An Outcast/Chapter XLIII
Mr. Fitzgerald sees that his last remark is having no very good effect on Madame Montford, and hastens to qualify, ere it overcome her. "That, I may say, Madame, was not the last of her. My wife and me, seeing how her mind was going wrong again, got her in bed for the night, and took what care of her we could. Well, you see, she got rational in the morning, and, thinking it a chance, I 'plied a heap of kindness to her, and got her to tell all she knew of herself. She went on to tell where she lived—I followed your directions in questioning her—at the time you noted down. She described the house exactly. I have been to it to-night; knew it at a sight, from her description. Some few practical questions I put to her about the child you wanted to get at, I found frightened her so that she kept shut—for fear, I take it, that it was a crime she may be punished for at some time. I says, 'You was trusted with a child once, wasn't you?' 'The Lord forgive me,' she says, 'I know I'm guilty—but I've been punished enough in this world haven't I?' And she burst out into tears, and hung down her head, and got into the corner, as if wantin' nobody to see her. She only wanted a little good care, and a little kindness, to bring her to. This we did as well as we could, and made her understand that no one thought of punishing her, but wanted to be her friends. Well, the poor wretch began to pick up, as I said before, and in three days was such another woman that nobody could have told that she was the poor crazy thing that ran about the lanes and alleys of the Points. And now, Madame, doing as you bid me, I thought it more practical to come to you, knowing you could get of her all you wanted. She is made comfortable. Perhaps you wouldn't like to have her brought here—I may say I don't think it would be good policy. If you would condescend to come to our house, you can see her alone. I hope you are satisfied with my services." The detective pauses, and again wipes his face.
"My gratitude for your perseverance I can never fully express to you. I owe you a debt I never can repay. To-morrow, at ten o'clock, I will meet you at your house; and then, if you can leave me alone with her—"
"Certainly, certainly, everything will be at your service, Madame," returns the detective, rising from his seat and thanking the lady, who rewards him bountifully from her purse, and bids him good night. The servant escorts him to the door, while Madame Montford buries her face in her hands, and gives vent to her emotions.
On the morning following, a neatly-caparisoned carriage is seen driving to the door of a little brick house in Crosby street. From it Madame Montford alights, and passes in at the front door, while in another minute it rolls away up the street and is lost to sight. A few moments' consultation, and the detective, who has ushered the lady into his humbly-furnished little parlor, withdraws to give place to the pale and emaciated figure of the woman Munday, who advances with faltering step and downcast countenance. "Oh! forgive me, forgive me! have mercy upon me! forgive me this crime!" she shrieks. Suddenly she raises her eyes, and rushing forward throws herself at Madame Montford's feet, in an imploring attitude. Dark and varied fancies crowd confusedly on Madame Montford's mind at this moment.
"Nay, nay, my poor sufferer, rather I might ask forgiveness of you." She takes the woman by the hand, and, with an air of regained calmness, raises her from the floor. With her, the outer life seems preparing the inner for what is to come. "But I have long sought you—sought you in obedience to the demands of my conscience, which I would the world gave me power to purify; and now I have found you, and with you some rest for my aching heart. Come, sit down; forget what you have suffered; tell me what befell you, and what has become of the child; tell me all, and remember that I will provide for you a comfortable home for the rest of your life." Madame motions her to a chair, struggling the while to suppress her own feelings.
"I loved the child you intrusted to my care; yes, God knows I loved it, and watched over it for two years, as carefully as a mother. But I was poor, and the brother, in whose hands you intrusted the amount for its support (this, the reader must here know, was not a brother, but the paramour of Madame Montford), failed, and gave me nothing after the first six months. I never saw him, and when I found you had gone abroad—" The woman hesitates, and, with weeping eyes and trembling voice, again implores forgiveness. "My husband gave himself up to drink, lost his situation, and then he got to hating the child, and abusing me for taking it, and embarrassing our scanty means of living. Night and day, I was harassed and abused, despised and neglected. I was discouraged, and gave up in despair. I clung to the child as long as I could. I struggled, and struggled, and struggled—" Here the woman pauses, and with a submissive look, again hangs down her head and sobs.
"Be calm, be calm," says Madame Montford, drawing nearer to her, and making an effort to inspirit her. "Throw off all your fears, forget what you have suffered, for I, too, have suffered. And you parted with the child?"
"Necessity forced me," pursues the woman, shaking her head. "I saw only the street before me on one side, and felt only the cold pinchings of poverty on the other. You had gone abroad—"
"It was my intention to have adopted the child as my own when I returned," interrupts Madame Montford, still clinging to that flattering hope in which the criminal sees a chance of escape.
"And I," resumes the woman, "left the husband who neglected me, and who treated me cruelly, and gave myself,—perhaps I was to blame for it,—up to one who befriended me. He was the only one who seemed to care for me, or to have any sympathy for me. But he, like myself, was poor; and, being compelled to flee from our home, and to live in obscurity, where my husband could not find me out, the child was an incumbrance I had no means of supporting. I parted with her—yes, yes, I parted with her to Mother Bridges, who kept a stand at a corner in West street—"
"And then what became of her?" again interposes Madame Montford. The woman assumes a sullenness, and it is some time before she can be got to proceed.
"My conscience rebuked me," she resumes, as if indifferent about answering the question, "for I loved the child as my own; and the friend I lived with, and who followed the sea, printed on its right arm two hearts and a broken anchor, which remain there now. My husband died of the cholera, and the friend I had taken to, and who treated me kindly, also died, and I soon found myself an abandoned woman, an outcast—yes, ruined forever, and in the streets, leading a life that my own feelings revolted at, but from which starvation only seemed the alternative. My conscience rebuked me again and again, and something—I cannot tell what it was—impelled me with an irresistible force to watch over the fortunes of the child I knew must come to the same degraded life necessity—perhaps it was my own false step—had forced upon me. I watched her a child running neglected about the streets, then I saw her sold to Hag Zogbaum, who lived in Pell street; I never lost sight of her—no, I never lost sight of her, but fear of criminating myself kept me from making myself known to her. When I had got old in vice, and years had gone past, and she was on the first step to the vice she had been educated to, we shared the same roof. Then she was known as Anna Bonard—"
"Anna Bonard!" exclaims Madame Montford. "Then truly it is she who now lives in Charleston! There is no longer a doubt. I may seek and claim her, and return her to at least a life of comfort."
"There you will find her. Ah, many times have I looked upon her, and thought if I could only save her, how happy I could die. I shared the same roof with her in Charleston, and when I got sick she was kind to me, and watched over me, and was full of gentleness, and wept over her condition. She has sighed many a time, and said how she wished she knew how she came into the world, to be forced to live despised by the world. But I got down, down, down, from one step to another, one step to another, as I had gone up from one step to another in the splendor of vice, until I found myself, tortured in mind and body, a poor neglected wretch in the Charleston Poor-house. In it I was treated worse than a slave, left, sick and heart-broken, and uncared-for, to the preying of a fever that destroyed my mind. And as if that were not enough, I was carried into the dungeons—the 'mad cells,'—and chained. And this struck such a feeling of terror into my soul that my reason, as they said, was gone forever. But I got word to Anna, and she came to me, and gave me clothes and many little things to comfort me, and got me out, and gave me money to get back to New York, where I have been ever since, haunted from place to place, with scarce a place to lay my head. Surely I have suffered. Shall I be forgiven?" Her voice here falters, she becomes weak, and seems sinking under the burden of her emotions. "If,—if—if," she mutters, incoherently, "you can save me, and forgive me, you will have the prayers of one who has drank deep of the bitter cup." She looks up with a sad, melancholy countenance, again implores forgiveness, and bursts into loud sobs.
"Mine is the guilty part—it is me who needs forgiveness!" speaks Madame Montford, pressing the hand of the forlorn woman, as the tears stream down her cheeks. She has unburdened her emotions, but such is the irresistible power of a guilty conscience that she finds her crushed heart and smitten frame sinking under the shock—that she feels the very fever of remorse mounting to her brain.
"Be calm, be calm—for you have suffered, wandered through the dark abyss—truly you have been chastened enough in this world. But while your heart is only bruised and sore, mine is stung deep and lacerated. The image of that child now rises up before me. I see her looking back over her chequered life, and pining to know her birthright. Mine is the task of seeking her out, reconciling her, saving her from this life of shame. I must sacrifice the secrets of my own heart, go boldly in pursuit of her—" She pauses a moment. There is yet a thin veil between her and society. Society only founds its suspicions upon the mystery involved in the separation from her husband, and the doubtful character of her long residence in Europe. Society knows nothing of the birth of the child. The scandal leveled at her in Charleston, was only the result of her own indiscretion. "Yes," she whispers, attempting at the same time to soothe the feelings of the poor disconsolate woman, "I must go, and go quickly—I must drag her from the terrible life she is leading;—but, ah! I must do it so as to shield myself. Yes, I must shield myself!" And she puts into the woman's hand several pieces of gold, saying: "take this!—to-morrow you will be better provided for. Be silent. Speak to no one of what has passed between us, nor make the acquaintance of any one outside the home I shall provide for you." Thus saying, she recalls Mr. Detective Fitzgerald, rewards him with a nostrum from her purse, and charges him to make the woman comfortable at her expense.
"Her mind, now I do believe," says the detective, with an approving toss of the head, "her faculties'll come right again,—they only wants a little care and kindness, mum." The detective thanks her again and again, then puts the money methodically into his pocket.
The carriage having returned, Madame Montford vaults into it as quickly as she alighted, and is rolled away to her mansion.