Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Lord Oakburn's daughters - Part 27
LORD OAKBURN’S DAUGHTERS.
BY THE AUTHOR OF "EAST LYNNE."
CHAPTER LIII.JUDITH’S STORY.
In the twilight of the winter’s evening, in the drawing-room of Lady Jane’s house, Frederick Grey was sitting with Lucy Chesney. The removal from Mr. Carlton’s that day did not appear to have hurt her, she seemed the stronger for it, and though Judith kept assuring her that she ought to go to her chamber and lie down, Lucy stayed where she was.
The interview was a gloomy one. It was Frederick Grey’s farewell visit, for he was going back to London the following day. But the gloom did not arise from that cause, but from another. Lucy had been telling him something, and he grew hot and angry.
The fact was, Lady Jane, in her perplexity and tribulation at finding the deceased lady, Mrs. Crane, to have been Clarice Chesney, had that morning dropped a word in Lucy’s hearing to the effect that the discovery might be the means of breaking off the contemplated marriage. Of course, Lucy was making herself very miserable, and her lover was indignant.
“On what grounds?” he chafed, for he had rather a hot temper. “On what grounds?”
“Jane thinks it will not be seemly that we should marry, if the mistake that brought Clarice her death was made by Sir Stephen. The medicine, you know.”
“Jane must be getting into her dotage,” he angrily exclaimed. “Sir Stephen never did make the mistake. Lucy, my darling, be at ease: we cannot be parted now.”
Lucy’s tears were dropping fast: she was weak from her recent illness. To marry in opposition to Jane could never be thought of, and Jane was firm when she once took a notion into her head. In the midst of this, Jane came in from her visit to the little dead boy at Tupper’s cottage, and Frederick Grey spoke out his mind somewhat warmly. Judith, who entered the room to take her lady’s bonnet, stood in surprise and concern: her sympathies were wholly with Frederick Grey and Lucy. He had not observed Judith enter.
“Oh, my lady,” she exclaimed, impulsively, “it would not be right to separate them. Should the innocent suffer for the guilty?”
“The guilty? the guilty?” mused Lady Jane. “How are we to know who is guilty?”
Judith stood still, a strange expression of eagerness, blended with indecision, on her white face. She looked at Lady Jane, she looked at Frederick Grey; and she suddenly threw down the bonnet she held, and lifted her hands.
“I’ll speak,” she exclaimed. “I’ll declare what I know. Ever since last night I have been telling myself I ought to do it. And I wish I had done it years ago!”
They looked at her in astonishment. What had come to quiet, sober Judith?
“My lady, you ask who was guilty—how it is to be known? I think I know who it was: I think it was Mr. Carlton. I could almost have proved it at the time.”
“Oh, Judith!” exclaimed Frederick Grey, reproachfully, while Jane dropped her head upon her hand, and Lucy gazed around, wondering if they had all gone scared. “And you have suffered my father to lie under the suspicion all these years!”
“I did not dare to speak,” was Judith’s answer. “Who was I, a poor humble servant, that I should bring an accusation against a gentleman—a gentleman like Mr. Carlton, thought well of in the place? Nobody would have listened to me, sir. Besides, in spite of my doubts, I could not believe he was guilty. I thought I must have made some strange mistake. And I feared that the tables might have been turned upon me, and I accused.”
Whatever she knew, and however long she might have suppressed it, there was no resource but to speak out fully now. She took up her position against the wall, partially hidden by the folds of the crimson curtains from what little light the fire gave. Lucy sat forward on the sofa as one dazed, Lady Jane’s face was still shaded by her hand, Frederick Grey stood with his elbow on the mantel-piece.
“I will not be Mr. Carlton’s accuser,” she began. “No, my lady, I will simply tell what I saw, and let others judge: the impression of his guilt on my mind may have been altogether some great mistake. I—I suppose I must begin at the beginning?”
“You must begin at the beginning and go on to the ending,” interposed Frederick Grey, authoritatively.
“And I’ll do it,” said Judith. “On the Sunday evening when that poor lady, Mrs. Crane, lay ill at the Widow Gould’s, I stepped in between eight and nine to wish her good-night. I had a bad face-ache; it was in pain all over; and I wanted to get to bed. The widow and Nurse Pepperfly were at supper in the kitchen; I saw them as I passed the kitchen window, and I ran up-stairs quietly, not disturbing them. I had no light, and I found the bedroom in darkness, but it was a fine moonlight night. I spoke to Mrs. Crane, but she was asleep, and did not answer, and I sat down by the bed, behind the curtain, and nursed my face for a minute or two. There came a ring at the door-bell, and I heard Mrs. Gould go to answer it, and attend the visitor up-stairs. I thought it might be Mr. Stephen Grey, but as they came into the adjoining sitting-room, I heard Mrs. Gould address him as Mr. Carlton. She went down again, and he came into the chamber, without the light. His coming in awoke Mrs. Crane, for I heard her start and stir, and he approached the bed. ‘Clarice,’ said he, 'Clarice, how could you be so imprudent, so foolish, as to come to South Wennock?’ ‘Oh, Lewis, I am so thankful you have returned!’ she answered, in a joyful, loving tone, which struck me with amazement. ‘Don’t be angry with me; we can keep our secret; but I could not bear the thought of being ill so far away. It is such a sweet little boy!’ ‘It was exceedingly wrong, Clarice,’ he went on, in a vexed tone; but I heard no more, for I stole out of the room. I heard Mr. Carlton say ‘Who’s there?’ but I sped down-stairs quietly in my list shoes, for I did not like them to think they had been overheard. As I went by the kitchen Mrs. Gould spoke to me, telling me, I remember, of an accident that had happened to Mr. Carlton that evening in coming from Great Wennock. I ran in home, and went to bed; but what with the pain in my face, and the words I had overheard next door, I could get no rest. It seemed a mystery to me and nothing less, that the young lady should be so intimate with Mr. Carlton, when she had asked about him and spoken of him as a stranger. It came into my mind to wonder whether he could be her husband, but I thought I must be downright foolish to suppose such a thing. However, it was no business of mine, and I knew I could keep my own counsel.”
“Go on, Judith,” said Lady Jane, for Judith had paused in thought.
“The next day I was anything but well, for I had had no sleep, and the pain in my face worried me. In the afternoon it began to swell, and in the evening, when Mr. Stephen Grey came to see Mrs. Crane, he told me the swelling would make it easier, but that I ought to tie it up. It was just seven when Mr. Stephen came in, and he expected Mr. Carlton; he waited till a quarter past, but Mr. Carlton did not come. He observed that Mrs. Crane was flushed and looked feverish, and he spoke quite sharp to me, and said there had been too much gossiping going on; I replied that the lady would talk, feeling well, and we could not prevent her. He said he should send in a composing draught: and he left. I returned home to tie my face up, but at first I was puzzled what to tie it with, as my boxes were not at Mrs. Jenkinson’s, and a pocket-handkerchief was hardly warm enough. I laid hold of an old piece of black plush, which had covered a bonnet I had worn all the winter, and had unpicked that day. It was not worth much, and I cut it into two, and doubled the pieces together, so that they formed two ears or lappets, fastened them to some black tape, and tied them up round my chin and the sides of my face. I had got on a black cap, being in mourning for my late mistress, and when I saw myself in the glass, I thought I did look a guy. What with my swollen face, which was glazed and puffy and white, and my black eyes, blacker they seemed than usual, and this flossy plush round my face, I was a sight! ‘Goodness me!’ exclaimed Margaret when I got down-stairs, ‘what have you been at with yourself? one would think you had got a pair of sudden-grown whiskers!’ and she wasn’t far wrong, as appearances went, for the little edge of the black quilled net border close to my face, and the rough plush behind it, made a very good imitation of whiskers. I was dead tired; I felt as if I could sleep; and after sitting awhile with Margaret, I said I’d go in and see if Mrs. Crane wanted anything more that I could do, and then come back and go to bed. Like the previous night, I saw that the nurse and Mrs. Gould were at supper in the kitchen—or rather, sitting at the supper-table, for supper seemed to be over. I went quietly up-stairs; and, knowing those two were down-stairs, I was surprised to hear a movement in the sitting-room. The first thought that struck me was, could Mrs. Crane have been so imprudent as to get out of bed after anything she might want, and I peeped in through the door, which was ajar. It was not Mrs. Crane; she was safe in bed, and the door between the two rooms was shut: it was Mr. Carlton. The light was on the mantelpiece, and he stood sideways at the cheffonier. He had a very, very small bottle in his hand, putting a cork into it, and then he put it into his waistcoat pocket. Next he took up a larger bottle, the size of those which had contained night-draughts for Mrs. Crane; it had been standing close to his hand on the cheffonier, and the cork by it; he hastily put the cork into it, and put it on the little shelf of the cheffonier, in a leaning position in the corner. He turned so quickly to leave the room, that I had not time to get out of the way; I did not know what he had been doing; I did not know it was anything wrong; but an instinct flashed across me that he would not like to find he had been watched; not that when I peeped in I had thought of doing anything mean or underhanded. I just drew up against the wall on the landing—the worst place I could have got to, for the moonlight came in upon my face—and he saw me. He could see nothing of me but my face; but he looked at me with a sort of frightened glare. My eyes, accustomed to the dark, could just discern his face: he had come from the lighted room. ‘Who and what are you?’ he whispered, but I thought my best plan was not to answer. I did not like to go forward and speak, so I kept still. He wheeled round, and went back to the sitting-room to bring out the light, which gave me the opportunity to slip inside the closet. He———"
“Oh, Judith!” interrupted Lady Jane, “then the man’s face on the stairs, about which so much has been said, was yours!”
“My own and no other’s, my lady. I was afraid to explain so, lest I should be questioned further, and I let it pass. Mr. Carlton brought out the light, but of course he could not see me, and, after he had looked all about, he went down-stairs. I heard him say something to Mrs. Gould about a man up-stairs with black whiskers, and I laughed to myself at the joke. But I did not care that anyone should know I had played it, though it had been unintentionally done, and when Mr. Carlton was gone and the women were shut up in the kitchen again, I stole down-stairs and took off the black plush ears in the yard, and put them in my pocket. I then knocked at the window, as if I had just come in, which startled them both, and Mrs. Gould called me a fool, and asked why I could not come into the house quiet and decent. I said I had come in to wish Mrs. Crane good night, and I went on up-stairs. Mrs. Crane laughed at my swollen face, saying it looked like a full moon; but I thought how much more she would have laughed had she seen it in the whiskers.”
Frederick Grey, who had stood with his eyes fixed on Judith, listening to every word, interrupted with a question.
“Did you not suspect, did it not occur to you to suspect, that the draught might have been tampered with?”
“Never, sir, for a moment. How was I likely to suspect such a thing? Was not Mr. Carlton a doctor in practice? I did not know that he had added anything to the draught, but if I had known it, I should only have supposed it to be some alteration he deemed necessary, as her attendant, to make.”
“Well, go on.”
“I left them, and went in-doors to bed, and the next morning Margaret told me that Mrs. Crane had died; died the previous night before ten o’clock, through taking the sleeping draught sent her by Mr. Stephen Grey. I don’t know how I felt, I could not tell it if I tried, or the dreadful doubt that came over me, whether or not Mr. Carlton had touched it. I heard of his having smelt poison in the draught when it first came, and I thought then of course the poison must have been in it, that when I saw him all alone with the bottle open, he might only be smelling at it again. Of one thing I felt certain—that Mr. Stephen Grey had not committed the error—and the state of mind, the uncertainty I was in until the inquest, no tongue could tell. I went to the inquest; I wanted to be at ease one way or the other, to have some relief from my perplexity. Young Frederick Grey—I beg your pardon, Mr. Frederick; I had got my thoughts cast back in the past—had whispered to me, that if anybody mixed poison with the draught, it was Mr. Carlton, not his father; and though I would not listen to him, his words made a deep impression on me. At the inquest I heard Mr. Carlton give his evidence, and from that moment I believed him to have been guilty. He swore before the coroner that he neither touched nor saw the draught after he gave it back to Mrs. Pepperfly; that he did not observe or know where she placed it. That I knew to be a falsehood. He did see it and touch it, and took care to replace it in the same position which the old woman had done. He testified that he had told Mrs. Crane not to take the draught, but I felt sure he had told her nothing of the sort. He swore also that he knew nothing of Mrs. Crane, who she was, or where she came from, and that I knew was false. An impulse came upon me to step out before the coroner and declare all I had seen and heard, but somehow I did not dare; I feared he might turn round, and set me at defiance by denying it, or even accuse me in his stead—and which of us would have been listened to?—an established gentleman, such as he; or me, an obscure servant? Part of a letter was found before the inquest, was over—and, my lady, it was a faithful copy, for I remember every word, of the first part of that letter found last night by Lady Laura. The coroner showed it to Mr. Carlton, and he fenced in his answers; he took the letter to the window, and stood there with his back to the room; the jury thought nothing, but I was sure it was only to collect himself, and gain time to cover his agitation. That letter, which Lady Laura found, was the one written by Mrs. Crane the night of her arrival, for I recognised the envelope again last night; the very letter which Mrs. Gould got me to carry to Mr. Carlton’s. As I came out of the inquest-room, I felt quite sure that he had murdered the lady.”
“You ought to have declared it, Judith.”
“My lady, I say that people would not have believed me; there was not a jot or tittle of evidence to corroborate my tale, there was no proof at all that he knew her. If declared to them now, they will not, perhaps, believe it.”
“It might have saved my sister Laura,” murmured Lady Jane.
“I did what little I could to keep her from Mr. Carlton. After I went to live with you, my lady, Pompey let slip a word that Miss Laura—as she was then—used to go in the garden in secret, at the dusk hour, to meet Mr. Carlton. I could not say anything to Mr. Carlton openly. But I thought I might frighten him, and warn Miss Laura. One night that they were there (it was the very night before they went away) I took off my white cap and put on a black, tied on those plush whiskers, which I have kept by me to this day, put a cap of Pompey’s on my head, and threw on my master’s old cloak. When I got to their meeting-place in the garden Miss Laura was alone; he had gone. It was nearly dark amidst the trees, where I stood; she could get but an imperfect view of me, and I disguised my voice to gruffness, and warned her, in the best way I knew how, against Mr. Carlton. Mr. Carlton saw me as I was stealing back again, and I raised the cap and he saw my face in the moonlight. He looked frightened to death; I suppose he knew it again for the same face he had seen on the landing that night, and I glided amidst the trees until he had gone. I have appeared to him in the same way once or twice since. You may remember, my lady, the night we returned home after my lord’s death. When we had left Lady Laura and gone on, you discovered that her dressing-case had been forgotten in the fly. I got out to take it to her, saying I would walk on home afterwards. I left it at the servants’ entrance, and in passing the dining-room window, coming away, I saw Mr. Carlton by the light of the fire. I pushed back my bonnet, snatched my black scarf off my neck, tied it down the sides of my face under the chin, and pressed my nose flat against the panes, which naturally made my face look wide. He saw it was the same figure which had so terrified him before, and I heard his cry of amazement as I rushed away, putting my bonnet on as I went.”
“How do you account for it, Judith—that your appearance should inspire him with this terror?” interrupted Frederick Grey.
“Sir, in this way. I think that when he first saw me, that night on the staircase, he must have feared it was somebody who had watched him mix the poison; but when no one could be traced or heard of, as having been in the house, then he doubted whether the appearance might not have been supernatural. I fancy there has been a conflict in his mind all along, sometimes giving way to the fancy that the figure was real, sometimes that it was not; and equally fearing both.”
Frederick Grey nodded his head, and Judith continued.
“The years wore on, but somehow I always felt a fear of Mr. Carlton. The feeling that was upon me was—that nobody was safe with him. I daresay it was a foolish feeling, but I could not help it. When Lady Lucy was taken ill with the fever, and Mr. Carlton kept her at his house in what might be called an under-hand manner, I grew quite alarmed, wondering whether he intended any ill to her, l and the night the lamp went out in the hall I whispered words to him that he did not like; I did it in my fears; and only a night or two ago I put on those plush whiskers again—for I determined to do it, and fetched them from Cedar Lodge—and made myself look altogether as much like I did that first night as I could, and stood in the dusk at the surgery window.”
“But it is a strange thing he never recognised you!” interrupted Frederick Grey.
“Not strange, sir. You cannot think how those plush sides and the black border disguise my face. It looks exactly like a man’s. Besides, Mr. Carlton has never seen it but in the most imperfect and uncertain light. I think he must have been struck with some faint resemblance, for Lady Laura told me laughingly the other day that there was a look in my face Mr. Carlton could not bear. And all this; while, my ladies, I never had the remotest suspicion that the lady who died in Palace Street was connected with the family I serve.”
Judith ceased. The tale was told. And she stood motionless within the shade of the crimson curtain in the silence that fell upon the room.
CHAPTER LIV.THE LAWYER’S TELEGRAM.
Could there be any doubt of the guilt of Mr. Carlton? It was scarcely to be hoped for. Jane Chesney and Frederick Grey remained alone after the revelation of Judith, pondering the question in their own minds, scarcely liking to look in each others’ faces. Judith had departed from the room; Lucy was up-stairs, going to rest—if rest she might hope for. Poor Lucy thought she should never leave off shivering. She was younger than they were, more inexperienced in the ways of the world, and utterly unprepared for the disclosure. Never a doubt had crossed her of Mr. Carlton; she could scarcely believe that she must doubt him now; but she felt sick and faint.
Frederick Grey was the first to break the silence. “Do you remember, Lady Jane, a meeting between me and Mr. Carlton on the Rise, to which you were an accidental listener?” he inquired in a low tone. “Do you remember the purport of the words I said to him?”
She made a gesture in the affirmative. “I have often recalled it, and the accusation you made upon him.”
“It tallies with this.”
There was another long pause.
“He must have been her husband,” resumed Jane, scarcely above a whisper.
“There’s no doubt of it. Had she not been his wife, the necessity for putting her out of his way could not have arisen. We must suppose that it was done to enable him to—to—marry another.”
The words were spoken hesitatingly in his delicacy of feeling, remembering who that other wife was. Jane groaned aloud; she could not help herself.
"How can Judith have kept that dreadful secret within her all these years?” was her next exclamation.
He took his elbow from the mantelpiece, where he had been so long standing, came forward, and sat down opposite to Jane. “I have been thinking it over, Lady Jane, and I really do not see—looking back—that Judith could have done otherwise. I confess my first impression was a selfish one, a sort of resentful feeling that she should not have declared what she knew, and so cleared my father. Now that I reflect upon it dispassionately, I do not think she could have done it. As she observes, none might have believed her. Think what a strange charge it would have been to bring against a medical man!”
“But if she had disclosed the few words of conversation she heard pass between Mr. Carlton and Clarice at their first greeting? That surely would have established previous relations between them, and been a clue to the rest.”
He shook his head. “Yes, had Judith been believed. It would all have lain in that. I think the chances are she would not have been; that Mr. Carlton could have crushed her and triumphed.”
“What is to be done now?” wailed Jane.
“Nothing. You would not like to proceed against Mr. Carlton, to bring any public accusation against him. Circumstances bar it.”
“Bring a public accusation against Mr. Carlton!” repeated Jane, recoiling in horror from the thought. “And Laura his wife! No, no; I did not allude to that; I did not think of it. Clarice and Laura stand to me in the same degree, both alike my sisters, and the one dead must remain unavenged for the sake of the one living. I spoke of Laura herself. What is to be done about her? She cannot be suffered to remain with Mr. Carlton.”
Frederick Grey drew in his lips. It was too delicate a point for him, and he preferred not to discuss it. “I can’t meddle with that, Lady Jane. She has been with him ever since, all these years.”
True. Jane saw not her way clear. “How could Mr. Carlton be so foolish as to keep that letter by him?” she said aloud, alluding to the letter found by her sister, and which she had been describing to Frederick Grey.
“Ah, that’s inexplicable,” was his quick reply. “At least it would be, but that we every day see guilty men commit the most unaccountable mistakes: mistakes that the world can only marvel at. It may be, that some fatal blindness overtakes their minds and judgments, causing them to bring upon themselves their own doom. We have a Latin proverb, Lady Jane: 'Quod Deus vult perdere, prius dementat.'"
But the reader—if he possesses any memory—can explain the fact, in this instance, better than Frederick Grey. Whatever mistakes Mr. Carlton committed in that unhappy business as against his self-preservation, this was not one, for the retention of the letter was unintentional. Do you remember that he searched for the letter and could not find it, and came to the conclusion that he had burnt it with some others, notes and trifles of no consequence? He put one letter away in his iron safe, supposing it to be a note from his father that he wished to preserve; the real fact being that this was the letter he put up, the one from his father he burnt. All in a mistake. A chance mistake, people might have said; but how many of these trifling “chances” may be traced in the chain leading to the discovery of some great crime. It happened that Mr. Carlton never had occasion to look at his father’s (supposed) letter again, and there it lay forgotten, waiting to do its mission, until it was at length unearthed by the jealous hands of Mr. Carlton’s wife. Had he not tried that wife, had he been always loyal to her, the past crime might never have been brought home to him during life.
For it was that letter that led to the final discovery; it was the turning point that drove home the guilt where it was due; and yet it may be said that the chain leading to it was linked by accident, more than by design.
Lady Jane, painfully perplexed, had brought away the letter when she quitted Mr. Carlton’s house that morning. She had it in her pocket at Mrs. Smith’s, and after the explanation had taken place, Jane showed her the letter, in the hope that it might lead to some elucidation of who the husband was, to whom it was evidently written. Even then Jane had no suspicion of Mr. Carlton, or if she had, it was only in a secondary sort of degree. She believed that Clarice had married Mr. Crane, and that however Mr. Carlton might have been mixed up in the affair, it had been only as a friend and associate of Mr. Crane’s. Jane would have shown the letter to Frederick Grey, but it was not just now in her possession. She described it and he caught the clue at once.
“Ah, yes, it was to her husband she wrote it; Mr. Carlton. But the playful style in which, as you describe, it is written would mislead any one who has not the key. They would never suppose that the husband spoken of, and the medical man she says she must ask to come to see her, were one and the same. I should like my father to see that letter, Lady Jane.”
“Oh yes, he shall see it. You—you are sure Sir Stephen would not use it against him?” she added quickly.
“Against Mr. Carlton? Oh no. I don’t think he would do it in any case, certainly not in this. My father is the kindest man breathing. Lucy will be his daughter-in-law; and Mr. Carlton is her sister’s husband. Sir Stephen must lie under suspicion still, for Lucy’s sake— perhaps I ought rather to say for Lady Laura’s sake. It has not hurt him, Lady Jane, he had out-lived the odium; witness how he was received the other day at South Wennock.”
But if Frederick Grey and Lady Jane agreed that the affair altogether, including the letter, must be suppressed, there was another individual who took, unfortunately, just the opposite view of it. That was Mrs. Smith. And at this very moment, while they were so speaking, she was making the first step to publish it.
Chance links, fitting one into the other! chance events, words, trifles in the chain of discovery! From the hour in which Mrs. Smith had found Mr. Carlton searching in her drawers, she had had a sort of suspicion of him, not that he was the husband of Mrs. Crane, but that he held some secret connected with that past time. The little boy, Lewis, had told her he heard Mr. Carlton looking into drawers up-stairs as well as down, and the woman wondered excessively. Like most secretive persons she dwelt much upon it in her own mind; and when the time came—as it did come—that a little fresh evidence bearing on the past met her ears, a half suspicion crept into her mind of the worst, as connected with Mr. Carlton.
You may remember Mrs. Smith’s afternoon of levee. You may remember that Judith as she left the cottage met Mr. Carlton driving up to it; and you may also remember a casual remark to the effect that Mr. Carlton returned home from that visit a little put out with some trifles that had occurred there. Very greatly to his annoyance, the Widow Gould—whom he had not the honour of meeting frequently in private society—brought up the subject of Mrs. Crane. Her tongue was long enough for two, and she had not the least tact. She alluded openly to the fact of Mrs. Smith being the person who took away the child, and persisted in alluding to the past in a manner not at all agreeable to the surgeon. Mrs. Pepperfly (also a visitor) thought no harm in chiming in, now that it was spoken of openly, and the two kept up a duet as long as they had the chance, which was as long as Mr. Carlton was attending to the child, then on Mrs. Smith’s lap in the kitchen. The final remark of Mrs. Gould capped it all.
“I could have declared that you was known to her, Mr. Carlton, sir, the very day she first come to South Wennock. It were in this way: Mrs. Crane———”
The surgeon turned round, a sort of glare in his eyes. If looks could enforce silence, the Widow Gould had been silenced then. But she did not understand; she had no tact.
“Mrs. Crane asks who were the doctors here, and I told her the Mr. Greys and Mr. Carlton. Then she writes a note to Mr. Carlton, telling me to send it—as have been known to South Wennock many a day, for I told it out at the inquest. But when I had took the note down-stairs, I saw it had got your Chrissen name outside it, sir, Lewis. Many a time have I wondered how she got at the name. Judy said Mrs. Fitch might have told it, but Mrs. Fitch said she didn’t, and———”
“Is it well to have this gossip in the room when your child’s so ill?” sternly asked the surgeon of Mrs. Smith. “It is bad for him; it must not be. You might choose a better time, I think, to receive visitors.”
The words, the tone, took Mrs. Gould by surprise. She sat a moment with her mouth open, and then seemed to shrink into nothing, too completely checked to offer even a whisper of apology. Mr. Carlton gave a short direction in regard to the child, strode out to his carriage, and was driven away.
“How did I offend him?” breathed the Widow Gould then, questioning the other two with her eyes.
“I wish you’d go on with what you were saying about the Christian name,” returned Mrs. Smith. “I never heard this before.”
“It’s not much to go on with. When I saw the name, Lewis Carlton, Esq., on the letter, I wondered how she knew it was Lewis, and I’ve wondered since. Judy said his name must have been in the newspaper I had took up to her to read while she had her tea, but I looked in it after she was dead, and I couldn’t see it. I saw his name, ‘Mr. Carlton,’ but I couldn’t see ‘Lewis'"
"Is Mr. Carlton’s name Lewis?”
Mrs. Gould opened her eyes at the question. “I thought all South Wennock knew that.”
Perhaps all South Wennock did know it; nevertheless Mrs. Smith did not. It was a singular fact that Mrs. Smith until that hour had remained ignorant of Mr. Carlton’s Christian name. She might possibly have heard it before, but if so it had escaped her notice. The plate on his door was no longer “Mr. Lewis Carlton;” it had been changed to “Mr. Carlton” upon his father’s death.
This little incident, the revelation of the name and Mr. Carlton’s uncalled for anger, had made a great impression on Mrs. Smith. She had always surmised that Lewis must have been the Christian name of Mrs. Crane’s husband, and her doubts of Mr. Carlton were certainly aroused. She had said to Lady Jane this present morning that she was trying to “put two and two together,” and could not do it. In plain English, had she but spoken out, she would have said she was suspecting Mr. Carlton, but wanted the clue to unite facts with doubts. After she had made this remark, Lady Jane showed her the letter, and she thought Mrs. Smith would never have ﬁnished looking at it, which she did in silence, making no comment.
“Would you mind leaving this note with me for an hour or two, my lady?” she then asked. “I should like to think it over when I am alone.”
Lady Jane saw no reason why she should not leave the note: she still thought it had been written to Mr. Crane; and after her departure from the cottage, Mrs. Smith sat down, note in hand, and deliberated; not upon whether Mr. Carlton was guilty or not; the letter, which she saw correctly, had completely settled that doubt in her own mind: but upon what her course should be to work it home to him, to bring him to his punishment. Never for a moment had Mrs. Smith wavered in her intention to bring Clarice Beauchamp’s destroyer to justice if she succeeded in discovering him, and that she knew she had done now. Lady Jane Chesney in her own home felt not more sure of Mr. Carlton’s guilt, now that she had heard Judith’s story, than did Mrs. Smith in her home at Tupper’s cottage, not having heard it.
“What had I best do?” she communed with herself. “See a magistrate at once, and tell my story; or see a lawyer, and get him to act? I have not been much in the way of these things, thank Heaven, and I hardly know the right manner to set about it. But I’ll do one of the two this blessed night.”
When the mind is in this excited, determined frame, action is almost imperative, and Mrs. Smith put on her bonnet to go out. But she found her progress frustrated. The young woman-servant, who had been away all the afternoon, and only came back to the cottage when Lady Jane was leaving it, positively declined to be left alone in the house with the little dead boy.
“You great simpleton!” exclaimed Mrs. Smith in her indignation. “You are old enough to know better. What do you suppose that dead baby would do to you?”
The girl could not say what; had no very defined idea what; but she wholly refused to try. If Mrs. Smith went out, she’d go out too; she’d not dare to stop.
The difficulty was solved by an arrival, that of Mrs. Pepperfly. Never had the old woman been so welcome to Mrs. Smith, and she contented to stay the evening. In point of fact, it was just the intention she had come with.
“Who are the magistrates here?” asked Mrs. Smith.
“Magistrates?” repeated Mrs. Pepperfly, looking astonished.
“Are there any living about here? I wanted to see one.”
Mrs. Pepperfly could not get over the surprise. Magistrates and their places of domicile were not much in her line of knowledge, and she really could give no information. “If it’s to register the boy’s death, it ain’t a magistrate you must go to,” she said. “And you’ll want a certificate from Mr. Carlton. Them register men won’t do nothing without one.”
“It’s not to register the death, that’s done; it’s for something else—a little private matter of my own. Perhaps you can recommend me to a clever lawyer?—he might do for me better than a magistrate.”
“The cleverest lawyer I know is Mr. Drone, two doors from the Red Lion,” returned Mrs. Pepperfly. “He haven’t got his equal in the place. Let anybody in a bit o’ trouble go to him, and he’s safe to pull ’em through it. He’s what they call the justices’ clerk.”
Accepting the recommendation, Mrs. Smith set forth on her night walk. She passed down the Rise, and through the town as far as the Red Lion. Just beyond, on the door of a private house, she read “Mr. Drone, Solicitor;” she rang at the bell, and asked to see him.
Mr. Drone was anything but an exempliﬁcation of his name; he was a little man, particularly brisk and active. He came to Mrs. Smith with a red face; he had been eating his dinner, and had since been toasting himself over the fire, for it was a cold night.
The fire in the inner office, a small square room, where Mrs. Smith had been shown, was nearly out, but the lawyer cracked it up, and put on some more coal. They sat down, the table covered with the lawyer’s papers between them, and Mrs. Smith told her tale from beginning to end, the little lawyer, in his eagerness, interrupting her with perpetual questions.
The story astonished him beyond expression. Again and again he asked whether there could be no mistake. Mr. Carlton, who stood so well in the good graces of his fellow townsmen, the destroyer of that poor Mrs. Crane! and Mrs. Crane was his wife, and the sister of the Ladies Chesney? Mr. Drone thought he had never heard so improbable a tale—off the stage.
Mrs. Smith, calm, patient, persistent, went over it again. She spoke of Lady Jane’s visit to her that afternoon, she handed him the letter her ladyship had left with her. Mr. Drone began to think there must be something in the story, and he set himself to recall as many particulars as he could of Mrs. Crane’s death; he had been fully cognisant of them at the time, as clerk to the magistrates.
“Does Lady Jane Chesney suspect Mr. Carlton?” he asked.
“Not she,” replied Mrs. Smith.
“She has no idea it was Mr. Carlton that was Mrs. Crane’s husband. She suspects it was a Mr. Crane who married her, but she does think Mr. Carlton knew of the marriage, for he was a friend of Mr. Crane’s. I’m not sure but she fears Mr. Carlton knew more about the death than he’d like to say; only, however, as Mr. Crane’s friend.”
“But I can’t see why Mr. Carlton should have destroyed this poor young lady?—allowing that he did do so, as you suspect,” urged Mr. Drone.
“Nor I,” said Mrs. Smith. “Unless any of his plans were put out by her coming down, and he was afraid it would be found out that she was his wife.”
The lawyer pulled at his whiskers, his habit when in thought. “You see there’s no certainty that she was his wife—that she was married at all, in fact.”
“Then there is, for I’d stake my life upon it,” angrily returned Mrs. Smith. “I’m as certain she was married as that I was married myself. You are as bad as my husband, sir; he’d used to say as much.”
“The chief thing would be to get a proof of it,” composedly returned the lawyer. “It would supply the motive, you see. I suppose you never obtained the slightest clue as to where the ceremony took place?”
“N—o,” returned Mrs. Smith, hesitating at the word. “I remember once, the winter that she was at my house at Islington, we were talking about churches and marriages and such things, and she said, in a laughing sort of way, that old St. Pancras Church was as good a one to be married in as any. It did not strike me at the time that she meant anything in saying it; but it’s just possible, sir, she was married there.”
Mr. Drone’s brisk eyes twinkled, and he made a memorandum in his pocket-book. He made other memorandums; he asked about five hundred questions more than he had already asked. And when Mrs. Smith departed, he stood at the door to watch her away, and then jumped into the omnibus just starting for Great Wennock station, and sent the following telegram to London:
“Henry Drone, South Wennock, to John Friar, Bedford Row.
“Search old St. Pancras register for 1847. Certificate of marriage wanted: Lewis Carlton to Clarice Beauchamp, or perhaps Clarice Chesney. Lose no time; bribe clerk if necessary, and send special messenger down at once with it, if obtained;”