The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 107/Griffith Gaunt; or, Jealousy
GRIFFITH GAUNT; OR, JEALOUSY.
She recoiled with a violent shudder at first; and hid her face with one hand. Then she gradually stole a horror-stricken side-glance.
She had not looked at it a moment, when she uttered a loud cry, and pointed at its feet with quivering hand.
"The shoes! the shoes!—It is not my Griffith."
With this she fell into violent hysterics, and was carried out of the room at Houseman's earnest entreaty.
As soon as she was gone, Mr. Houseman, being freed from his fear that his client would commit herself irretrievably, recovered a show of composure, and his wits went keenly to work.
"On behalf of the accused," said he, "I admit the suicide of some person unknown, wearing heavy hobnailed shoes; probably one of the lower order of people."
This adroit remark produced some little effect, notwithstanding the strong feeling against the accused.
The coroner inquired if there were any bodily marks by which the remains could be identified.
"My master had a long black mole on his forehead," suggested Caroline Ryder.
"'Tis here!" cried a juryman, bending over the remains.
And now they all gathered in great excitement round the corpus delicti; and there, sure enough, was a long black mole.
Then was there a buzz of pity for Griffith Gaunt, followed by a stern murmur of execration.
"Gentlemen," said the coroner solemnly, "behold in this the finger of Heaven. The poor gentleman may well have put off his boots, since, it seems, he left his horse; but he could not take from his forehead his natal sign; and that, by God's will, hath strangely escaped mutilation, and revealed a most foul deed. We must now do our duty, gentlemen, without respect of persons."
A warrant was then issued for the apprehension of Thomas Leicester. And, that same night, Mrs. Gaunt left Hernshaw in her own chariot between two constables, and escorted by armed yeomen.
Her proud head was bowed almost to her knees, and her streaming eyes hidden in her lovely hands. For why? A mob accompanied her for miles, shouting, "Murderess!—Bloody Papist!—Hast done to death the kindliest gentleman in Cumberland. We'll all come to see thee hanged.—Fair face but foul heart!"—and groaning, hissing, and cursing, and indeed only kept from violence by the escort.
And so they took that poor proud lady and lodged her in Carlisle jail.
She was enceinte into the bargain. By the man she was to be hanged for murdering.
The county was against her, with some few exceptions. Sir George Neville and Mr. Houseman stood stoutly by her.
Sir George's influence and money obtained her certain comforts in jail; and, in that day, the law of England was so far respected in a jail that untried prisoners were not thrown into cells, nor impeded, as they now are, in preparing their defence.
Her two stanch friends visited her every day, and tried to keep her heart up.
But they could not do it. She was in a state of dejection bordering upon lethargy.
"If he is dead," said she, "what matters it? If, by God's mercy, he is alive still, he will not let me die for want of a word from him. Impatience hath been my bane. Now, I say, God's will be done. I am weary of the world."
Houseman tried every argument to rouse her out of this desperate frame of mind; but in vain.
It ran its course, and then, behold, it passed away like a cloud, and there came a keen desire to live and defeat her accusers.
She made Houseman write out all the evidence against her; and she studied it by day, and thought of it by night, and often surprised both her friends by the acuteness of her remarks.
Mr. Atkins discontinued his advertisements. It was Houseman, who now filled every paper with notices informing Griffith Gaunt of his accession to fortune, and entreating him for that, and other weighty reasons, to communicate in confidence with his old friend, John Houseman, attorney at law.
Houseman was too wary to invite him to appear and save his wife; for, in that case, he feared the Crown would use his advertisements as evidence at the trial, should Griffith not appear.
The fact is, Houseman relied more upon certain lacunæ in the evidence, and the absence of all marks of violence, than upon any hope that Griffith might be alive.
The assizes drew near, and no fresh light broke in upon this mysterious case.
Mrs. Gaunt lay in her bed at night, and thought and thought.
Now the female understanding has sometimes remarkable power under such circumstances. By degrees Truth flashes across it, like lightning in the dark.
After many such nightly meditations, Mrs. Gaunt sent one day for Sir George Neville and Mr. Houseman, and addressed them as follows:—"I believe he is alive, and that I can guess where he is at this moment."
Both the gentlemen started, and looked amazed.
"Yes, sirs; so sure as we sit here, he is now at a little inn in Lancashire, called the 'Packhorse,' with a woman he calls his wife." And, with this, her face was scarlet, and her eyes flashed their old fire.
She exacted a solemn promise of secrecy from them, and then she told them all she had learned from Thomas Leicester.
"And so now," said she, "I believe you can save my life, if you think it is worth saving." And with this, she began to cry bitterly.
But Houseman, the practical, had no patience with the pangs of love betrayed, and jealousy, and such small deer, in a client whose life was at stake. "Great Heaven! madam," said he, roughly: "why did you not tell me this before?"
"Because I am not a man—to go and tell everything, all at once," sobbed Mrs. Gaunt. "Besides, I wanted to shield his good name, whose dear life they pretend I have taken."
As soon as she recovered her composure, she begged Sir George Neville to ride to the "Packhorse" for her. Sir George assented eagerly, but asked how he was to find it. "I have thought of that, too," said she. "His black horse has been to and fro. Ride that horse into Lancashire, and give him his head: ten to one but he takes you to the place, or where you may hear of it. If not, go to Lancaster, and ask about the 'Packhorse.' He wrote to me from Lancaster: see." And she showed him the letter.
Sir George embraced with ardor this opportunity of serving her. "I'll be at Hernshaw in one hour," said he, "and ride the black horse south at once."
"Excuse me," said Houseman; "but would it not be better for me to go? As a lawyer, I may be more able to cope with her."
"Nay," said Mrs. Gaunt, "Sir George is young and handsome. If he manages well, she will tell him more than she will you. All I beg of him is to drop the chevalier for this once, and see women with a woman's eyes and not a man's,—see them as they are. Do not go telling a creature of this kind that she has had my money, as well as my husband, and ought to pity me lying here in prison. Keep me out of her sight as much as you can. Whether Griffith hath deceived her or not, you will never raise in her any feeling but love for him, and hatred for his lawful wife. Dress like a yeoman; go quietly, and lodge in the house a day or two; begin by flattering her; and then get from her when she saw him last, or heard from him. But indeed I fear you will surprise him with her."
"Fear?" exclaimed Sir George.
"Well, hope, then," said the lady; and a tear trickled down her face in a moment. "But if you do, promise me, on your honor as a gentleman, not to affront him. For I know you think him a villain."
"A d—d villain, saving your presence."
"Well, sir, you have said it to me. Now promise me to say naught to him, but just this: 'Rose Gaunt's mother, she lies in Carlisle jail, to be tried for her life for murdering you. She begs of you not to let her die publicly upon the scaffold; but quietly at home, of her broken heart.'"
"Write it," said Sir George, with the tears in his eyes, "that I may just put it in his hand; for I can never utter your sweet words to such a monster as he is."
Armed with this appeal, and several minute instructions, which it is needless to particularize here, that stanch friend rode into Lancashire.
And next day the black horse justified his mistress's sagacity, and his own.
He seemed all along to know where he was going, and late in the afternoon he turned off the road on to a piece of green: and Sir George, with beating heart, saw right before him the sign of the "Packhorse," and, on coming nearer, the words
He dismounted at the door, and asked if he could have a bed.
Mrs. Vint said yes; and supper into the bargain, if he liked.
He ordered a substantial supper directly.
Mrs. Vint saw at once it was a good customer, and showed him into the parlor.
He sat down by the fire. But the moment she retired, he got up and made a circuit of the house, looking quietly into every window, to see if he could catch a glance of Griffith Gaunt.
There were no signs of him; and Sir George returned to his parlor heavy-hearted. One hope, the greatest of all, had been defeated directly. Still, it was just possible that Griffith might be away on temporary business.
In this faint hope Sir George strolled about till his supper was ready for him.
When he had eaten his supper, he rang the bell, and, taking advantage of a common custom, insisted on the landlord, Thomas Leicester, taking a glass with him.
"Thomas Leicester!" said the girl. "He is not at home. But I'll send Master Vint."
Old Vint came in, and readily accepted an invitation to drink his guest's health.
Sir George found him loquacious, and soon extracted from him that his daughter Mercy was Leicester's wife, that Leicester was gone on a journey, and that Mercy was in care for him. "Leastways," said he, "she is very dull, and cries at times when her mother speaks of him; but she is too close to say much."
All this puzzled Sir George Neville sorely.
But greater surprises were in store.
The next morning, after breakfast, the servant came and told him Dame Leicester desired to see him.
He started at that, but put on nonchalance, and said he was at her service.
He was ushered into another parlor, and there he found a grave, comely young woman, seated working, with a child on the floor beside her. She rose quietly; he bowed low and respectfully; she blushed faintly; but, with every appearance of self-possession, courtesied to him; then eyed him point-blank a single moment, and requested him to be seated.
"I hear, sir," said she, "you did ask my father many questions last night. May I ask you one?"
Sir George colored, but bowed assent.
"From whom had you the black horse you ride?"
Now, if Sir George had not been a veracious man, he would have been caught directly. But, although he saw at once the oversight he had committed, he replied, "I had him of a lady in Cumberland, one Mistress Gaunt."
Mercy Vint trembled. "No doubt," said she, softly. "Excuse my question: you shall understand that the horse is well known here."
"Madam," said Sir George, "if you admire the horse, he is at your service for twenty pounds, though indeed he is worth more."
"I thank you, sir," said Mercy; "I have no desire for the horse whatever. And be pleased to excuse my curiosity: you must think me impertinent."
"Nay, madam," said Sir George, "I consider nothing impertinent that hath procured me the pleasure of an interview with you."
He then, as directed by Mrs. Gaunt, proceeded to flatter the mother and the child, and exerted those powers of pleasing which had made him irresistible in society.
Here, however, he found they went a very little way. Mercy did not even smile. She cast out of her dove-like eyes a gentle, humble, reproachful glance, as much as to say, "What! do I seem so vain a creature as to believe all this?"
Sir George himself had tact and sensibility; and by and by became discontented with the part he was playing, under those meek, honest eyes.
There was a pause; and, as her sex have a wonderful art of reading the face, Mercy looked at him steadily, and said, "Yes, sir, 'tis best to be straightforward, especially with women-folk."
Before he could recover this little facer, she said, quietly, "What is your name?"
"Well, George Neville," said Mercy, very slowly and softly, "when you have a mind to tell me what you came here for, and who sent you, you will find me in this little room. I seldom leave it now. I beg you to speak your errand to none but me." And she sighed deeply.
Sir George bowed low, and retired to collect his wits. He had come here strongly prepossessed against Mercy. But, instead of a vulgar, shallow woman, whom he was to surprise into confession, he encountered a soft-eyed Puritan, all unpretending dignity, grace, propriety, and sagacity.
"Flatter her!" said he, to himself. "I might as well flatter an iceberg. Outwit her! I feel like a child beside her."
He strolled about in a brown study, not knowing what to do.
She had given him a fair opening. She had invited him to tell the truth. But he was afraid to take her at her word; and yet what was the use to persist in what his own eyes told him was the wrong course?
Whilst he hesitated, and debated within himself, a trifling incident turned the scale.
A poor woman came begging, with her child, and was received rather roughly by Harry Vint. "Pass on, good woman," said he, "we want no tramps here."
Then a window was opened on the ground floor, and Mercy beckoned the woman. Sir George flattened himself against the wall, and listened to the two talking.
Mercy examined the woman gently, but shrewdly, and elicited a tale of genuine distress. Sir George then saw her hand out to the woman some warm flannel for herself, a piece of stuff for the child, a large piece of bread, and a sixpence.
He also caught sight of Mercy's dove-like eyes as she bestowed her alms, and they were lit with an inward lustre.
"She cannot be an ill woman," said Sir George. "I'll e'en go by my own eyes and judgment. After all, Mrs. Gaunt has never seen her, and I have."
He went and knocked at Mercy's door.
"Come in," said a mild voice.
Neville entered, and said, abruptly, and with great emotion, "Madam, I see you can feel for the unhappy; so I take my own way now, and appeal to your pity. I have come to speak to you on the saddest business."
"You come from him," said Mercy, closing her lips tight; but her bosom heaved. Her heart and her judgment grappled like wrestlers that moment.
"Nay, madam," said Sir George, "I come from her."
Mercy knew in a moment who "her" must be.
She looked scared, and drew back with manifest signs of repulsion.
The movement did not escape Sir George: it alarmed him. He remembered what Mrs. Gaunt had said,—that this woman would be sure to hate Gaunt's lawful wife. But it was too late to go back. He did the next best thing, he rushed on.
He threw himself on his knees before Mercy Vint.
"O madam," he cried, piteously, "do not set your heart against the most unhappy lady in England. If you did but know her, her nobleness, her misery! Before you steel yourself against me, her friend, let me ask you one question. Do you know where Mrs. Gaunt is at this moment?"
Mercy answered coldly, "How should I know where she is?"
"Well, then, she lies in Carlisle jail."
"She—lies—in Carlisle jail?" repeated Mercy, looking all confused.
"They accuse her of murdering her husband."
Mercy uttered a scream, and, catching her child up off the floor, began to rock herself and moan over it.
"No, no, no," cried Sir George, "she is innocent, she is innocent."
"What is that to me?" cried Mercy, wildly. "He is murdered, he is dead, and my child an orphan." And so she went on moaning and rocking herself.
"But I tell you he is not dead at all," cried Sir George. "'Tis all a mistake. When did you see him last?"
"More than six weeks ago."
"I mean, when did you hear from him last?"
"Never, since that day."
Sir George groaned aloud at this intelligence.
And Mercy, who heard him groan, was heart-broken. She accused herself of Griffith's death. "'T was I who drove him from me," she said. "'T was I who bade him go back to his lawful wife; and the wretch hated him. I sent him to his death." Her grief was wild, and deep. She could not hear Sir George's arguments.
But presently she said, sternly, "What does that woman say for herself?"
"Madam," said Sir George, dejectedly, "Heaven knows you are in no condition to fathom a mystery that hath puzzled wiser heads than yours or mine; and I am little able to lay the tale before you fairly; for your grief, it moves me deeply, and I could curse myself for putting the matter to you so bluntly and so uncouthly. Permit me to retire a while and compose my own spirits for the task I have undertaken too rashly."
"Nay, George Neville," said Mercy, "stay you there. Only give me a moment to draw my breath."
She struggled hard for a little composure, and, after a shower of tears, she hung her head over the chair like a crushed thing, but made him a sign of attention.
Sir George told the story as fairly as he could; only of course his bias was in favor of Mrs. Gaunt; but as Mercy's bias was against her, this brought the thing nearly square.
When he came to the finding of the body, Mercy was seized with a deadly faintness; and though she did not become insensible, yet she was in no condition to judge, or even to comprehend.
Sir George was moved with pity, and would have called for help; but she shook her head. So then he sprinkled water on her face, and slapped her hand; and a beautifully moulded hand it was.
When she got a little better she sobbed faintly, and sobbing thanked him, and begged him to go on.
"My mind is stronger than my heart," she said. "I'll hear it all, though it kill me where I sit."
Sir George went on, and, to avoid repetition, I must ask the reader to understand that he left out nothing whatever which has been hitherto related in these pages; and, in fact, told her one or two little things that I have omitted.
When he had done, she sat quite still a minute or two, pale as a statue.
Then she turned to Neville, and said, solemnly, "You wish to know the truth in this dark matter: for dark it is in very sooth."
Neville was much impressed by her manner, and answered, respectfully, Yes, he desired to know,—by all means.
"Then take my hand," said Mercy, "and kneel down with me."
Sir George looked surprised, but obeyed, and kneeled down beside her, with his hand in hers.
There was a long pause, and then took place a transformation.
The dove-like eyes were lifted to heaven and gleamed like opals with an inward and celestial light; the comely face shone with a higher beauty, and the rich voice rose in ardent supplication.
"Thou God, to whom all hearts be known, and no secrets hid from thine eye, look down now on thy servant in sore trouble, that putteth her trust in thee. Give wisdom to the simple this day, and understanding to the lowly. Thou that didst reveal to babes and sucklings the great things that were hidden from the wise, O show us the truth in this dark matter: enlighten us by thy spirit, for His dear sake who suffered more sorrows than I suffer now. Amen. Amen."
Then she looked at Neville; and he said "Amen," with all his heart, and the tears in his eyes.
He had never heard real live prayer before. Here the little hand gripped his hard, as she wrestled; and the heart seemed to rise out of the bosom and fly to Heaven on the sublime and thrilling voice.
They rose, and she sat down; but it seemed as if her eyes once raised to Heaven in prayer could not come down again: they remained fixed and angelic, and her lips still moved in supplication.
Sir George Neville, though a loose liver, was no scoffer. He was smitten with reverence for this inspired countenance, and retired, bowing low and obsequiously.
He took a long walk, and thought it all over. One thing was clear, and consoling. He felt sure he had done wisely to disobey Mrs. Gaunt's instructions, and make a friend of Mercy, instead of trying to set his wits against hers. Ere he returned to the "Packhorse" he had determined to take another step in the right direction. He did not like to agitate her with another interview, so soon. But he wrote her a little letter.
"Madam,—When I came here, I did not know you; and therefore I feared to trust you too far. But, now I do know you for the best woman in England, I take the open way with you.
"Know that Mrs. Gaunt said the man would be here with you; and she charged me with a few written lines to him. She would be angry if she knew that I had shown them to any other. Yet I take on me to show them to you; for I believe you are wiser than any of us, if the truth were known. I do therefore entreat you to read these lines, and tell me whether you think the hand that wrote them can have shed the blood of him to whom they are writ.
"I am, madam, with profound respect,
"Your grateful and very humble servant,
He very soon received a line in reply, written in a clear and beautiful handwriting.
"Mercy Vint sends you her duty; and she will speak to you at nine of the clock to-morrow morning. Pray for light."
At the appointed time, Sir George found her working with her needle. His letter lay on a table before her.
She rose and courtesied to him, and called the servant to take away the child for a while. She went with her to the door and kissed the bairn several times at parting, as if he was going away for good. "I'm loath to let him go," said she to Neville; "but it weakens a mother's mind to have her babe in the room,—takes her attention off each moment. Pray you be seated. Well, sir, I have read these lines of Mistress Gaunt, and wept over them. Methinks I had not done so, were they cunningly devised. Also I lay all night, and thought."
"That is just what she does."
"No doubt, sir; and the upshot is, I don't feel as if he was dead. Thank God."
"That is something," said Neville. But he could not help thinking it was very little; especially to produce in a court of justice.
"And now," said she, thoughtfully, "you say that the real Thomas Leicester was seen thereabouts as well as my Thomas Leicester. Then answer me one little question. What had the real Thomas Leicester on his feet that night?"
"Nay, I know not," was the half-careless reply.
"Bethink you. 'Tis a question that must have been often put in your hearing."
"Begging your pardon, it was never put at all; nor do I see—"
"What, not at the inquest?"
"That is very strange. What, so many wise heads have bent over this riddle, and not one to ask how was yon pedler shod!"
"Madam," said Sir George, "our minds were fixed upon the fate of Gaunt. Many did ask how was the pedler armed, but none how was he shod."
"Hath he been seen since?"
"Not he; and that hath an ugly look; for the constables are out after him with hue and cry; but he is not to be found."
"Then," said Mercy, "I must e'en answer my own question. I do know how that pedler was shod. With hobnailed shoes."
Sir George bounded from his chair. One great ray of daylight broke in upon him.
"Ay," said Mercy, "she was right. Women do see clearer in some things than men. The pair went from my house to hers. He you call Griffith Gaunt had on a new pair of boots; and by the same token 't was I did pay for them, and there is the receipt in that cupboard: he you call Thomas Leicester went hence in hobnailed shoes. I think the body they found was the body of Thomas Leicester, the pedler. May God have mercy on his poor unprepared soul."
Sir George uttered a joyful exclamation. But the next moment he had a doubt. "Ay, but," said he, "you forget the mole! 'T was on that they built."
"I forget naught," said Mercy, calmly. "The pedler had a black mole over his left temple. He showed it me in this very room. You have found the body of Thomas Leicester, and Griffith Gaunt is hiding from the law that he hath broken. He is afeared of her and her friends, if he shows his face in Cumberland; he is afeared of my folk, if he be seen in Lancashire. Ah, Thomas, as if I would let them harm thee."
Sir George Neville walked to and fro in grand excitement. "O blessed day that I came hither! Madam, you are an angel. You will save an innocent, broken-hearted lady from death and dishonor. Your good heart and rare wit have read in a moment the dark riddle that hath puzzled a county."
"George," said Mercy, gravely, "you have gotten the wrong end of the stick. The wise in their own conceit are blinded. In Cumberland, where all this befell, they went not to God for light, as you and I did, George."
In saying this, she gave him her hand to celebrate their success.
He kissed it devoutly, and owned afterward that it was the proudest moment of his life, when that sweet Puritan gave him her neat hand so cordially, with a pressure so gentle yet frank.
And now came the question how they were to make a Cumberland jury see this matter as they saw it.
He asked her would she come to the trial as a witness?
At that she drew back with manifest repugnance.
"My shame would be public. I must tell who I am; and what. A ruined woman."
"Say rather an injured saint. You have nothing to be ashamed of. All good men would feel for you."
Mercy shook her head. "Ay, but the women. Shame is shame with us. Right or wrong goes for little. Nay, I hope to do better for you than that. I must find him, and send him to deliver her. 'Tis his only chance of happiness."
She then asked him if he would draw up an advertisement of quite a different kind from those he had described to her.
He assented, and between them they concocted the following:—
"If Thomas Leicester, who went from the 'Packhorse' two months ago, will come thither at once, Mercy will be much beholden to him, and tell him strange things that have befallen."
Sir George then, at her request, rode over to Lancaster, and inserted the above in the county paper, and also in a small sheet that was issued in the city three times a week. He had also handbills to the same effect printed, and sent into Cumberland and Westmoreland. Finally, he sent a copy to his man of business in London, with orders to insert it in all the journals.
Then he returned to the "Packhorse," and told Mercy what he had done.
The next day he bade her farewell, and away for Carlisle. It was a two days' journey. He reached Carlisle in the evening, and went all glowing to Mrs. Gaunt. "Madam," said he, "be of good cheer. I bless the day I went to see her; she is an angel of wit and goodness."
He then related to her, in glowing terms, most that had passed between Mercy and him. But, to his surprise, Mrs. Gaunt wore a cold, forbidding air.
"This is all very well," said she. "But 't will avail me little unless he comes before the judge and clears me; and she will never let him do that."
"Ay, that she will,—if she can find him."
"If she can find him? How simple you are!"
"Nay, madam, not so simple but I can tell a good woman from a bad one, and a true from a false."
"What! when you are in love with her? Not if you were the wisest of your sex."
"In love with her?" cried Sir George; and colored high.
"Ay," said the lady. "Think you I cannot tell? Don't deceive yourself. You have gone and fallen in love with her. At your years! Not that 'tis any business of mine."
"Well, madam," said Sir George, stiffly, "say what you please on that score; but at least welcome my good news."
Mrs. Gaunt begged him to excuse her petulance, and thanked him kindly for all he had just done. But the next moment she rose from her chair in great agitation, and burst out, "I'd as lief die as owe anything to that woman."
Sir George remonstrated. "Why hate her? She does not hate you."
"O, yes, she does. 'Tis not in nature she should do any other."
"Her acts prove the contrary."
"Her acts! She has done nothing, but make fair promises; and that has blinded you. Women of this sort are very cunning, and never show their real characters to a man. No more; prithee mention not her name to me. It makes me ill. I know he is with her at this moment Ah, let me die, and be forgotten, since I am no more beloved."
The voice was sad and weary now, and the tears ran fast.
Poor Sir George was moved and melted, and set himself to flatter and console this impracticable lady, who hated her best friend in this sore strait, for being what she was herself, a woman; and was much less annoyed at being hanged than at not being loved.
When she was a little calmer, he left her, and rode off to Houseman. That worthy was delighted.
"Get her to swear to those hobnailed shoes," said he, "and we shall shake them." He then let Sir George know that he had obtained private information which he would use in cross-examining a principal witness for the crown. "However," he added, "do not deceive yourself, nothing can make the prisoner really safe but the appearance of Griffith Gaunt. He has such strong motives for coming to light. He is heir to a fortune, and his wife is accused of murdering him. The jury will never believe he is alive till they see him. That man's prolonged disappearance is hideous. It turns my blood cold when I think of it."
"Do not despair on that score," said Neville. "I believe our good angel will produce him."
Three days only before the assizes, came the long-expected letter from Mercy Vint. Sir George tore it open, but bitter was his disappointment. The letter merely said that Griffith had not appeared in answer to her advertisements, and she was sore grieved and perplexed.
There were two postscripts, each on a little piece of paper.
First postscript, in a tremulous hand, "Pray."
Second postscript, in a firm hand, "Drain the water."
Houseman shrugged his shoulders impatiently. "Drain the water? Let the crown do that. We should but fish up more trouble. And prayers quo' she! 'Tis not prayers we want, but evidence."
He sent his clerk off to travel post night and day, and subpœna Mercy, and bring her back with him to the trial. She was to have every comfort on the road, and be treated like a duchess.
The evening before the assizes, Mrs. Gaunt's apartments were Mr. Houseman's head-quarters, and messages were coming and going all day, on matters connected with the defence.
Just at sunset, up rattled a post-chaise, and the clerk got out and came haggard and bloodshot before his employer. "The witness has disappeared, sir. Left home last Tuesday, with her child, and has never been seen nor heard of since."
Here was a terrible blow. They all paled under it: it seriously diminished the chances of an acquittal.
But Mrs. Gaunt bore it nobly. She seemed to rise under it.
She turned to Sir George Neville, with a sweet smile. "The noble heart sees base things noble. No wonder then an artful woman deluded you. He has left England with her, and condemned me to the gallows, in cold blood. So be it. I shall defend myself."
She then sat down with Mr. Houseman, and went through the written case he had prepared for her, and showed him notes she had taken of full a hundred criminal trials great and small.
While they were putting their heads together, Sir George sat in a brown study, and uttered not a word. Presently he got up a little brusquely, and said, "I'm going to Hernshaw."
"What, at this time of night? What to do?"
"To obey my orders. To drain the mere."
"And who could have ordered you to drain my mere?"
Sir George uttered this in a very curious way, half ashamed, half resolute, and retired before Mrs. Gaunt could vent in speech the surprise and indignation that fired her eye.
Houseman implored her not to heed Sir George and his vagaries, but to bend her whole mind on those approved modes of defence with which he had supplied her.
Being now alone with her, he no longer concealed his great anxiety.
"We have lost an invaluable witness in that woman," said he. "I was mad to think she would come."
Mrs. Gaunt shivered with repugnance. "I would not have her come, for all the world," said she. "For Heaven's sake never mention her name to me. I want help from none but friends. Send Mrs. Houseman to me in the morning; and do not distress yourself so. I shall defend myself far better than you think. I have not studied a hundred trials for naught."
Thus the prisoner cheered up her attorney, and soon after insisted on his going home to bed; for she saw he was worn out by his exertions.
And now she was alone.
All was silent.
A few short hours, and she was to be tried for her life: tried, not by the All-wise Judge, but by fallible men, and under a system most unfavorable to the accused.
Worse than all this, she was a Papist; and, as ill-luck would have it, since her imprisonment an alarm had been raised that the Pretender meditated another invasion. This report had set jurists very much against all the Romanists in the country, and had already perverted justice in one or two cases, especially in the North.
Mrs. Gaunt knew all this, and trembled at the peril to come.
She spent the early part of the night in studying her defence. Then she laid it quite aside, and prayed long and fervently. Towards morning she fell asleep from exhaustion.
When she awoke, Mrs. Houseman was sitting by her bedside, looking at her, and crying.
They were soon clasped in each other's arms, condoling.
But presently Houseman came, and took his wife away rather angrily.
Mrs. Gaunt was prevailed on to eat a little toast and drink a glass of wine, and then she sat waiting her dreadful summons.
She waited and waited, until she became impatient to face her danger.
But there were two petty larcenies on before her. She had to wait.
At last, about noon, came a message to say that the grand jury had found a true bill against her.
"Then may God forgive them!" said she.
Soon afterwards she was informed her time drew very near.
She made her toilet carefully, and passed with her attendant into a small room under the court.
Here she had to endure another chilling wait, and in a sombre room.
Presently she heard a voice above her cry out, "The King versus Catharine Gaunt."
Then she was beckoned to.
She mounted some steps, badly lighted, and found herself in the glare of day, and greedy eyes, in the felon's dock.
In a matter entirely strange, we seldom know beforehand what we can do, and how we shall carry ourselves. Mrs. Gaunt no sooner set her foot in that dock, and saw the awful front of Justice face to face, than her tremors abated, and all her powers awoke, and she thrilled with love of life, and bristled with all those fine arts of defence that Nature lends to superior women.
She entered on that defence before she spoke a word; for she attacked the prejudices of the court, by deportment.
She courtesied reverently to the Judge, and contrived to make her reverence seem a willing homage, unmixed with fear.
She cast her eyes round and saw the court thronged with ladies and gentlemen she knew. In a moment she read in their eyes that only two or three were on her side. She bowed to those only; and they returned her courtesy. This gave an impression (a false one) that the gentry sympathized with her.
After a little murmur of functionaries, the Clerk of Arraigns turned to the prisoner, and said, in a loud voice, "Catharine Gaunt, hold up thy hand."
She held up her hand, and he recited the indictment, which charged that, not having the fear of God before her eyes, but being moved by the instigation of the Devil, she had on the fifteenth of October, in the tenth year of the reign of his present Majesty, aided and abetted one Thomas Leicester in an assault upon one Griffith Gaunt, Esq., and him, the said Griffith Gaunt, did with force and arms assassinate and do to death, against the peace of our said Lord the King, his crown and dignity.
After reading the indictment, the Clerk of Arraigns turned to the prisoner: "How sayest thou, Catharine Gaunt; art thou guilty of the felony and murder whereof thou standest indicted,—or not guilty?"
"I am not guilty."
"Culprit, how wilt thou be tried?"
"Culprit I am none, but only accused. I will be tried by God and my country."
"God send thee a good deliverance."
Mr. Whitworth, the junior counsel for the crown, then rose to open the case; but the prisoner, with a pale face, but most courteous demeanor, begged his leave to make a previous motion to the court. Mr. Whitworth bowed, and sat down. "My Lord," said she, "I have first a favor to ask; and that favor, methinks, you will grant, since it is but justice, impartial justice. My accuser, I hear, has two counsel; both learned and able. I am but a woman, and no match for their skill Therefore I beg your Lordship to allow me counsel on my defence, to matter of fact as well as of law. I know this is not usual; but it is just, and I am informed it has sometimes been granted in trials of life and death, and that your Lordship hath the power', if you have the will, to do me so much justice."
The Judge looked towards Mr. Serjeant Wiltshire, who was the leader on the other side. He rose instantly and replied to this purpose: "The prisoner is misinformed. The truth is, that from time immemorial, and down to the other day, a person indicted for a capital offence was never allowed counsel at all, except to matters of law, and these must be started by himself. By recent practice the rule hath been so far relaxed that counsel have sometimes been permitted to examine and cross-examine witnesses for a prisoner; but never to make observations on the evidence, nor to draw inferences from it to the point in issue."
Mrs. Gaunt. So, then, if I be sued for a small sum of money, I may have skilled orators to defend me against their like. But if I be sued for my life and honor, I may not oppose skill to skill, but must stand here a child against you that are masters. 'Tis a monstrous iniquity, and you yourself, sir, will not deny it.
Serjeant Wiltshire. Madam, permit me. Whether it be a hardship to deny full counsel to prisoners in criminal cases, I shall not pretend to say; but if it be, 'tis a hardship of the law's making, and not of mine nor of my lord's; and none have suffered by it (at least in our day) but those who had broken the law.
The Serjeant then stopped a minute, and whispered with his junior. After which he turned to the Judge. "My Lord, we that are of counsel for the crown desire to do nothing that is hard where a person's life is at stake. We yield to the prisoner any indulgence for which your Lordship can find a precedent in your reading; but no more: and so we leave the matter to you."
The Clerk of Arraigns. Crier, proclaim silence.
The Crier. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! His Majesty's Justices do strictly charge all manner of persons to keep silence, on pain of imprisonment.
The Judge. Prisoner, what my Brother Wiltshire says, the law is clear in. There is no precedent for what you ask, and the contrary practice stares us in the face for centuries. What seems to you a partial practice, and, to be frank, some learned persons are of your mind, must be set against this,—that in capital cases the burden of proof lies on the crown, and not on the accused. Also it is my duty to give you all the assistance I can, and that I shall do. Thus then it is: you can be allowed counsel to examine your own witnesses, and cross-examine the witnesses for the crown, and speak to points of law, to be started by yourself,—but no further.
He then asked her what gentleman there present he should assign to her for counsel.
Her reply to this inquiry took the whole court by surprise, and made her solicitor, Houseman, very miserable. "None, my Lord," said she. "Half-justice is injustice; and I will lend it no color. I will not set able men to fight for me with their hands tied, against men as able whose hands be free. Counsel, on terms so partial, I will have none. My counsel shall be three, and no more,—Yourself, my Lord, my Innocence, and the Lord God Omniscient."
These words, grandly uttered, caused a dead silence in the court, but only for a few moments. It was broken by the loud mechanical voice of the crier, who proclaimed silence, and then called the names of the jury that were to try this cause.
Mrs. Gaunt listened keenly to the names,—familiar and bourgeois names, that now seemed regal; for they who owned them held her life in their hands.
Each juryman was sworn in the grand old form, now slightly curtailed.
"Joseph King, look upon the prisoner.—You shall well and truly try, and true deliverance make, between our Sovereign Lord the King and the prisoner at the bar, whom you shall have in charge, and a true verdict give, according to the evidence. So help you God."
Mr. Whitworth, for the crown, then opened the case, but did little more than translate the indictment into more rational language.
He sat down, and Serjeant Wiltshire addressed the court somewhat after this fashion:—
"May it please your Lordship, and you, gentlemen of the jury, this is a case of great expectation and importance. The prisoner at the bar, a gentlewoman by birth and education, and, as you must have already perceived, by breeding also, stands indicted for no less a crime than murder.
"I need not paint to you the heinousness of this crime: you have but to consult your own breasts. Who ever saw the ghastly corpse of the victim weltering in its blood, and did not feel his own blood run cold through his veins? Has the murderer fled? With what eagerness do we pursue! with what zeal apprehend! with what joy do we bring him to justice! Even the dreadful sentence of death does not shock us, when pronounced upon him. We hear it with solemn satisfaction; and acknowledge the justice of the Divine sentence, 'Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed.'
"But if this be the case in every common murder, what shall be thought of her who has murdered her husband,—the man in whose arms she has lain, and whom she has sworn at God's altar to love and cherish? Such a murderer is a robber as well as an assassin; for she robs her own children of their father, that tender parent, who can never be replaced in this world.
"Gentlemen, it will, I fear, be proved that the prisoner at the bar hath been guilty of murder in this high degree; and, though I will endeavor rather to extenuate than to aggravate, yet I trust [sic] I have such a history to open as will shock the ears of all who hear me.
"Mr. Griffith Gaunt, the unfortunate deceased, was a man of descent and worship. As to his character, it was inoffensive. He was known as a worthy, kindly gentleman, deeply attached to her who now stands accused of his murder. They lived happily together for some years; but, unfortunately, there was a thorn in the rose of their wedded life: he was of the Church of England; she was, and is, a Roman Catholic. This led to disputes; and no wonder, since this same unhappy difference hath more than once embroiled a nation, let alone a single family.
"Well, gentlemen, about a year ago there was a more violent quarrel than usual between the deceased and the prisoner at the bar; and the deceased left his home for several months.
"He returned upon a certain day in this year, and a reconciliation, real or apparent, took place. He left home again soon afterwards, but only for a short period. On the 15th of last October he suddenly returned for good, as he intended; and here begins the tragedy, to which what I have hitherto related was but the prologue.
"Scarce an hour before he came, one Thomas Leicester entered the house. Now this Thomas Leicester was a creature of the prisoner's. He had been her gamekeeper, and was now a pedler. It was the prisoner who set him up as a pedler, and purchased the wares to start him in his trade.
"Gentlemen, this pedler, as I shall prove, was concealed in the house when the deceased arrived. One Caroline Ryder, who is the prisoner's gentlewoman, was the person who first informed her of Leicester's arrival, and it seems she was much moved: Mrs. Ryder will tell you she fell into hysterics. But, soon after, her husband's arrival was announced, and then the passion was of a very different kind. So violent was her rage against this unhappy man that, for once, she forgot all prudence, and threatened his life before a witness. Yes, gentlemen, we shall prove that this gentlewoman, who in appearance and manners might grace a court, was so transported out of her usual self that she held up a knife,—a knife, gentlemen,—and vowed to put it into her husband's heart. And this was no mere temporary ebullition of wrath. We shall see presently that, long after she had had time to cool, she repeated this menace to the unfortunate man's face. The first threat, however, was uttered in her own bedroom, before her confidential servant, Caroline Ryder aforesaid. But now the scene shifts. She has, to all appearance, recovered herself, and sits smiling at the head of her table; for, you must know, she entertained company that night,—persons of the highest standing in the county.
"Presently her husband, all unconscious of the terrible sentiments she entertained towards him, and the fearful purpose she had announced, enters the room, makes obeisance to his guests, and goes to take his wife's hand.
"What does she? She draws back with so strange a look, and such forbidding words, that the company were disconcerted. Consternation fell on all present; and erelong they made their excuses, and left the house. Thus the prisoner was left alone with her husband; but, meantime, curiosity had been excited by her strange conduct, and some of the servants, with foreboding hearts, listened at the door of the dining-room. What did they hear, gentlemen? A furious quarrel, in which, however, the deceased was comparatively passive, and the prisoner again threatened his life, with vehemence. Her passion, it is clear, had not cooled.
"Now it may fairly be alleged, on behalf of the prisoner, that the witnesses for the crown were on one side of the door, the prisoner and the deceased on the other, and that such evidence should be received with caution. I grant this—where it is not sustained by other circumstances, or by direct proofs. Let us then give the prisoner the benefit of this doubt, and let us inquire how the deceased himself understood her,—he, who not only heard the words, and the accents, but saw the looks, whatever they were, that accompanied them.
"Gentlemen, he was a man of known courage and resolution; yet he was found, after this terrible interview, much cowed and dejected. He spoke to Mrs. Ryder of his death as an event not far distant, and so went to his bedroom in a melancholy and foreboding state. And where was that bedroom? He was thrust, by his wife's orders, into a small chamber, and not allowed to enter hers,—he, the master of the house, her husband, and her lord.
"But his interpretation of the prisoner's words did not end there. He left us a further comment by his actions next ensuing. He dared not—(I beg pardon, this is my inference: receive it as such)—he did not, remain in that house a single night. He at all events bolted his chamber door inside; and in the very dead of night, notwithstanding the fatigues of the day's journey, (for he had ridden some distance,) he let himself out by the window, and reached the ground safely, though it was a height of fourteen feet,—a leap, gentlemen, that few of us would venture to take. But what will not men risk when destruction is at their heels? He did not wait even to saddle his horse, but fled on foot. Unhappy man, he fled from danger, and met his death.
"From the hour when he went up to bed, none of the inmates of the house ever saw Griffith Gaunt alive; but one Thomas Hayes, a laborer, saw him walking in a certain direction at one o'clock that morning; and behind him, gentlemen, there walked another man.
"Who was that other man?
"When I have told you (and this is an essential feature of the case) how the prisoner was employed during the time that her husband lay quaking in his little room, waiting an opportunity to escape,—when I have told you this, I fear you will divine who it was that followed the deceased, and for what purpose.
"Gentlemen, when the prisoner had threatened her husband in person, as I have described, she retired to her own room, but not to sleep. She ordered her maid, Mrs. Ryder, to bring Thomas Leicester to her chamber. Yes, gentlemen, she received this pedler, at midnight, in her bedchamber.
"Now, an act so strange as this admits, I think, but of two interpretations. Either she had a guilty amour with this fellow, or she had some extraordinary need of his services. Her whole character, by consent of the witnesses, renders it very improbable that she would descend to a low amour. Moreover, she acted too publicly in the matter. The man, as we know, was her tool, her creature: she had bought his wares for him, and set him up as a pedler. She openly summoned him to her presence, and kept him there about half an hour.
"He went from her, and very soon after is seen, by Thomas Hayes, following Griffith Gaunt, at one o'clock in the morning,—that Griffith Gaunt who after that hour was never seen alive.
"Gentlemen, up to this point, the evidence is clear, connected, and cogent; but it rarely happens in cases of murder that any human eye sees the very blow struck. The penalty is too severe for such an act to be done in the presence of an eyewitness; and not one murderer in ten could be convicted without the help of circumstantial evidence.
"The next link, however, is taken up by an ear-witness; and, in some cases, the ear is even better evidence than the eye,—for instance, as to the discharge of firearms,—for, by the eye alone, we could not positively tell whether a pistol had gone off or had but flashed in the pan. Well, then, gentlemen, a few minutes after Mr. Gaunt was last seen alive,—which was by Thomas Hayes,—Mrs. Ryder, who had retired to her bedroom, heard the said Gaunt distinctly cry for help; she also heard a pistol-shot discharged. This took place by the side of a lake or large pond near the house, called the mere. Mrs. Ryder alarmed the house, and she and the other servants proceeded to her master's room. They found it bolted from the inside. They broke it open. Mr. Gaunt had escaped by the window, as I have already told you.
"Presently in comes the prisoner from out of doors. This was at one o'clock in the morning. Now she appears to have seen at once that she must explain her being abroad at that time, so she told Mrs. Ryder she had been out—praying."
(Here some people laughed harshly, but were threatened severely, and silenced.)
"Is that credible? Do people go out of doors at one o'clock in the morning, to pray? Nay, but I fear it was to do an act that years of prayer and penitence cannot efface.
"From that moment Mr. Gaunt was seen no more among living men. And what made his disappearance the more mysterious was that he had actually at this time just inherited largely from his namesake, Mr. Gaunt of Biggleswade; and his own interest, and that of the other legatees, required his immediate presence. Mr. Atkins, the testator's solicitor, advertised for this unfortunate gentleman; but he did not appear to claim his fortune. Then plain men began to put this and that together, and cried out, 'Foul play!'
"Justice was set in motion at last, but was embarrassed by the circumstance that the body of the deceased could not be found.
"At last, Mr. Atkins, the solicitor, being unable to get the estate I have mentioned administered, for want of proof of Griffith Gaunt's decease, entered heartily in this affair, on mere civil grounds. He asked the prisoner, before several witnesses, if she would permit him to drag that piece of water by the side of which Mr. Gaunt was heard to cry for help and, after that seen no more.
"The prisoner did not reply, but Mr. Houseman, her solicitor, a very worthy man, who has, I believe, or had, up to that moment, a sincere conviction of her innocence, answered for her, and told Mr. Atkins he was welcome to drag it or drain it. Then the prisoner said nothing. She fainted away.
"After this, you may imagine with what expectation the water was dragged. Gentlemen, after hours of fruitless labor, a body was found.
"But here an unforeseen circumstance befriended the prisoner. It seems that piece of water swarms with enormous pike and other ravenous fish. These had so horribly mutilated the deceased, that neither form nor feature remained to swear by; and, as the law wisely and humanely demands that in these cases a body shall be identified beyond doubt, justice bade fair to be baffled again. But lo! as often happens in cases of murder, Providence interposed and pointed with unerring finger to a slight, but infallible mark. The deceased gentleman was known to have a large mole over his left temple. It had been noticed by his servants and his neighbors. Well, gentlemen, the greedy fish had spared this mole,—spared it, perhaps, by His command, who bade the whale swallow Jonah, yet not destroy him. There it was, clear and infallible. It was examined by several witnesses, it was recognized. It completed that chain of evidence, some of it direct, some of it circumstantial, which I have laid before you very briefly, and every part of which I shall now support by credible witnesses."
He called thirteen witnesses, including Mr. Atkins, Thomas Hayes, Jane Banister, Caroline Ryder, and others; and their evidence in chief bore out every positive statement the counsel had made.
In cross-examining these witnesses, Mrs. Gaunt took a line that agreeably surprised the court. It was not for nothing she had studied a hundred trials, with a woman's observation and patient docility. She had found out how badly people plead their own causes, and had noticed the reasons: one of which is that they say too much, and stray from the point. The line she took, with one exception, was keen brevity.
She cross-examined Thomas Hayes as follows.