Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Lord Oakburn's daughters - Part 28
LORD OAKBURN'S DAUGHTERS.
BY THE AUTHOR OF "EAST LYNNE."
CHAPTER LV.AN INTERRUPTED LUNCHEON.
Mrs. Smith of Tupper's cottage and Mr. Henry Drone, solicitor, and clerk to the magistrates at South Wennock, were holding a hot argument, almost a fight. With the dawn of the winter's morning, Mrs. Smith had presented herself at that gentleman's office, demanding, and obstinately persisting in the demand, that the case should be laid before the magistrates as soon as they met, and a warrant asked for to apprehend Mr. Carlton. Mr. Drone dissented: he saw no reason for being so precipitate.
"Look here," said he, "if you let this affair get wind before it's ripe, you may defeat your own ends. I am not sure that the magistrates would grant a warrant as the case stands; it's a ticklish thing, mind you, to arrest a gentleman of hitherto good repute; once the case is taken before the court, it will be blazoned from one end of South Wennock to the other, and Mr. Carlton—if he felt so inclined—might find escape facile.
"That's just what I want to prevent," retorted Mrs. Smith. "If the warrant is granted at once, he can't escape."
"But we cannot make sure that they will grant the warrant. I don't know that I would myself if I were one of the bench. I declare I couldn't sleep last night for thinking of the story, it is so strange a one; doubt after doubt of it arose in my mind; and I came to the conclusion, times and again, that there must be some great mistake; that it could not be true."
"And you don't mean to go on with it!" resentfully spoke Mrs. Smith. "I'd not have told you all I have, if I had thought that."
"Softly, ma'am," returned the lawyer, "I have said nothing of the sort. I do mean to go on with it. That is, I'll lay the case before their worships, and they can do as they please in it. What I urge is, don't strike before the iron's hot. When the subject of the accusation is a man like Mr. Carlton, enjoying the confidence of the town, and the husband of a peer's daughter, the bench won't grant a warrant lightly; they must have something beyond mere suspicion."
"And is there nothing here beyond mere suspicion?" asked Mrs. Smith.
"As you put it—yes. And perhaps the magistrates may consider so. But I say we should be at a great deal more certainty if we could get the copy of the marriage certificate down. I tell you I have telegraphed for it: that is, I have telegraphed for the register at old St. Pancras Church to be searched. If it's found, that copy will be down here in the course of the morning."
"And if it's not found, sir?" rejoined Mrs. Smith in a blaze of anger. "It's quite a wild-goose sort of chase to search for it at all, in my opinion. She might just as well have been married at any other church in London as at that. The remark she made might have meant nothing. If it had meant anything, I should have seen and suspected it at the time."
"I think it likely that it did mean something. We lawyers, ma'am, are apt to suspect these remarks; at any rate, we sometimes think it worth while to discover if, may be, they have a meaning or not."
"Then I'm thankful that I am not a lawyer, was the retort.
Mr. Drone shrugged his shoulders, as taking the words literally. "It's as pleasant a life as any, for what I see. All callings have their annoyances and drawbacks. But what I wished to point out to you was this; that if that certificate comes down and we can produce it to the magistrates, they will have no loop-hole of excuse; they must grant the warrant of apprehension. And as I expect the certificate (if it is in existence) will be down this morning, the application had better wait an hour or two."
"Then, sir, I tell you that I'll not wait the hour or two. No, nor a minute. As soon as the court doors are open and the magistrates on the bench, the application shall be made. And if you don't like to appear and make it, I'll do it myself in person."
It was somewhat strange that Mrs. Smith, with her phlegmatic temperament, should put herself into this fever of resolute haste. Did she fear that Mr. Carlton would suspect, and slip away? It may be that she was vexed with herself for not having suspected him before, all the months that he had been visiting, almost daily, at her house. One thing was certain: so entirely was she convinced the past guilt was Mr. Carlton's alone, and so incensed was her feeling against him in consequence, that if she could have genteelly appended the surgeon with one of her silk pocket-handkerchiefs to any convenient beam, she had hastened to do it, and not waited for the delay and intricacies of the law.
Mr. Drone could make nothing of her. Once set upon a thing, perhaps no woman living was more persistently obstinate in having her own way than Mrs. Smith—and that’s saying a great deal, you know. The lawyer was not the first man who has had to yield, against his better judgment, to a woman’s will; and at eleven o’clock, for the magistrates met late that day, he accompanied her to the court, and requested a private hearing. Their worships granted it, and proceeded to business with closed doors.
Meanwhile Mr. Carlton was going his morning rounds, and chatting amicably with his patients, in complete ignorance of the web that others were tightening round him, utterly unconscious that even then a plot built up by his enemies had begun its operation. Oh, if some pitying spirit would but warn us of our peril, in these hours of danger! Could not one of those, that are said to rap at our tables, come and rap its warning message at our brains? They’d do some good then.
No friendly spirit rapped at Mr. Carlton’s. He paid his visits, driving from one house to another, and returned home rather earlier than usual. The sickness was abating in South Wennock as quickly as it had come on, and the medical men were, comparatively speaking, at leisure again. Mr. Carlton went into the surgery, looked in the visiting book, dotted down a few orders for medicines for Mr. Jefferson to make up when he came in, and at one o’clock went into the dining-room.
Lady Laura was there. It was the first day she had come down-stairs; that is, come regularly to her meals. She was just about to sit down to luncheon, and so very unusual a thing was it for her husband to come in to partake of that meal, that she looked at him in surprise.
“Ah, Laura! Down-stairs to luncheon again! I am glad of it, my dear.”
He spoke in a cheery, hearty, loving tone; very, very rarely did he speak in any other to his wife. The time was to come when Laura would remember those tones with remorse, and think how she had requited them.
“You are home early to-day,”' observed Laura, quitting the chair she had been about to take, and drawing nearer the fire while she talked.
“Earlier than I have been lately. Laura, I shall advertise the practice at once now.”
“Advertise the practice!”
“I am beginning to dislike this incessant work. And if I don’t make an effort some time we shall never get away. How early you went to bed last night!” continued Mr. Carlton, passing to a different topic.
“I was tired,” said Laura, evasively. In point of fact, she had not been tired the previous evening, but angry at Jane’s unexplained departure, and had gone to rest early.
“You are letting your luncheon get cold.”
Laura gave a side glance at the table and slightly tossed her head. She threw her eyes full at her husband as he stood opposite to her in the cross light of the front and side windows.
“So that child’s dead, I hear.”
“What child!” repeated Mr. Carlton, really not for the moment comprehending, for he was thinking of other things.
“As if you did not know! The child at Tupper’s cottage.”
“Oh yes; he died yesterday morning, poor little sufferer. The mother takes on dreadfully,” he added, after a pause.
“Will you affirm to me, now that he is lying dead, that the child was nothing to you? You know what I mean.”
“No,” returned Mr. Carlton with provoking coolness. “I answered you once on the point, and I thought you were satisfied. If you have been calling up the old fancies again, Laura, you must abide by it; I shall not allow them to trouble me.”
Thought she was satisfied! Little did Mr. Carlton suspect how far from “satisfied” she had been! What a turmoil of jealousy her mind had become since! Laura resumed.
“The mother ‘takes on,’ does she!”
‘She did yesterday morning. I was up there half-an-hour after the child’s death, and I think I never saw grief so passionate as hers was for the moment. I was astonished. But when these cold hard natures yield to emotion, it’s apt to be strong. I daresay it spent itself long before the day was over.”
“I suppose you soothed it for her.”
Mr. Carlton looked quickly at his wife: was she bringing up this absurdity again? “Laura?”
“What do you mean?”
Lady Laura’s pouting lips and flushed cheeks answered for her, and Mr. Carlton had no need to ask a second time. But the absurdity of the thing, as connected with Mrs. Smith, struck so ludicrously upon Mr. Carlton, that his whole face relaxed into an amused smile.
“Oh Laura! That hard old woman!”
Had he protested for an hour, it could not have opened her eyes to the real absurdity of her doubts more than did those simple words. She looked shyly up at him, her lip quivering. Mr. Carlton laid his hand fondly on her shoulder.
“Need I affirm it to you again, Laura?—that I never had any acquaintance with the woman, on my sacred word of honour. You cannot surely think it necessary that I should repeat it. What delusion can you have been giving way to?”
In truth Laura hardly knew. Except that it was one that had blinded her judgment and made her miserable. A conviction flashed into her mind that she had been altogether mistaken; and the chief sensation struggling through all the rest was one of shame, mingled with repentance, for having in this instance unjustly wronged him; for having betrayed her jealousy to the world, comprising Lady Jane and Judith; for having picked the lock of Mr. Carlton’s hiding-places.
She raised her hand, took his from her shoulder, and left her own within it, the tears trembling on her eyelashes. Mr. Carlton bent his face to hers.
“We will soon begin a new life elsewhere, Laura,” he whispered. “It shall not be my fault if clouds come between us then.”
Laura wiped her eyes and turned to the luncheon table. Two or three tempting little dishes were laid there. Lady Laura liked good living just as much as the earl had liked it. It was her pleasure not to be waited upon at luncheon, and she seized hold of two of the plates, now nearly cold, and held them to the fire. Mr. Carlton took them from her to hold them himself.
“You’ll take a bit with me to-day, Lewis?”
“It must be very little,” said he, sitting down. “I always make a good breakfast. What’s this? Stewed oysters. I’ll try one or two of these. Shall I give you some?”
Laura chose to take some. He had just helped her, and was about to put some on his own plate, when the door opened and Jonathan’s head came in. It was rather an unusual fashion for a footman to enter a room, and they both gazed at him. The man looked pale; as one scared.
“What is it, Jonathan?” asked his master.
“You are wanted, if you please, sir.”
“In the surgery? I’ll come in a minute.”
“No, sir; now please,” stammered Jonathan, looking more scared with every passing moment.
Mr. Carlton, struck with the servant’s manner, rose hastily. The thought which crossed him was, that some accident had been brought to the house. In the hall stood two policemen. Jonathan shut the dining-room door after his master.
Another minute and it was opened again. Lady Laura, curious to know what the wonder was, came to see. The matter-of-fact officers, with their impassive faces, had closed round Mr. Carlton, one of them showing what looked like a piece of paper, as he spoke in an under tone; and the servant Jonathan stood apart, with open mouth and staring eyes. The moment Mr. Carlton perceived Lady Laura, he drew the policemen into the opposite room and closed the door.
“Jonathan, what’s all that?”
“Goodness knows, my lady,” replied Jonathan, swallowing down his breath with a gulp.
“What do those policemen want? You are looking frightened. What did they say? What did you hear?”
“I wish you wouldn’t ask me, please,” hesitated the man, in his simple good-nature. “It would not do you good to hear it, my lady.”
“How dare you refuse, Jonathan?” she imperiously returned. “Tell me instantly.”
“Oh, my lady—I heard something about murder, and taking my master before the magistrates for examination.”
She did not believe it; she quite laughed at Jonathan. But at that moment they came out again, and Mr. Carlton advanced to her. There was that in his aspect, which caused his wife to cower against the door-post. Or was it that her own vague fears were frightening her?
“Laura, I am going out on business to the town hall. I shan’t be longer than I can help.”
Her faint cry resounded through the hall. It seemed such a confirmation of the words spoken by the servant.
“Oh, Lewis, what is it? Jonathan says it is something about murder!”
“Nonsense, nonsense,” heo peevishly exclaimed. “It is some absurd mistake, which I shall soon set right. Don’t be foolish; I shall be home to dinner.”
There was no time for more. It seemed but the work of a moment. Mr. Carlton went out and walked up the street, one of the policemen by his side, the other strolling behind.
Utterly bewildered, as much with the suddenness of the affair as anything, Lady Laura gazed around her for some explanation; but all she met was the startled face of Jonathan, not a whit less astounded than that of his mistress. Passionate and impetuous, she dashed out to the front gate, looking after them, as if that would afford her some explanation. It was just what the sailor-earl would have done.
And there Lady Laura became aware of the fact that a genteel mob were attending on the steps of Mr. Carlton and his escorters. The fact was, some version of the affair had got wind in the town, and people were up in arms. More and more astonished, Lady Laura perhaps would have run after them, but she caught sight of Mrs. Pepperfly, who had come into contact with the running mob at the gate, and was not improved in temper thereby. Lady Laura knew the nurse by sight, had occasionally spoken to her, and she seized hold of her arm.
“Tell me what the matter is!” she panted. "You know!”
Mrs. Pepperfly’s first movement was to go as quickly as she could inside the house and pull Lady Laura with her. The old woman shut the dining-room door upon them, leaving poor Jonathan alone in the hall.
“If you don’t tell me at once, I shall die,” came the passionate appeal. “What is it?”
“It’s one of them there ways of Providence we hears on when we has time to go to church,” was Mrs. Pepperfly’s lucid answer. “To think that we should have lived all these years and never suspected Mr. Carlton!—and him attending of the child every day at Tupper’s cottage! But murder will out. Yours is hard lines, my poor lady!”
Lady Laura, in her dreadful suspense, her vehement impatience, nearly shook her. Thought is very quick—and it was only that morning she had heard of the child’s death.
“Has he been murdered?—That child at Tupper’s cottage?”
“He!” responded Mrs. Pepperfly. “Bless your ladyship’s dear heart, he went off natural, like a lamb, with his bad knee. It’s his unfortunate mother.”
“Is she dead?” gasped Lady Laura, still more apprehensive ideas arising to her. “She, the woman?”
“Not her,” cried Mrs. Pepperfly, jerking her thumb over her shoulder to indicate the locality of Tupper’s cottage. “She warn’t his mother at all, as it turns out. It were that———"
“Not his mother!” interrupted Lady Laura; and all the absurdity of her past jealousy seemed to rise up before her in a moment, as it had done just before.
“No more nor me,” said Mrs. Pepperfly. “It were that other unfortunate, what I nursed my own self, my lady; she as was cut off by the prussic acid in Palace Street, and they do say it were Mr. Carlton that dropped it in. And her name was—oh dear, but it’s hard lines for all your ladyships!”
“Her name was what?” asked Laura, with blanched lips.
“Not Mrs. Crane at all, my lady, but Clarice Chesney. That is, Mrs. Carlton; for they say she was his wife.”
Lady Laura sank into a chair, terror-stricken, powerless. Mrs. Pepperfly, who was troubled with no superfluous sensitiveness on her own score and did not suspect that other people were, and who could talk enough for ten if once set going, continued:
“Folks tells of the finger of Fate, and such like incomprehension, but if Fate’s finger haven’t been in this here pie, it never were in one yet. It have all come to light through a letter, my lady; a letter of Mr. Carlton’s, which they say your ladyship found and got out of a place where it had laid for years, and gave it to my Lady Jane Chesney. And that letter have brought it home to him, and the justices had got it right afore their noses when they give the warrant to take him up.”
She sat back in her chair, her eyes dilating, her countenance one living horror. She! That letter! Had her underhand work, her dishonourable treachery against her husband, brought this to pass? Oh, miserable Laura Carlton! Surely the reminiscence would henceforth haunt her for ever!
“Now, poor dear lady, don’t take on so! We all have to bear, some in our minds, and some in our bodies; and some in our husbands, and some in having none. There ain’t nothing more soothing than a glass of gin-and-water hot,” added the sympathising Mrs. Pepperfly, “which can be had in a moment, where the kitchen’s got a biler in it, always on the bile.”
She turned about her rotund person to see if she could discover any signs of the chief ingredient for compounding that restoring cordial. The interrupted luncheon on the table, cold though it was now, looked tempting, as did the long green bottle, which Mrs. Pepperfly supposed contained some foreign sort of wine, and there was a sideboard with suggestive-looking cupboards in it. The old woman talked on, but Laura seemed dead to hearing, lying back with the same glassy stare, and the look of horror on her white face.
“If your ladyship wouldn’t object to my ringing of the bell, and asking for a spoonful of biling water from the servants, I’d soon bring the colour back into your cheeks. What a world this might be, my dear lady, if our minds never met with no upsets! I have been upset too with the news, I have, this morning, and ain’t recovered yet. And there was that pest of a crowd I got into outside, a poking in of my ribs and a treading of my shins! A quarter of a tumbler of gin-and-water hot———"
“Come home with me, Laura,” interrupted a soft voice, subdued in its grief, “come home with me. Oh, child, this is hard for us all; cruelly hard for you. Let me take you, Laura; my home shall henceforth be yours. Our father seemed to foresee storms for you when he was dying, and left you to me, he said, should they ever come.”
Laura rose up, her eye flashing, her face hot with passion, and stood defiantly before Lady Jane.
“Did you denounce him? Did you treacherously show up the letter you took away with you? It was well done, Lady Jane!”
Jane bent her sorrowful face, so calm and good in its pity, upon the raging one. “It is not I who have done it, Laura. Denounce your husband? No, I would have carried the secret with me to the grave, for your sake.”
Laura sank down again in the revulsion of feeling, and burst into a flood of tears most distressing to witness. She laid her head on her sister’s bosom, and openly avowed the part she had enacted, regarding the safe and the skeleton key. Remorse was taking possession of her. And Mrs. Pepperfly, subdued to meekness in her astonishment, dropped a silent curtsey and retired, cruelly grieving over the hot gin-and-water which might have been so near.
CHAPTER LVI.THE EXAMINATION.
Somewhere about the same hour that the arrest of Mr. Carlton took place, or possibly a trifle later, Lady Grey was sitting at work in her house in Savile Row, when a telegraphic despatch was brought in from Great Wennock. She did not open it; it was addressed to Sir Stephen; but she believed she knew what the contents must be, and smiled to herself over her sewing.
“Another excuse for a day or two more with Lucy,” she said to her husband when he came in, as she handed him the message.
“Then I shall send Mr. Fred a peremptory mandate,” returned Sir Stephen, not feeling pleased. “He ought to have been up a week ago. Halloa! what’s this?”
“Great Wennock Station, one o’clock, p.m. Frederick Grey to Sir Stephen Grey, M.D.“The mystery of the prussic acid is on the point of discovery. Come off at once, if possible. I have heard you say you should like to be present at the clearing. Tell my mother I was right.”
Sir Stephen read it twice over and then aloud to his wife. “What a strange thing!” he exclaimed, in the surprise of the moment. “And ‘tell my mother I was right!’ What on earth does he mean, Mary?”
Lady Grey made no satisfactory answer. She had never spoken of her son’s rash and, as she deemed, unjustifiable suspicion of Mr. Carlton, and she would not speak of it now.
“Shall you go, Stephen?”
“This very moment. There’s nothing to prevent me to-day, and I’d go to the end of the world to be proved blameless in the eyes of South Wennock. I hope I shall just catch a train!”
In point of fact Frederick Grey had been made aware a trifle earlier than the general public, of what was going on before the magistrates, and he had mounted a fleet horse and sent off the telegram to his father. He would not have aided to bring the guilt home to Mr. Carlton; nay, he would have suppressed it had it lain in his power; but if it was to be done, it was well that his father should be present at his clearing.
He rode more leisurely back again; but not very leisurely either, for South Wennock was in excitement today. And he found the examination of Mr. Carlton already begun, every body connected with it deep in the proceedings.
He might have walked on the people’s heads in the vicinity of the court; not a tenth portion could get into the small place designated by the grand name of town hall. Never had South Wennock been in the like commotion; that which had occurred at those past proceedings, connected with the death of Mrs. Crane, was as nothing to this.
But the crowd recognised his right to a place, as the son of the once accused man, Stephen Grey; the justices did the same; and Frederick was politely offered (providing he could got to the spot) about an inch and a half of room on the bench. His Uncle John occupied a seat on it; people made much of the Greys that day.
Frederick found the examination tolerably advanced. Mrs. Smith had given her evidence in public, declaring all she knew and all she suspected, for, allow me to tell you, you who are not aware of the fact, that a bench of country justices consults its own curiosity as to what it shall and shall not hear, and sometimes has a very indefinite notion indeed of whether such and such evidence can be legally tendered in law. The justices’ own opinion stands for law in many places. Judith Ford was under examination when Frederick entered, and the prisoner, as we are compelled to call Mr. Carlton, perpetually interrupted it, and got into hot squabbles with his defender in consequence. This gentleman was a Mr. Billiter, universally called Lawyer Billiter by South Wennock. He had been sent for in great haste to watch the case for Mr. Carlton, and was exerting himself to the utmost: they had been intimate acquaintances. Mr. Carlton stood his ground with calm equanimity. Ho was very pale, but nobody in South Wennock had ever seen him otherwise; and at moments he stirred as if restless. Calm, good-looking, gentlemanly, he appeared little suited to his position in that court.
“I protest against this going on,” he was saying for about the fiftieth time, as Frederick Grey edged himself on to the inch and a half of bench. “I protest against this woman’s evidence. I say—as I said at the time—that the person who lay ill was a stranger to me; what interest, then, could I———"
“Now, Carlton, I won’t have it,” interrupted Lawyer Billiter, wiping his hot face. “I declare, if you do ruin your cause in this manner, I’ll leave you to it. You be quiet, and trust to me.”
“But I did not know her, and I shall say it,” persisted the prisoner. “I ask what motive———"
“We cannot hear this, Mr. Carlton,” at length interposed the bench, tolerant hitherto, but Mr. Carlton was not an ordinary prisoner. “You can make your defence at the proper period; this is only wasting the time of the bench, and can do you no possible good. You must let the witness give her evidence.”
The witness looked rather uncertain what to do, what with the gaze of the crowded court, and Mr. Carlton’s interruptions. It was evident that Judith Ford was not a very willing witness.
“Go on, witness,” said the magistrate. “You looked into the room, you say, and saw Mr. Carlton. What was he doing?”
“He had a small bottle in his hand, sir,”: replied Judith; “a very little tiny bottle; but that he held it up, right in the light, I should not have been able to distinguish what it was. He was putting the cork into it, and then he dropped it into his waistcoat pocket. After that he took up the other bottle———"
“What bottle?” interrupted Lawyer Billiter, snapping up Judith.
“The other bottle that stood on the cheffonier, close to his hand; it was a bottle the size of those sent in by Mr. Stephen Grey with the night draughts. The cork lay by it, and he took up the cork very quickly and put it into the bottle———"
“You can’t swear that it was the bottle and draught just sent in by Mr. Stephen Grey?”
“No,” said Judith, “but I think it was. I could see that it had a label on it, and it was full of medicine. No other bottle in the house, but that, was full that night, as was testified to by the nurse at the inquest.”
“Go on, witness,” interposed the bench, drowning Mr. Carlton’s “but.”
“When Mr. Carlton had corked it up,” resumed the witness, “he placed it in a corner of the shelf of the cheffonier, in a slanting position, and came out of the room very quickly; so quickly, that I had no time to get away. I went to the side of the landing, and stood against the wall, but———"
“Where he would pass you as he went downstairs?”
“Oh, no, sir, he would not pass me; I was further up, nearer to the bedroom door. He saw me standing there; at least he saw my face, and spoke, asking what I was; but I did not answer, and he looked alarmed. While he went back for the light, I slipped into the broom closet by the bedroom.”
“But you were not the dark man with whiskers, to whom allusion has been so often made?” exclaimed one of the astonished magistrates.
“Yes, I was, sir; at least I was what Mr. Carlton took to be a man. I had my cheeks tied up with black plush, on account of the face-ache, a piece on each side, and the plush and the frilled black border of my cap looked just like whiskers in the uncertain light.”
“But why did you disguise yourself like that?” was the inquiry of the magistrate, when the surprise had in some degree subsided. “What was your motive?”
“I beg your pardon, sir, but I had not meant it for any disguise,” replied Judith. “I had no thought of such a thing. My face was in great pain and much swollen, and Mr. Stephen Grey had told me I ought to tie it up. I had no other motive in doing it. Had I waited for Mr. Carlton to see me when I brought out the light, he would have known who it was.”
“This is a most extraordinary avowal, witness!” struck in Lawyer Billiter, who indeed spoke but in accordance with his own opinion and the general feeling. “Pray had you any knowledge of Mr. Carlton previous to this?”
“Not any,” was the reply. “I had seen him passing in the street in his carriage and knew him by sight from that circumstance; but he had never seen me in his life.”
“And now, witness, what was your motive for watching Mr. Carlton from the landing on this night, as you tell us you did?”
“Indeed I had no motive,” was the earnest reply of the witness; “I did not purposely watch him. When I heard a movement in the room as I got to the top of the stairs, I feared it was Mrs. Crane—as I have stated to you—and I looked in quietly, thinking how very imprudent it was of her. I did not know anybody except Mrs. Crane was up—stairs; I had no idea Mr. Carlton was there. But when I looked in I saw it was Mr. Carlton, and I saw him doing what I have told you. It all happened in an instant, as it were, and he came out before I could well get away from the door.”
“And why did you not avow who you were when he asked, instead of getting away?”
“Again I must say that I had no ill motive in doing it,” replied the witness. “I felt like an eaves-dropper, like a peeper into what did not concern me, and I did not like to let Mr. Carlton know I had been there. I declare that I had no other motive. I have wished many a time since, when people have been talking and suspecting the ‘man on the stairs,’ that I had let myself be seen.”
“And you mean to tell us that you could go up these stairs and into this closet without Mr. Carlton’s hearing you?”
“Oh yes, I had on my sick-room shoes. They were of list; soles and all.”
“Did you suspect, witness, that Mr. Carlton was doing anything wrong with the medicine?” asked one of the magistrates.
“No, sir, I never thought of such a thing. It never occurred to me to think anything wrong at all until the next morning, when I was told Mrs. Crane had died through taking the draught, and that it was found to have been poisoned. I doubted then; I remembered the words of greeting I had heard pass between Mr. Carlton and his patient the former night, proving that they were well acquainted with each other; but still I thought it could not be possible that Mr. Carlton would do anything so wicked. It was only at the inquest when I heard him swear to what I knew was false that I really suspected him.”
“It’s as good as a play!” ironically spoke Lawyer Billiter. “I hope your worships will have the goodness to take notes of the testimony of this witness. What she says is most extraordinary, most incredible,” he continued, looking from one part of the packed audience to another; “in my opinion it is tainted with the gravest suspicion. First of all she deposes to a cock-and-bull story of hearing terms of endearment pass between Mr. Carlton and his patient, to whom he had only then been called in as a medical attendant; and next she tells this equally incredible tale of the bottles! Why should she, above all others, have been seated in the dark in Mrs. Crane’s bedroom that ﬁrst night?—why should she, above all others, have come stealing up the stairs the second night, still in the dark, just at the particular time, the few minutes that Mr. Carlton was there? This by-play amidst the bottles, that she professes to have witnessed, can only be compared to so many conjuring tricks! How was it, if she did so come up, that the landlady of the house, Mrs. Gould, and the nurse, Pepperfly, did not see her? They———"
“I beg your pardon, sir, for interrupting,” said Judith. “They were, both times, at their supper in the kitchen; I saw them as I went by. I have already said so.”
“Give me leave to finish, young woman,” reproved Lawyer Billiter. “I say,” he added, addressing the court collectively, “that this witness’s evidence is incomprehensible, it is fraught with the gravest doubt; to a clear judgment it may appear very like pure invention, a tale got up to divert suspicion from herself. It remains yet to be seen whether she was not the tamperer of the draught—if it was tampered with—and now seeks to throw the guilt upon another. Have the goodness to answer a question, witness: if you perceived all this committed by Mr. Carlton, how came it that you did not declare it at the time?”
“I have said,” replied Judith, in some agitation—“because I feared that I should not be believed. I feared it might be met in the manner that you, sir, are now meeting it. I feared the very suspicion might be turned upon me; as you are now trying to turn it.”
“You feared that your unsupported testimony would not weigh against Mr. Carlton?” interposed one of the magistrates.
“Yes, sir,” replied Judith. “I did not really suspect Mr. Carlton until after the inquest, and there was a feeling upon me then of not liking to speak as I had not spoken before: people would have asked me why I kept it in. Besides, I never felt quite sure that Mr. Carlton had done it: it seemed so impossible to believe it.”
“And, confessing this, you now take upon yourself to assert that Mr. Carlton was dropping the prussic acid into the draught while you were squinting at him through the door?” sharply asked Lawyer Billiter.
“I don’t assert anything of the kind,” returned Judith, “I have only said what I saw him do with the bottles; I have said nothing more.”
“Oh,” said Lawyer Billiter, “you have said nothing more, haven’t you, young woman! I think it must strike everybody that you have insinuated more, if you have not said it. Your worships,” he added, turning to the bench, “there is not, as it appears to me, a tittle of evidence that ought to weigh against Mr. Carlton. He tells you that the young lady, Mrs. Crane, came here a stranger to him as she did to all others, and there’s not a shade of proof that this is untrue; that he ever knew her before. You cannot condemn a man like Mr. Carlton upon the sole testimony of an obscure witness; a servant girl who comes forward with a confession of things that, if true, should have been declared years ago. With the exception of certain words she says she heard pass between Mr. Carlton and the sick lady, there’s no evidence whatever that they were not strangers to each other———"
“You forget the letter written by the lady to Mr. Carlton the night of her arrival,” interrupted one of the magistrates, alluding to the unfortunate letter found by Lady Laura, and which had brought on the trouble.
“Not at all, your worship,” undauntedly returned the lawyer. “There’s no proof that that letter was addressed to Mr. Carlton—was ever in his possession. The woman Smith’s story of its having been handed to her by the Lady Jane Chesney, and that Lady Jane received it from Mr. Carlton’s wife, goes for nothing. I might take a letter out of my pocket, and hand it to your worship, saying that the party from whom I received it told me he had had it from the Khan of Tartary; but it mightn’t be any the nearer truth for his saying it.”
There was a smile in the hall. Mr. Carlton touched his lawyer on the sleeve, and the latter bent to him.
“What letter is it that is in question?”
For it was a positive fact that Mr. Carlton, up to this moment, had heard nothing of the letter. The policeman who arrested him had not mentioned it: and, on his arrival at the Town Hall, the proceedings were commenced in so much haste and confusion that he had but a vague idea of the details of the charge. Lawyer Billiter was sent for afterwards; and he gathered his necessary information from others, more than from the prisoner.
“Don’t you know about it?” returned the lawyer, in a whisper. “Haven’t you seen the letter? Why, it’s that letter that has done three parts of the mischief.”
“I have not seen or heard of any letter. Where did it come from?”
“Out of some safe in your cellar,—as I am given to understand. It’s an awkward letter, mind you, Carlton,” added the lawyer, confidentially, “unless you can explain it away.”
“Have they been searching my house!” asked Mr. Carlton, haughtily, answering the only portion of the explanation which had struck him.
“Not at all. I’m not sure that the Bench know how it was obtained yet, except that Lady Jane Chesney lent it to that Mrs. Smith for an hour or two; and her ladyship said she got it from Lady Laura. I met Pepperfly———"
“But there was no letter in the safe,” interrupted Mr. Carlton, puzzled by the words. “I can’t tell what you mean. Can I see the letter?”
Lawyer Billiter asked permission of the Bench, and the letter was handed to Mr. Carlton. To describe his inward astonishment when he saw the letter that he had thought he had burnt years and years before would be impossible. He turned it about in his hands, just as he had once turned about the torn portion of its copy before the coroner: he read it word by word; he gazed at its faded characters, faded by the hand of Time; and he could not make it out at all. The Court gathered nothing from his aspect, save surprise—surprise that looked genuine.
“I protest—I know nothing of this letter!” he exclaimed. “It is none of mine.”
“It was found in your possession, in a safe that you keep locked in your cellar,” said the Bench, who were wiser than Mr. Billiter thought.
“It never was found there,” returned Mr. Carlton, impressively. “I deny it entirely; I declare that I never had such a letter there as this. I thought some false conspiracy must be at work!”
“Don’t you recognise the letter, Mr. Carlton?” inquired the Bench, who were deferent to Mr. Carlton yet, and could not address him or treat him as they did prisoners in ordinary.
“How can I recognise a letter that I never saw before?”
“You have seen part of it before, at any rate. You must remember the portion of a letter produced at the inquest on Mrs. Crane. The inference to be drawn now is, that she abandoned that letter in writing it on account of the blot she made, and began this fresh one. The words in the two are the same.”
“Are they the same?” rejoined Mr. Carlton. “I had forgotten; it is a long while ago. But to whom was this letter written?”
“You perceive that it is addressed to you.”
“I perceive that my name is on the cover, the envelope. How it got there, or what it all means, I am at a loss to imagine. This letter appears to be written to the lady’s husband, not to me, her medical attendant.”
“The deduction sought to be drawn from the letter is, that it was written to you as her husband. Of course, that is not yet proved.”
“I beg to thank your worship for that admission,” volubly spoke Lawyer Billiter. “It is not proved. On the contrary, it will not be my client’s fault, or mine either, if we do not prove that the whole charge is false, arising, it may be, out of some strange mistake. A more improbable charge was certainly never brought against a medical man. Why should Mr. Carlton deliberately kill a patient—a young lady whom he was called in to attend, a perfect stranger to him? He ———"
“If the greeting, testified to by the witness Judith Ford, may be believed, she was not a stranger to him, Mr. Billiter.”
“True, your worship; but you will scarcely feel inclined, I fancy, to accept that young woman’s word before Mr. Carlton’s. I repeat, there’s not a shadow of proof, if you put that witness’s word aside, that Mr. Carlton had any previous acquaintance with Mrs. Crane. All the probabilities tend the other way; and, without that proof, it is impossible to pursue this charge against him. Mrs. Crane herself spoke of Mr. Carlton as a stranger to her, as she did of the Messrs. Grey. The widow Gould———"
It seemed that Lawyer Billiter’s eloquence was fated to be perpetually cut short. A noise at the back of the hall caused him to turn angrily. “What was the cause of the noise?” the magistrates as angrily demanded, and they were answered by their clerk, Mr. Drone.
“Some important evidence has arrived from town, your worships.”
Important evidence from town! Their worships gazed in the direction of the commotion; everybody else gazed; the prisoner gazed. But all that could be seen was the blooming person of Mrs. Pepperfly, who was making her appearance late, and not altogether steady on the legs. Some policemen were endeavouring to force a way for her through the dense crowd, for they supposed her testimony would be wanted; but their efforts were useless. A slim figure might have been got through, but Mrs. Pepperfly, never. Groaning, exhausted, a martyr to heat, and dreadfully cross, she commenced a fight with those around her as effectually as her crushed state permitted.
But the stir, while it baffled Mrs. Pepperfly, enabled another to get through the mass: a tall, slim young man, who twisted in and out like an eel, and got to the front at last.
He was the important evidence from town; that is, he had brought it with him. After conferring a few moments with Mr. Drone, he took from his pocket-book a folded paper. Mr. Drone inspected it with curious eyes, and then handed it to the waiting magistrates.
It was a copy of the certificate of a marriage solemnised in London, at St. Pancras Old Church, early in July, 1847, between Lewis Carlton and Clarice Beauchamp.