Four years had passed since Mr. Wyville's visit to Walton-le-Dale; and he had heard no word of the woman he had then sought.
During this time the case of Alice Walmsley had grown to be a subject of rare interest to this student of humanity. Scarcely a day had passed in all that time that he had not devoted some moments to thinking, on the innocent prisoner, and devising some allowable means of affording her comfort and pleasure.
Perhaps the secret of his special observance of this case arose from the fact that beneath the self-imposed suffering he beheld the golden idea. To him this peaceful and silent adherence to a principle was a source of constant interest.
In all those years, Alice Walmsley had never heard his name, and had only once seen his interference. The memory of the strong dark face that had then interposed to save her, and the look of kind compassion, were treasured in her heart; but she knew no more than this. Sister Cecilia, perhaps, would have told her who this powerful man was; but she shrank from asking, and she never asked.
About a week after the event in the Committee Room, Mr. Wyville, sitting with Sheridan and Hamerton in his study, received a letter, brought from Scotland Yard by a policeman.
As usual with the group, when not conversing, Sheridan read, and Hamerton lounged.
Mr. Wyville started from his seat with an exclamation, when he had read the letter. He rarely betrayed even the slightest excitement; and Mr. Hamerton would not have been more surprised had a bomb exploded under the table than he was to see Mr. Wyville thrown off his balance so unexpectedly and completely. Hamerton, however, had too profound a respect for his friend to speak his astonishment.
"Thanks, kind and simple heart!" exclaimed Mr. Wyville, holding the letter before him. "You have been faithful to your word for four years; and you shall rejoice for it all your life!"
Then, recollecting himself, he smiled in his grave way and said—
"I have received long-expected news. I have found something I sought. To-night, I must leave London for a few days; so I must say good-bye now."
"Are you leaving England, too?" asked Hamerton.
"No; I go only to Lancashire—to a little village called Walton-le-Dale." He turned to his desk, and was busily arranging his papers.
"Why, what's the matter, Sheridan? You are growing nervous of late."
"The name of the village took me by surprise, that is all," said Will. He was going on to say that Walton was his native village; but the entrance of Lord Somers temporarily changed the subject. Before it could be resumed, Mr. Wyville had said "Good-bye," and the gentlemen took their leave.
The letter which Mr. Wyville had received ran as follows:
"Sir,—The woman Harriet Draper, as was Samuel Draper's wife before he married Alice Walmsley, has been arrested, for a dedly assawlt on Draper's sister, and is at this present riteing in the lock-up of Walton-le-Dale.—Your umbel servant,
"Benjamin Lodge, Police Officer."
Accompanied by his black servant, Mr. Wyville left London that evening; and on the forenoon of the next day he stepped from the train at Walton-le-Dale, and walked towards the police-station or lock-up.
It was a small stone building, containing, four rooms, two of which were Officer Lodge's quarters; the third a court-room, with a dock or bar, and a raised desk magistrate; and behind this, and opening room, with barred windows, used as the lock-up.
Mr. Wyville pushed the outer door, and stepped at once into the court-room, which was empty. He was about to withdraw, when a door on the left opened, and Officer Lodge, quite unchanged in four years, greeted Mr. Wyville, as if he had seen him only yesterday.
"She was out of horder bad, this time, sir; but I knew she'd turn up some time."
"Many thanks, my friend," said Mr. Wyville; "I had almost concluded you had forgotten."
Officer Lodge was a little hurt at this expression of doubt; but he was quite too mild of temper for resentment.
"Where is the woman?" asked Mr. Wyville.
Officer Lodge pointed to the heavy door of the lock-up, with a grim shake of the head. He sank his voice to a whisper.
"She's a bad 'un, she is—worse and worse hevery time. But now she's done for."
"Ay, she'll go this time, sir. Seven year at the least. She nearly killed a woman, and she would have killed her altogether if she'd had her way a minute longer."
Tell me the facts," said Mr. Wyville.
"Well, sir, she were down near Draper's 'ouse all one day last week, and she hacted queer. They came for me and told me, and I looked after her all the hafternoon. But she were doing no harm to nobody. She only sat on the roadside, looking at Draper's 'ouse. Towards evening she went into Mrs. Walmsley's old 'ouse, wich is hopen, and she stayed there an hour. Draper's sister, who was too curious, maybe, went up to the 'ouse, to see what she were doing; and then it began. I heerd two voices, one a' screaming and the tother swearing and when I ran to the spot, I sees Harriet assaulting the woman, choking her and beating her head against the stones. If I had been half a minute later, there would have been murder."
"Does the prisoner speak to anyone?" asked Mr. Wyville.
"No; there's no one to speak to her but me; and she never hopens her lips to me."
"Can I see her, and speak with her?"
"Yessir," said Officer Lodge "but be careful-she's not safe."
Officer Lodge carefully locked the outer door, and then approached the lock-up. He knocked on the door heavily with the key, as if to rouse the prisoner. No sound came from within. He turned the key in the lock, and opened the door.
Mr. Wyville entered the lock-up, which was a room about twelve feet square, with one window. A wooden bench ran round three sides of the room, and in the farther comer, upon the bench, was something like a heap of clothes.
It was the prisoner, who sat upon the bench, her back to the wall, her knees drawn up, and her face sunk upon them. A tattered shawl covered her, so that she presented the appearance of a heap of wretched clothes.
She did not move as the door opened, nor for a minute afterwards. But as someone had entered, and the door had not been closed, she became aware of the intrusion. She raised her head, and looked around on the floor, slowly, till her glance fell on Mr. Wyville's feet. Then she raised her eyes, till they rested on his face.
She seemed to have been in a sort of daze or waking dream. She did not take her eyes away, but looked at the strange face before her as if she were not yet awake.
She was a woeful wreck of womanhood. Her eyes had cavernous circles around them, and her cheeks were sunken, as if with consuming disease. Her hair, unkempt, was covered with the old shawl, but its straggling locks fell across her forehead. As she looked at Mr. Wyville, some remnant of womanly feeling stirred within her, and she raised a wasted hand and pressed backward the tangled hair from each side of her face.
Wretched as she was, and lost, there was something beneath all the stains that spoke of a face once comely and soft and loveable.
"Harriet Draper!" said Mr. Wyville, with unusual emotion in his deep voice, and speaking in a subdued tone.
She moved uneasily at the name, and her large eyes grew fearfully bright.
"Harriet Draper, I have been searching for you many years. May God pardon the man whose crime sent you here!"
"Ach!" gasped the woman, suddenly burying her face again, as if she had been stabbed in the breast. Then she started, and sprang to the floor, and put her hands on her eyes.
"O God! what did he say?" she hoarsely whispered, as if speaking to herself; "O God! God! to pardon him, and not me!"
She took away her hands, and looked severely for a moment at Mr. Wyville. He met her gaze with a severity greater than her own.
"Yes; God pardon him, for through him you have been made guilty," he said. "Who are you?" she cried, becoming excited. "Who are you that pretend to know me? No man made me commit crime. You lie! you lie! you don't know me—you don't know him!"
Her voice became high with excitement, and her eyes blazed, as with frenzy.
"Harriet Draper, I know you and I know him—your guilty husband. I have searched for you for years, to ask you to lighten your soul of one grievous crime. Before long, you will need repentance; for your health is broken, and you cannot die with this terrible burden on your conscience.
"What—what are you talking about?" she cried, still fiercely, but in a lower tone. " What have I done?"
"You have committed murder."
She looked at him without a word, and increased the pitiful fixity of her gaze by raising her hands to press her temples, as if to keep down pain.
"You murdered Alice Walmsley's child!"
Her eyes closed, and she grasped at her breast with both hands, and tottered backwards, sinking on the bench with a long moan.
"You killed the child, and you saw the innocent mother dragged to prison for your crime. You have remained silent for nine years, and destroyed your own life, while she has borne your punishment. You shall now confess, and save her who has suffered so much to save you."
"Ha! ha! ha! ha!" screamed the woman, in a laugh so sudden and hellish, that Mr. Wyville stepped back appalled. He had expected a different result. Again and again the horrid laugh rang through the place, till it bad exhausted the strength of the ferocious and most miserable being who uttered it, and she sank heavily on the bench.
"Save her!" she cried at length, clenching her hands, and shaking them over her head. "Ha! ha! save her! Save the false woman that sent me here! Never! I hate her! She brought her suffering, on herself by stealing my husband—he was only a fool in her hands!"
She rocked herself to and fro for a time, and then cried wildly—
"Why should I forgive her? Why should I save her? Am I to bear all the misery she made? He was my husband, and he loved me, till she made him false!"
Here she became wildly excited, almost screaming her words.
"If she were free to-day, she would seek him out, and go back to him. Why should I save her to do that? Begone! I will not! I know nothing about her. I would rather die than speak a word to save her!"
A fit of coughing, that almost convulsed the miserable frame, now seized the woman; and when it had passed she sank back against the wall, exhausted.
Mr. Wyville remained silent; he feared that more excitement might affect her reason, or her life. He looked down upon the unfortunate being with profound pity. He had expected a depraved and selfish nature, shrinking from confession through selfish fear. He saw, instead, a woman's heart criminal through its own love and truth, and cruelly unjust through jealousy of its rival.
Darkest and saddest of human sights—the good tortured from its straight course until it actually had become evil; the angelic quality in a heart warped by deceit and wrong until it had become the fiendish part.
"O, man, man!" murmured Mr. Wyville, as he looked upon the wreck, but only saw the evil-doer beyond her, "your sin is deeper than the sea. Not here, not here must I seek to right the wrong."
He walked from the place with bowed head. Officer Lodge, without speaking, locked the door, and followed him. Mr. Wyville sat down in the court-room, and, after a long pause, said to Officer Lodge—
"Has this man, Draper, ever been here—since the crime was committed?"
"No, sir, he hasn't never been seen; but they say as he has been here; that he came in the night to his own folks once. He can't never live in Walton, sir."
"Has he been outlawed?"
"No, sir, there was no one to go again' him. The law let him pass; but the people couldn't stomach him, though they never thought he was as bad as this."
"You have heard, then, what I have said to this woman? It will do no good to speak about it. She has made no confession, nor will she confess till the hand of death is upon her. When is she to be tried for this last offence?"
"In two weeks, sir; and she'll get at least seven years."
"Well, my kind friend, remember she has been cruelly wronged; and, so long as she is in your charge, treat her with mercy. She is not the author of her crime and wretchedness."
Officer Lodge promised to be kind, though his heart overflowed when he thought of poor Alice Walmsley and her great wrong. He also promised to send by mail to Mr. Wyville a report of Harriet Draper's sentence.
Mr. Wyville thanked him, but offered no reward.
"I shall see you again before long," he said, as he left the little court-room. His journey to London that night was mainly consumed in reflection on the tangled web of crime and injustice in which he had become so deeply interested.
Two days later Mr. Wyville sat in the office of the governor of Millbank, relating to him the story of Harriet Draper and Alice Walmsley.
"Good heavens!" cried the kind old governor; "the case must be brought at once before the Directors."
"No," said Mr. Wyville, "not yet; and not at any time before them. Release cannot right the wrong of this injured woman. She must be cleared by the confession of the criminal, and then we shall send her case to the Queen."
"Well," said the governor, "but how are you to get the confession?"
"This woman, Harriet Draper, will come to Millbank within two weeks. If she does not confess before the convict ship sails, she must be sent to West Australia next month."
"We never send convicts in their first year," said the governor.
"She must go," said Mr. Wyville, warmly; "break your rule for the sake of justice."
"I'll break it for your sake, Mr. Wyville," said the governor.
"I shall put her name on the roll."
And she must be kept aloof from the others. Can this be done?"
"Yes; we can enter her on the hospital list, and send her before the others to the ship. She will be confined on board in the hospital."
Mr. Wyville held out his hand to the governor.
"I thank you sincerely," he said; "I am deeply interested in this case."
When he had gone, the bluff old major walked up and down his office, and mopped his head with his big handkerchief.
"It's like good health and a good conscience to come near that man," he said to himself. " How strange it is that he should have such deadly enemies!"