The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 108/Griffith Gaunt; or, Jealousy
GRIFFITH GAUNT; OR, JEALOUSY.
You say the pedler was a hundred yards behind my husband. Which of the two men was walking fastest?"
Thomas Hayes considered a moment. "Well, Dame, I think the Squire was walking rather the smartest of the two."
"Did the pedler seem likely to overtake him?"
"Nay. Ye see, Dame, Squire he walked straight on; but the pedler he took both sides of the road at onst, as the saying is."
Prisoner. Forgive me, Thomas, but I don't know what you mean.
Hayes (compassionately). How should ye? You are never the worse for liquor, the likes of you.
Prisoner (very keenly). O, he was in liquor, was he?
Hayes. Come, Dame, you do brew good ale at Hernshaw Castle. Ye needn't go to deny that; for, Lord knows, 't is no sin; and a poor fellow may be jolly, yet not to say drunk.
Judge (sternly). Witness, attend, and answer directly.
Prisoner. Nay, my lord, 't is a plain country body, and means no ill. Good Thomas, be so much my friend as to answer plainly. Was the man drunk or sober?
Hayes. All I know is he went from one side o' the road to t' other.
Prisoner. Thomas Hayes, as you hope to be saved eternally, was the pedler drunk or sober?
Hayes. Well, if I must tell on my neighbor or else be damned, then that there pedler was as drunk as a lord.
Here, notwithstanding the nature of the trial, the laughter was irrepressible, and Mrs. Gaunt sat quietly down (for she was allowed a seat), and said no more.
To the surgeon who had examined the body officially, she put this question: "Did you find any signs of violence?"
Surgeon. None whatever; but then there was nothing to go by, except the head and the bones.
Prisoner. Have you experience in this kind? I mean, have you inspected murdered bodies?
Prisoner. How many?
Surgeon. Two before this.
Prisoner. O, pray, pray, do not say "before this"! I have great hopes no murder at all hath been committed here. Let us keep to plain cases. Please you describe the injuries in those two undoubted cases.
Surgeon. In Wellyn's the skull was fractured in two places. In Sherrett's the right arm was broken, and there were some contusions on the head; but the cause of death was a stab that penetrated the lungs.
Prisoner. Suppose Wellyn's murderers had thrown his body into the water, and the fishes had so mutilated it as they have this one, could you by your art have detected the signs of violence?
Surgeon. Certainly. The man's skull was fractured. Wellyn's, I mean.
Prisoner. I put the same question with regard to Sherrett's.
Surgeon. I cannot answer it; here the lungs were devoured by the fishes; no signs of lesion can be detected in an organ that has ceased to exist.
Prisoner. This is too partial. Why select one injury out of several? What I ask is this: could you have detected violence in Sherrett's case, although the fishes had eaten the flesh off his body.
Surgeon. I answer that the minor injuries of Sherrett would have been equally perceptible; to wit, the bruises on the head, and the broken arm; but not the perforation of the lungs; and that it was killed the man.
Prisoner. Then, so far as you know, and can swear, about murder, more blows have always been struck than one, and some of the blows struck in Sherrett's case, and Wellyn's, would have left traces that fishes' teeth could not efface?
Surgeon. That is so, if I am to be peevishly confined to my small and narrow experience of murdered bodies. But my general knowledge of the many ways in which life may be taken by violence—
The judge stopped him, and said that could hardly be admitted as evidence against his actual experience.
The prisoner put a drawing of the castle, the mere, and the bridge, into the witnesses' hands, and elicited that it was correct, and also the distances marked on it. They had, in fact, been measured exactly for her.
The hobnailed shoes were produced, and she made some use of them, particularly in cross-examining Jane Bannister.
Prisoner. Look at those shoes. Saw you ever the like on Mr. Gaunt's feet?
Jane. That I never did, Dame.
Prisoner. What, not when he came into the kitchen on the 15th of October?
Jane. Nay, he was booted. By the same token I saw the boy a cleaning of them for supper.
Prisoner. Those boots, when you broke into his room, did you find them?
Jane. Nay, when the man went his boots went; as reason was. We found naught of his but a soiled glove.
Prisoner. Had the pedler boots on?
Jane. Alas! who ever seed a booted pedler?
Prisoner. Had he these very shoes on? Look at them.
Jane. I couldn't say for that. He had shoon, for they did properly clatter on my bricks.
Judge. Clatter on her bricks! What in the world does she mean?
Prisoner. I think she means on the floor of her kitchen. 'T is a brick floor, if I remember right.
Judge. Good woman, say, is that what you mean?
Jane. Ay, an 't please you, my lord.
Prisoner. Had the pedler a mole on his forehead?
Jane. Not that I know on. I never took so much notice of the man. But, la, dame, now I look at you, I don't believe you was ever the one to murder our master.
Wiltshire. We don't want your opinion. Confine yourself to facts.
Prisoner. You heard me rating my husband on that night: what was it I said about the constables,—do you remember?
Jane. La, dame, I wouldn't ask that if I was in your place.
Prisoner. I am much obliged to you for your advice; but answer me—truly.
Jane. Well, if you will have it, I think you said they should be here in the morning. But, indeed, good gentlemen, her bark was always worse than her bite, poor soul.
Judge. Here. That meant at Hernshaw Castle, I presume.
Jane. Ay, my lord, an' if it please your lordship's honor's worship.
Mrs. Gaunt, husbanding the patience of the court, put no questions at all to several witnesses; but she cross-examined Mrs. Ryder very closely. This was necessary; for Ryder was a fatal witness. Her memory had stored every rash and hasty word the poor lady had uttered, and, influenced either by animosity or prejudice, she put the worst color on every suspicious circumstance. She gave her damnatory evidence neatly, and clearly, and with a seeming candor and regret, that disarmed suspicion.
When her examination in chief concluded, there was but one opinion amongst the bar, and the auditors in general, namely, that the maid had hung the mistress.
Mrs. Gaunt herself felt she had a terrible antagonist to deal with, and, when she rose to cross-examine her, she looked paler than she had done all through the trial.
She rose, but seemed to ask herself how to begin; and her pallor and her hesitation, while they excited some little sympathy, confirmed the unfavorable impression. She fixed her eyes upon the witness, as if to discover where she was most vulnerable. Mrs. Ryder returned her gaze calmly. The court was hushed; for it was evident a duel was coming between two women of no common ability.
The opening rather disappointed expectation. Mrs. Gaunt seemed, by her manner, desirous to propitiate the witness.
Prisoner (very civilly). You say you brought Thomas Leicester to my bedroom on that terrible night?
Ryder (civilly). Yes, madam.
Prisoner. And you say he stayed there half an hour?
Ryder. Yes, madam; he did.
Prisoner. May I inquire how you know he stayed just half an hour?
Ryder. My watch told me that, madam. I brought him to you at a quarter past eleven; and you did not ring for me till a quarter to twelve.
Prisoner. And when I did ring for you, what then?
Ryder. I came and took the man away, by your orders.
Prisoner. At a quarter to twelve?
Ryder. At a quarter to twelve.
Prisoner. This Leicester was a lover of yours?
Ryder. Not he.
Prisoner. O, fie! Why, he offered you marriage; it went so far as that.
Ryder. O, that was before you set him up pedler.
Prisoner. 'T was so; but he was single for your sake, and he renewed his offer that very night. Come, do not forswear yourself about a trifle.
Ryder. Trifle, indeed! Why, if he did, what has that to do with the murder? You'll do yourself no good, madam, by going about so.
Wiltshire. Really, madam, this is beside the mark.
Prisoner. If so, it can do your case no harm. My lord, you did twice interrupt the learned counsel, and forbade him to lead his witnesses; I not once, for I am for stopping no mouths, but sifting all to the bottom. Now, I implore you to let me have fair play in my turn, and an answer from this slippery witness.
Judge. Prisoner, I do not quite see your drift; but God forbid you should be hampered in your defence. Witness, by virtue of your oath, reply directly. Did this pedler offer you marriage that night after he left the prisoner?
Ryder. My lord, he did.
Prisoner. And confided to you he had orders to kill Mr. Gaunt?
Ryder. Not he, madam: that was not the way to win me. He knew that.
Prisoner. What! did not his terrible purpose peep out all the time he was making love to you?
Prisoner. You had the kitchen to your two selves? Come, don't hesitate.
Ryder. The other servants were gone to bed. You kept the man so late.
Prisoner. O, I mean no reflection on your prudence. You went out of doors with your wooer; just to see him off?
Ryder. Not I. What for? I had nobody to make away with. I just opened the door for him, bolted it after him, and went straight to my bedroom.
Prisoner. How long had you been there when you heard the cry for help?
Ryder. Scarce ten minutes. I had not taken my stays off.
Prisoner. If you and Thomas Hayes speak true, that gives half an hour you were making love with the murderer after he left me. Am I correct?
The witness now saw whither she had been led, and changed her manner: she became sullen, and watched an opportunity to stab.
Prisoner. Had he a mole on his brow?
Ryder. Not that I know of.
Prisoner. Why, where were your eyes then, when the murderer saluted you at parting?
Ryder's eyes flashed; but she felt her temper tried, and governed it all the more severely. She treated the question with silent contempt.
Prisoner. But you pass for a discreet woman; perhaps you looked modestly down when the assassin saluted you?
Ryder. If he saluted me, perhaps I did.
Prisoner. In that case you could not see his mole; but you must have noticed his shoes. Were these the shoes he wore? Look at them well.
Ryder (after inspecting them). I do not recognize them.
Prisoner. Will you swear these were not the shoes he had on?
Ryder. How can I swear that? I know nothing about the man's shoes. If you please, my lord, am I to be kept here all day with her foolish, trifling questions?
Judge. All day, and all night too, if Justice requires it. The law is not swift to shed blood.
Prisoner. My lord and the gentlemen of the jury were here before you, and will be kept here after you. Prithee, attend. Look at that drawing of Hernshaw Castle and Hernshaw Mere. Now take this pencil, and mark your bedroom on the drawing.
The pencil was taken from the prisoner, and handed to Ryder. She waited, like a cat, till it came close to her; then recoiled with an admirable scream. "Me handle a thing hot from the hand of a murderess! It makes me tremble all over!"
This cruel stab affected the prisoner visibly. She put her hand to her bosom, and, with tears in her eyes, faltered out a request to the judge that she might sit down a minute.
Judge. To be sure you may. And you, my good woman, must not run before the court. By law a prisoner is innocent till found guilty by his peers. How do you know what evidence she may have in store? At present we have only heard one side. Be more moderate.
The prisoner rose promptly to her feet. "My lord, I welcome the insult that has disgusted your lordship and the gentlemen of the jury, and won me those good words of comfort." To Ryder: "What sort of a night was it?"
Ryder. Very little moon, but a clear, starry night.
Prisoner. Could you see the Mere, and the banks?
Ryder. Nay, but so much of it as faced my window.
Prisoner. Have you marked your window?
Ryder. I have.
Prisoner. Now mark the place where you heard Mr. Gaunt cry for help.
Ryder. 'T was about here,—under these trees. And that is why I could not see him: along of the shadow.
Prisoner. Possibly. Did you see me on that side the Mere?
Prisoner. What colored dress had I on at that time?
Ryder. White satin.
Prisoner. Then you could have seen me, even among the trees, had I been on that side the Mere?
Ryder. I can't say. However, I never said you were on the very spot where the deed was done; but you were out of doors.
Prisoner. How do you know that?
Ryder. Why, you told me so yourself.
Prisoner. Then, that is my evidence, not yours. Swear to no more than you know. Had my husband, to your knowledge, a reason for absconding suddenly?
Ryder. Yes, he had.
Prisoner. What was it?
Ryder. Fear of you.
Prisoner. Nay, I mean, had he not something to fear, something quite different from that I am charged with?
Ryder. You know best, madam. I would gladly serve you, but I cannot guess what you are driving at.
The prisoner was taken aback by this impudent reply. She hesitated to force her servant to expose a husband, whom she believed to be living: and her hesitation looked like discomfiture; and Ryder was victorious in that encounter.
By this time they were both thoroughly embittered, and it was war to the knife.
Prisoner. You listened to our unhappy quarrel that night?
Ryder. Quarrel! madam, 'twas all on one side.
Prisoner. How did you understand what I said to him about the constables?
Ryder. Constables! I never heard you say the word.
Ryder. Neither when you threatened him with your knife to me, nor when you threatened him to his face.
Prisoner. Take care: you forget that Jane Bannister heard me. Was her ear nearer the keyhole than yours?
Ryder. Jane! she is a simpleton. You could make her think she heard anything. I noticed you put the words in her mouth.
Prisoner. God forgive you, you naughty woman. You had better have spoken the truth.
Ryder. My lord, if you please, am I to be miscalled—by a murderess?
Judge. Come, come, this is no place for recrimination.
The prisoner now stooped and examined her papers, and took a distinct line of cross-examination.
Prisoner (with apparent carelessness). At all events, you are a virtuous woman, Mrs. Ryder?
Ryder. Yes, madam, as virtuous as yourself, to say the least.
Prisoner (still more carelessly). Married or single?
Ryder. Single, and like to be.
Prisoner. Yes, if I remember right, I made a point of that before I engaged you as my maid.
Ryder. I believe the question was put.
Prisoner. Here is the answer in your handwriting. Is not that your handwriting?
Ryder (after inspecting it). It is.
Prisoner. You came highly recommended by your last mistress, a certain Mrs. Hamilton. Here is her letter, describing you as a model.
Ryder. Well, madam, hitherto, I have given satisfaction to all my mistresses, Mrs. Hamilton among the rest. My character does not rest on her word only, I hope.
Prisoner. Excuse me; I engaged you on her word alone. Now, who is this Mrs. Hamilton?
Ryder. A worshipful lady I served for eight months before I came to you. She went abroad, or I should be with her now.
Prisoner. Now cast your eye over this paper.
It was the copy of a marriage certificate between Thomas Edwards and Caroline Plunkett.
"Who is this Caroline Plunkett?"
Ryder turned very pale, and made no reply.
"I ask you who is this Caroline Plunkett?"
Ryder (faintly). Myself.
Judge. Why, you said you were single!
Ryder. So I am; as good as single. My husband and me we parted eight years ago, and I have never seen him since.
Prisoner. Was it quite eight years ago?
Ryder. Nearly, 'twas in May, 1739.
Prisoner. But you have lived with him since.
Ryder. Never, upon my soul.
Prisoner. When was your child born?
Ryder. My child! I have none.
Prisoner. In January, 1743, you left a baby at Biggleswade, with a woman called Church,—did you not?
Ryder (panting). Of course I did. It was my sister's.
Prisoner. Do you mean to call God to witness that child was not your's?
Prisoner. Will you swear Mrs. Church did not see you suckle that child in secret, and weep over it?
At this question the perspiration stood visible on Ryder's brow, her cheeks were ghastly, and her black eyes roved like some wild animal's round the court. She saw her own danger, and had no means of measuring her inquisitor's information.
"My lord, have pity on me. I was betrayed, abandoned. Why am I so tormented? I have not committed murder." So, catlike, she squealed and scratched at once.
Prisoner. What! to swear away an innocent life, is not that murder?
Judge. Prisoner, we make allowances for your sex, and your peril, but you must not remark on the evidence at present. Examine as severely as you will, but abstain from comment till you address the jury on your defence.
Sergeant Wiltshire. My lord, I submit that this line of examination is barbarous, and travels out of the case entirely.
Prisoner. Not so, Mr. Sergeant. 'T is done by advice of an able lawyer. My life is in peril, unless I shake this witness's credit. To that end I show you she is incontinent, and practised in falsehood. Unchastity has been held in these courts to disqualify a female witness, hath it not, my lord?
Judge. Hardly. But to disparage her evidence it has. And wisely; for she who loses her virtue enters on a life of deceit; and lying is a habit that spreads from one thing to many. Much wisdom there is in ancient words. Our forefathers taught us to call a virtuous woman an honest woman, and the law does but follow in that track; still, however, leaving much to the discretion of the jury.
Prisoner. I would show her more mercy than she has shown to me. Therefore I leave that matter. Witness, be so good as to examine Mrs. Hamilton's letter, and compare it with your own. The "y's" and the "s's" are peculiar in both, and yet the same. Come, confess, Mrs. Hamilton's is a forgery. You wrote it. Be pleased to hand both letters up to my lord to compare; the disguise is but thin.
Ryder. Forgery there was none. There is no Mrs. Hamilton. (She burst into tears.) I had my child to provide for, and no man to help me! What was I to do? A servant must live.
Prisoner. Then why not let her mistress live, whose bread she has eaten? My lord, shall not this false witness be sent hence to prison for perjury?
Wiltshire. Certainly not. What woman on earth is expected to reveal her own shame upon oath? 'T was not fair nor human to put such questions. Come, madam, leave torturing this poor creature. Show some mercy; you may need it yourself.
Prisoner. Sir, 'tis not mercy I ask, but justice according to law. But since you do me the honor to make me a request, I will comply, and ask her but one question more. Describe my apartment into which you showed Thomas Leicester that night. Begin at the outer door.
Ryder. First there is the anteroom; then the boudoir; then there's your bedchamber.
Prisoner. Into which of those three did you show Thomas Leicester?
Ryder. Into the anteroom.
Prisoner. Then why did you say it was in my chamber I entertained him?
Ryder. Madam, I meant no more than that it was your private apartment up stairs.
Prisoner. You contrived to make the gentlemen think otherwise.
Judge. That you did. 'T is down in my notes that she received the pedler in her bedchamber.
Ryder (sobbing). God is my witness I did not mean to mislead your lordship: and I ask my lady's pardon for not being more exact in that particular.
At this the prisoner bowed to the judge, and sat down with one victorious flash of her gray eye at the witness, who was in an abject condition of fear, and hung all about the witness-box limp as a wet towel.
Sergeant Wiltshire saw she was so thoroughly cowed she would be apt to truckle, and soften her evidence to propitiate the prisoner; so he asked her but one question.
"Were you and the prisoner on good terms?"
Ryder. On the best of terms. She was always a good and liberal mistress to me.
Wiltshire. I will not prolong your sufferings. You may go down.
Judge. But you will not leave the court till this trial is ended. I have grave doubts whether I ought not to commit you.
Unfortunately for the prisoner, Ryder was not the last witness for the crown. The others that followed were so manifestly honest that it would have been impolitic to handle them severely. The prisoner, therefore, put very few questions to them; and, when the last witness went down, the case looked very formidable.
The evidence for the crown being now complete, the judge retired for some refreshment; and the court buzzed like a hum of bees. Mrs. Gaunt's lips and throat were parched and her heart quaked.
A woman of quite the lower order thrust forth a great arm and gave her an orange. Mrs. Gaunt thanked her sweetly; and the juice relieved her throat.
Also this bit of sympathy was of good omen, and did her heart good.
She buried her face in her hands, and collected all her powers for the undertaking before her. She had noted down the exact order of her topics, but no more.
The judge returned; the crier demanded silence; and the prisoner rose, and turned her eyes modestly but steadily upon those who held her life in their hands: and, true to the wisdom of her sex, the first thing she aimed at was—to please.
"My lord, and you gentlemen of the jury, I am now to reply to a charge of murder, founded on a little testimony, and a good deal of false, but, I must needs say, reasonable conjecture.
"I am innocent; but, unlike other innocent persons who have stood here before me, I have no man to complain of.
"The magistrates who committed me proceeded with due caution and humanity; they weighed my hitherto unspotted reputation, and were in no hurry to prejudge me; here, in this court, I have met with much forbearance; the learned counsel for the crown has made me groan under his abilities; that was his duty; but he said from the first he would do nothing hard, and he has kept his word; often he might have stopped me; I saw it in his face. But, being a gentleman and a Christian, as well as a learned lawyer, methinks he said to himself, 'This is a poor gentlewoman pleading for her life; let her have some little advantage.' As for my lord, he has promised to be my counsel, so far as his high station, and duty to the crown, admit; and he has supported and consoled me more than once with words of justice, that would not, I think, have encouraged a guilty person, but have comforted and sustained me beyond expression. So then I stand here, the victim, not of man's injustice, but of deceitful appearances, and of honest, but hasty and loose conjectures.
"These conjectures I shall now sift, and hope to show you how hollow they are.
"Gentlemen, in every disputed matter the best way, I am told, is to begin by settling what both parties are agreed in, and so to narrow the matter. To use that method, then, I do heartily agree with the learned counsel that murder is a heinous crime, and that, black as it is at the best, yet it is still more detestable when 'tis a wife that murders her husband, and robs her child of a parent who can never be replaced.
"I also agree with him that circumstantial evidence is often sufficient to convict a murderer; and, indeed, were it not so, that most monstrous of crimes would go oftenest unpunished; since, of all culprits, murderers do most shun the eyes of men in their dark deeds, and so provide beforehand that direct testimony to their execrable crime there shall be none. Only herein I am advised to take a distinction that escaped the learned sergeant. I say that first of all it ought to be proved directly, and to the naked eye, that a man has been murdered; and then, if none saw the crime done, let circumstances point out the murderer.
"But here, they put the cart before the horse; they find a dead body, with no marks of violence whatever; and labor to prove by circumstantial evidence alone that this mere dead body is a murdered body. This, I am advised, is bad in law, and contrary to general precedents; and the particular precedents for it are not examples, but warnings; since both the prisoners so rashly convicted were proved innocent, after their execution."
(The judge took a note of this distinction.)
"Then, to go from principles to the facts, I agree and admit that, in a moment of anger, I was so transported out of myself as to threaten my husband's life before Caroline Ryder. But afterwards, when I saw him face to face, then, that I threatened him with violence, that I deny. The fact is, I had just learned that he had committed a capital offence; and what I threatened him with was the law. This was proved by Jane Bannister. She says she heard me say the constables should come for him next morning. For what? to murder him?"
Judge. Give me leave, madam. Shall you prove Mr. Gaunt had committed a capital offence?
Prisoner. I could, my lord; but I am loath to do it. For, if I did, I should cast him into worse trouble than I am in myself.
Judge (shaking his head gravely). Let me advise you to advance nothing you are not able and willing to prove.
Prisoner. "Then I confine myself to this: it was proved by a witness for the crown that in the dining-room I threatened my husband to his face with the law. Now this threat, and not that other extravagant threat, which he never heard, you know, was clearly the threat which caused him to abscond that night.
"In the next place, I agree with the learned counsel that I was out of doors at one o'clock that morning. But if he will use me as his witness in that matter, then he must not pick and choose and mutilate my testimony. Nay, let him take the whole truth, and not just so much as he can square with the indictment. Either believe me, that I was out of doors praying, or do not believe me that I was out of doors at all.
"Gentlemen, hear the simple truth. You may see in the map, on the south side of Hernshaw Castle, a grove of large fir-trees. 'T is a reverend place, most fit for prayer and meditation. Here I have prayed a thousand times and more before the 15th of October. Hence 'tis called 'The Dame's Haunt,' as I shall prove, that am the dame 'tis called after.
"Let it not seem incredible to you that I should pray out of doors in my grove, on a fine, clear, starry night. For aught I know, Protestants may pray only by the fireside. But, remember, I am a Catholic. We are not so contracted in our praying. We do not confine it to little comfortable places. Nay, but for seventeen hundred years and more we have prayed out of doors as much as in doors. And this our custom is no fit subject for a shallow sneer. How does the learned sergeant know that, beneath the vault of heaven at night, studded with those angelic eyes, the stars, is an unfit place to bend the knee, and raise the soul in prayer? Has he ever tried it?"
This sudden appeal to a learned and eminent, but by no means devotional sergeant, so tickled the gentlemen of the bar, that they burst out laughing with singular unanimity.
This dashed the prisoner, who had not intended to be funny; and she hesitated, and looked distressed.
Judge. Proceed, madam; these remarks of yours are singular, but quite pertinent, and no fit subject for ridicule. Gentlemen, remember the public looks to you for an example.
Prisoner. "My lord, 'twas my fault for making that personal which should be general. But women they are so. 'T is our foible. I pray the good sergeant to excuse me.
"I say, then, generally, that when the sun retires, then earth fades, but heaven comes out in tenfold glory; and I say the starry firmament at night is a temple not built with hands, and the bare sight of it subdues the passions, chastens the heart, and aids the soul in prayer surprisingly. My lord, as I am a Christian woman, 'tis true that my husband had wronged me cruelly and broken the law. 'T is true that I raged against him, and he answered me not again. 'T is true, as that witness said, that my bark is worse than my bite. I cooled, and then felt I had forgotten the wife and the Christian in my wrath. I repented, and, to be more earnest in my penitence, I did go and pray out o' doors beneath those holy eyes of heaven that seemed to look down with chaste reproach on my ungoverned heat. I left my fireside, my velvet cushions, and all the little comforts made by human hands, that adorn our earthly dwellings, but distract our eyes from God."
Some applause followed this piece of eloquence, exquisitely uttered. It was checked, and the prisoner resumed, with an entire change of manner.
"Gentlemen, the case against me is like a piece of rotten wood varnished all over. It looks fair to the eye; but will not bear handling.
"As example of what I say, take three charges on which the learned sergeant greatly relied in opening his case:—
"1st. That I received Thomas Leicester in my bedroom.
"2d. That he went hot from me after Mr. Gaunt.
"3d. That he was seen following Mr. Gaunt with a bloody intent.
"How ugly these three proofs looked at first sight! Well, but when we squeezed the witnesses ever so little, what did those three dwindle down to?
"1st. That I received Thomas Leicester in an anteroom, which leads to a boudoir, and that boudoir leads to my bedroom.
"2d. That Thomas Leicester went from me to the kitchen, and there, for a good half-hour, drank my ale (as it appears), and made love to his old sweetheart, Caroline Ryder, the false witness for the crown; and went abroad fresh from her, and not from me.
"3d. That he was not (to speak strictly) seen following Mr. Gaunt, but just walking on the same road, drunk, and staggering, and going at such a rate that, as the crown's own witness swore, he could not in the nature of things overtake Mr. Gaunt, who walked quicker, and straighter too, than he.
"So then, even if a murder has been done, they have failed to connect Thomas Leicester with it, or me with Thomas Leicester. Two broken links in a chain of but three.
"And now I come to the more agreeable part of my defence. I do think there has been no murder at all.
"There is no evidence of a murder.
"A body is found with the flesh eaten by fishes, but the bones and the head uninjured. They swear a surgeon, who has examined the body, and certainly he had the presumption to guess it looks like a murdered body. But, being sifted, he was forced to admit that, so far as his experience of murdered bodies goes, it is not like a murdered body; for there is no bone broken, nor bruise on the head.
"Where is the body found? In the water. But water by itself is a sufficient cause of death, and a common cause too; and kills without breaking bones, or bruising the head. O perversity of the wise! For every one creature murdered in England, ten are accidentally drowned; and they find a dead man in the water, which is as much as to say they find the slain in the arms of the slayer; yet they do not once suspect the water, but go about in search of a strange and monstrous crime.
"Mr. Gaunt's cry for help was heard here, if it was heard at all (which I greatly doubt), here by this clump of trees; the body was found here, hard by the bridge; which is, by measurement, one furlong and sixty paces from that clump of trees, as I shall prove. There is no current in the mere lively enough to move a body, and what there is runs the wrong way. So this disconnects the cry for help, and the dead body. Another broken link!
"And now I come to my third defence.
"I say the body is not the body of Griffith Gaunt.
"The body, mutilated as it was, had two distinguishing marks; a mole on the brow, and a pair of hobnailed shoes on the feet.
"Now the advisers of the crown fix their eyes on that mole; but they turn their heads away from the hobnailed shoes. But why? Articles of raiment found on a body are legal evidence of identity. How often, my lord, in cases of murder, hath the crown relied on such particulars, especially in cases where corruption had obscured the features!
"I shall not imitate this partiality, this obstinate prejudice; I shall not ask you to shut your eyes on the mole, as they do on the shoes, but shall meet the whole truth fairly.
"Mr. Gaunt went from my house that morning with boots on his feet, and with a mole on his brow.
"Thomas Leicester went the same road, with shoes on his feet, and, as I shall prove, with a mole on his brow.
"To be sure, the crown witnesses did not distinctly admit this mole on him; but you will remember, they dared not deny it on their oaths, and so run their heads into an indictment for perjury.
"But, gentlemen, I shall put seven witnesses into the box, who will all swear that they have known Thomas Leicester for years, and that he had a mole upon his left temple.
"One of these witnesses is—the mother that bore him.
"I shall then call witnesses to prove that, on the 15th of October, the bridge over the mere was in bad repair, and a portion of the side rail gone; and that the body was found within a few yards of that defective bridge; and then, as Thomas Leicester went that way, drunk, and staggering from side to side, you may reasonably infer that he fell into the water in passing the bridge. To show you this is possible, I shall prove the same thing has actually occurred. I shall swear the oldest man in the parish, who will depose to a similar event that happened in his boyhood. He hath said it a thousand times before to-day, and now will swear it. He will tell you that on a certain day, sixty-nine years ago, the parson of Hernshaw, the Rev. Augustus Murthwaite, went to cross this bridge at night, after carousing at Hernshaw Castle with our great-grandfather, my husband's and mine, the then proprietor of Hernshaw, and tumbled into the water; and his body was found gnawed out of the very form of humanity by the fishes, within a yard or two of the spot where poor Tom Leicester was found, that hath cost us all this trouble. So do the same causes bring round the same events in a cycle of years. The only difference is that the parson drank his death in our dining-room, and the pedler in our kitchen.
"No doubt, my lord, you have observed that sometimes a hasty and involuntary inaccuracy gives quite a wrong color to a thing. I assure you I have suffered by this. It is said that the moment Mr. Atkins proposed to drag my mere, I fainted away. In this account there is an omission. I shall prove that Mr. Atkins used these words: 'And underneath that water I undertake to find the remains of Griffith Gaunt.' Now, gentlemen, you shall understand that at this time, and indeed until the moment when I saw the shoes upon that poor corpse's feet, I was in great terror for my husband's life. How could it be otherwise? Caroline Ryder had told me she heard his cry for help. He had disappeared. What was I to think? I feared he had fallen in with robbers. I feared all manner of things. So when the lawyer said so positively he would find his body, I was overpowered. Ah, gentlemen, wedded love survives many wrongs, many angry words; I love my husband still; and when the man told me so brutally that he was certainly dead, I fainted away. I confess it. Shall I be hanged for that?
"But now, thank God, I am full of hope that he is alive, and that good hope has given me the courage to make this great effort to save my own life.
"Hitherto I have been able to contradict my accusers positively; but now I come to a mysterious circumstance that I own puzzles me. Most persons accused of murder could, if they chose, make a clean breast, and tell you the whole matter. But this is not my case. I know shoes from boots, and I know Kate Gaunt from a liar and a murderess. But, when all is said, this is still a dark, mysterious business, and there are things in it I can only deal with as you do, gentlemen, by bringing my wits to bear upon them in reasonable conjecture.
"Caroline Ryder swears she heard Mr. Gaunt cry for help. And Mr. Gaunt has certainly disappeared.
"My accusers have somewhat weakened this by trying to palm off the body of Thomas Leicester on you for the body of Mr. Gaunt. But the original mystery remains, and puzzles me. I might fairly appeal to you to disbelieve the witness. She is proved incontinent, and a practised liar, and she forswore herself in this court, and my lord is in two minds about committing her. But a liar does not always lie, and, to be honest, I think she really believes she heard Mr. Gaunt cry for help, for she went straight to his bedroom; and that looks as if she really thought she heard his voice. But a liar may be mistaken. Do not forget that. Distance affects the voice; and I think the voice she heard was Thomas Leicester's, and the place it came from higher up the mere.
"This, my notion, will surprise you less when I prove to you that Leicester's voice bore a family likeness to Mr. Gaunt's. I shall call two witnesses who have been out shooting with Mr. Gaunt and Tom Leicester, and have heard Leicester halloo in the wood, and taken it for Mr. Gaunt.
"Must I tell you the whole truth? This Leicester has always passed for an illegitimate son of Mr. Gaunt's father. He resembled my husband in form, stature, and voice: he had the Gaunt mole, and has often spoken of it by that name. My husband forgave him many faults for no other reason—and I bought wares and filled his pack for no other reason—than this; that he was my husband's brother by nature, though not in law. 'Honi soit qui mal y pense.'
"Ah, that is a royal device; yet how often in this business have the advisers of the crown forgotten it?
"My lord, and gentlemen of the jury, I return from these conjectures to the indisputable facts of my defence.
"Mr. Gaunt may be alive, or he may be dead. He was certainly alive on the 15th of October, and it lies on the crown to prove him dead, and not on me to prove him alive. But as for the body that forms the subject of this indictment, it is the body of Thomas Leicester, who was seen on the 16th of October, at one in the morning, drunk and staggering, and making for Hernshaw Bridge, which leads to his mother's house; and on all his former visits to Hernshaw Castle he went on to his mother's, as I shall prove. This time, he never reached her, as I shall prove; but on his way to her did meet his death, by the will of God, and no fault of man or woman, in Hernshaw Mere.
"Call Sarah Leicester."
Judge. I think you say you have several witnesses.
Prisoner. More than twenty, my lord.
Judge. We cannot possibly dispose of them this evening. We will, hear your evidence to-morrow. Prisoner, this will enable you to consult with your legal advisers, and let me urge upon you to prove, if you can, that Mr. Gaunt has a sufficient motive for hiding and not answering Mr. Atkins's invitation to inherit a large estate. Some such proof as this is necessary to complete your defence; and I am sorry to see you have made no mention of it in your address, which was otherwise able.
Prisoner. My lord, I think I can prove my own innocence without casting a slur upon my husband.
Judge. You think? when your life is at stake. Be not so mad as to leave so large a hole in your defence, if you can mend it. Take advice.
He said this very solemnly; then rose and left the court.
Mrs. Gaunt was conveyed back to prison, and there was soon prostrated by the depression that follows an unnatural excitement.
Mr. Houseman found her on a sofa, pale and dejected, and clasping the jailer's wife convulsively, who applied hartshorn to her nostrils.
He proved but a Job's comforter. Her defence, creditable as it was to a novice, seemed wordy and weak to him, a lawyer; and he was horrified at the admissions she had made. In her place he would have admitted nothing he could not thoroughly explain.
He came to insist on a change of tactics.
When he saw her sad condition, he tried to begin by consoling and encouraging her. But his own serious misgivings unfitted him for this task, and very soon, notwithstanding the state she was in, he was almost scolding her for being so mad as to withstand the judge, and set herself against his advice. "There," said he, "my lord kept his word, and became counsel for you. 'Close that gap in your defence,' says he, 'and you will very likely be acquitted.' 'Nay,' says you, 'I prefer to chance it.' What madness! what injustice!"
"Injustice! to whom?"
"To whom? why, to yourself."
"What, may I not be unjust to myself?"
"Certainly not; you have no right to be unjust to anybody. Don't deceive yourself; there is no virtue in this; it is mere miserable weakness. What right have you to peril an innocent life merely to screen a malefactor from just obloquy?"
"Alas!" said Mrs. Gaunt, "'tis more than obloquy. They will kill him; they will brand him with a hot iron."
"Not unless he is indicted; and who will indict him? Sir George Neville must be got to muzzle the attorney-general, and the Lancashire jade will not move against him, for you say they are living together."
"Of course they are; and, as you say, why should I screen him? But 't will not serve; who can combat prejudice? If what I have said does not convince them, an angel's voice would not. Sir, I am a Catholic, and they will hang me. I shall die miserably, having exposed my husband, who loved me once, O so dearly! I trifled with his love. I deserve it all."
"You will not die at all, if you will only be good and obedient, and listen to wiser heads. I have subpœnaed Caroline Ryder as your witness, and given her a hint how to escape an indictment for perjury. You will find her supple as a glove."
"Call a rattlesnake for my witness?"
"I have drawn her fangs. You will also call Sir George Neville, to prove he saw Gaunt's picture at the 'Packhorse,' and heard the other wife's tale. Wiltshire will object to this as evidence, and say why don't you produce Mercy Vint herself. Then you will call me to prove I sent the subpœna to Mercy Vint. Come now; I cannot eat or sleep till you promise me."
Mrs. Gaunt sighed deeply. "Spare me," said she, "I am worn out. O that I could die before the trial begins again!"
Houseman saw the signs of yielding, and persisted. "Come, promise now," said he. "Then you will feel better."
"I will do whatever you bid me," said she. "Only, if they let me off, I will go into a convent. No power shall hinder me."
"You shall go where you like, except to the gallows. Enough, 'tis a promise, and I never knew you break one. Now I can eat my supper. You are a good, obedient child, and I am a happy attorney."
"And I am the most miserable woman in all England."
"Child," said the worthy lawyer, "your spirits have given way, because they were strung so high. You need repose. Go to bed now, and sleep twelve hours. Believe me, you will wake another woman."
"Ah! would I could!" cried Mrs. Gaunt, with all the eloquence of despair.
Houseman murmured a few more consoling words, and then left her, after once more exacting a promise that she would receive no more visits, but go to bed directly. She was to send all intruders to him at the "Angel."
Mrs. Gaunt proceeded to obey his orders, and though it was but eight o'clock, she made preparations for bed, and then went to her nightly devotions.
She was in sore trouble, and earthly trouble turns the heart heavenwards. Yet it was not so with her. The deep languor that oppressed her seemed to have reached her inmost soul. Her beads, falling one by one from her hand, denoted the number of her supplications; but, for once, they were preces sine mente dictæ. Her faith was cold, her belief in Divine justice was shaken for a time. She began to doubt and to despond. That bitter hour, which David has sung so well, and Bunyan, from experience, has described in his biography as well as in his novel, sat heavy upon her, as it had on many a true believer before her. So deep was the gloom, so paralyzing the languor, that at last she gave up all endeavor to utter words of prayer. She placed her crucifix at the foot of the wall, and laid herself down on the ground and kissed His feet, then, drawing back, gazed upon that effigy of the mortal sufferings of our Redeemer.
"O anima Christiana, respice vulnera morientis,
She had lain thus a good half-hour, when a gentle tap came to the door.
"Who is that?" said she.
"Mrs. Menteith," the jailer's wife replied, softly, and asked leave to come in.
Now this Mrs. Menteith had been very kind to her, and stoutly maintained her innocence. Mrs. Gaunt rose, and invited her in.
"Madam," said Mrs. Menteith, "what I come for, there is a person below who much desires to see you."
"I beg to be excused," was the reply. "He must go to my solicitor at the 'Angel,' Mr. Houseman."
Mrs. Menteith retired with that message, but in about five minutes returned to say that the young woman declined to go to Mr. Houseman, and begged hard to see Mrs. Gaunt. "And, dame," said she, "if I were you, I'd let her come in; 'tis the honestest face, and the tears in her soft eyes, at you denying her: 'O dear, dear!' said she, 'I cannot tell my errand to any but her.'"
"Well, well," said Mrs. Gaunt; "but what is her business?"
"If you ask me, I think her business is your business. Come, dame, do see the poor thing; she is civil spoken, and she tells me she has come all the way out of Lancashire o' purpose."
Mrs. Gaunt recoiled, as if she had been stung.
"From Lancashire?" said she, faintly.
"Ay, madam," said Mrs. Menteith, "and that is a long road; and a child upon her arm all the way, poor thing!"
"Her name?" said Mrs. Gaunt, sternly.
"O, she is not ashamed of it. She gave it me directly."
"What, has she the effrontery to take my name?"
Mrs. Menteith stared at her with utter amazement. "Your name?" said she. "'T is a simple, country body, and her name is Vint,—Mercy Vint."
Mrs. Gaunt was very much agitated, and said she felt quite unequal to see a stranger.
"Well, I'm sure I don't know what to do," said Mrs. Menteith. "She says she will lie at your door all night, but she will see you. 'T is the face of a friend. She may know something. It seems hard to thrust her and her child out into the street, after their coming all the way from Lancashire."
Mrs. Gaunt stood silent awhile, and her intelligence had a severe combat with her deep repugnance to be in the same room with Griffith Gaunt's mistress (so she considered her). But a certain curiosity came to the aid of her good sense; and, after all, she was a brave and haughty woman, and her natural courage began to rise. She thought to herself, "What, dares she come to me all this way, and shall I shrink from her?"
She turned to Mrs. Menteith with a bitter smile, and she said, very slowly, and clenching her white teeth: "Since you desire it, and she insists on it, I will receive Mistress Mercy Vint."
Mrs. Menteith went off, and in about five minutes returned, ushering in Mercy Vint, in a hood and travelling-cloak.
Mrs. Gaunt received her standing, and with a very formal courtesy; to which Mercy made a quiet obeisance, and both women looked one another all over in a moment.
Mrs. Menteith lingered, to know what on earth this was all about; but as neither spoke a word, and their eyes were fixed on each other, she divined that her absence was necessary, and so retired, looking very much amazed at both of them.