The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 109/Griffith Gaunt; or, Jealousy
GRIFFITH GAUNT; OR, JEALOUSY.
“Be seated, mistress, if you please," said Mrs. Gaunt, with icy civility, "and let me know to what I owe this extraordinary visit."
"I thank you, dame," said Mercy, "for indeed I am sore fatigued." She sat quietly down. "Why I have come to you? It was to serve you, and to keep my word with George Neville."
"Will you be kind enough to explain?" said Mrs. Gaunt, in a freezing tone, and with a look of her calm gray eye to match.
Mercy felt chilled, and was too frank to disguise it. "Alas!" said she, softly, "'t is hard to be received so, and me come all the way from Lancashire, with a heart like lead, to do my duty, God willing."
The tears stood in her eyes, and her mellow voice was sweet and patient.
The gentle remonstrance was not quite without effect. Mrs. Gaunt colored a little; she said, stiffly: "Excuse me if I seem discourteous, but you and I ought not to be in one room a moment. You do not see this, apparently. But at least I have a right to insist that such an interview shall be very brief, and to the purpose. Oblige me, then, by telling me in plain terms why you have come hither."
"Madam, to be your witness at the trial."
"You to be my witness?"
"Why not? If I can clear you? What, would you rather be condemned for murder, than let me show them you are innocent? Alas! how you hate me!"
"Hate you, child? of course I hate you. We are both of us flesh and blood, and hate one another. And one of us is honest enough, and uncivil enough, to say so."
"Speak for yourself, dame," replied Mercy, quietly, "for I hate you not; and I thank God for it. To hate is to be miserable. I'd liever be hated than to hate."
Mrs. Gaunt looked at her. "Your words are goodly and wise," said she; "your face is honest, and your eyes are like a very dove's. But, for all that, you hate me quietly, with all your heart. Human nature is human nature."
"'T is so. But grace is grace." She was silent a moment, then resumed: "I'll not deny I did hate you for a time, when first I learned the man I had married had a wife, and you were she. We that be women are too unjust to each other, and too indulgent to a man. But I have worn out my hate. I wrestled in prayer, and the God of Love, he did quench my most unreasonable hate. For 'twas the man betrayed me; you never wronged me, nor I you. But you are right, madam; 't is true that nature without grace is black as pitch. The Devil, he was busy at my ear, and whispered me, 'If the fools in Cumberland hang her, what fault o' thine? Thou wilt be his lawful wife, and thy poor, innocent child will be a child of shame no more.' But, by God's grace, I did defy him. And I do defy him." She rose swiftly from her chair, and her dove's eyes gleamed with celestial light. "Get thee behind me, Satan. I tell thee the hangman shall never have her innocent body, nor thou my soul."
The movement was so unexpected, the words and the look so simply noble, that Mrs. Gaunt rose too, and gazed upon her visitor with astonishment and respect; yet still with a dash of doubt.
She thought to herself, "If this creature is not sincere, what a mistress of deceit she must be."
But Mercy Vint soon returned to her quiet self. She sat down, and said, gravely, and for the first time a little coldly, as one who had deserved well, and been received ill: "Mistress Gaunt, you are accused of murdering your husband. 'T is false; for two days ago I saw him alive."
"What do you say?" cried Mrs. Gaunt, trembling all over.
"Be brave, madam. You have borne great trouble: do not give way under joy. He who has wronged us both—he who wedded you under his own name of Griffith Gaunt, and me under the false name of Thomas Leicester—is no more dead than we are; I saw him two days ago, and spoke to him, and persuaded him to come to Carlisle town, and do you justice."
Mrs. Gaunt fell on her knees. "He is alive; he is alive. Thank God! O, thank God! He is alive; and God bless the tongue that tells me so. God bless you eternally, Mercy Vint."
The tears of joy streamed down her face, and then Mercy's flowed too. She uttered a little pathetic cry of joy. "Ah," she sobbed, "the bit of comfort I needed so has come to my heavy heart. She has blessed me."
But she said this very softly, and Mrs. Gaunt was in a rapture, and did not hear her.
"Is it a dream? My husband alive? and you the one to come and tell me so? How unjust I have been to you. Forgive me. Why does he not come himself?"
Mercy colored at this question, and hesitated.
"Well, dame," said she, "for one thing, he has been on the fuddle for the last two months."
"On the fuddle?"
"Ay; he owns he has never been sober a whole day. And that takes the heart out of a man, as well as the brains. And then he has got it into his head that you will never forgive him, and that he shall be cast in prison if he shows his face in Cumberland."
"Why in Cumberland more than in Lancashire?" asked Mrs. Gaunt, biting her lip.
Mercy blushed faintly. She replied with some delicacy, but did not altogether mince the matter.
"He knows I shall never punish him for what he has done to me."
"Why not? I begin to think he has wronged you almost as much as he has me."
"Worse, madam; worse. He has robbed me of my good name. You are still his lawful wife, and none can point the finger at you. But look at me. I was an honest girl, respected by all the parish. What has he made of me? The man that lay a dying in my house, and I saved his life, and so my heart did warm to him,—he blasphemed God's altar, to deceive and betray me; and here I am, a poor forlorn creature, neither maid, wife, nor widow; with a child on my arms that I do nothing but cry over. Ay, my poor innocent, I left thee down below, because I was ashamed she should see thee; ah me! ah me!" She lifted up her voice, and wept.
Mrs. Gaunt looked at her wistfully, and, like Mercy before her, had a bitter struggle with human nature,—a struggle so sharp that, in the midst of it, she burst out crying with great violence; but, with that burst, her great soul conquered.
She darted out of the room, leaving Mercy astonished at her abrupt departure.
Mercy was patiently drying her eyes, when the door opened, and judge her surprise when she saw Mrs. Gaunt glide into the room with her little boy asleep in her arms, and an expression upon her face more sublime than anything Mercy Vint had ever yet seen on earth. She kissed the babe softly, and, becoming infantine as well as angelic by this contact, sat herself down in a moment on the floor with him, and held out her hand to Mercy. "There," said she, "come, sit beside us, and see how I hate him,—no more than you do; sweet innocent."
They looked him all over, discussed his every feature learnedly, kissed his limbs and extremities after the manner of their sex, and, comprehending at last that to have been both of them wronged by one man was a bond of sympathy, not hate, the two wives of Griffith Gaunt laid his child across their two laps, and wept over him together.
Mercy Vint took herself to task. "I am but a selfish woman," said she, "to talk or think of anything but that I came here for." She then proceeded to show Mrs. Gaunt by what means she proposed to secure her acquittal, without getting Griffith Gaunt into trouble.
Mrs. Gaunt listened with keen and grateful attention, until she came to that part; then she interrupted her eagerly. "Don't spare him for me. In your place I'd trounce the villain finely."
"Ay," said Mercy, "and then forgive him; but I am different. I shall never forgive him; but I am a poor hand at punishing and revenging. I always was. My name is Mercy, you know. To tell the truth, I was to have been called Prudence, after my good aunt; but she said, nay; she had lived to hear Greed, and Selfishness, and a heap of faults, named Prudence. 'Call the child something that means what it does mean, and not after me,' quoth she. So with me hearing 'Mercy, Mercy,' called out after me so many years, I do think the quality hath somehow got under my skin; for I cannot abide to see folk smart, let alone to strike the blow. What, shall I take the place of God, and punish the evil-doers, because 't is me they wrong? Nay, dame, I will never punish him, though he hath wronged me cruelly. All I shall do is to think very ill of him, and shun him, and tear his memory out of my heart. You look at me: do you think I cannot? You don't know me; I am very resolute when I see clear. Of course I loved him,—loved him dearly. He was like a husband to me, and a kind one. But the moment I knew how basely he had deceived us both, my heart began to turn against the man, and now 't is ice to him. Heaven knows what I am made of; for, believe me, I'd liever ten times be beside you than beside him. My heart it lay like a lump of lead till I heard your story, and found I could do you a good turn,—you that he had wronged, as well as me. I read your beautiful eyes; but nay, fear me not; I'm not the woman to pine for the fruit that is my neighbor's. All I ask for on earth is a few kind words and looks from you. You are gentle, and I am simple; but we are both one flesh and blood, and your lovely wet eyes do prove it this moment. Dame Gaunt—Kate—I ne'er was ten miles from home afore, and I am come all this weary way to serve thee. O, give me the one thing that can do me good in this world,—the one thing I pine for,—a little of your love."
The words were scarce out of her lips, when Mrs. Gaunt caught her impetuously round the neck with both hands, and laid her on that erring but noble heart of hers, and kissed her eagerly.
They kissed one another again and again, and wept over one another.
And now Mrs. Gaunt, who did nothing by halves, could not make enough of Mercy Vint. She ordered supper, and ate with her, to make her eat. Mrs. Menteith offered Mercy a bed; but Mrs. Gaunt said she must lie with her, she and her child.
"What," said she, "think you I'll let you out of my sight? Alas! who knows when you and I shall ever be together again?"
"I know," said Mercy, thoughtfully. "In this world, never."
They slept in one bed, and held each other by the hand all night, and talked to one another, and in the morning knew each the other's story, and each the other's mind and character, better than their oldest acquaintances knew either the one or the other.
The trial began again; and the court was crowded to suffocation. All eyes were bent on the prisoner. She rose, calm and quiet, and begged leave to say a few words to the court.
Mr. Whitworth objected to that. She had concluded her address yesterday, and called a witness. Prisoner. But I have not examined a witness yet.
Judge. You come somewhat out of time, madam; but, if you will be brief, we will hear you.
Prisoner. I thank you, my lord. It was only to withdraw an error. The cry for help that was heard by the side of Hernshaw Mere, I said, yesterday, that cry was uttered by Thomas Leicester. Well, I find I was mistaken: the cry for help was uttered by my husband,—by that Griffith Gaunt I am accused of assassinating.
This extraordinary admission caused a great sensation in court. The judge looked very grave and sad; and Sergeant Wiltshire, who came into court just then, whispered his junior, "She has put the rope round her own neck. The jury would never have believed our witness."
Prisoner. I will only add, that a person came into the town last night, who knows a great deal more about this mysterious business than I do. I purpose, therefore, to alter the plan of my defence; and to save your time, my lord, who have dealt so courteously with me, I shall call but a single witness.
Ere the astonishment caused by this sudden collapse of the defence was in any degree abated, she called "Mercy Vint."
There was the usual stir and struggle; and then the calm, self-possessed face and figure of a comely young woman confronted the court. She was sworn; and examined by the prisoner after this fashion.
"Where do you live?"
"At the 'Packhorse,' near Allerton, in Lancashire."
Prisoner. Do you know Mr. Griffith Gaunt?
Mercy. Madam, I do.
Prisoner. Was he at your place in October last?
Mercy. Yes, madam, on the thirteenth of October. On that day he left for Cumberland.
Prisoner. On foot, or on horseback?
Mercy. On horseback.
Prisoner. With boots on, or shoes?
Mercy. He had a pair of new boots on.
Prisoner. Do you know Thomas Leicester?
Mercy. A pedler called at our house on the eleventh of October, and he said his name was Thomas Leicester.
Prisoner. How was he shod?
Mercy. In hobnailed shoes.
Prisoner. Which way went he on leaving you?
Mercy. Madam, he went northwards; I know no more for certain.
Prisoner. When did you see Mr. Gaunt last?
Mercy. Four days ago.
Judge. What is that? You saw him alive four days ago?
Mercy. Ay, my lord; the last Wednesday that ever was.
At this the people burst out into a loud, agitated murmur, and their heads went to and fro all the time. In vain the crier cried and threatened. The noise rose and surged, and took its course. It went down gradually, as amazement gave way to curiosity; and then there was a remarkable silence; and then the silvery voice of the prisoner, and the mellow tones of the witness, appeared to penetrate the very walls of the building, each syllable of those two beautiful speakers was heard so distinctly.
Prisoner. Be so good as to tell the court what passed on Wednesday last between Griffith Gaunt and you, relative to this charge of murder.
Mercy. I let him know one George Neville had come from Cumberland in search of him, and had told me you lay in Carlisle jail charged with his murder. I did urge him to ride at once to Carlisle, and show himself; but he refused. He made light of the matter. Then I told him not so; the circumstances looked ugly, and your life was in peril. Then he said, nay, 'twas in no peril; for if you were to be found guilty, then he would show himself on the instant. Then I told him he was not worthy the name of a man, and if he would not go, I would. "Go you, by all means," said he, "and I'll give you a writing that will clear her. Jack Houseman will be there, that knows my hand; and so does the sheriff, and half the grand jury at the least."
Prisoner. Have you that writing?
Mercy. To be sure I have. Here 't is.
Prisoner. Be pleased to read it.
Judge. Stay a minute. Shall you prove it to be his handwriting?
Prisoner. Ay, my lord, by as many as you please.
Judge. Then let that stand over for the present. Let me see it.
It was handed up to him; and he showed it to the sheriff, who said he thought it was Griffith Gaunt's writing.
The paper was then read out to the jury. It ran as follows:—
"Know all men, that I, Griffith Gaunt, Esq., of Bolton Hall and Hernshaw Castle, in the county of Cumberland, am alive and well; and the matter which has so puzzled the good folk in Cumberland befell as follows:—I left Hernshaw Castle in the dead of night upon the fifteenth of October. Why, is no man's business but mine. I found the stable locked; so I left my horse, and went on foot. I crossed Hernshaw Mere by the bridge, and had got about a hundred yards, as I suppose, on the way, when I heard some one fall with a great splash into the mere, and soon after cry dolefully for help. I, that am no swimmer, ran instantly to the north side to a clump of trees, where a boat used always to be kept. But the boat was not there. Then I cried lustily for help, and, as no one came, I fired my pistol and cried murder! For I had heard men will come sooner to that cry than to any other. But in truth I was almost out of my wits, that a fellow-creature should perish miserably so near me. Whilst I ran wildly to and fro, some came out of the Castle bearing torches. By this time I was at the bridge, but saw no signs of the drowning man; yet the night was clear. Then I knew that his fate was sealed; and, for reasons of my own, not choosing to be seen by those who were coming to his aid, I hastened from the place. My happiness being gone, and my conscience smiting me sore, and not knowing whither to turn, I took to drink, and fell into bad ways, and lived like a brute, and not a man, for six weeks or more; so that I never knew of the good fortune that had fallen on me when least I deserved it: I mean by old Mr. Gaunt of Coggleswade making of me his heir. But one day at Kendal I saw Mercy Vint's advertisement; and I went to her, and learned that my wife lay in Carlisle jail for my supposed murder. But I say that she is innocent, and nowise to blame in this matter: for I deserved every hard word she ever gave me; and as for killing, she is a spirited woman with her tongue, but hath not the heart to kill a fly. She is what she always was,—the pearl of womankind; a virtuous, innocent, and noble lady. I have lost the treasure of her love by my fault, not hers; but at least I have a right to defend her life and honor. Whoever molests her after this, out of pretended regard for me, is a liar, and a fool, and no friend of mine, but my enemy, and I his—to the death.
It was a day of surprises. This tribute from the murdered man to his assassin was one of them. People looked in one another's faces open-eyed.
The prisoner looked in the judge's, and acted on what she saw there. "That is my defence," said she, quietly, and sat down.
If a show of hands had been called at that moment, she would have been acquitted by acclamation.
But Mr. Whitworth was a zealous young barrister, burning for distinction. He stuck to his case, and cross-examined Mercy Vint with severity; indeed, with asperity.
Whitworth. What are you to receive for this evidence?
Whitworth. O, you know what I mean. Are you not to be paid for telling us this romance?
Mercy. Nay, sir, I ask naught for telling the truth.
Whitworth. You were in the prisoner's company yesterday?
Mercy. Yes, sir, I visited her in the jail last night.
Whitworth. And there concerted this ingenious defence?
Mercy. Well, sir, for that matter, I told her that her man was alive, and I did offer to be her witness.
Whitworth. For naught?
Mercy. For no money or reward, if 't is that you mean. Why, 't is a joy beyond money to clear an innocent body, and save her life; and that satisfaction is mine this day.
Whitworth (sarcastically). These are very fine sentiments for a person in your condition. Confess that Mrs. Gaunt primed you with all that.
Mercy. Nay, sir, I left home in that mind; else I had not come at all. Bethink you; 't is a long journey for one in my way of life; and this dear child on my arm all the way.
Mrs. Gaunt sat boiling with indignation. But Mercy's good temper and meekness parried the attack that time. Mr. Whitworth changed his line.
Whitworth. You ask the jury to believe that Griffith Gaunt, Esquire, a gentleman, and a man of spirit and honor, is alive, yet skulks and sends you hither, when by showing his face in this court he could clear his wife without a single word spoken?
Mercy. Yes, sir; I do hope to be believed, for I speak the naked truth. But, with due respect to you, Mr. Gaunt did not send me hither against my will. I could not bide in Lancashire, and let an innocent woman be murdered in Cumberland.
Whitworth. Murdered, quotha. That is a good jest. I'd have you to know we punish murders here, not do them.
Mercy. I am glad to hear that, sir, on the lady's account.
Whitworth. Come, come. You pretend you discovered this Griffith Gaunt alive, by means of an advertisement. If so, produce the advertisement.
Mercy Vint colored, and cast a swift, uneasy glance at Mrs. Gaunt.
Rapid as it was, the keen eye of the counsel caught it.
"Nay, do not look to the culprit for orders," said he. "Produce it, or confess the truth. Come, you never advertised for him."
"Sir, I did advertise for him."
"Then produce the advertisement."
"Sir, I will not," said Mercy, calmly.
"Then I shall move the court to commit you."
"For what offence, if you please?"
"For perjury and contempt of court."
"I am guiltless of either, God knows. But I will not show the advertisement."
Judge. This is very extraordinary. Perhaps you have it not about you.
Mercy. My lord, the truth is I have it in my bosom. But, if I show it, it will not make this matter one whit clearer, and 't will open the wounds of two poor women. 'T is not for myself. But, O my lord, look at her. Hath she not gone through grief enow?
The appeal was made with a quiet, touching earnestness, that affected every hearer. But the judge had a duty to perform. "Witness," said he, "you mean well; but indeed you do the prisoner an injury by withholding this paper. Be good enough to produce it at once."
Prisoner (with a deep sigh). Obey my lord.
Mercy (with a patient sigh). There, sir, may the Lord forgive you the useless mischief you are doing.
Whitworth. I am doing my duty, young woman. And yours is to tell the whole truth, and not a part only.
Mercy (acquiescing). That is true, sir.
Whitworth. Why, what is this? 'T is not Mr. Gaunt you advertise for in these papers. 'T is Thomas Leicester.
Judge. What is that? I don't understand.
Whitworth. Nor I neither.
Judge. Let me see the papers. 'T is Thomas Leicester sure enough.
Whitworth. And you mean to swear that Griffith Gaunt answered an advertisement inviting Thomas Leicester?
Mercy. I do. Thomas Leicester was the name he went by in our part.
Whitworth. What? what? You are jesting.
Mercy. Is this a place or a time for jesting? I say he called himself Thomas Leicester.
Here the business was interrupted again by a multitudinous murmur of excited voices. Everybody was whispering astonishment to his neighbor. And the whisper of a great crowd has the effect of a loud murmur.
Whitworth. O, he called himself Thomas Leicester, did he? Then what makes you think he is Griffith Gaunt?
Mercy. Well, sir, the pedler, whose real name was Thomas Leicester, came to our house one day, and saw his picture, and knew it; and said something to a neighbor that raised my suspicions. When he came home, I took this shirt out of a drawer; 't was the shirt he wore when he first came to us. 'T is marked "G. G." (The shirt was examined.) Said I, "For God's sake speak the truth: what does G. G. stand for?" Then he told me his real name was Griffith Gaunt, and he had a wife in Cumberland. "Go back to her," said I, "and ask her to forgive you." Then he rode north, and I never saw him again till last Wednesday.
Whitworth (satirically). You seem to have been mighty intimate with this Thomas Leicester, whom you now call Griffith Gaunt. May I ask what was, or is, the nature of your connection with him?
Mercy was silent.
Whitworth. I must press for a reply, that we may know what value to attach to your most extraordinary evidence. Were you his wife,—or his mistress?
Mercy. Indeed, I hardly know; but not his mistress, or I should not be here.
Whitworth. You don't know whether you were married to the man or not?
Mercy. I do not say so. But—
She hesitated, and cast a piteous look at Mrs. Gaunt, who sat boiling with indignation.
At this look, the prisoner, who had long contained herself with difficulty, rose, with scarlet cheeks and flashing eyes, in defence of her witness, and flung her prudence to the wind.
"Fie, sir," she cried. "The woman you insult is as pure as your own mother, or mine. She deserves the pity, the respect, the veneration of all good men. Know, my lord, that my miserable husband deceived and married her under the false name he had taken. She has the marriage-certificate in her bosom. Pray make her show it, whether she will or not. My lord, this Mercy Vint is more an angel than a woman. I am her rival, after a manner. Yet, out of the goodness and greatness of her noble heart, she came all that way to save me from an unjust death. And is such a woman to be insulted? I blush for the hired advocate who cannot see his superior in an incorruptible witness, a creature all truth, piety, purity, unselfishness, and goodness. Yes, sir, you began by insinuating that she was as venal as yourself; for you are one that can be bought by the first-comer; and now you would cast a slur on her chastity. For shame! for shame! This is one of those rare women that adorn our whole sex, and embellish human nature; and, so long as you have the privilege of exchanging words with her, I shall stand here on the watch, to see that you treat her with due respect: ay, sir, with reverence; for I have measured you both, and she is as much your superior as she is mine."
This amazing burst was delivered with such prodigious fire and rapidity that nobody was self-possessed enough to stop it in time. It was like a furious gust of words sweeping over the court.
Mr. Whitworth, pale with anger, merely said: "Madam, the good taste of these remarks I leave the court to decide upon. But you cannot be allowed to give evidence in your own defence."
"No, but in hers I will," said Mrs. Gaunt. "No power shall hinder me."
Judge (coldly). Had you not better go on cross-examining the witness?
Whitworth. Let me see your marriage-certificate, if you have one?
It was handed to him.
Well, now how do you know that this Thomas Leicester was Griffith Gaunt?
Judge. Why, she has told you he confessed it to her.
Mercy. Yes, my lord; and, besides, he wrote me two letters signed Thomas Leicester. Here they are, and I desire they may be compared with the paper he wrote last Wednesday, and signed Griffith Gaunt. And more than that, whilst we lived together as man and wife, one Hamilton, a travelling painter, took our portraits, his and mine. I have brought his with me. Let his friends and neighbors look on this portrait, and say whose likeness it is. What I say and swear is, that on Wednesday last I saw and spoke with that Thomas Leicester, or Griffith Gaunt, whose likeness I now show you.
With that she lifted the portrait up, and showed it all the court.
Instantly there was a roar of recognition.
It was one of those hard daubs that are nevertheless so monstrously like the originals.
Judge (to Mr. Whitworth). Young gentleman, we are all greatly obliged to you. You have made the prisoner's case. There was but one weak point in it; I mean the prolonged absence of Griffith Gaunt. You have now accounted for that. You have forced a very truthful witness to depose that this Gaunt is himself a criminal, and is hiding from fear of the law. The case for the crown is a mere tissue of conjectures, on which no jury could safely convict, even if there was no defence at all. Under other circumstances I might decline to receive evidence at second-hand that Griffith Gaunt is alive. But here such evidence is sufficient, for it lies on the crown to prove the man dead; but you have only proved that he was alive on the fifteenth of October, and that since then somebody is dead with shoes on. This somebody appears on the balance of proof to be Thomas Leicester, the pedler; and he has never been heard of since, and Griffith Gaunt has. Then I say you cannot carry the case further. You have not a leg to stand on. What say you, Brother Wiltshire?
Wiltshire. My lord, I think there is no case against the prisoner, and am thankful to your lordship for relieving me of a very unpleasant task.
The question of guilty or not guilty was then put to the jury, who instantly brought the prisoner in not guilty.
Judge. Catharine Gaunt, you leave this court without a stain, and with our sincere respect and sympathy. I much regret the fear and pain you have been put to: you have been terribly punished for a hasty word. Profit now by this bitter lesson; and may Heaven enable you to add a well-governed spirit to your many virtues and graces.
He half rose from his seat, and bowed courteously to her. She courtesied reverently, and retired.
He then said a few words to Mercy Vint.
"Young woman, I have no words to praise you as you deserve. You have shown us the beauty of the female character, and, let me add, the beauty of the Christian religion. You have come a long way to clear the innocent. I hope you will not stop there; but also punish the guilty person, on whom we have wasted so much pity."
"Me, my lord?" said Mercy. "I would not harm a hair of his head for as many guineas as there be hairs in mine."
"Child," said my lord, "thou art too good for this world; but go thy ways, and God bless thee."
Thus abruptly ended a trial that, at first, had looked so formidable for the accused.
The judge now retired for some refreshment, and while he was gone Sir George Neville dashed up to the Town Hall, four in hand, and rushed in by the magistrate's door, with a pedler's pack, which he had discovered in the mere, a few yards from the spot where the mutilated body was found.
He learned the prisoner was already acquitted. He left the pack with the sheriff, and begged him to show it to the judge; and went in search of Mrs. Gaunt.
He found her in the jailer's house. She and Mercy Vint were seated hand in hand.
He started at first sight of the latter. Then there was a universal shaking of hands, and glistening of eyes. And, when this was over, Mrs. Gaunt turned to him, and said, piteously: "She will go back to Lancashire to-morrow; nothing I can say will turn her."
"No, dame," said Mercy, quietly; "Cumberland is no place for me. My work is done here. Our paths in this world do lie apart. George Neville, persuade her to go home at once, and not trouble about me."
"Indeed, madam," said Sir George, "she speaks wisely: she always does. My carriage is at the door, and the people waiting by thousands in the street to welcome your deliverance."
Mrs. Gaunt drew herself up with fiery and bitter disdain.
"Are they so?" said she, grimly. "Then I'll balk them. I'll steal away in the dead of night. No, miserable populace, that howls and hisses with the strong against the weak, you shall have no part in my triumph; 't is sacred to my friends. You honored me with your hootings, you shall not disgrace me with your acclamations. Here I stay till Mercy Vint, my guardian angel, leaves me forever."
She then requested Sir George to order his horses back to the inn, and the coachman was to hold himself in readiness to start when the whole town should be asleep.
Meantime, a courier was despatched to Hernshaw Castle, to prepare for Mrs. Gaunt's reception.
Mrs. Menteith made a bed up for Mercy Vint, and at midnight, when the coast was clear, came the parting.
It was a sad one.
Even Mercy, who had great self-command, could not then restrain her tears.
To apply the sweet and touching words of Scripture, "They sorrowed most of all for this, that they should see each other's face no more."
Sir George accompanied Mrs. Gaunt to Hernshaw.
She drew back into her corner of the carriage, and was very silent and distraite.
After one or two attempts at conversation, he judged it wisest, and even most polite, to respect her mood.
At last she burst out, "I cannot bear it, I cannot bear it."
"Why, what is amiss?" inquired Sir George.
"What is amiss? Why, 't is all amiss. 'T is so heartless, so ungrateful, to let that poor angel go home to Lancashire all alone, now she has served my turn. Sir George, do not think I undervalue your company: but if you would but take her home, instead of taking me! Poor thing, she is brave; but when the excitement of her good action is over, and she goes back the weary road all alone, what desolation it will be! My heart bleeds for her. I know I am an unconscionable woman, to ask such a thing; but then you are a true chevalier; you always were, and you saw her merit directly. O, do pray leave me to slip unnoticed into Hernshaw Castle, and do you accompany my benefactress to her humble home. Will you, dear Sir George? 'T would be such a load off my heart."
To this appeal, uttered with trembling lip and moist eyes, Sir George replied in character. He declined to desert Mrs. Gaunt, until he had seen her safe home; but, that done, he would ride back to Carlisle and escort Mercy home.
Mrs. Gaunt sighed, and said she was abusing his friendship, and should kill him with fatigue, and he was a good creature. "If anything could make me easy, this would," said she. "You know how to talk to a woman, and comfort her. I wish I was a man: I'd cure her of Griffith before we reached the 'Packhorse.' And, now I think of it, you are a very happy man to travel eighty miles with an angel, a dove-eyed angel."
"I am a happy man to have an opportunity of complying with your desires, madam," was the demure reply. "'T is not often you do me the honor to lay your orders on me."
After this, nothing of any moment passed until they reached Hernshaw Castle; and then, as they drove up to the door, and saw the hall blazing with lights, Mrs. Gaunt laid her hand softly on Sir George, and whispered, "You were right. I thank you for not leaving me."
The servants were all in the hall, to receive their mistress; and amongst them were those who had given honest but unfavorable testimony at the trial, being called by the crown. These had consulted together, and, after many pros and cons, had decided that they had better not follow their natural impulse, and hide from her face, since that might be a fresh offence. Accordingly, these witnesses, dressed in their best, stood with the others in the hall, and made their obeisances, quaking inwardly.
Mrs. Gaunt entered the hall leaning on Sir George's arm. She scarcely bestowed a look upon any of her servants, but made them one sweeping courtesy in return, and passed on; only Sir George felt her taper fingers just nip his arm.
She made him partake of some supper, and then this chevalier des dames rode home, snatched a few hours' sleep, put on the yeoman's suit in which he had first visited the "Packhorse," and, arriving at Carlisle, engaged the whole inside of the coach; for his orders were to console, and he did not see his way clear to do that with two or three strangers listening to every word.
A great change was observable in Mrs. Gaunt after this fiery and chastening ordeal. In a short time she had been taught many lessons. She had learned that the law will not allow even a woman to say anything and everything with impunity. She had been in a court of justice, and seen how gravely, soberly, and fairly an accusation is sifted there; and, if false, annihilated; which, elsewhere, it never is. Member of a sex that could never have invented a court of justice, she had found something to revere and bless in that other sex to which her erring husband belonged. Finally, she had encountered in Mercy Vint a woman whom she recognized at once as her moral superior. The contact of that pure and well-governed spirit told wonderfully upon her. She began to watch her tongue and to bridle her high spirit. She became slower to give offence, and slower to take it. She took herself to task, and made some little excuses even for Griffith. She was resolved to retire from the world altogether; but, meantime, she bowed her head to the lessons of adversity. Her features, always lovely, but somewhat too haughty, were now softened and embellished beyond description by a mingled expression of grief, humility, and resignation.
She never mentioned her husband; but it is not to be supposed she never thought of him. She waited the course of events in dignified and patient silence.
As for Griffith Gaunt, he was in the hands of two lawyers, Atkins and Houseman. He waited on the first, and made a friend of him. "I am at your service," said he; "but not if I am to be indicted for bigamy, and burned in the hand."
"These fears are idle," said Atkins. "Mercy Vint declared in open court she will not proceed against you."
"Ay, but there's my wife."
"She will keep quiet; I have Houseman's word for it."
"Ay, but there's the Attorney-General."
"O, he will not move, unless he is driven. We must use a little influence. Mr. Houseman is of my mind, and he has the ear of the county."
To be brief, it was represented in high quarters that to indict Mr. Gaunt would only open Mrs. Gaunt's wounds afresh, and do no good; and so Houseman found means to muzzle the Attorney-General.
Just three weeks after the trial, Griffith Gaunt, Esq. reappeared publicly. The place of his reappearance was Coggleswade. He came and set about finishing his new mansion with feverish rapidity. He engaged an army of carpenters and painters, and spent thousands of pounds on the decorating and furnishing of the mansion, and laying out the grounds.
This was duly reported to Mrs. Gaunt, who said—not a word.
But at last one day came a letter to Mrs. Gaunt, in Griffith's well-known handwriting.
With all her acquired self-possession, her hand trembled as she broke open the seal.
It contained but these words:—
"Madam,—I do not ask you to forgive me. For, if you had done what I have, I could never forgive you. But for the sake of Rose, and to stop their tongues, I do hope you will do me the honor to live under this my roof. I dare not face Hernshaw Castle. Your own apartments here are now ready for you. The place is large. Upon my honor I will not trouble you; but show myself always, as now,
"Your penitent and very humble servant,
The messenger was to wait for her reply.
This letter disturbed Mrs. Gaunt's sorrowful tranquillity at once. She was much agitated, and so undecided that she sent the messenger away, and told him to call next day.
Then she sent off to Father Francis to beg his advice.
But her courier returned, late at night, to say Father Francis was away from home.
Then she took Rose, and said to her, "My darling, papa wants us to go to his new house, and leave dear old Hernshaw; I know not what to say about that. What do you say?"
"Tell him to come to us," said Rose, dictatorially. "Only," (lowering her little voice very suddenly,) "if he is naughty and won't, why then we had better go to him; for he amuses me."
"As you please," said Mrs. Gaunt; and sent her husband this reply:—
"Sir,—Rose and I are agreed to defer to your judgment and obey your wishes. Be pleased to let me know what day you will require us; and I must trouble you to send a carriage.
"I am, sir,
"Your faithful wife and humble servant,
At the appointed day, a carriage and four came wheeling up to the door. The vehicle was gorgeously emblazoned, and the servants in rich liveries; all which finery glittering in the sun, and the glossy coats of the horses, did mightily please Mistress Rose. She stood on the stone steps, and clapped her hands with delight. Her mother just sighed, and said, "Ay, 'tis in pomp and show we must seek our happiness now."
She leaned back in the carriage, and closed her eyes, yet not so close but now and then a tear would steal out, as she thought of the past.
They drove up under an avenue to a noble mansion, and landed at the foot of some marble steps, low and narrow, but of vast breadth.
As they mounted these, a hall door, through which the carriage could have passed, was flung open, and discovered the servants all drawn up to do honor to their mistress.
She entered the hall, leading Rose by the hand; the servants bowed and courtesied down to the ground.
She received this homage with dignified courtesy, and her eye stole round to see if the master of the house was coming to receive her.
The library door was opened hastily, and out came to meet her—Father Francis.
"Welcome, madam, a thousand times welcome to your new home," said he, in a stentorian voice, with a double infusion of geniality. "I claim the honor of showing you your part of the house, though 'tis all yours for that matter." And he led the way.
Now this cheerful stentorian voice was just a little shaky for once, and his eyes were moist.
Mrs. Gaunt noticed, but said nothing before the people. She smiled graciously, and accompanied him.
He took her to her apartments. They consisted of a salle-à-manger, three delightful bedrooms, a boudoir, and a magnificent drawing-room, fifty feet long, with two fireplaces, and a bay-window thirty feet wide, filled with the choicest flowers.
An exclamation of delight escaped Mrs. Gaunt. Then she said, "One would think I was a queen." Then she sighed, "Ah," said she, "'tis a fine thing to be rich." Then, despondently, "Tell him I think it very beautiful."
"Nay, madam, I hope you will tell him so yourself."
Mrs. Gaunt made no reply to that. She added: "And it was kind of him to have you here the first day: I do not feel so lonely as I should without you."
She took Griffith at his word, and lived with Rose in her own apartments.
For some time Griffith used to slip away whenever he saw her coming.
One day she caught him at it, and beckoned him.
He came to her.
"You need not run away from me," said she: "I did not come into your house to quarrel with you. Let us be friends,"—and she gave him her hand sweetly enough, but O so coldly!
"I hope for nothing more," said Griffith. "If you ever have a wish, give me the pleasure of gratifying it,—that is all."
"I wish to retire to a convent," said she, quietly.
"And desert your daughter?"
"I would leave her behind, to remind you of days gone by."
By degrees they saw a little more of one another; they even dined together now and then. But it brought them no nearer. There was no anger, with its loving reaction. They were friendly enough, but an icy barrier stood between them.
One person set himself quietly to sap this barrier. Father Francis was often at the Castle, and played the peacemaker very adroitly.
The line he took might be called the innocent Jesuitical. He saw that it would be useless to exhort these two persons to ignore the terrible things that had happened, and to make it up as if it was only a squabble. What he did was to repeat to the husband every gracious word the wife let fall, and vice versâ, and to suppress all either said that might tend to estrange them.
In short, he acted the part of Mr. Harmony in the play, and acted it to perfection.
Gutta cavat lapidem.
Though no perceptible effect followed his efforts, yet there is no doubt that he got rid of some of the bitterness. But the coldness remained.
One day he was sent for all in a hurry by Griffith.
He found him looking gloomy and agitated.
The cause came out directly. Griffith had observed, at last, what all the females in the house had seen two months ago, that Mrs. Gaunt was in the family way.
He now communicated this to Father Francis, with a voice of agony, and looks to match.
"All the better, my son," said the genial priest: "'twill be another tie between you. I hope it will be a fine boy to inherit your estates." Then, observing a certain hideous expression distorting Griffith's face, he fixed his eyes full on him, and said, sternly, "Are you not cured yet of that madness of yours?"
"No, no, no," said Griffith, deprecatingly; "but why did she not tell me?"
"You had better ask her."
"Not I. She will remind me I am nothing to her now. And, though 'tis so, yet I would not hear it from her lips."
In spite of this wise resolution, the torture he was in drove him to remonstrate with her on her silence.
She blushed high, and excused herself as follows:—
"I should have told you as soon as I knew it myself. But you were not with me. I was all by myself—in Carlisle jail."
This reply, uttered with hypocritical meekness, went through Griffith like a knife. He turned white, and gasped for breath, but said nothing. He left her, with a deep groan, and never ventured to mention the matter again.
All he did in that direction was to redouble his attentions and solicitude for her health.
The relation between these two was now more anomalous than ever.
Even Father Francis, who had seen strange things in families, used to watch Mrs. Gaunt rise from the table and walk heavily to the door, and her husband dart to it and open it obsequiously, and receive only a very formal reverence in return,—and wonder how all this was to end.
However, under this icy surface, a change was gradually going on; and one afternoon, to his great surprise, Mrs. Gaunt's maid came to ask Griffith if he would come to Mrs. Gaunt's apartment.
He found her seated in her bay-window, among her flowers. She seemed another woman all of a sudden, and smiled on him her exquisite smile of days gone by.
"Come, sit beside me," said she, "in this beautiful window that you have given me."
"Sit beside you, Kate?" said Griffith. "Nay, let me kneel at your knees: that is my place."
"As you will," said she, softly; and continued, in the same tone: "Now listen to me. You and I are two fools. We have been very happy together in days gone by; and we should both of us like to try again; but we neither of us know how to begin. You are afraid to tell me you love me, and I am ashamed to own to you or anybody else that I love you, in spite of it all;—I do, though."
"You love me! a wretch like me, Kate? 'T is impossible. I cannot be so happy."
"Child," said Mrs. Gaunt, "love is not reason; love is not common sense. 'T is a passion; like your jealousy, poor fool. I love you, as a mother loves her child, all the more for all you have made me suffer. I might not say as much, if I thought we should be long together. But something tells me I shall die this time: I never felt so before. Bury me at Hernshaw. After all, I spent more happy years there than most wives ever know. I see you are very sorry for what you have done. How could I die and leave thee in doubt of my forgiveness, and my love? Kiss me, poor jealous fool; for I do forgive thee, and love thee with all my sorrowful heart." And even with the words she bowed herself and sank quietly into his arms, and he kissed her and cried bitterly over her: bitterly. But she was comparatively calm. For she said to herself, "The end is at hand."
Griffith, instead of pooh-poohing his wife's forebodings, set himself to baffle them.
He used his wealth freely, and, besides the county doctor, had two very eminent practitioners from London, one of whom was a gray-headed man, the other singularly young for the fame he had obtained. But then he was a genuine enthusiast in his art.
Griffith, white as a ghost, and unable to shake off the forebodings Catharine had communicated to him, walked incessantly up and down the room; and, at his earnest request, one or other of the four doctors in attendance was constantly coming to him with information.
The case proceeded favorably, and, to Griffith's surprise and joy, a healthy boy was born about two o'clock in the morning. The mother was reported rather feverish, but nothing to cause alarm.
Griffith threw himself on two chairs and fell fast asleep.
Towards morning he found himself shaken, and there was Ashley, the young doctor, standing beside him with a very grave face. Griffith started up, and cried, "What is wrong, in God's name?"
"I am sorry to say there has been a sudden hemorrhage, and the patient is much exhausted."
"She is dying, she is dying!" cried Griffith, in anguish.
"Not dying. But she will infallibly sink, unless some unusual circumstance occur to sustain vitality."
Griffith laid hold of him. "O sir, take my whole fortune, but save her! save her! save her!"
"Mr. Gaunt," said the young doctor, "be calm, or you will make matters worse. There is one chance to save her; but my professional brethren are prejudiced against it. However, they have consented, at my earnest request, to refer my proposal to you. She is sinking for want of blood; if you consent to my opening a vein and transfusing healthy blood from a living subject into hers, I will undertake the operation. You had better come and see her; you will be more able to judge."
"Let me lean on you," said Griffith. And the strong wrestler went tottering up the stairs. There they showed him poor Kate, white as the bed-clothes, breathing hard, and with a pulse that hardly moved.
Griffith looked at her horror-struck.
"Death has got hold of my darling," he screamed. "Snatch her away! for God's sake, snatch her from him!"
The young doctor whipped off his coat, and bared his arm.
"There," he cried, "Mr. Gaunt consents. Now, Corrie, be quick with the lancet, and hold this tube as I tell you; warm it first in that water."
Here came an interruption. Griffith Gaunt griped the young doctor's arm, and, with an agonized and ugly expression of countenance, cried out, "What, your blood! What right have you to lose blood for her?"
"The right of a man who loves his art better than his blood," cried Ashley, with enthusiasm.
Griffith tore off his coat and waistcoat, and bared his arm to the elbow. "Take every drop I have. No man's blood shall enter her veins but mine." And the creature seemed to swell to double his size, as, with flushed cheek and sparkling eyes, he held out a bare arm corded like a blacksmith's, and white as a duchess's.
The young doctor eyed the magnificent limb a moment with rapture; then fixed his apparatus and performed an operation which then, as now, was impossible in theory; only he did it. He sent some of Griffith Gaunt's bright red blood smoking hot into Kate Gaunt's veins.
This done, he watched his patient closely, and administered stimulants from time to time.
She hung between life and death for hours. But at noon next day she spoke, and, seeing Griffith sitting beside her, pale with anxiety and loss of blood, she said: "My dear, do not thou fret. I died last night. I knew I should. But they gave me another life; and now I shall live to a hundred."
They showed her the little boy; and, at sight of him, the whole woman made up her mind to live.
And live she did. And, what is very remarkable, her convalescence was more rapid than on any former occasion.
It was from a talkative nurse she first learned that Griffith had given his blood for her. She said nothing at the time, but lay, with an angelic, happy smile, thinking of it.
The first time she saw him after that, she laid her hand on his arm, and, looking Heaven itself into his eyes, she said, "My life is very dear to me now. 'T is a present from thee."
She only wanted a good excuse for loving him as frankly as before, and now he had given her one. She used to throw it in his teeth in the prettiest way. Whenever she confessed a fault, she was sure to turn slyly round and say, "But what could one expect of me? I have his blood in my veins."
But once she told Father Francis, quite seriously, that she had never been quite the same woman since she lived by Griffith's blood; she was turned jealous; and moreover it had given him a fascinating power over her, and she could tell blindfold when he was in the room. Which last fact, indeed, she once proved by actual experiment. But all this I leave to such as study the occult sciences in this profound age of ours.
Starting with this advantage, Time, the great curer, gradually healed a wound that looked incurable.
Mrs. Gaunt became a better wife than she had ever been before. She studied her husband, and found he was not hard to please. She made his home bright and genial; and so he never went abroad for the sunshine he could have at home.
And he studied her. He added a chapel to the house, and easily persuaded Francis to become the chaplain. Thus they had a peacemaker, and a friend, in the house, and a man severe in morals, but candid in religion, and an inexhaustible companion to them and their children.
And so, after that terrible storm, this pair pursued the even tenor of a peaceful united life, till the olive-branches rising around them, and the happy years gliding on, almost obliterated that one dark passage, and made it seem a mere fantastical, incredible dream.
Mercy Vint and her child went home in the coach. It was empty at starting, and, as Mrs. Gaunt had foretold, a great sense of desolation fell upon her.
She leaned back, and the patient tears coursed steadily down her comely cheeks.
At the first stage a passenger got down from the outside, and entered the coach.
"What, George Neville!" said Mercy.
"The same," said he.
She expressed her surprise that he should be going her way.
"'T is strange," said he, "but to me most agreeable."
"And to me too, for that matter," said she.
Sir George observed her eyes were red, and, to divert her mind and keep up her spirits, launched into a flow of small talk.
In the midst of it, Mercy leaned back in the coach, and began to cry bitterly. So much for that mode of consolation.
Upon this he faced the situation, and begged her not to grieve. He praised the good action she had done, and told her how everybody admired her for it, especially himself.
At that she gave him her hand in silence, and turned away her pretty head. He carried her hand respectfully to his lips; and his manly heart began to yearn over this suffering virtue,—so grave, so dignified, so meek. He was no longer a young man; he began to talk to her like a friend. This tone, and the soft, sympathetic voice in which a gentleman speaks to a woman in trouble, unlocked her heart; and for the first time in her life she was led to talk about herself.
She opened her heart to him. She told him she was not the woman to pine for any man. Her youth, her health, and love of occupation, would carry her through. What she mourned was the loss of esteem, and the blot upon her child. At that she drew the baby with inexpressible tenderness, and yet with a half-defiant air, closer to her bosom.
Sir George assured her she would lose the esteem of none but fools. "As for me," said he, "I always respected you, but now I revere you. You are a martyr and an angel."
"George," said Mercy, gravely, "be you my friend, not my enemy."
"Why, madam," said he, "sure you can't think me such a wretch."
"I mean, our flatterers are our enemies."
Sir George took the hint, given, as it was, very gravely and decidedly; and henceforth showed her his respect by his acts; he paid her as much attention as if she had been a princess. He handed her out, and handed her in; and coaxed her to eat here, and to drink there; and at the inn where the passengers slept for the night, he showed his long purse, and secured her superior comforts. Console her he could not; but he broke the sense of utter desolation and loneliness with which she started from Carlisle. She told him so in the inn, and descanted on the goodness of God, who had sent her a friend in that bitter hour.
"You have been very kind to me, George," said she. "Now Heaven bless you for it, and give you many happy days, and well spent."
This, from one who never said a word she did not mean, sank deep into Sir George's heart, and he went to sleep thinking of her, and asking himself was there nothing he could do for her.
Next morning Sir George handed Mercy and her babe into the coach; and the villain tried an experiment to see what value she set on him. He did not get in, so Mercy thought she had seen the last of him.
"Farewell, good, kind George," said she. "Alas! there's naught but meeting and parting in this weary world."
The tears stood in her sweet eyes, and she thanked him, not with words only, but with the soft pressure of her womanly hand.
He slipped up behind the coach, and was ashamed of himself, and his heart warmed to her more and more.
As soon as the coach stopped, my lord opened the door for Mercy to alight. Her eyes were very red; he saw that. She started, and beamed with surprise and pleasure.
"Why, I thought I had lost you for good," said she. "Whither are you going? to Lancaster?"
"Not quite so far. I am going to the 'Packhorse.'"
Mercy opened her eyes, and blushed high. Sir George saw, and, to divert her suspicions, told her merrily to beware of making objections. "I am only a sort of servant in the matter. 'T was Mrs. Gaunt ordered me."
"I might have guessed it," said Mercy. "Bless her; she knew I should be lonely."
"She was not easy till she had got rid of me, I assure you," said Sir George. "So let us make the best on 't, for she is a lady that likes to have her own way."
"She is a noble creature. George, I shall never regret anything I have done for her. And she will not be ungrateful. O, the sting of ingratitude! I have felt that. Have you?"
"No," said Sir George; "I have escaped that, by never doing any good actions."
"I doubt you are telling me a lie," said Mercy Vint.
She now looked upon Sir George as Mrs. Gaunt's representative, and prattled freely to him. Only now and then her trouble came over her, and then she took a quiet cry without ceremony.
As for Sir George, he sat and studied, and wondered at her.
Never in his life had he met such a woman as this, who was as candid with him as if he had been a woman. She seemed to have a window in her bosom, through which he looked, and saw the pure and lovely soul within.
In the afternoon they reached a little town, whence a cart conveyed them to the "Packhorse."
Here Mercy Vint disappeared, and busied herself with Sir George's comforts.
He sat by himself in the parlor, and missed his gentle companion.
In the morning Mercy thought of course he would go.
But instead of that, he stayed, and followed her about, and began to court her downright.
But the warmer he got, the cooler she. And at last she said, mighty dryly, "This is a very dull place for the likes of you."
"'T is the sweetest place in England," said he; "at least to me; for it contains—the woman I love."
Mercy drew back, and colored rosy red. "I hope not," said she.
"I loved you the first day I saw you, and heard your voice. And now I love you ten times more. Let me dry thy tears forever, sweet Mercy. Be my wife."
"You are mad," said Mercy. "What, would you wed a woman in my condition? I am more your friend than to take you at your word. And what must you think I am made of, to go from one man to another, like that?"
"Take your time, sweetheart; only give me your hand."
"George," said Mercy, very gravely, "I am beholden to you; but my duty it lies another way. There is a young man in these parts" (Sir George groaned) "that was my follower for two years and better. I wronged him for one I never name now. I must marry that poor lad, and make him happy, or else live and die as I am."
Sir George turned pale. "One word: do you love him?"
"I have a regard for him."
"Do you love him?"
"Hardly. But I wronged him, and I owe him amends. I shall pay my debts."
Sir George bowed, and retired sick at heart, and deeply mortified. Mercy looked after him and sighed.
Next day, as he walked disconsolate up and down, she came to him and gave him her hand. "You were a good friend to me that bitter day," said she. "Now let me be yours. Do not bide here: 'twill but vex you."
"I am going, madam," said Sir George, stiffly. "I but wait to see the man you prefer to me. If he is not too unworthy of you, I'll go, and trouble you no more. I have learned his name."
Mercy blushed; for she knew Paul Carrick would bear no comparison with George Neville.
The next day Sir George took leave to observe that this Paul Carrick did not seem to appreciate her preference so highly as he ought. "I understand he has never been here."
Mercy colored, but made no reply; and Sir George was sorry he had taunted her. He followed her about, and showed her great attention, but not a word of love.
There were fine trout streams in the neighborhood, and he busied himself fishing, and in the evening read aloud to Mercy, and waited to see Paul Carrick.
Paul never came; and from a word Mercy let drop, he saw that she was mortified. Then, being no tyro in love, he told her he had business in Lancaster, and must leave her for a few days. But he would return, and by that time perhaps Paul Carrick would be visible.
Now his main object was to try the effect of correspondence.
Every day he sent her a long love-letter from Lancaster.
Paul Carrick, who, in absenting himself for a time, had acted upon his sister's advice, rather than his own natural impulse, learned that Mercy received a letter every day. This was a thing unheard of in that parish.
So then Paul defied his sister's advice, and presented himself to Mercy; when the following dialogue took place.
"Welcome home, Mercy."
"Thank you, Paul."
"Well, I'm single still, lass."
"So I hear."
"I'm come to say let bygones be bygones."
"So be it," said Mercy, dryly.
"You have tried a gentleman; now try a farrier."
"I have; and he did not stand the test."
"Why did you not come near me for ten days?"
Paul blushed up to the eyes. "Well," said he, "I'll tell you the truth. 'T was our Jess advised me to leave you quiet just at first."
"Ay, ay. I was to be humbled, and made to smart for my fault; and then I should be thankful to take you. My lad, if ever you should be really in love, take a friend's advice; listen to your own heart, and not to shallow advisers. You have mortified a poor sorrowful creature, who was going to make a sacrifice for you; and you have lost her forever."
"What d'ye mean?"
"I mean that you are to think no more of Mercy Vint."
"Then it is true, ye jade; ye've gotten a fresh lover already."
"Say no more than you know. If you were the only man on earth, I would not wed you, Paul Carrick."
Paul Carrick retired home, and blew up his sister, and told her that she had "gotten him the sack again."
The next day Sir George came back from Lancaster, and Mercy lowered her lashes for once at sight of him.
"Well," said he, "has this Carrick shown a sense of your goodness?"
"He has come,—and gone."
She then, with her usual frankness, told him what had passed. "And," said she, with a smile, "you are partly to blame; for how could I help comparing your behavior to me with his? You came to my side when I was in trouble, and showed me respect when I expected scorn from all the world. A friend in need is a friend indeed."
"Reward me, reward me," said Sir George, gayly; "you know the way."
"Nay, but I am too much your friend," said Mercy.
"Be less my friend then, and more my darling."
He pressed her, he urged her, he stuck to her, he pestered her.
She snubbed, and evaded, and parried, and liked him all the better for his pestering her.
At last, one day, she said: "If Mrs. Gaunt thinks it will be for your happiness, I will—in six months' time; but you shall not marry in haste to repent at leisure. And I must have time to learn two things,—whether you can be constant to a simple woman like me, and whether I can love again, as tenderly as you deserve to be loved."
All his endeavors to shake this determination were vain. Mercy Vint had a terrible deal of quiet resolution.
He retired to Cumberland, and, in a long letter, asked Mrs. Gaunt's advice.
She replied characteristically. She began very soberly to say that she should be the last to advise a marriage between persons of different conditions in life. "But then," said she, "this Mercy is altogether an exception. If a flower grows on a dunghill, 't is still a flower, and not a part of the dunghill. She has the essence of gentility, and indeed her manners are better bred than most of our ladies. There is too much affectation abroad, and that is your true vulgarity. Tack 'my lady' on to 'Mercy Vint,' and that dignified and quiet simplicity of hers will carry her with credit through every court in Europe. Then think of her virtues,"—(here the writer began to lose her temper,)—"where can you hope to find such another? She is a moral genius, and acts well, no matter under what temptation, as surely as Claude and Raphael paint well. Why, sir, what do you seek in a wife? Wealth? title? family? But you possess them already; you want something in addition that will make you happy. Well, take that angelic goodness into your house, and you will find, by your own absolute happiness, how ill your neighbors have wived. For my part, I see but one objection: the child. Well, if you are man enough to take the mother, I am woman enough to take the babe. In one word, he who has the sense to fall in love with such an angel, and has not the sense to marry it, if he can, is a fool.
"Postscript.—My poor friend, to what end think you I sent you down in the coach with her?"
Sir George, thus advised, acted as he would have done had the advice been just the opposite.
He sent Mercy a love-letter by every post, and he often received one in return; only his were passionate, and hers gentle and affectionate.
But one day came a letter that was a mere cry of distress.
"George, my child is dying. What shall I do?"
He mounted his horse, and rode to her.
He came too late. The little boy had died suddenly of croup, and was to be buried next morning.
The poor mother received him up stairs, and her grief was terrible. She clung sobbing to him, and could not be comforted. Yet she felt his coming. But a mother's anguish overpowered all.
Crushed by this fearful blow, her strength gave way for a time, and she clung to George Neville, and told him she had nothing left but him, and one day implored him not to die and leave her.
Sir George said all he could think of to comfort her; and at the end of a fortnight persuaded her to leave the "Packhorse," and England, as his wife.
She had little power to resist now, and indeed little inclination.
They were married by special license, and spent a twelvemonth abroad.
At the end of that time they returned to Neville's Court, and Mercy took her place there with the same dignified simplicity that had adorned her in a humbler station.
Sir George had given her no lessons; but she had observed closely, for his sake; and being already well educated, and very quick and docile, she seldom made him blush except with pride.
They were the happiest pair in Cumberland. Her merciful nature now found a larger field for its exercise, and, backed by her husband's purse, she became the Lady Bountiful of the parish and the county.
The day after she reached Neville's Court came an exquisite letter to her from Mrs. Gaunt. She sent an affectionate reply.
But the Gaunts and the Nevilles did not meet in society.
Sir George Neville and Mrs. Gaunt, being both singularly brave and haughty people, rather despised this arrangement.
But it seems that, one day, when, they were all four in the Town Hall, folk whispered and looked; and both Griffith Gaunt and Lady Neville surprised these glances, and determined, by one impulse, it should never happen again. Hence it was quite understood that the Nevilles and the Gaunts were not to be asked to the same party or ball.
The wives, however, corresponded, and Lady Neville easily induced Mrs. Gaunt to co-operate with her in her benevolent acts, especially in saving young women, who had been betrayed, from sinking deeper.
Living a good many miles apart, Lady Neville could send her stray sheep to service near Mrs. Gaunt; and vice versâ; and so, merciful, but discriminating, they saved many a poor girl who had been weak, not wicked.
So then, though they could not eat nor dance together in earthly mansions, they could do good together; and , in the eternal world, where years of social intercourse will prove less than cobwebs, these their joint acts of mercy will be links of a bright, strong chain, to bind their souls in everlasting amity.
It was a remarkable circumstance, that the one child of Lady Neville's unhappy marriage died, but her nine children by Sir George all grew to goodly men and women. That branch of the Nevilles became remarkable for high principle and good sense; and this they owe to Mercy Vint, and to Sir George's courage in marrying her. This Mercy was granddaughter to one of Cromwell's ironsides, and brought her rare personal merit into their house, and also the best blood of the old Puritans, than which there is no blood in Europe more rich in male courage, female chastity, and all the virtues.