servants stick together against their master! The girls looked him in the face, like candid doves, and told him Leicester had not been that way for six months or more.
"Why, I have tracked him to within two miles," said Griffith, doubtfully.
"Then he is sure to come here," said Jane, adroitly. "He wouldn't ever think to go by us."
"The moment he enters the house, you let me know. He is a mischief-making loon."
He then asked for a horn of ale; and, as he finished it, Ryder came in, and he turned to her, and asked her after her mistress.
"She was well, just now," said Ryder; "but she has been took with a spasm; and it would be well, sir, if you could dress, and entertain the company in her place awhile. For I must tell you, your being so long away hath set their tongues going, and almost broken my lady's heart."
Griffith sighed, and said he could not help it, and now he was here, he would do all in his power to please her. "I'll go to her at once," said he.
"No, sir!" said Ryder, firmly. "Come with me. I want to speak to you."
She took him to his bachelor's room, and stayed a few minutes to talk to him.
"Master," said she, solemnly, "things are very serious here. Why did you stay so long away? Our dame says some woman is at the bottom of it, and she'll put a knife into you if you come a-nigh her."
This threat did not appall Griffith, as Ryder expected. Indeed, he seemed rather flattered.
"Poor Kate!" said he; "she is just the woman to do it. But I am afraid she does not love me enough for that. But indeed how should she?"
"Well, sir," replied Ryder, "oblige me by keeping clear of her for a little while. I have got orders to make your bed here. Now, dress, like a good soul, and then go down and show respect to the company that is in your house; for they know you are here."
"Why, that is the least I can do," said Griffith. "Put you out what I am to wear, and then run and say I'll be with them anon."
Griffith walked into the dining-room, and, somewhat to his surprise, after what Ryder had said, found Mrs. Gaunt seated at the head of her own table, and presiding like a radiant queen over a brilliant assembly.
He walked in, and made a low bow to his guests first: then he approached to greet his wife more freely; but she drew back decidedly, and made him a courtesy, the dignity and distance of which struck the whole company.
Sir George Neville, who was at the bottom of the table, proposed, with his usual courtesy, to resign his place to Griffith. But Mrs. Gaunt forbade the arrangement.
"No, Sir George," said she; "this is but an occasional visitor; you are my constant friend."
If this had been said pleasantly, well and good; but the guests looked in vain into their hostess's face for the smile that ought to have accompanied so strange a speech and disarmed it.
"Rarities are the more welcome," said a lady, coming to the rescue; and edged aside to make room for him.
"Madam," said Griffith, "I am in your debt for that explanation; but I hope you will be no rarity here, for all that."
Supper proceeded; but the mirth languished. Somehow or other, the chill fact that there was a grave quarrel between two at the table, and those two man and wife, insinuated itself into the spirits of the guests. There began to be lulls,—fatal lulls. And in one of these, some unlucky voice was heard to murmur, "Such a meeting of man and wife I never saw."
The hearers felt miserable at this personality, that fell upon the ear of silence like a thunderbolt.
Griffith was ill-advised enough to notice the remark, though clearly not intended for his ears. For one thing, his jealousy had actually revived at the cool preference Kate had shown his old rival, Neville.
"Oh!" said he, bitterly, "a man is not always his wife's favorite."
"He does not always deserve to be," said Mrs. Gaunt, sternly.
When matters had gone that length, one idea seemed to occur pretty simultaneously to all the well-bred guests; and that idea was, Sauve qui peut.
Mrs. Gaunt took leave of them, one by one, and husband and wife were left alone.
Mrs. Gaunt by this time was alarmed at the violence of her own passions, and wished to avoid Griffith for that night at all events. So she cast one terribly stern look upon him, and was about to retire in grim silence. But he, indignant at the public affront she had put on him, and not aware of the true cause, unfortunately detained her. He said, sulkily, "What sort of a reception was that you gave me?"
This was too much. She turned on him furiously. "Too good for thee, thou heartless creature! Thomas Leicester is here, and I know thee for a villain."
"You know nothing," cried Griffith. "Would you believe that mischief-making knave? What has he told you?"
"Go back to her!" cried Mrs. Gaunt furiously. "Me you can deceive and pillage no more. So, this was your jealousy! False and forsworn yourself, you dared to suspect and insult me. Ah! and you think I am the woman to endure this? I'll have your life for it! I'll have your life."
Griffith endeavored to soften her,—protested that, notwithstanding appearances, he had never loved but her.
"I'll soon be rid of you, and your love," said the raging woman. "The constables shall come for you to-morrow. You have seen how I can love, you shall know how I can hate."
She then, in her fury, poured out a torrent of reproaches and threats that made his blood run cold. He could not answer her: he had suspected her wrongfully, and been false to her himself. He had abused her generosity, and taken her money for Mercy Vint.
After one or two vain efforts to check the torrent, he sank into a chair, and hid his face in his hands.
But this did not disarm her, at the time. Her raging voice and raging words were heard by the very servants, long after he had ceased to defend himself.
At last she came out, pale with fury, and, finding Ryder near the door, shrieked out, "Take that reptile to his den, if he is mean enough to lie in this house,"—then, lowering her voice, "and bring Thomas Leicester to me."
Ryder went to Leicester, and told him. But he objected to come. "You have betrayed me," said he. "Curse my weak heart and my loose tongue. I have done the poor Squire an ill turn. I can never look him in the face again. But 'tis all thy fault, double-face. I hate the sight of thee."
At this Ryder shed some crocodile tears; and very soon, by her blandishments, obtained forgiveness.
And Leicester, since the mischief was done, was persuaded to see the dame, who was his recent benefactor, you know. He bargained, however, that the Squire should be got to bed first; for he had a great dread of meeting him. "He'll break every bone in my skin," said Tom; "or else I shall do him a mischief in my defence."
Ryder herself saw the wisdom of this. She bade him stay quiet, and she went to look after Griffith.
She found him in the drawing-room, with his head on the table, in deep dejection.
She assumed authority, and said he must go to bed.
He rose humbly, and followed her like a submissive dog.
She took him to his room. There was no fire.
"That is where you are to sleep," said she, spitefully.
"It is better than I deserve," said he, humbly.
The absurd rule about not hitting a man when he is down has never obtained a place in the great female soul; so Ryder lashed him without mercy.
"Well, sir," said she, "methinks you have gained little by breaking faith with me. Y' had better have set up your inn with me, than gone and sinned against the law."
"Much better: would to Heaven I had!"
"What d' ye mean to do now? You know the saying. Between two stools—"
"Child," said Griffith, faintly, "methinks I shall trouble neither long. I am not so ill a man as I seem; but who will believe that? I shall not live long. And I shall leave an ill name behind me. She told me so just now. And oh! her eye was so cruel; I saw my death in it."
"Come, come," said Ryder, relenting a little; "you mustn't believe every word an angry woman says. There, take my advice; go to bed; and in the morning don't speak to her. Keep out of her way a day or two."
And with this piece of friendly advice she left him; and waited about till she thought he was in bed and asleep.
Then she brought Thomas Leicester up to her mistress.
But Griffith was not in bed; and he heard Leicester's heavy tread cross the landing. He waited and waited behind his door for more than half an hour, and then he heard the same heavy tread go away again.
By this time nearly all the inmates of the house were asleep.
About twenty-five minutes after Leicester left Mrs. Gaunt, Caroline Ryder stole quietly up stairs from the kitchen, and sat down to think it all over.
She then proceeded to undress; but had only taken off her gown, when she started and listened; for a cry of distress reached her from outside the house.
She darted to the window and threw it open.
Then she heard a cry more distinct, "Help! help!"
It was a clear starlight night, but no moon.
The mere shone before her, and the cries were on the bank.
Now came something more alarming still. A flash,—a pistol shot,—and an agonized voice cried loudly, "Murder! Help! Murder!"
That voice she knew directly. It was Griffith Gaunt's.
Ryder ran screaming, and alarmed the other servants.
All the windows that looked on the mere were flung open.
But no more sounds were heard. A terrible silence brooded now over those clear waters.
The female servants huddled together, and quaked; for who could doubt that a bloody deed had been done?
It was some time before they mustered the presence of mind to go and tell Mrs. Gaunt. At last they opened her door. She was not in her room.
Ryder ran to Griffith's. It was locked. She called to him. He made no reply.
They burst the door open. He was not there; and the window was open.
While their tongues were all going, in consternation, Mrs. Gaunt was suddenly among them, very pale.
They turned, and looked at her aghast.
"What means all this?" said she. "Did not I hear cries outside?"
"Ay," said Ryder. "Murder! and a pistol fired. O, my poor master!"
Mrs. Gaunt was white as death; but self-possessed. "Light torches this moment, and search the place," said she.
There was only one man in the house; and he declined to go out alone. So Ryder and Mrs. Gaunt went with him, all three bearing lighted links.
They searched the place where Ryder had heard the cries. They went up and down the whole bank of the mere, and cast their torches' red light over the placid waters themselves. But there was nothing to be seen, alive or dead,—no trace either of calamity or crime.
They roused the neighbors, and came back to the house with their clothes all draggled and dirty.
Mrs. Gaunt took Ryder apart, and asked her if she could guess at what time of the night Griffith had made his escape. "He is a villain," said she, "yet I would not have him come to harm, God knows. There are thieves abroad. But I hope he ran away as soon as your back was turned, and so fell not in with them."
"Humph!" said Ryder. Then, looking Mrs. Gaunt in the face, she said, quietly, "Where were you when you heard the cries?"
"I was on the other side of the house."
"What, out o' doors, at that time of night!"
"Ay; I was in the grove,—praying."
"Did you hear any voice you knew?"
"No: all was too indistinct. I heard a pistol, but no words. Did you?"
"I heard no more than you, madam," said Ryder, trembling.
No one went to bed any more that night in Hernshaw Castle.
This mysterious circumstance made a great talk in the village and in the kitchen of Hernshaw Castle; but not in the drawing-room; for Mrs. Gaunt instantly closed her door to visitors, and let it be known that it was her intention to retire to a convent; and, in the mean time, she desired not to be disturbed.
Ryder made one or two attempts to draw her out upon the subject, but was sternly checked.
Pale, gloomy, and silent, the mistress of Hernshaw Castle moved about the place, like the ghost of her former self. She never mentioned Griffith; forbade his name to be uttered in her hearing; and, strange to say, gave Ryder strict orders not to tell any one what she had heard from Thomas Leicester.
"This last insult is known but to you and me. If it ever gets abroad, you leave my service that very hour."
This injunction set Ryder thinking. However, she obeyed it to the letter. Her place was getting better and better; and she was a woman accustomed to keep secrets.
A pressing letter came from Mr. Atkins.
Mrs. Gaunt replied that her husband had come to Hernshaw, but had left again; and the period of his ultimate return was now more uncertain than ever.
On this Mr. Atkins came down to Hernshaw Castle. But Mrs. Gaunt would not see him. He retired very angry, and renewed his advertisements, but in a more explicit form. He now published that Griffith Gaunt, of Hernshaw and Bolton, was executor and residuary legatee to the late Griffith Gaunt of Coggleswade; and requested him to apply directly to James Atkins, Solicitor, of Gray's Inn, London.
In due course this advertisement was read by the servants at Hernshaw, and shown by Ryder to Mrs. Gaunt.
She made no comment whatever; and contrived to render her pale face impenetrable.
Ryder became as silent and thoughtful as herself, and often sat bending her black judicial brows.
By and by dark mysterious words began to be thrown out in Hernshaw village.
"He will never come back at all."
"He will never come into that fortune."
"'T is no use advertising for a man that is past reading."
These, and the like equivocal sayings, were followed by a vague buzz, which was traceable to no individual author, but seemed to rise on all sides, like a dark mist, and envelop that unhappy house.
And that dark mist of Rumor soon condensed itself into a palpable and terrible whisper,—"Griffith Gaunt hath met with foul play."
No one of the servants told Mrs. Gaunt this horrid rumor.
But the women used to look at her, and after her, with strange eyes.
She noticed this, and felt, somehow, that her people were falling away from her. It added one drop to her bitter cup. She began to droop into a sort of calm, despondent lethargy.
Then came fresh trouble to rouse her.
Two of the county magistrates called on her in their official capacity, and, with perfect politeness, but a very grave air, requested her to inform them of all the circumstances attending her husband's disappearance.
She replied, coldly and curtly, that she knew very little about it. Her husband had left in the middle of the night.
"He came to stay?"
"I believe so."
"Came on horseback?"
"Did he go away on horseback?"
"No; for the horse is now in my stable."
"Is it true there was a quarrel between you and him that evening?"
"Gentlemen," said Mrs. Gaunt, drawing herself back, haughtily, "did you come here to gratify your curiosity?"
"No, madam," said the elder of the two; "but to discharge a very serious and painful duty, in which I earnestly request you, and even advise you, to aid us. Was there a quarrel?"
"There was—a mortal quarrel."
The gentlemen exchanged glances, and the elder made a note.
"May we ask the subject of that quarrel?"
Mrs. Gaunt declined, positively, to enter into a matter so delicate.
A note was taken of this refusal.
"Are you aware, madam, that your husband's voice was heard calling for help, and that a pistol-shot was fired?"
Mrs. Gaunt trembled visibly.
"I heard the pistol-shot," said she; "but not the voice distinctly. O, I hope it was not his voice Ryder heard!"
"Ryder, who is he?"
"Ryder is my lady's maid: her bedroom is on that side the house."
"Can we see Mrs. Ryder?"
"Certainly," said Mrs. Gaunt, and rose and rang the bell.
Mrs. Ryder answered the bell, in person, very promptly; for she was listening at the door.
Being questioned, she told the magistrates what she had heard down by "the mere"; and said she was sure it was her master's voice that cried "Help!" and "Murder!" And with this she began to cry.
Mrs. Gaunt trembled and turned pale.
The magistrates confined their questions to Ryder.
They elicited, however, very little more from her. She saw the drift of their questions, and had an impulse to defend her mistress there present. Behind her back it would have been otherwise.
That resolution once taken, two children might as well have tried to extract evidence from her as two justices of the peace.
And then Mrs. Gaunt's pale face and noble features touched them. The case was mysterious, but no more; and they departed little the wiser, and with some apologies for the trouble they had given her.
The next week down came Mr. Atkins, out of all patience, and determined to find Griffith Gaunt, or else obtain some proof of his decease.
He obtained two interviews with Ryder, and bribed her to tell him all she knew. He prosecuted other inquiries with more method than had hitherto been used, and elicited an important fact, namely, that Griffith Gaunt had been seen walking in a certain direction at one o'clock in the morning, followed at a short distance by a tall man with a knapsack, or the like, on his back.
The person who gave this tardy information was the wife of a certain farmer's man, who wired hares upon the sly. The man himself, being assured that, in a case so serious as this, no particular inquiries should be made how he came to be out so late, confirmed what his wife had let out, and added, that both men had taken the way that would lead them to the bridge, meaning the bridge over the mere. More than that he could not say, for he had met them, and was full half a mile from the mere before those men could have reached it.
Following up this clew, Mr. Atkins learned so many ugly things, that he went to the Bench on justicing day, and demanded a full and searching inquiry on the premises.
Sir George Neville, after in vain opposing this, rode off straight from the Bench to Hernshaw, and in feeling terms conveyed the bad news to Mrs. Gaunt; and then, with the utmost delicacy, let her know that some suspicion rested upon herself, which she would do well to meet with the bold front of innocence.
"What suspicion, pray?" said Mrs. Gaunt, haughtily.
Sir George shrugged his shoulders, and replied, "That you have done Gaunt the honor to put him out of the way."
Mrs. Gaunt took this very differently from what Sir George expected.
"What!" she cried, "are they so sure he is dead,—murdered?"
And with this she went into a passion of grief and remorse.
Even Sir George was puzzled, as well as affected, by her convulsive agitation.
Though it was known the proposed inquiry might result in the committal of Mrs. Gaunt on a charge of murder, yet the respect in which she had hitherto been held, and the influence of Sir George Neville, who, having been her lover, stoutly maintained her innocence, prevailed so far that even this inquiry was private, and at her own house. Only she was present in the character of a suspected person, and the witnesses were examined before her.
First, the poacher gave his evidence.
Then Jane, the cook, proved that a pedler called Thomas Leicester had been in the kitchen, and secreted about the premises till a late hour; and this Thomas Leicester corresponded exactly to the description given by the poacher.
This threw suspicion on Thomas Leicester, but did not connect Mrs. Gaunt with the deed in any way.
But Ryder's evidence filled this gap. She revealed three serious facts:—
First, that, by her mistress's orders, she had introduced this very Leicester into her mistress's room about midnight, where he had remained nearly half an hour, and had then left the house.
Secondly, that Mrs. Gaunt herself had been out of doors after midnight.
And, thirdly, that she had listened at the door, and heard her threaten Griffith Gaunt's life.
This is a mere précis of the evidence, and altogether it looked so suspicious, that the magistrates, after telling Mrs. Gaunt she could ask the witnesses any question she chose, a suggestion she treated with marked contempt, put their heads together a moment and whispered. Then the eldest of them, Mr. Underhill, who lived at a considerable distance, told her gravely he must commit her to take her trial at the next assizes.
"Do what you conceive to be your duty, gentlemen," said Mrs. Gaunt, with marvellous dignity. "If I do not assert my innocence, it is because I disdain the accusation too much."
"I shall take no part in the committal of this innocent lady," said Sir George Neville, and was about to leave the room.
But Mrs. Gaunt begged him to stay. "To be guilty is one thing," said she, "to be accused is another. I shall go to prison as easy as to my dinner; and to the gallows as to my bed."
The presiding magistrate was staggered a moment by these words; and it was not without considerable hesitation he took the warrant and prepared to fill it up.
Then Mr. Houseman, who had watched the proceedings very keenly, put in his word. "I am here for the accused person, sir, and, with your good leave, object to her committal—on grounds of law."
"What may they be, Mr. Houseman?" said the magistrate, civilly; and laid his pen down to hear them.
"Briefly, sir, these. Where a murder is proven, you can commit a subject of this realm upon suspicion. But you cannot suspect the murder as well as the culprit, and so commit. The murder must be proved to the senses. Now in this case, the death of Mr. Gaunt by violence is not proved. Indeed, his very death rests but upon suspicion. I admit that the law of England in this respect has once or twice been tampered with, and persons have even been executed where no corpus delicti was found; but what was the consequence? In each case the murdered man turned out to be alive, and justice was the only murderer. After Harrison's case, and ———'s, no Cumberland jury will ever commit for murder, unless the corpus delicti has been found, and with signs of violence upon it. Come, come, Mr. Atkins, you are too good a lawyer, and too humane a man, to send my client to prison on the suspicion of a suspicion, which you know the very breath of the judge will blow away, even if the grand jury let it go into court. I offer bail, ten thousand pounds in two sureties; Sir George Neville here present, and myself."
The magistrate looked to Mr. Atkins.
"I am not employed by the crown," said that gentleman, "but acting on mere civil grounds, and have no right nor wish to be severe. Bail by all means: but is the lady so sure of her innocence as to lend me her assistance to find the corpus delicti?"
The question was so shrewdly put, that any hesitation would have ruined Mrs. Gaunt.
Houseman, therefore, replied eagerly and promptly, "I answer for her, she will."
Mrs. Gaunt bowed her head in assent.
"Then," said Atkins, "I ask leave to drag, and, if need be, to drain that piece of water there, called 'the mere.'"
"Drag it or drain it, which you will," said Houseman.
Said Atkins, very impressively, "And, mark my words, at the bottom of that very sheet of water there, I shall find the remains of the late Griffith Gaunt."
At these solemn words, coming as they did, not from a loose unprofessional speaker, but from a lawyer, a man who measured all his words, a very keen observer might have seen a sort of tremor run all through Mr. Houseman's frame. The more admirable, I think, was the perfect coolness and seeming indifference with which he replied, "Find him, and I'll admit suicide; find him, with signs of violence, and I'll admit homicide—by some person or persons unknown."
All further remarks were interrupted by bustle and confusion.
Mrs. Gaunt had fainted dead away.
Of course pity was the first feeling; but, by the time Mrs. Gaunt revived, her fainting, so soon after Mr. Atkins's proposal, had produced a sinister effect on the minds of all present; and every face showed it, except the wary Houseman's.
On her retiring, it broke out first in murmurs, then in plain words.
As for Mr. Atkins, he now showed the moderation of an able man who feels he has a strong cause.
He merely said, "I think there should be constables about, in case of an escape being attempted; but I agree with Mr. Houseman that your worships will be quite justified in taking bail, provided the corpus delicti should not be found. Gentlemen, you were most of you neighbors and friends of the deceased, and are, I am sure, lovers of justice; I do entreat you to aid me in searching that piece of water, by the side of which the deceased gentleman was heard to cry for help; and, much I fear, he cried in vain."
The persons thus appealed to entered into the matter with all the ardor of just men, whose curiosity as well as justice is inflamed.
A set of old, rusty drags was found on the premises; and men went punting up and down the mere, and dragged it.
Rude hooks were made by the village blacksmith, and fitted to cart-ropes; another boat was brought to Hernshaw in a wagon; and all that afternoon the bottom of the mere was raked, and some curious things fished up. But no dead man.
The next day a score of amateur dragsmen were out; some throwing their drags from the bridge; some circulating in boats, and even in large tubs.
And, meantime, Mr. Atkins and his crew went steadily up and down, dragging every foot of those placid waters.
They worked till dinner-time, and brought up a good copper pot with two handles, a horse's head, and several decayed trunks of trees, which had become saturated, and sunk to the bottom.
At about three in the afternoon, two boys, who, for want of a boat, were dragging from the bridge, found something heavy but elastic at the end of their drag: they pulled up eagerly, and a thing like a huge turnip, half gnawed, came up, with a great bob, and blasted their sight.
They let go, drags and all, and stood shrieking, and shrieking.
Those who were nearest them called out, and asked what was the matter; but the boys did not reply, and their faces showed so white, that a woman, who saw them, hailed Mr. Atkins, and said she was sure those boys had seen something out of the common.
Mr. Atkins came up, and found the boys blubbering. He encouraged them, and they told him a fearful thing had come up; it was like a man's head and shoulders all scooped out and gnawed by the fishes, and had torn the drags out of their hands.
Mr. Atkins made them tell him the exact place; and he was soon upon it with his boat.
The water here was very deep; and though the boys kept pointing to the very spot, the drags found nothing for some time.
But at last they showed, by their resistance, that they had clawed hold of something.
"Draw slowly," said Mr. Atkins: "and, if it is, be men, and hold fast."
The men drew slowly, slowly, and presently there rose to the surface a Thing to strike terror and loathing into the stoutest heart.
The mutilated remains of a human face and body.
The greedy pike had cleared, not the features only, but the entire flesh off the face; but had left the hair, and the tight skin of the forehead, though their teeth had raked this last. The remnants they had left made what they had mutilated doubly horrible; since now it was not a skull, not a skeleton; but a face and a man gnawed down to the bones and hair and feet. These last were in stout shoes, that resisted even those voracious teeth; and a leathern stock had offered some little protection to the throat.
The men groaned, and hid their faces with one hand, and pulled softly to the shore with the other; and then, with half-averted faces, they drew the ghastly remains and fluttering rags gently and reverently to land.
Mr. Atkins yielded to nature, and was violently sick at the sight he had searched for so eagerly.
As soon as he recovered his powers, he bade the constables guard the body (it was a body, in law), and see that no one laid so much as a finger on it until some magistrate had taken a deposition. He also sent a messenger to Mr. Houseman, telling him the corpus delicti was found. He did this, partly to show that gentleman he was right in his judgment, and partly out of common humanity; since, after this discovery, Mr. Houseman's client was sure to be tried for her life.
A magistrate soon came, and viewed the remains, and took careful notes of the state in which they were found.
Houseman came, and was much affected both by the sight of his dead friend, so mutilated, and by the probable consequences to Mrs. Gaunt. However, as lawyers fight very hard, he recovered himself enough to remark that there were no marks of violence before death, and insisted on this being inserted in the magistrate's notes.
An inquest was ordered next day, and, meantime, Mrs. Gaunt was told she could not quit the upper apartments of her own house. Two constables were placed on the ground-floor night and day.
Next day the remains were removed to the little inn where Griffith had spent so many jovial hours; laid on a table, and covered with a white sheet.
The coroner's jury sat in the same room, and the evidence I have already noticed was gone into, and the finding of the body deposed to. The jury, without hesitation, returned a verdict of wilful murder.
Mrs. Gaunt was then brought in. She came, white as a ghost, leaning upon Houseman's shoulder.
Upon her entering, a juryman, by a humane impulse, drew the sheet over the remains again.
The coroner, according to the custom of the day, put a question to Mrs. Gaunt, with the view of eliciting her guilt. If I remember right, he asked her how she came to be out of doors so late on the night of the murder. Mrs. Gaunt, however, was in no condition to answer queries. I doubt if she even heard this one. Her lovely eyes, dilated with horror, were fixed on that terrible sheet, with a stony glance. "Show me," she gasped, "and let me die too."
The jurymen looked, with doubtful faces, at the coroner. He bowed a grave assent.
The nearest juryman withdrew the sheet. The belief was not yet extinct that the dead body shows some signs of its murderer's approach. So every eye glanced on her and on It by turns; as she, with dilated, horror-stricken eyes, looked on that awful Thing.