Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The strange story of Kitty Hancomb

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VII  (1862) 
The strange story of Kitty Hancomb
by Henrietta Tindal (as Diana Butler)

The names in this more-or-less true story have been changed: Catherine Canham (not Hancomb) married Reverend Gough (not St. George) and Lord Dalmeny (not Dalrie).
"Diana Butler," the author's pseudonym, is the name under which she previously published her novel The Heirs of Blackridge Manor (1856).



Kitty Hancomb (Photographed from the original Painting)

Her portrait hangs opposite to me—above the piano; it is very delicately painted, only the most transparent shadows have fallen upon that exquisite oval face.

Tradition says that this likeness was taken abroad by an Italian artist, and all picture-loving strangers, who enter our drawing-room, look at it again and again, as if they knew instinctively that a story must belong to the owner of the remarkable countenance which confronts them with so much cold dignity, and a calm defiant expression of proud reserve. Nor are these visitors mistaken. The original of that portrait was a most prosperous and undetected criminal, who buried in her own breast all the secret penalties and harassing anxieties which inevitably pursue the guilty; having sinned advisedly, and made her own bargain with her own soul, she kept her dark counsel securely to the last half hour of her life, and was carried to her grave with all the pomp which became a most virtuous and right honourable matron, attended by two chief mourners, who had courted and wedded her in true love and faith—both of whom she had cruelly deceived, yet both forgave her, and were bitterly grieved to find her so guilty at last. She must have been a very lovely woman. The brown hair is turned off her fine forehead, but one shadowy curl wanders over her neck and bust; her eyes have a more glowing tone of colour, they are singularly liquid and melting; her profile is slightly aquiline, and an indescribable expression of finesse and determination lurks about her full but firmly-closed mouth; the carriage of the lady’s head is haughty, and she looks perfectly conscious of her commanding beauty, as, with one slender bloodless hand, she daintily fingers a blue scarf, which falls over the right side of her dusky pink dress. The original of this portrait was, for a short time, the wife of one of my great-uncles, whom I will call Mr. St. George, therefore hers is a family story, which I am often called upon to tell whether in the vein or not; so, once for all, I have resolved to put it on paper, this dreary summer day, when the wind is whistling an autumnal tune, and the leaves and flowers are weeping in the rain, and the air is heavy with the scent of the large white syringa blossoms which are laid in foreign countries about the beloved dead; the monotonous tolling from a distant cemetery falls upon my ear meanwhile, in grave concord with the melancholy weather, and the task to which I have set myself.

On the 11th day of February, 1720, Robert Hancomb, and Judith his wife, brought their little daughter to be baptised, and they gave her the name of Catherine. Her father was a prosperous yeoman, dwelling on a fertile promontory which juts out boldly into the German Ocean. He farmed several hundred acres of the best corn lands in England; they are salted by the sea fogs, and a tract of marine marshes lies beyond, where his cattle fed, and the plovers grey and golden came in autumn, and long strings of wild fowl alighted in frosty nights—the wild white swans, and dun birds were among them, and the heavy black geese. A picturesque old manor house was the residence of the occupying tenant of this great farm; it is built of dark bricks, with curious round gables, and a tiled roof. On one side, among a few fine elms, stands the parish church, at a considerable distance from the village and parsonage to which it belongs. On the other is the old-fashioned plentiful kitchen-garden, with sunny fruitful walls, and a many-coloured margin of well-known English flowers, while the wealthy stackyard, and extensive range of farm-buildings are grouped on a green opposite the house.

The happiest and most innocent years of Kitty Hancomb’s life were spent in this pleasant home, but the old hall, in its most manorial days, had never sheltered a spirit so restless and aspiring as hers. The fame of her great loveliness spread early: before she had advanced far in her teens she was the beauty and popular toast of her agricultural district. The eyes of every man she met paid her the same tacit homage of involuntary admiration; but she looked down upon her equals among the wealthy yeomanry, for her thoughts wandered to the two great houses of the neighbourhood, where “the faithful Commons” were powerfully represented by a selfish placeman, enjoying the most lucrative appointments, of whose character and career we may read in Lord Stanhope’s “Life of Pitt,” and “Selwyn’s Memoirs;” while a great Earl, who descended illegitimately from the Princes of Orange, did the honours for the House of Peers on the same promontory; so, when time went heavily at these fine places, a gay band of guests would sally forth in quest of amusement, and very gallant gentlemen, and ladies, whom Sir Joshua painted, sometimes found their way to the lonely old hall, to gaze at the rare young beauty who blossomed among her native corn fields; and, while they patronised and flattered her, the girl adroitly caught something of their tone and air, as well as the fashion of their dresses. But though the fine gentlemen stared very boldly, and whispered with her when the great ladies were not looking that way, not one of them talked to her of marriage—it remained for that rash step to be taken by the young vicar of a neighbouring parish. He bore the name and arms of a knightly family, now ennobled, and long resident in a midland county: he was the second of three brothers who had received their education at the University of Cambridge, and were afterwards well beneficed clergymen in our Church. When Alexander St. George had resolved on taking so much beauty and restless pride to his retired parsonage, he invited the youngest of his fraternal band to accompany him on one of his visits to Kitty Hancomb.

Now, Maurice St. George was a far shrewder man than Alexander. Though a popular preacher, he enjoyed the reputation of being the best hand at whist in his county: he was a fine scholar, a genial, intelligent bon-vivant. Of course, such a man was the chaplain and intimate friend of the Earl, and the constant guest of the wealthy placeman we have described: his social and literary talents were rewarded by a vicarage, and a rectory, and a prebendal stall; moreover, he had himself made a prudent marriage; therefore he was not prepared, perhaps, to look very favourably on the dowerless yeoman’s daughter of whose airs and graces he had heard so much. Family tradition does not say that Alexander St. George asked for the advice which, after half an hour’s conversation with Kitty, Doctor Maurice emphatically tendered as they drove home side by side.

“Don’t do it, brother, don’t!” reiterated the prebendary. “A beautiful creature, a lovely woman—who will play you a trick, depend upon it, Alexander!—who will play you a trick, if you only give her the chance.”

However, of course the young vicar married our heroine, and the sequel of their history verified my grandfather’s prediction; he, probably saw that the girl did not love his brother, and knew that she was totally unfitted for the duties and position of a clergyman’s wife. She brought many disturbing qualities and great bitterness of spirit into the remote parsonage and quiet study at Stoke, but no children were born of their ill-starred union, and, unsoftened and undisciplined, remained the singular and selfish character which has left its subtle, but discernible traces among lineaments and colouring of so much refinement.

The name of Mrs. St. George had not been injuriously associated with that of any gentleman up to the hour of her disappearance; but she had been always discontented with her own lot, and very confident in the power of her beauty. At last she resolved to break away from every relationship and connection, to quit the scenes of her past life for ever, and to start afresh on another stage, unincumbered by any ties or duties. Two accounts are given concerning the manner of her departure: in the first it is stated that Catherine was present, with Mr. St. George, at a masquerade in the house of a friend whom they were visiting in London; and that during the course of the evening she walked from the crowded reception rooms, unobserved by her husband, with a mysterious companion, whose name and rank have never transpired, or been surmised. The second version says, that our heroine set forth from home alone, one fine day, without making any explanation, or leaving the vaguest clue behind by which her route or destination could be traced. She had taken all her measures with an extraordinary ingenuity and deliberation; the inmates of Stoke Vicarage watched and waited for her return, but she never came back to them alive. She has not been charged with defrauding Mr. St. George of anything besides herself: she must therefore have started on her enterprise with a very light purse and slender wardrobe. But here occurs a hiatus in her story which her husband’s family have never been able to fill up. It was reported that she frequented places of public amusement, and lived disreputably in London for a time. If this account be correct, she certainly never endured the hardships, or passed through the degrading vicissitudes to which she had rendered herself liable. However, the owner of that reticent mouth and able forehead was no common character among our unhappy sisters, who have “forsaken the guides of their youth, and forgotten the covenant of their God.” She speedily met with a powerful protector, and gained all that she had learned to covet in very early days; but nothing was heard of her at Stoke until the summer of 1752, and to find her again we must travel far away from the great farm, its corn lands and marine marshes; far from Mr. St. George’s parsonage on our eastern coast, to “Verona’s Champain,” as Dante and his faithful Carey have it, to a sick room in an Italian villa. On her deathbed lay the lost wife, and among the terrible bloom and brightness of hectic fever the haunted soul looked out in the anxious intensity of her glowing brown eyes, and mental emotion and physical suffering were indicated by the painful working of her thin nostrils. A young man knelt beside her, listening and watching for every word, symptom, or look. He remained there night and day, with his fingers linked in hers, and on one of them he had placed the only wedding ring which she wore then. His was that fearfully prodigal love which the reverent mind contemplates mournfully, since it is doomed to end in darkness—so idolatrous was his devotion to a human being, so complete and desperate his abandonment to an earthly passion: he had given all indeed—heart and spirit—to the perishing woman before him, and he never counted the cost, or reckoned how large was his venture, until she was taken, and he had made utter shipwreck.

John Viscount Dalrie might have been about twenty-five years of age: he was the heir to an earldom, and his countess-mother descended from the house of “proud Argyle.” Her son was distinguished for personal grace and beauty; he possessed a highly cultivated exquisitely sensitive mind, and the hapless young nobleman proved himself as gravely enduring and courageously faithful as the stoutest and most chivalric knight in the long rolls of his ancestry. He met Mrs. St. George during one of his visits to London; but tradition is silent as to how, or under what circumstances, he made her acquaintance. Her great beauty and charming grace of manner captivated him, and he appears to have accepted, without inquiry, the account which she found it convenient to give of herself. He actually married her, and they went abroad together immediately after the ceremony. It was not at all probable that this friendless, mysterious woman could be graciously received as a daughter by his noble parents, and concealment was everything to Catherine; a prolonged absence from England would give her far better chance of escaping detection, and, without doubt, she urged this plan upon him.

During the next four years they travelled over the greater part of Europe, never remaining long in any place, since Catherine was more restless than even in former days, and she now carried in her own bosom certain fierce pursuers, from whom there is no escape. Lord Dalrie’s confidence in her merit and truth was never clouded by suspicion or doubt; but the increasing delicacy of his dear companion’s health occasioned him great uneasiness. The keeping her guilty secret, the constant watchfulness, anxiety, and relentless self-restraint attendant on the consistent maintenance of the imposture in which she had embarked, were slowly consuming her natural spirits and sapping her strength; during those years of external prosperity she had known little peace, for He whom she had forsaken took his place permanently in her thoughts beside Him whom she had deceived.

Catherine could not forget all that she would; inextinguishable memories and an unwonted tenderness for lost friends and former scenes came over her in her sickness; she found it very difficult to smother these feelings sometimes. The fragrance of her native bean-fields was remembered among the orange-trees of Italy; the shadow of the tall churchyard elms still reached her there; the cheery chiming or measured tolling of the bells in the belfry beside her early home; and the sullen murmurings of that distant restless northern sea.

But the season for the indulgence of mournful sentiments and subdued regrets was past; the uncontrollable terrors of death and judgment were upon her. If she would do anything, it must be done quickly—some decision was imperative; and her heart failed within her as she seemed to be sinking lower and lower in her tenderly guarded deathbed. She could not deceive herself; her crime was utterly selfish. Happily, no voice ever called her mother. No children were born of her second worthless marriage, to give her a motive, colourable even to herself, for maintaining her successful deception. Maternal affection could not interpose to mask the enormity of any part of her guilt; and all that she had acquired, at such a ruinous price, was passing from her,—and become, long before dissolution, entirely void, indifferent, and wearisome. Of the many luxuries with which her lover had surrounded her,—of all the costly, beautiful, and delicious things that she had won or worn,—only a bed to die upon, only some cold water to moisten her lips, could she use or accept then. In her state of painful langour, even the gentle tokens of that lover’s inextinguishable affection, were a trial and trouble to her. Had she dared to act according to her inclinations, she would have thrust away the hand that imprisoned her own, and the fine young face that pressed towards hers. She would have motioned him to stand aside, and turned her face to the wall, while an avenging conscience wrung from her proud, unwilling spirit the graceless and tardy resolution to confess her hidden guilt before, but only just before, she died. She knew that this revelation must change the beloved and honoured wife, the dignified lady of title, into a criminal impostor, with the branding irons, and all the horrors of the prisons of the time, before her. No wonder that she did not wish to survive her confession one hour; her plan was to make it at the last, the very last, and to be gone!

When exhaustion and unconsciousness would have been quieting human care in almost any other brain, that which worked under the pale high forehead before me was engaged in calculating the amount of her diminishing strength, and keeping watch lest death should surprise her before she had completed the work which she had reserved for the last minutes of her life; and she was able to execute her plan, and to time her confession with the utmost accuracy.

She had not over-estimated the strength of her own will, or the tenacious vitality of her brain; she could act deliberately, and reason, after her speech was gone; her mind could dictate, and her hand obey then, and she made signs for pen and ink. With the death-dews bursting over her forehead, she lived to complete these sentences, which, containing no superfluous syllable, reveal the truth, and indicate faintly her own slow repentance.

“I am the wife of the Rev. Alexander St. George, Vicar of Stoke, in Dashshire. My maiden name was Catherine Hancomb. My last request is to be buried at Stoke.”

Great was the dismay of Lord Dalrie on reading the contents of the paper which fell from beneath his wife’s fingers, as her ears closed against his passionate appeals for explanation.

She was gone before he had gathered the astounding meaning of the lines she had written. At first he discredited them altogether: it was quite impossible to believe that the dear companion of his happiest years was so strangely guilty. A shocking hallucination had passed before a diseased and fading mind; the indistinct remembrance of some trouble connected with her early friends might have recurred to her in these last moments, and taken this confused and distressing form. Only one passage of that writing was intelligible to Lord Dalrie, and he instantly prepared to comply with her earnest request “to be buried at Stoke, in Dashshire.”

The body of this beautiful and much loved woman was carefully embalmed, and secured “in a very fine coffin decorated with six large silver plates;” it was then placed in a strong wooden case, which entirely concealed the ominous shape and hue of the burden within. The jewellery and handsome wardrobe which had belonged to the deceased were packed in other chests; and with this cumbrous baggage the young Viscount set forth on his mournful and tedious pilgrimage, from Verona, by land, to the coast of France. The ordinary difficulties of such a journey in those days seem almost incredible in these; but Lord Dalrie considered neither trouble nor cost; he derived his only consolation from fulfilling Catherine’s dying wishes.

Most probably the lurking doubts which must have beset him gathered strength by the way, for we find him engaging a ship to carry him and his freight to Dover, under the assumed name of Mr. Williams, a Hamburg merchant; and he does not seem to have retained a single attendant in his service. On landing, he discharged this vessel, thus destroying one more clue to detection; and he hired another to convey him and his chests to the seaport which lay nearest the village of Stoke. However, all his calculations were disconcerted by contrary winds, which drove him into the harbour of H——, several miles lower down the coast. It was here that the Custom-house officers came upon the scene. Though the signature of the King of France was appended to the carefully drawn credentials of Mr. Williams, they refused to identify as a Hamburg merchant this gentleman in deep mourning, of very distinguished manners and figure, who declared that he could only speak French and Latin, and sat despondingly among his suspicious chests, resolutely declining to give any further account of himself or his baggage.

We must remember that only seven years had elapsed since the disastrous rebellion of ’45; there was a popular Pretender on the continent, and many intriguers on the alert at home. But setting aside this political aspect, and regarding the affair in a businesslike manner, it certainly became the duty of the officials to examine the contents of the traveller’s boxes, since not only did Cognac, Schiedam, and tobacco arrive there in an illicit manner, but French gloves and brocades, Mechlin and Lille laces, and costly trimmings of Court Point found their way into England under very curious disguises along our eastern coasts. We know of some valuable pieces of ornamental china that came from the Celestial Empire by way of Holland, plunged deeply in firkins of innocent butter, which passed unexamined through a Dashshire custom-house. Therefore, without paying the slightest attention to the French and Latin remonstrances of Mr. Williams, the revenue officers were proceeding to plunge their hangers into the largest chest, when the Hamburg merchant clapped his hand on his sword, and commanded them to desist, for therein was laid awaiting burial, at the place which she had appointed, the corpse of his dear wife; but this violent explanation, so far from giving the officials any confidence or increased satisfaction, only deepened and darkened their suspicions against this eccentric traveller. They now most probably held the clue to some terrible case of mysterious murder! They immediately broke into the case, wrenched off the lid of the coffin, and the boldest hand among them lifted the cere-cloths from the face of the embalmed body. The gentleman in whose possession the corpse had been found was then taken, with his supposed victim, to the vestry of the church at H——, and detained there several days under strict surveillance: he was not to be allowed to bury his dead until he had cleared himself of all suspicion; and as the churchyard to which he was bound happened to be situated in the same county, it was hoped that the corpse, or its guardian, might be recognised by some one among the crowds of curious people from the town and neighbourhood, who came and went as they pleased, to see and consider the strange spectacle of this embalmed lady and the foreign gentleman who so faithfully attended upon her. He showed no inclination to abscond, and they pronounced him a “very genteel person,” and a “man of quality.” But as he sat there, the object of so much wonder and idle curiosity, Lord Dalrie sometimes burst into tears of passionate indignation at the unseemly exposure of his dear wife’s remains. An awful change had been passing over that beloved face ever since the light and air of the living world had been admitted to this citizen of the grave. We can remember no recorded instance of a similar ordeal of an equally prolonged duration. Though Iñes de Castro was raised from her coffin to receive the homage of the Portuguese nobles: her mouldering form was carried immediately afterwards to its marble resting-place in the Monastery of Alcobaça, and very brief was the visit which a crazy king of the adjoining realm paid to his entombed Louise.

Lord Dalrie strictly preserved his incognito, until a visitor came into the vestry, who understood French and Latin, who spoke like an educated courteous gentleman to the lonely mourner, and it happened to be this person also who first recognised the changing features of the inmate of the rich coffin, and told the young widower what were the names which had once belonged to his beloved Catherine. Mr. St. George was immediately communicated with, and he learned the manner of his lost wife’s return to her native country, and her strange adventures since she had parted from him. It is not surprising that he should have “put himself into a passion,” as our printed authority states, nor, considering the social tone of the day, that he so far forgot his clerical obligations as “to threaten to run Lord Dalrie through the body.” But when he had had time to consider the whole piteous truth, the deception which had been practised on this true nobleman, and the passionate constancy which had upheld him through his toilsome land journey, and the rude annoyances following his passage by sea, and still kept him at his post beside her coffin in the church at H——, the first husband of Kitty Hancomb consented to meet the young Viscount, who yet persisted in calling her “his dear wife” also.

The interview is said to have been “very moving,” and Lord Dalrie earnestly assured Mr. St. George of his entire innocence, and of the honest intentions which he had entertained throughout the affair; but even this discovery of Catherine’s guilt did not put his love to shame, nor shake his determination to attend upon her, even to the last. He accompanied the body to its interment at Stoke, followed by mutes and hired mourners muffled in crape and silk, and drawn by black-plumed horses. He gave this wretched woman the burial of a legitimate Lady Dalrie. The pompous cortége staid for a few minutes before the gate of the vicarage at Stoke, and the young nobleman hurried into the house, from whence he presently reappeared leading forth Mr. St. George, clothed in weeds as deep as those worn by himself, and they both stood, the chief mourners, beside her grave on the 9th day of July, in the year of our Lord, 1752.

In great depression, apparently inconsolable. Lord Dalrie departed, declaring that he should leave England immediately, and for ever; since he could not bear to enter it again. He survived Kate Hancomb exactly three years, dying on the 11th of August, 1755; during the lifetime of the Earl, his father, who expired in the following November. We gather these particulars from an old “Debrett’s Peerage” for 1814:—the very existence of John, Lord Dalrie, is passed over unrecorded in modern, and more popular “Peerages.” The name of this unhappy heir has been struck out of the history of his prosperous house. Mr. St. George took the evils of life more easily, but he never married again, and was laid in his quiet churchyard, on the 11th July, 1774. The family of Hancomb is extinct; Kitty’s monument has been lately removed by the vicar, and a flat stone put down over her remains to make the floor of the vestry. So there she is shut up out of sight and mind, along with the parish registers, and every Sunday, the officiating parson and clerk tramp solemnly over the author of a scandal, too great and romantic to be quite forgotten even in the third or fourth generation.

Diana Butler.