Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/A narrow escape


I should never have thought of my amiable friend, Mrs. Denison, as the heroine of such a tale as she related to me one evening in the autumnal twilight. Yet she, a timid, sentimental old lady, had really been placed in a position of extraordinary trial, and had come nobly out of it. And she told the adventure with an utter unconsciousness of anything heroic in her conduct, which added a strange charm to her recital.

When I was about seventeen or eighteen, (she said,) my father took me for change of air, after a slight illness, to the sea-side. I was romantic; moreover, I had been motherless from my infancy, and my dreamy fancies had received no check from the dull routine of my school-life, nor from my association with girls as silly as myself.

Shortly after our arrival at the watering-place, I was struck by the appearance of three people, who were often to be seen together of an evening on the sands. One was a very handsome woman of about forty-five; the others appeared to be her son and daughter. The son was one of the most interesting persons I ever saw. The daughter, who was about my own age, was very pretty. The mother was a cripple. She was drawn nearly every day to the same spot on the sands, and sat there watching the setting sun, while her children occupied themselves with gathering shells. Occasionally we met the brother and sister riding, and my father declared that he had never seen so good a horsewoman as the young lady.

One evening, as I was sitting on a low black rock or stone, near her chair, the elder lady spoke to me with a civil apology for troubling a stranger. She asked me if I could distinguish whether her son and daughter were on the beach. Her sight was too bad for her to see herself. I looked, and replied in the negative. She seemed anxious and uneasy, and kept turning her eyes in the direction from whence she appeared to expect them. I asked if she required anything? She thanked me, but replied that she wanted nothing; only she was anxious for her daughter’s appearance; she feared accidents when they were late home.

“I should think you could have no cause for fear,” I said, “your daughter rides so well.”

She assented with a sigh.

“I dare say,” she added, “I am foolishly nervous, but my life is a trying and monotonous one, and affords time for idle fears.”

I was sorry for her; it was very sad to be helpless and crippled at her age, and with her apparent health, so we gradually fell into conversation. Mrs. Deloraine—I remember what a charming name I thought it—was not very lady-like, still she was not vulgar. I could see she was not a highly-bred person; nevertheless she was interesting and clever, and had a very fascinating way of her own. After a time, the son and daughter returned; they thanked me for my kind attention to their mother, and were so pleasant and agreeable, that I was enchanted with them.

When I returned home, I teased my father to call on the Deloraines. He demurred at first; we know nothing of these people, he said; it was not wise to pick up acquaintances as one would shells; but I was urgent, and he seldom refused a request made by his motherless girl. He made a few inquiries; ascertained that Mrs. Deloraine and her children lived a quiet, secluded, blameless life in a lonely cottage, on the outskirts of the town; a place which the librarian told him had had the reputation of being haunted, and was let at a low rent; that they paid their bills; and were, apparently, respectable, good people. Then he consented to call on them.

We approached the Deloraines’ dwelling through an orchard and pine-grove, so dismal and gloomy in appearance, that I did not wonder at its ghostly repute. The cottage itself was an old house, built partly of wood, partly of brick. A very ill-looking man-servant opened the door, and ushered us into the drawing-room, where we found Mrs. Deloraine and her daughter.

The former was lying on a sofa placed against the folding-doors. She could not rise to receive us, but she greeted my father and me very warmly, and seemed delighted to make our acquaintance. He thought her manner theatrical and studied; but she managed, nevertheless, to please him, and the acquaintance, thus commenced, progressed into intimacy.

We rode together frequently, accompanied by my father and William Deloraine. I am quite sure that dear father never dreamed of anything like love between William and me; he still thought me a mere child; he was too much occupied by his own affairs to observe my gradual advance towards womanhood.

But I was gradually becoming attached to William Deloraine. He was just the sort of man to please an imaginative young lady like myself. Moreover he constantly betrayed his love for myself, and as constantly recalled the manifestation (if I may say so), by a sudden and distant coldness of manner, which piqued and teased me.

But I am not telling a love tale, and therefore will not linger over those tantalising but bewitching days. On one of them the desired declaration came; William Deloraine, in approved poetic phrase, assured me that he adored me. I referred him, of course, to my father. To my surprise, he hesitated; told me that an unhappy mystery clouded his life;—a fatal secret which he could not as yet reveal even to me; and he implored me to conceal our attachment from my father. Now, though I was very silly and romantic, and William gained an additional hold on my fancy by having a mystery attached to him, I was too honourable a girl to enter into an engagement without my kindest father’s sanction, and I said so at once. He was bitterly disappointed, for he hoped I should have consented to an elopement, or secret marriage; and I grew angry at the supposition.

We had a quarrel, but made it up afterwards, of course; and I promised to keep the secret of his avowal from my father, though I would promise nothing more. He declared also that he should keep his secret from his family; but I guessed that he had told Kate, as she looked vexed and disappointed when next I saw her. Nevertheless, our rides went on as usual.

One day when we were all out together, Kate and papa behind, William and I in advance, my lover suddenly drew up his horse, sprang to the ground, stooped, and then, holding up a pocket-book, cried, “Look here, Miss Morton!” I did look in considerable amazement, as I had distinctly seen him draw the pocket-book from his bosom, put it on the ground, and then take it up again. My father riding up, asked what was the matter. William exhibited the pocket-book, saying he had just picked it up. My father advised him to open it and see if the name of the owner was inside. He complied, and they examined it together. There was no name. The book contained a roll of bank-notes; and William, observing that they must advertise it, put it in his pocket. You will wonder that all this time I continued silent. But remember how young I was, and how shy. Besides, I had not the slightest idea what it could all mean; that there was a mystery—a secret—which Deloraine wished to veil under this apparent trouvaille, I believed, and since he had not intended to take me into his confidence, I fancied it would be dishonourable to betray him. For his part he had not noticed my silence, but re-mounting, began to chat gaily on indifferent subjects, and was even more than usually fascinating and attractive.

A few days afterwards an advertisement appeared in the local papers stating that a gentleman had found a pocket-book on H—— Hill, containing bank-notes, and that they would be restored to the owner on application, provided he could describe the contents of the book, and tell the numbers of the notes. This advertisement appeared daily during the remainder of our stay at the sea-side. My father remarked that Deloraine’s honesty put him to a great expense, and that it was singular no one claimed the pocket-book; then we took no further notice of the matter, though I secretly wondered what it could mean.

Once more before we left our sea-side home, Deloraine urged me to become his wife secretly. He was sure, he said, that my father would forgive me when once we were married; and I also should have been sure of that; indeed, I believed he would not have refused his assent at all, even though Deloraine was (as he avowed) poor; for I was a rich Welsh heiress, as you know. However, my lover was as strangely timid as I was confident in my beloved father’s goodness; and would have me keep his secret, and wait. Thus we parted without any engagement having been made between us.

I found my home in the Welsh valleys dismal enough when I returned to it. I missed the animation of the bathing-place; the society of bonny Kate; the sentimental devotion of her brother. Without excitement, without employment, I grew weary of my dull existence, and called my ennui disappointed love. After all, my dear, if the busy young ladies of this part of the century don’t do much real good to others, they do something for themselves in keeping their minds employed. It is astonishing how much foolish love imaginations are thus kept in check. As for me, I gave way to the vainest regrets and the most profitless day-dreaming. I cast from me God’s great gift of time sinfully, recklessly—my sole occupation being that of writing long letters to Kate, which she rarely answered. But one cannot be idle and discontented with impunity. I was naturally delicate, and I began to pay for my vain imaginings the tax of loss of health and good looks. My poor father was alarmed for me. He called in a physician, and as the doctor could not detect the real cause of my lassitude, he judiciously banished me, and sent me again to the sea-side. We had only been absent from it five months. It was March (close to the assize time) when we again took possession of our former lodgings; but much had happened during that period to “startle” the place “from its propriety.” My maid came to undress me the night of our arrival, quite eager to communicate her news.

“Oh, ma’am,” she cried; “you remember the Miss Deloraine you used to ride with when we were last here, and her brother?”

“Of course,” I replied, with a beating heart. “What of them?”

“Well, ma’am, they say Mr. William is taken up for forgery, and will be hanged.”

I nearly fainted; but my pride upheld me in my servant’s presence.

“What nonsense!” I said; “how can you repeat such idle scandal.”

“Well, I don’t believe it, of course; but the poor gentleman is in prison at A—— on the charge. They say that no end of forged notes have been passed here, and all have been traced back to Mr. Deloraine, his servant, or the ladies.”

I was horror-struck. I did not believe it: still I doubted. I had not heard from Kate for a long time, and assuredly there must be some ground of suspicion to cause William’s detention in prison, if he were really there. When I saw my father next morning I told him Sarah’s tale. He was greatly astonished, and declared he would ascertain its truth by riding over to A—— after breakfast.

How long, how miserable the hours were till he returned! But he came with a bright face: his heart relieved from a load of kind anxiety.

“It is quite true that the poor lad is in prison,” he said, in reply to my eager inquiries; “but by a mere accident. You remember his finding a pocket-book? Well, he was so imprudent—being pressed for money, he says—as to use some of those notes, intending to keep the numbers, and return the amount he spent, if they were ever claimed; but they proved to be forged; and he is taken up for passing them. He had actually directed his lawyer to appeal to us as witnesses of the manner in which he obtained them, and the letter is gone to Bryn Gellert.”

My heart ceased beating for the moment as I remembered how I had seen Deloraine take the book from his own bosom; but I was quite silent. Between horror and fear I could not speak.

My father continued:

“I have promised, of course, to appear for him; and probably you may be called on—”

“Oh! don’t let them call me! I can’t—I can’t,” said I, in an agony.

“Well, of course, it is unpleasant for a young lady to appear in a court of justice, and if I can prevent it you shall not; but we must not let proprieties peril a fellow-creature’s life.”

I made no reply. I would not for worlds have deprived Deloraine of my father’s testimony in his favour. And how could he give it if I spoke? Forgery was then punished with death. Could I voluntarily condemn, by my own words, the man whom I loved, to the gallows? I was wretched; distracted by doubt, fear, and horror, when my heart was wrung by receiving a letter from William (forwarded by the gaol chaplain), in which he thanked me for my kind remembrance of him, and said, how it pleased him, amidst all his trouble, to think that it was my testimony that would acquit him, for I had seen him find the fatal pocket-book. Imagine, if you can, my distress. I dared not write and tell him that I knew he did not find it, lest my letter should be read before it was given to him. I could only be silent on the subject, and urge my father to keep me from the public court, and prevent my being subpoenaed as a witness. Alas! it was in vain!

She paused—moved by the old sad memory.

“What did you do?” we asked.

The trial came on, (she continued.) It was distinctly proved that the Deloraine family and their servant had passed false notes, and that William had purchased a diamond ornament of a jeweller in London, and paid for it with a forged note. This tradesman was the chief witness against him. For his defence Deloraine declared, as he had told my father, that he had found the notes; and had merely borrowed their present use. My father was called to testify to the fact, and to state what he thought of Deloraine’s character. The latter statement was of course favourable, but on cross-examination it was proved that my father had not actually seen William pick up the book, and to my horror and despair I was put into the witness-box. I can never forget it! At this minute I can see Deloraine’s eager look at me—his look of love and trust and hope. A word from me would give him life!—a word consign him to the gallows! It was an awful temptation . . . But I dared not fail in truth; I could not—no, thank God! I was not perjured. I tried to hold the truth back; at least, I answered reluctantly; but my cross examination was severe, and when the counsel for the prosecution asked me—“Did you actually see William Deloraine find the book?” I almost shrieked my fatal “No!”

“Did you see him take it from his own person?”

There was a pause. I gasped out—“I did!” And then I heard a wild, piercing cry from the prisoner. I remember no more, for I fainted, and was carried out of court. Deloraine was condemned to death. He confessed his crime, my father told me; and showed much earnestness in acquitting his mother and Kate of all share in it. They were consequently set at liberty, for they, also, had been under restraint.

But I was miserable. I felt like a murderess, and besought my father, as he ever hoped to see me happy again, to procure a commutation of the sentence. We had powerful friends; and Mr. Morton used such exertions, that, difficult as the task was at that time, he achieved it, and the sentence of Deloraine was changed into transportation for life. All this dreadful anxiety increased my previous indisposition, and it became impossible for me to return home, as my father wished, when the trial and his subsequent efforts were over. So we remained by the sea-side. One day I received, to my astonishment, a letter from Kate Deloraine: it was full of gratitude for my father’s goodness in saving her brother from the last rigour of the law; and of regrets over his blighted life and their own ruined prospects. She did not blame me for the part I had had in his conviction. She pitied me for it, and said poor William admired my unshaken truthfulness.

“And now, dear Jane,” she concluded, “I am going to urge one last request. We are about to leave England for ever, to hide our shame and sorrow in a strange land. We go to-morrow. Will you come to the old cottage (to which mamma and I have returned) and bid me a last farewell, and hear a message poor William left, which will explain and extenuate, in a degree, his sad fault?”

This letter touched me deeply. I greatly desired to see Kate once more, to assure her how cruelly I had felt the dreadful duty cast on me, and to hear something more of William Deloraine. My father was from home; he had gone to spend a few days with a friend some ten or twelve miles off, and was not to return till the next day, or perhaps the following one. If he had been at home, assuredly I should not have been permitted to go, but as it was, my girlish enthusiasm, my lingering pity and tenderness for the convict William, induced me to comply. It was all very silly and romantic, I know; but so it was.

The cottage was within a walk, and not liking to expose the unhappy Deloraines to the curious gaze of servants, I determined to go alone, and for the same reason did not tell any of them whither I was going.

It was a chilly, windy April afternoon, about four o’clock, when I started on my walk.

I hurried along, and, in about an hour’s time, found myself in the lane leading to the cottage. It was certainly a very lonely place, and now association added to its natural gloom.

The grove had been much trodden and the trees broken in the search made by the Bow Street officers for graving-tools, &c. (which, however, they had failed to find), and altogether it looked very wretched and depressing. Just opposite the eastern gable of the dwelling, was an old oak of great size, which I was obliged to pass in approaching the door. As I glanced at it, I perceived a hole or cavity recently dug or uncovered (for I had never noticed it before) close to the root.

Why, I never knew, but the sight of it made me shiver, and altogether a strong feeling (perhaps induced by the dreariness of the place), made me turn back. Just as I did so, Kate Deloraine emerged from behind the tree and stood before me.

She was sadly altered, very pale and thin, and she shed bitter tears as I embraced her. I walked into the house with her. The drawing-room was empty; the sofa moved; the folding-doors opened.

“You miss my mother,” she said; “she is in her room, very ill; but she trusts that you will go up and see her—”

I assented, and then very timidly asked for William. She said he was about to sail for Botany Bay with the next party of convicts; that he was patient and resigned, and bore his fate better than could have been expected.

“Poor fellow!” she added, with real feeling, “he is very young, and was badly trained. I declare to you, Miss Morton, we never, either of us, knew what goodness was till we became acquainted with you.”

I looked, doubtless, as I was, astonished.

“No! our parents educated us without any principle,” she continued, “and though poor William so generously acquitted his family of all complicity in his guilt, they did not deserve it.”

At this minute the ill-looking man-servant opened the door and said Mrs. Deloraine would be glad to see me alone in the north parlour, an upper sitting-room in the gable end of the house. I did not know how to refuse, though Kate’s revelation had made me feel very uncomfortable. So I followed the man up-stairs into the little parlour where she and I had been wont to sit and talk and work during our brief intimacy. There was no one there; but James, muttering that Mrs. Deloraine would come directly, placed a chair for me and left the room, closing the door after him. I walked to the window, and looked out. The casement (it was nothing more) opened upon that part of the shrubbery in which the old oak, with its suspicious earth-hole, stood. As it caught my eye, the same misgiving I had felt just before, rushed on my mind. Was I looking at my own grave? . . . Very uneasy, I walked at once to the door, determined to go away immediately, but, on turning the handle, I found it was no longer possible for me to do so,—I was locked in! Obeying a first impulse I shook the door violently, and called loudly to be let out. No voice answered me.

I looked round the room; there was no other door, though, I remembered; and the window was too high up for me to jump out on the top of the verandah; yet even that I might be obliged to dare. I was evidently at the mercy of these people, whose aim in luring me thither, and making me a prisoner, must of course be to rob or murder me. With renewed fear I gazed out of the window on the gathering twilight. The wind moaned and sobbed round the old house, and shook the ill-fitting casement. I opened it and called for help as loudly as I could; but the breeze blowing full in my face nearly stifled my voice; and, save the old trees which creaked and bowed their huge heads towards me, I saw no living thing outside.

Twilight deepened into night, and I sank on my knees and prayed fervently for help in my hour of sore peril. I rose, strengthened with a new hope and fresh courage. I felt that I had enlisted a Mighty defender on my side.

At last, after a period of suspense which appeared years to me, I heard footsteps advancing to the door; the key turned in the lock, and Mrs. Deloraine—no cripple, but an agile, powerful woman—entered, followed by James, bearing a light and an inkstand.

“What is your meaning in thus making me a prisoner?” I asked firmly.

“I should think your own conscience would tell you, traitress!” was the reply. “Betrayer of my darling boy! The death he so narrowly escaped would be too good for you.”

“But he owes that escape to me, Mrs. Deloraine.”

“Yes! he is to live, that you may not suffer remorse. I understand it all. But what kind of life?—that of a felon!—my boy!—my pride!”

She clasped her hands passionately. The man whispered sullenly in her ear.

“You are right,” she said, “put down the ink, and get yonder writing-case. I suppose Miss Morton does not travel with a cheque-book in her pocket?”

“For once she does,” I answered steadily. “I feared poor Kate might need assistance, and put it in my pocket.”

And I drew it out.

“That is well!” she said, sternly. “Sit down and write a cheque for five hundred pounds.”

I complied readily. I had but fifty of my own allowance in my banker’s hands; for I had spent liberally of late, and had no present command of the large fortune I inherited. I felt convinced that her rapacity would defeat its object, for the banker would make inquiries before he cashed such a cheque. But the same thought had evidently occurred also to the man.

“It is too much!” he said, slowly, “fifty will be enough for our immediate wants. We dare not present a larger cheque.”

With a murmur, Mrs. Deloraine put the first cheque in her pocket, and desired me to write another—perhaps she kept the five hundred for some future opportunity.

“That will do,” said the man, taking the second; “now, come,”—to his mistress—“we have no time to lose.”

They turned to leave the room.

“You will allow me to go home now?” I asked.

“That is so probable!” said the woman, sarcastically. “That you may betray us again.”

“But I will pledge you my honour not to send after you, or give any clue to what has passed.”

“Oh! but you may be put upon your oath!” cried Mrs. Deloraine, mockingly.

“That is impossible, unless I gave information of my imprisonment; as for the money, it is a free gift—I intended to help you, as I told you.”

She sneered again.

“No doubt! Nevertheless as you might repent of it, we will not try you. Now listen! I hated you from the time you won my boy’s heart from me, and marred his young life for ever; and I swore, when I heard that you had betrayed him, to avenge him. I do so now! With the money you have given us, Kate and I will follow him to his place of exile. We shall have a success there, I fancy! For you,—you will remain in this room. It is not known in the town that we are here now; we were supposed to have left yesterday, therefore no trades people are likely to come near the house—in fact they have not troubled us with calls lately,—and as there is no food in the larder, and you might be starved, we shall lay a train to the house and put a slow match to it, in order that by the time we are safe off, the flames may bring you deliverers, or put you out of your misery.”

And she laughed a horrible, mocking laugh.

“You will not surely be so cruel,” I cried in an agony of fear. “You are but frightening me.”

“You will see! Good-bye, Miss Morton; thus I return our obligations to you.”

And forcibly releasing her arm from the clasp with which I sought to detain her, she left the room. I strove to get out of it at the same time; but the man pushed me in again with an oath, and I heard them lock and bolt the door after them.

Thus I was left to the anticipation of a lingering, horrible death. I opened the window and called for help again and again in vain. No one could hear me save those monsters. At last, I sank on a seat, and grew calm from exhaustion.

Very slowly the hours passed. I sate watching the wide space between the ill-fitting door and the floor, expecting every moment to see the red, dull glare of fire through it; but the grey dawn stole into the room, and still I saw no sign of the threatened conflagration. I was unharmed; only exhausted by want of rest, want of food, and that most horrible expectation.

The light grew, and there was still no perceptible fire. I began to hope that the match had gone out;—that I was safe. Alas! I was deceived. The house had ignited long ago, but the old damp wood smouldered slowly. By-and-by, when it was again near evening, I saw the red gleam I had so feared on the threshold, and I heard the rush and the hiss of the flames. A few moments, and the door would catch, and I must perish. Once more I rushed to the still open casement, and looked out.

Should I spring at the peril of my life to the verandah? There was nothing else left for me, and I was preparing to take a leap that might have been fatal, when a voice called to me from below.

“Stop, stop, Jane! Wait, I will save you!”

And I saw Kate Deloraine mounting a garden ladder placed against the verandah.

I watched her breathlessly. She ascended with ease, drew it up after her, and raised it to the window. I was out and on it, in a moment; I can scarcely tell how the descent was achieved, but I stood in safety at the bottom, clasping Kate’s hand.

“We have not a moment to lose,” she gasped. “I escaped them at our last stage, but when they find I am gone, they will guess why and where, and will follow me.”

At that moment we heard a sound of approaching wheels in the lane. I was so weak I could scarcely move; and she had to pull me and lead me to a fly standing near, in which she placed me. I observed that there was a crowd of people round the burning cottage, endeavouring to extinguish the flames—but we drove off apparently unnoticed.

“I am so sorry,” said poor Kate, “that I should have been made the instrument of placing you in such peril, Miss Morton. When my mother told me I might write to bid you farewell, and ask you here, if I pleased, I had no notion she intended so awful a crime,—nor did I know that they had left you in the cottage when we left it. But when they thought we were safe, my mother boasted of the revenge she had taken on you. Then I seized the first opportunity to escape from them, and returned in the same fly we are now in; leaving it in the lane while I sought for you. I feared they would have pursued me, but I was mistaken. Probably they thought if I returned to you it would be too late,—or James feared to venture back. The wheels we heard were those of the approaching fire engine.”

I shuddered—these people had been my friends! I would never blame English caution and reserve in future.

But by this time we reached my home. We found the servants in a great state of alarm at my disappearance; they had sent off for my father, though he was not yet arrived—and every search was making for me.

I was so exhausted that Kate, who placed me with great tenderness on a sofa, had to feed me; and to give me wine slowly; and before my father returned, I had sunk into a profound sleep from which I did not awake for hours.

When I did, I found him sitting beside me. He embraced me with joy and gratitude, and was eager to know where I had been, and what had befallen me—as all that the servants could tell him was, that Miss Deloraine had brought me back, very faint and ill.

I related my adventure, and he grew pale with horror and indignation as he listened. He vowed he would have the monsters traced, and as severely punished as their crimes deserved.

“But where is poor Kate?” I asked.

“She was gone when I arrived,” he answered. “Sarah says she left directly you fell asleep, telling the servants not to wake you, as you had had great fatigue and excitement. She left this note for you.”

And he gave me a little twisted paper written in pencil.

“Adieu, Miss Morton,” she wrote, “forgive me. You will never see me again. I go to the Continent to earn my living, as I was wont to do before I knew you, by riding in a circus. That woman’s crime has separated me from her for ever. Pray sometimes for poor Kate.”

“Poor thing!” we said. “And what became of her?”

“We never knew,” replied Mrs. Denison. “My father advertised for her, offering in the advertisement to provide for her if she would let us know where she was; but, probably, she never saw the paper containing it.”

“And that horrible Mrs. Deloraine and the man-servant? Were they ever found and punished?”

She shook her head.

“No. We had no railways, no electric telegraphs in those days. They escaped. Probably they went to Australia. We never heard of them again. By degrees we forgot the whole affair, or rather never thought about it. But you will allow I had a very narrow escape.”