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William Wilkie Collins (8 January 1824 – 23 September 1889) was an English novelist, playwright, and short story writer. His best-known works are The Woman in White (1859), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866) and The Moonstone (1868). The last is considered the first modern English detective novel. Born into the family of painter William Collins in London, he lived with his family in Italy and France as a child and learned French and Italian. He worked as a clerk for a tea merchant. After his first novel, Antonina, was published in 1850, he met Charles Dickens, who became a close friend, mentor and collaborator. Some of Collins's works were first published in Dickens' journals All the Year Round and Household Words and the two collaborated on drama and fiction. Collins published his best known works in the 1860s and achieved financial stability and an international reputation. During that time he began suffering from gout. After taking opium for the pain, he developed an addiction. During the 1870s and 1880s the quality of his writing declined along with his health.
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The Legacy of Cain
CHAPTER I. THE GOVERNOR EXPLAINS.
At the request of a person who has claims on me that I must not disown, I consent to look back through a long interval of years and to describe events which took place within the walls of an English prison during the earlier period of my appointment as Governor.
Viewing my task by the light which later experience casts on it, I think I shall act wisely by exercising some control over the freedom of my pen.
I propose to pass over in silence the name of the town in which is situated the prison once confided to my care. I shall observe a similar discretion in alluding to individuals—some dead, some living, at the present time.
Being obliged to write of a woman who deservedly suffered the extreme penalty of the law, I think she will be sufficiently identified if I call her The Prisoner. Of the four persons present on the evening before her execution three may be distinguished one from the other by allusion to their vocations in life. I here introduce them as The Chaplain, The Minister, and The Doctor. The fourth was a young woman. She has no claim on my consideration; and, when she is mentioned, her name may appear. If these reserves excite suspicion, I declare beforehand that they influence in no way the sense of responsibility which commands an honest man to speak the truth.
CHAPTER II. THE MURDERESS ASKS QUESTIONS.
The first of the events which I must now relate was the conviction of The Prisoner for the murder of her husband.
They had lived together in matrimony for little more than two years. The husband, a gentleman by birth and education, had mortally offended his relations in marrying a woman of an inferior rank of life. He was fast declining into a state of poverty, through his own reckless extravagance, at the time when he met with his death at his wife’s hand.
Without attempting to excuse him, he deserved, to my mind, some tribute of regret. It is not to be denied that he was profligate in his habits and violent in his temper. But it is equally true that he was affectionate in the domestic circle, and, when moved by wisely applied remonstrance, sincerely penitent for sins committed under temptation that overpowered him. If his wife had killed him in a fit of jealous rage—under provocation, be it remembered, which the witnesses proved—she might have been convicted of manslaughter, and might have received a light sentence. But the evidence so undeniably revealed deliberate and merciless premeditation, that the only defense attempted by her counsel was madness, and the only alternative left to a righteous jury was a verdict which condemned the woman to death. Those mischievous members of the community, whose topsy-turvy sympathies feel for the living criminal and forget the dead victim, attempted to save her by means of high-flown petitions and contemptible correspondence in the newspapers. But the Judge held firm; and the Home Secretary held firm. They were entirely right; and the public were scandalously wrong.
Our Chaplain endeavored to offer the consolations of religion to the condemned wretch. She refused to accept his ministrations in language which filled him with grief and horror.
On the evening before the execution, the reverend gentleman laid on my table his own written report of a conversation which had passed between the Prisoner and himself.
“I see some hope, sir,” he said, “of inclining the heart of this woman to religious belief, before it is too late. Will you read my report, and say if you agree with me?”
I read it, of course. It was called “A Memorandum,” and was thus written:
“At his last interview with the Prisoner, the Chaplain asked her if she had ever entered a place of public worship. She replied that she had occasionally attended the services at a Congregational Church in this town; attracted by the reputation of the Minister as a preacher. ‘He entirely failed to make a Christian of me,’ she said; ‘but I was struck by his eloquence. Besides, he interested me personally—he was a fine man.’
“In the dreadful situation in which the woman was placed, such language as this shocked the Chaplain; he appealed in vain to the Prisoner’s sense of propriety. ‘You don’t understand women,’ she answered. ‘The greatest saint of my sex that ever lived likes to look at a preacher as well as to hear him. If he is an agreeable man, he has all the greater effect on her. This preacher’s voice told me he was kind-hearted; and I had only to look at his beautiful eyes to see that he was trustworthy and true.’
“It was useless to repeat a protest which had already failed. Recklessly and flippantly as she had described it, an impression had been produced on her. It occurred to the Chaplain that he might at least make the attempt to turn this result to her own religious advantage. He asked whether she would receive the Minister, if the reverend gentleman came to the prison. ‘That will depend,’ she said, ‘on whether you answer some questions which I want to put to you first.’ The Chaplain consented; provided always that he could reply with propriety to what she asked of him. Her first question only related to himself.
“She said: ‘The women who watch me tell me that you are a widower, and have a family of children. Is that true?’
“The Chaplain answered that it was quite true.
“She alluded next to a report, current in the town, that the Minister had resigned the pastorate. Being personally acquainted with him, the Chaplain was able to inform her that his resignation had not yet been accepted. On hearing this, she seemed to gather confidence. Her next inquiries succeeded each other rapidly, as follows:
“‘Is my handsome preacher married?’
“‘Has he got any children?’
“‘He has never had any children.’
“‘How long has he been married?’
“‘As well as I know, about seven or eight years.
“‘What sort of woman is his wife?’
“‘A lady universally respected.’
“‘I don’t care whether she is respected or not. Is she kind?’
“‘Is her husband well off?’
“‘He has a sufficient income.’
“After that reply, the Prisoner’s curiosity appeared to be satisfied. She said, ‘Bring your friend the preacher to me, if you like’—and there it ended.
“What her object could have been in putting these questions, it seems to be impossible to guess. Having accurately reported all that took place, the Chaplain declares, with heartfelt regret, that he can exert no religious influence over this obdurate woman. He leaves it to the Governor to decide whether the Minister of the Congregational Church may not succeed, where the Chaplain of the Jail has failed. Herein is the one last hope of saving the soul of the Prisoner, now under sentence of death!”
In those serious words the Memorandum ended. Although not personally acquainted with the Minister I had heard of him, on all sides, as an excellent man. In the emergency that confronted us he had, as it seemed to me, his own sacred right to enter the prison; assuming that he was willing to accept, what I myself felt to be, a very serious responsibility. The first necessity was to discover whether we might hope to obtain his services. With my full approval the Chaplain left me, to state the circumstances to his reverend colleague.
CHAPTER III. THE CHILD APPEARS.
During my friend’s absence, my attention was claimed by a sad incident—not unforeseen.
It is, I suppose, generally known that near relatives are admitted to take their leave of criminals condemned to death. In the case of the Prisoner now waiting for execution, no person applied to the authorities for permission to see her. I myself inquired if she had any relations living, and if she would like to see them. She answered: “None that I care to see, or that care to see me—except the nearest relation of all.”
In those last words the miserable creature alluded to her only child, a little girl (an infant, I should say), who had passed her first year’s birthday by a few months. The farewell interview was to take place on the mother’s last evening on earth; and the child was now brought into my rooms, in charge of her nurse.
I had seldom seen a brighter or prettier little girl. She was just able to walk alone, and to enjoy the first delight of moving from one place to another. Quite of her own accord she came to me, attracted I daresay by the glitter of my watch-chain. Helping her to climb on my knee, I showed the wonders of the watch, and held it to her ear. At that past time, death had taken my good wife from me; my two boys were away at Harrow School; my domestic life was the life of a lonely man. Whether I was reminded of the bygone days when my sons were infants on my knee, listening to the ticking of my watch—or whether the friendless position of the poor little creature, who had lost one parent and was soon to lose the other by a violent death, moved me in depths of pity not easily reached in my later experience—I am not able to say. This only I know: my heart ached for the child while she was laughing and listening; and something fell from me on the watch which I don’t deny might have been a tear. A few of the toys, mostly broken now, which my two children used to play with are still in my possession; kept, like my poor wife’s favorite jewels, for old remembrance’ sake. These I took from their repository when the attraction of my watch showed signs of failing. The child pounced on them with her chubby hands, and screamed with pleasure. And the hangman was waiting for her mother—and, more horrid still, the mother deserved it!
My duty required me to let the Prisoner know that her little daughter had arrived. Did that heart of iron melt at last? It might have been so, or it might not; the message sent back kept her secret. All that it said to me was: “Let the child wait till I send for her.”
The Minister had consented to help us. On his arrival at the prison, I received him privately in my study.
I had only to look at his face—pitiably pale and agitated—to see that he was a sensitive man, not always able to control his nerves on occasions which tried his moral courage. A kind, I might almost say a noble face, and a voice unaffectedly persuasive, at once prepossessed me in his favor. The few words of welcome that I spoke were intended to compose him. They failed to produce the impression on which I had counted.
“My experience,” he said, “has included many melancholy duties, and has tried my composure in terrible scenes; but I have never yet found myself in the presence of an unrepentant criminal, sentenced to death—and that criminal a woman and a mother. I own, sir, that I am shaken by the prospect before me.”
I suggested that he should wait a while, in the hope that time and quiet might help him. He thanked me, and refused.
“If I have any knowledge of myself,” he said, “terrors of anticipation lose their hold when I am face to face with a serious call on me. The longer I remain here, the less worthy I shall appear of the trust that has been placed in me—the trust which, please God, I mean to deserve.”
My own observation of human nature told me that this was wisely said. I led the way at once to the cell.
CHAPTER IV. THE MINISTER SAYS YES.
The Prisoner was seated on her bed, quietly talking with the woman appointed to watch her. When she rose to receive us, I saw the Minister start. The face that confronted him would, in my opinion, have taken any man by surprise, if he had first happened to see it within the walls of a prison.
Visitors to the picture-galleries of Italy, growing weary of Holy Families in endless succession, observe that the idea of the Madonna, among the rank and file of Italian Painters, is limited to one changeless and familiar type. I can hardly hope to be believed when I say that the personal appearance of the murderess recalled that type. She presented the delicate light hair, the quiet eyes, the finely-shaped lower features and the correctly oval form of face, repeated in hundreds on hundreds of the conventional works of Art to which I have ventured to allude. To those who doubt me, I can only declare that what I have here written is undisguised and absolute truth. Let me add that daily observation of all classes of criminals, extending over many years, has considerably diminished my faith in physiognomy as a safe guide to the discovery of character. Nervous trepidation looks like guilt. Guilt, firmly sustained by insensibility, looks like innocence. One of the vilest wretches ever placed under my charge won the sympathies (while he was waiting for his trial) of every person who saw him, including even the persons employed in the prison. Only the other day, ladies and gentlemen coming to visit me passed a body of men at work on the road. Judges of physiognomy among them were horrified at the criminal atrocity betrayed in every face that they noticed. They condoled with me on the near neighborhood of so many convicts to my official place of residence. I looked out of the window and saw a group of honest laborers (whose only crime was poverty) employed by the parish!
Having instructed the female warder to leave the room—but to take care that she waited within call—I looked again at the Minister.
Confronted by the serious responsibility that he had undertaken, he justified what he had said to me. Still pale, still distressed, he was now nevertheless master of himself. I turned to the door to leave him alone with the Prisoner. She called me back.
“Before this gentleman tries to convert me,” she said, “I want you to wait here and be a witness.”
Finding that we were both willing to comply with this request, she addressed herself directly to the Minister. “Suppose I promise to listen to your exhortations,” she began, “what do you promise to do for me in return?”
The voice in which she spoke to him was steady and clear; a marked contrast to the tremulous earnestness with which he answered her.
“I promise to urge you to repentance and the confession of your crime. I promise to implore the divine blessing on me in the effort to save your poor guilty soul.”
She looked at him, and listened to him, as if he was speaking to her in an unknown tongue, and went on with what she had to say as quietly as ever.
“When I am hanged to-morrow, suppose I die without confessing, without repenting—are you one of those who believe I shall be doomed to eternal punishment in another life?”
“I believe in the mercy of God.”
“Answer my question, if you please. Is an impenitent sinner eternally punished? Do you believe that?”
“My Bible leaves me no other alternative.”
She paused for a while, evidently considering with special attention what she was about to say next.
“As a religious man,” she resumed, “would you be willing to make some sacrifice, rather than let a fellow-creature go—after a disgraceful death—to everlasting torment?”
“I know of no sacrifice in my power,” he said, fervently, “to which I would not rather submit than let you die in the present dreadful state of your mind.”
The Prisoner turned to me. “Is the person who watches me waiting outside?”
“Will you be so kind as to call her in? I have a message for her.”
It was plain that she had been leading the way to the delivery of that message, whatever it might be, in all that she had said up to the present time. So far my poor powers of penetration helped me, and no further.
The warder appeared, and received her message. “Tell the woman who has come here with my little girl that I want to see the child.”
Taken completely by surprise, I signed to the attendant to wait for further instructions.
In a moment more I had sufficiently recovered myself to see the impropriety of permitting any obstacle to interpose between the Minister and his errand of mercy. I gently reminded the Prisoner that she would have a later opportunity of seeing her child. “Your first duty,” I told her, “is to hear and to take to heart what the clergyman has to say to you.”
For the second time I attempted to leave the cell. For the second time this impenetrable woman called me back.
“Take the parson away with you,” she said. “I refuse to listen to him.”
The patient Minister yielded, and appealed to me to follow his example. I reluctantly sanctioned the delivery of the message.
After a brief interval the child was brought to us, tired and sleepy. For a while the nurse roused her by setting her on her feet. She happened to notice the Minister first. Her bright eyes rested on him, gravely wondering. He kissed her, and, after a momentary hesitation, gave her to her mother. The horror of the situation overpowered him: he turned his face away from us. I understood what he felt; he almost overthrew my own self-command.
The Prisoner spoke to the nurse in no friendly tone: “You can go.”
The nurse turned to me, ostentatiously ignoring the words that had been addressed to her. “Am I to go, sir, or to stay?” I suggested that she should return to the waiting-room. She returned at once in silence. The Prisoner looked after her as she went out, with such an expression of hatred in her eyes that the Minister noticed it.
“What has that person done to offend you?” he asked.
“She is the last person in the whole world whom I should have chosen to take care of my child, if the power of choosing had been mine. But I have been in prison, without a living creature to represent me or to take my part. No more of that; my troubles will be over in a few hours more. I want you to look at my little girl, whose troubles are all to come. Do you call her pretty? Do you feel interested in her?”
The sorrow and pity in his face answered for him.
Quietly sleeping, the poor baby rested on her mother’s bosom. Was the heart of the murderess softened by the divine influence of maternal love? The hands that held the child trembled a little. For the first time it seemed to cost her an effort to compose herself, before she could speak to the Minister again.
“When I die to-morrow,” she said, “I leave my child helpless and friendless—disgraced by her mother’s shameful death. The workhouse may take her—or a charitable asylum may take her.” She paused; a first tinge of color rose on her pale face; she broke into an outburst of rage. “Think of my daughter being brought up by charity! She may suffer poverty, she may be treated with contempt, she may be employed by brutal people in menial work. I can’t endure it; it maddens me. If she is not saved from that wretched fate, I shall die despairing, I shall die cursing—”
The Minister sternly stopped her before she could say the next word. To my astonishment she appeared to be humbled, to be even ashamed: she asked his pardon: “Forgive me; I won’t forget myself again. They tell me you have no children of your own. Is that a sorrow to you and your wife?”
Her altered tone touched him. He answered sadly and kindly: “It is the one sorrow of our lives.”
The purpose which she had been keeping in view from the moment when the Minister entered her cell was no mystery now. Ought I to have interfered? Let me confess a weakness, unworthy perhaps of my office. I was so sorry for the child—I hesitated.
My silence encouraged the mother. She advanced to the Minister with the sleeping infant in her arms.
“I daresay you have sometimes thought of adopting a child?” she said. “Perhaps you can guess now what I had in my mind, when I asked if you would consent to a sacrifice? Will you take this wretched innocent little creature home with you?” She lost her self-possession once more. “A motherless creature to-morrow,” she burst out. “Think of that.”
God knows how I still shrunk from it! But there was no alternative now; I was bound to remember my duty to the excellent man, whose critical position at that moment was, in some degree at least, due to my hesitation in asserting my authority. Could I allow the Prisoner to presume on his compassionate nature, and to hurry him into a decision which, in his calmer moments, he might find reason to regret? I spoke to him. Does the man live who—having to say what I had to say—could have spoken to the doomed mother?
“I am sorry to have allowed this to go on,” I said. “In justice to yourself, sir, don’t answer!”
She turned on me with a look of fury.
“He shall answer,” she cried.
I saw, or thought I saw, signs of yielding in his face. “Take time,” I persisted—“take time to consider before you decide.”
She stepped up to me.
“Take time?” she repeated. “Are you inhuman enough to talk of time, in my presence?”
She laid the sleeping child on her bed, and fell on her knees before the Minister: “I promise to hear your exhortations—I promise to do all a woman can to believe and repent. Oh, I know myself! My heart, once hardened, is a heart that no human creature can touch. The one way to my better nature—if I have a better nature—is through that poor babe. Save her from the workhouse! Don’t let them make a pauper of her!” She sank prostrate at his feet, and beat her hands in frenzy on the floor. “You want to save my guilty soul,” she reminded him furiously. “There’s but one way of doing it. Save my child!”
He raised her. Her fierce tearless eyes questioned his face in a mute expectation dreadful to see. Suddenly, a foretaste of death—the death that was so near now!—struck her with a shivering fit: her head dropped on the Minister’s shoulder. Other men might have shrunk from the contact of it. That true Christian let it rest.
Under the maddening sting of suspense, her sinking energies rallied for an instant. In a whisper, she was just able to put the supreme question to him.
“Yes? or No?”
He answered: “Yes.”
A faint breath of relief, just audible in the silence, told me that she had heard him. It was her last effort. He laid her, insensible, on the bed, by the side of her sleeping child. “Look at them,” was all he said to me; “how could I refuse?”
CHAPTER V. MISS CHANCE ASSERTS HERSELF.
The services of our medical officer were required, in order to hasten the recovery of the Prisoner’s senses.
When the Doctor and I left the cell together, she was composed, and ready (in the performance of her promise) to listen to the exhortations of the Minister. The sleeping child was left undisturbed, by the mother’s desire. If the Minister felt tempted to regret what he had done, there was the artless influence which would check him! As we stepped into the corridor, I gave the female warder her instructions to remain on the watch, and to return to her post when she saw the Minister come out.
In the meantime, my companion had walked on a little way.
Possessed of ability and experience within the limits of his profession, he was in other respects a man with a crotchety mind; bold to the verge of recklessness in the expression of his opinion; and possessed of a command of language that carried everything before it. Let me add that he was just and merciful in his intercourse with others, and I shall have summed him up fairly enough. When I joined him he seemed to be absorbed in reflection.
“Thinking of the Prisoner?” I said.
“Thinking of what is going on, at this moment, in the condemned cell,” he answered, “and wondering if any good will come of it.”
I was not without hope of a good result, and I said so.
The Doctor disagreed with me. “I don’t believe in that woman’s penitence,” he remarked; “and I look upon the parson as a poor weak creature. What is to become of the child?”
There was no reason for concealing from one of my colleagues the benevolent decision, on the part of the good Minister, of which I had been a witness. The Doctor listened to me with the first appearance of downright astonishment that I had ever observed in his face. When I had done, he made an extraordinary reply:
“Governor, I retract what I said of the parson just now. He is one of the boldest men that ever stepped into a pulpit.”
Was the doctor in earnest? Strongly in earnest; there could be no doubt of it. Before I could ask him what he meant, he was called away to a patient on the other side of the prison. When we parted at the door of my room, I made it a request that my medical friend would return to me and explain what he had just said.
“Considering that you are the governor of a prison,” he replied, “you are a singularly rash man. If I come back, how do you know I shall not bore you?”
“My rashness runs the risk of that,” I rejoined.
“Tell me something, before I allow you to run your risk,” he said. “Are you one of those people who think that the tempers of children are formed by the accidental influences which happen to be about them? Or do you agree with me that the tempers of children are inherited from their parents?”
The Doctor (as I concluded) was still strongly impressed by the Minister’s resolution to adopt a child whose wicked mother had committed the most atrocious of all crimes. Was some serious foreboding in secret possession of his mind? My curiosity to hear him was now increased tenfold. I replied without hesitation:
“I agree with you.”
He looked at me with his sense of humor twinkling in his eyes. “Do you know I rather expected that answer?” he said, slyly. “All right. I’ll come back.”
Left by myself, I took up the day’s newspaper.
My attention wandered; my thoughts were in the cell with the Minister and the Prisoner. How would it end? Sometimes, I was inclined to doubt with the Doctor. Sometimes, I took refuge in my own more hopeful view. These idle reflections were agreeably interrupted by the appearance of my friend, the Chaplain.
“You are always welcome,” I said; “and doubly welcome just now. I am feeling a little worried and anxious.”
“And you are naturally,” the Chaplain added, “not at all disposed to receive a stranger?”
“Is the stranger a friend of yours?” I asked.
“Oh, no! Having occasion, just now, to go into the waiting-room, I found a young woman there, who asked me if she could see you. She thinks you have forgotten her, and she is tired of waiting. I merely undertook, of course, to mention what she had said to me.”
The nurse having been in this way recalled to my memory, I felt some little interest in seeing her, after what had passed in the cell. In plainer words, I was desirous of judging for myself whether she deserved the hostile feeling which the Prisoner had shown toward her. I thanked the Chaplain before he left me, and gave the servant the necessary instructions. When she entered the room, I looked at the woman attentively for the first time.
Youth and a fine complexion, a well-made figure and a natural grace of movement—these were her personal attractions, so far as I could see. Her defects were, to my mind, equally noticeable. Under a heavy forehead, her piercing eyes looked out at persons and things with an expression which was not to my taste. Her large mouth—another defect, in my opinion—would have been recommended to mercy, in the estimation of many men, by her magnificent teeth; white, well-shaped, cruelly regular. Believers in physiognomy might perhaps have seen the betrayal of an obstinate nature in the lengthy firmness of her chin. While I am trying to describe her, let me not forget her dress. A woman’s dress is the mirror in which we may see the reflection of a woman’s nature. Bearing in mind the melancholy and impressive circumstances under which she had brought the child to the prison, the gayety of color in her gown and her bonnet implied either a total want of feeling, or a total want of tact. As to her position in life, let me confess that I felt, after a closer examination, at a loss to determine it. She was certainly not a lady. The Prisoner had spoken of her as if she was a domestic servant who had forfeited her right to consideration and respect. And she had entered the prison, as a nurse might have entered it, in charge of a child. I did what we all do when we are not clever enough to find the answer to a riddle—I gave it up.
“What can I do for you?” I asked.
“Perhaps you can tell me,” she answered, “how much longer I am to be kept waiting in this prison.”
“The decision,” I reminded her, “doesn’t depend on me.”
“Then who does it depend on?”
The Minister had undoubtedly acquired the sole right of deciding. It was for him to say whether this woman should, or should not, remain in attendance on the child whom he had adopted. In the meanwhile, the feeling of distrust which was gaining on my mind warned me to remember the value of reserve in holding intercourse with a stranger.
She seemed to be irritated by my silence. “If the decision doesn’t rest with you,” she asked, “why did you tell me to stay in the waiting-room?”
“You brought the little girl into the prison,” I said; “was it not natural to suppose that your mistress might want you—”
I had evidently given offense; I stopped directly.
“No person on the face of the earth,” she declared, loftily, “has ever had the right to call herself my mistress. Of my own free will, sir, I took charge of the child.”
“Because you are fond of her?” I suggested.
“I hate her.”
It was unwise on my part—I protested. “Hate a baby little more than a year old!” I said.
She said it with the air of a woman who had produced an unanswerable reason. “I am accountable to nobody,” she went on. “If I consented to trouble myself with the child, it was in remembrance of my friendship—notice, if you please, that I say friendship—with the unhappy father.”
Putting together what I had just heard, and what I had seen in the cell, I drew the right conclusion at last. The woman, whose position in life had been thus far an impenetrable mystery to me, now stood revealed as one, among other objects of the Prisoner’s jealousy, during her disastrous married life. A serious doubt occurred to me as to the authority under which the husband’s mistress might be acting, after the husband’s death. I instantly put it to the test.
“Do I understand you to assert any claim to the child?” I asked.
“Claim?” she repeated. “I know no more of the child than you do. I heard for the first time that such a creature was in existence, when her murdered father sent for me in his dying moments. At his entreaty I promised to take care of her, while her vile mother was out of the house and in the hands of the law. My promise has been performed. If I am expected (having brought her to the prison) to take her away again, understand this: I am under no obligation (even if I could afford it) to burden myself with that child; I shall hand her over to the workhouse authorities.”
I forgot myself once more—I lost my temper.
“Leave the room,” I said. “Your unworthy hands will not touch the poor baby again. She is provided for.”
“I don’t believe you!” the wretch burst out. “Who has taken the child?”
A quiet voice answered: “I have taken her.”
We both looked round and saw the Minister standing in the open doorway, with the child in his arms. The ordeal that he had gone through in the condemned cell was visible in his face; he looked miserably haggard and broken. I was eager to know if his merciful interest in the Prisoner had purified her guilty soul—but at the same time I was afraid, after what he had but too plainly suffered, to ask him to enter into details.
“Only one word,” I said. “Are your anxieties at rest?”
“God’s mercy has helped me,” he answered. “I have not spoken in vain. She believes; she repents; she has confessed the crime.”
After handing the written and signed confession to me, he approached the venomous creature, still lingering in the room to hear what passed between us. Before I could stop him, he spoke to her, under a natural impression that he was addressing the Prisoner’s servant.
“I am afraid you will be disappointed,” he said, “when I tell you that your services will no longer be required. I have reasons for placing the child under the care of a nurse of my own choosing.”
She listened with an evil smile.
“I know who furnished you with your reasons,” she answered. “Apologies are quite needless, so far as I am concerned. If you had proposed to me to look after the new member of your family there, I should have felt it my duty to myself to have refused. I am not a nurse—I am an independent single lady. I see by your dress that you are a clergyman. Allow me to present myself as a mark of respect to your cloth. I am Miss Elizabeth Chance. May I ask the favor of your name?”
Too weary and too preoccupied to notice the insolence of her manner, the Minister mentioned his name. “I am anxious,” he said, “to know if the child has been baptized. Perhaps you can enlighten me?”
Still insolent, Miss Elizabeth Chance shook her head carelessly. “I never heard—and, to tell you the truth, I never cared to hear—whether she was christened or not. Call her by what name you like, I can tell you this—you will find your adopted daughter a heavy handful.”
The Minister turned to me. “What does she mean?”
“I will try to tell you,” Miss Chance interposed. “Being a clergyman, you know who Deborah was? Very well. I am Deborah now; and I prophesy.” She pointed to the child. “Remember what I say, reverend sir! You will find the tigress-cub take after its mother.”
With those parting words, she favored us with a low curtsey, and left the room.
CHAPTER VI. THE DOCTOR DOUBTS.
The Minister looked at me in an absent manner; his attention seemed to have been wandering. “What was it Miss Chance said?” he asked.
Before I could speak, a friend’s voice at the door interrupted us. The Doctor, returning to me as he had promised, answered the Minister’s question in these words:
“I must have passed the person you mean, sir, as I was coming in here; and I heard her say: ‘You will find the tigress-cub take after its mother.’ If she had known how to put her meaning into good English, Miss Chance—that is the name you mentioned, I think—might have told you that the vices of the parents are inherited by the children. And the one particular parent she had in her mind,” the Doctor continued, gently patting the child’s cheek, “was no doubt the mother of this unfortunate little creature—who may, or may not, live to show you that she comes of a bad stock and inherits a wicked nature.”
I was on the point of protesting against my friend’s interpretation, when the Minister stopped me.
“Let me thank you, sir, for your explanation,” he said to the Doctor. “As soon as my mind is free, I will reflect on what you have said. Forgive me, Mr. Governor,” he went on, “if I leave you, now that I have placed the Prisoner’s confession in your hands. It has been an effort to me to say the little I have said, since I first entered this room. I can think of nothing but that unhappy criminal, and the death that she must die to-morrow.”
“Does she wish you to be present?” I asked.
“She positively forbids it. ‘After what you have done for me,’ she said, ‘the least I can do in return is to prevent your being needlessly distressed.’ She took leave of me; she kissed the little girl for the last time—oh, don’t ask me to tell you about it! I shall break down if I try. Come, my darling!” He kissed the child tenderly, and took her away with him.
“That man is a strange compound of strength and weakness,” the Doctor remarked. “Did you notice his face, just now? Nine men out of ten, suffering as he suffered, would have failed to control themselves. Such resolution as his may conquer the difficulties that are in store for him yet.”
It was a trial of my temper to hear my clever colleague justifying, in this way, the ignorant prediction of an insolent woman.
“There are exceptions to all rules,” I insisted. “And why are the virtues of the parents not just as likely to descend to the children as the vices? There was a fund of good, I can tell you, in that poor baby’s father—though I don’t deny that he was a profligate man. And even the horrible mother—as you heard just now—has virtue enough left in her to feel grateful to the man who has taken care of her child. These are facts; you can’t dispute them.”
The Doctor took out his pipe. “Do you mind my smoking?” he asked. “Tobacco helps me to arrange my ideas.”
I gave him the means of arranging his ideas; that is to say, I gave him the match-box. He blew some preliminary clouds of smoke and then he answered me:
“For twenty years past, my friend, I have been studying the question of hereditary transmission of qualities; and I have found vices and diseases descending more frequently to children than virtue and health. I don’t stop to ask why: there is no end to that sort of curiosity. What I have observed is what I tell you; no more and no less. You will say this is a horribly discouraging result of experience, for it tends to show that children come into the world at a disadvantage on the day of their birth. Of course they do. Children are born deformed; children are born deaf, dumb, or blind; children are born with the seeds in them of deadly diseases. Who can account for the cruelties of creation? Why are we endowed with life—only to end in death? And does it ever strike you, when you are cutting your mutton at dinner, and your cat is catching its mouse, and your spider is suffocating its fly, that we are all, big and little together, born to one certain inheritance—the privilege of eating each other?”
“Very sad,” I admitted. “But it will all be set right in another world.”
“Are you quite sure of that?” the Doctor asked.
“Quite sure, thank God! And it would be better for you if you felt about it as I do.”
“We won’t dispute, my dear Governor. I don’t scoff at comforting hopes; I don’t deny the existence of occasional compensations. But I do see, nevertheless, that Evil has got the upper hand among us, on this curious little planet. Judging by my observation and experience, that ill-fated baby’s chance of inheriting the virtues of her parents is not to be compared with her chances of inheriting their vices; especially if she happens to take after her mother. There the virtue is not conspicuous, and the vice is one enormous fact. When I think of the growth of that poisonous hereditary taint, which may come with time—when I think of passions let loose and temptations lying in ambush—I see the smooth surface of the Minister’s domestic life with dangers lurking under it which make me shake in my shoes. God! what a life I should lead, if I happened to be in his place, some years hence. Suppose I said or did something (in the just exercise of my parental authority) which offended my adopted daughter. What figure would rise from the dead in my memory, when the girl bounced out of the room in a rage? The image of her mother would be the image I should see. I should remember what her mother did when she was provoked; I should lock my bedroom door, in my own house, at night. I should come down to breakfast with suspicions in my cup of tea, if I discovered that my adopted daughter had poured it out. Oh, yes; it’s quite true that I might be doing the girl a cruel injustice all the time; but how am I to be sure of that? I am only sure that her mother was hanged for one of the most merciless murders committed in our time. Pass the match-box. My pipe’s out, and my confession of faith has come to an end.”
It was useless to dispute with a man who possessed his command of language. At the same time, there was a bright side to the poor Minister’s prospects which the Doctor had failed to see. It was barely possible that I might succeed in putting my positive friend in the wrong. I tried the experiment, at any rate.
“You seem to have forgotten,” I reminded him, “that the child will have every advantage that education can offer to her, and will be accustomed from her earliest years to restraining and purifying influences, in a clergyman’s household.”
Now that he was enjoying the fumes of tobacco, the Doctor was as placid and sweet-tempered as a man could be.
“Quite true,” he said.
“Do you doubt the influence of religion?” I asked sternly.
He answered, sweetly: “Not at all”
“Or the influence of kindness?”
“Oh, dear, no!”
“Or the force of example?”
“I wouldn’t deny it for the world.”
I had not expected this extraordinary docility. The Doctor had got the upper hand of me again—a state of things that I might have found it hard to endure, but for a call of duty which put an end to our sitting. One of the female warders appeared with a message from the condemned cell. The Prisoner wished to see the Governor and the Medical Officer.
“Is she ill?” the Doctor inquired.
“Hysterical? or agitated, perhaps?”
“As easy and composed, sir, as a person can be.”
We set forth together for the condemned cell.
CHAPTER VII. THE MURDERESS CONSULTS THE AUTHORITIES.
There was a considerate side to my friend’s character, which showed itself when the warder had left us.
He was especially anxious to be careful of what he said to a woman in the Prisoner’s terrible situation; especially in the event of her having been really subjected to the influence of religious belief. On the Minister’s own authority, I declared that there was every reason to adopt this conclusion; and in support of what I had said I showed him the confession. It only contained a few lines, acknowledging that she had committed the murder and that she deserved her sentence. “From the planning of the crime to the commission of the crime, I was in my right senses throughout. I knew what I was doing.” With that remarkable disavowal of the defense set up by her advocate, the confession ended.
My colleague read the paper, and handed it back to me without making any remark. I asked if he suspected the Prisoner of feigning conversion to please the Minister.
“She shall not discover it,” he answered, gravely, “if I do.”
It would not be true to say that the Doctor’s obstinacy had shaken my belief in the good result of the Minister’s interference. I may, however, acknowledge that I felt some misgivings, which were not dispelled when I found myself in the presence of the Prisoner.
I had expected to see her employed in reading the Bible. The good book was closed and was not even placed within her reach. The occupation to which she was devoting herself astonished and repelled me.
Some carelessness on the part of the attendant had left on the table the writing materials that had been needed for her confession. She was using them now—when death on the scaffold was literally within a few hours of her—to sketch a portrait of the female warder, who was on the watch! The Doctor and I looked at each other; and now the sincerity of her repentance was something that I began to question, too.
She laid down the pen, and proceeded quietly to explain herself.
“Even the little time that is left to me proves to be a weary time to get through,” she said. “I am making a last use of the talent for drawing and catching a likeness, which has been one of my gifts since I was a girl. You look as if you didn’t approve of such employment as this for a woman who is going to be hanged. Well, sir, I have no doubt you are right.” She paused, and tore up the portrait. “If I have misbehaved myself,” she resumed, “I make amends. To find you in an indulgent frame of mind is of importance to me just now. I have a favor to ask of you. May the warder leave the cell for a few minutes?”
Giving the woman permission to withdraw for a while, I waited with some anxiety to hear what the Prisoner wanted of me.
“I have something to say to you,” she proceeded, “on the subject of executions. The face of a person who is going to be hanged is hidden, as I have been told, by a white cap drawn over it. Is that true?”
How another man might have felt, in my place, I cannot, of course, say. To my mind, such a question—on her lips—was too shocking to be answered in words. I bowed.
“And the body is buried,” she went on, “in the prison?”
I could remain silent no longer. “Is there no human feeling left in you?” I burst out. “What do these horrid questions mean?”
“Don’t be angry with me, sir; you shall hear directly. I want to know first if I am to be buried in the prison?”
I replied as before, by a bow.
“Now,” she said, “I may tell you what I mean. In the autumn of last year I was taken to see some waxworks. Portraits of criminals were among them. There was one portrait—” She hesitated; her infernal self-possession failed her at last. The color left her face; she was no longer able to look at me firmly. “There was one portrait,” she resumed, “that had been taken after the execution. The face was so hideous; it was swollen to such a size in its frightful deformity—oh, sir, don’t let me be seen in that state, even by the strangers who bury me! Use your influence—forbid them to take the cap off my face when I am dead—order them to bury me in it, and I swear to you I’ll meet death tomorrow as coolly as the boldest man that ever mounted the scaffold!” Before I could stop her, she seized me by the hand, and wrung it with a furious power that left the mark of her grasp on me, in a bruise, for days afterward. “Will you do it?” she cried. “You’re an honorable man; you will keep your word. Give me your promise!”
I gave her my promise.
The relief to her tortured spirit expressed itself horribly in a burst of frantic laughter. “I can’t help it,” she gasped; “I’m so happy.”
My enemies said of me, when I got my appointment, that I was too excitable a man to be governor of a prison. Perhaps they were not altogether wrong. Anyhow, the quick-witted Doctor saw some change in me, which I was not aware of myself. He took my arm and led me out of the cell. “Leave her to me,” he whispered. “The fine edge of my nerves was worn off long ago in the hospital.”
When we met again, I asked what had passed between the Prisoner and himself.
“I gave her time to recover,” he told me; “and, except that she looked a little paler than usual, there was no trace left of the frenzy that you remember. ‘I ought to apologize for troubling you,’ she said; ‘but it is perhaps natural that I should think, now and then, of what is to happen to me to-morrow morning. As a medical man, you will be able to enlighten me. Is death by hanging a painful death?’ She had put it so politely that I felt bound to answer her. ‘If the neck happens to be broken,’ I said, ‘hanging is a sudden death; fright and pain (if there is any pain) are both over in an instant. As to the other form of death which is also possible (I mean death by suffocation), I must own as an honest man that I know no more about it than you do.’ After considering a little, she made a sensible remark, and followed it by an embarrassing request. ‘A great deal,’ she said, ‘must depend on the executioner. I am not afraid of death, Doctor. Why should I be? My anxiety about my little girl is set at rest; I have nothing left to live for. But I don’t like pain. Would you mind telling the executioner to be careful? Or would it be better if I spoke to him myself?’ I said I thought it would come with a better grace from herself. She understood me directly; and we dropped the subject. Are you surprised at her coolness, after your experience of her?”
I confessed that I was surprised.
“Think a little,” the Doctor said. “The one sensitive place in that woman’s nature is the place occupied by her self-esteem.”
I objected to this that she had shown fondness for her child.
My friend disposed of the objection with his customary readiness.
“The maternal instinct,” he said. “A cat is fond of her kittens; a cow is fond of her calf. No, sir, the one cause of that outbreak of passion which so shocked you—a genuine outbreak, beyond all doubt—is to be found in the vanity of a fine feminine creature, overpowered by a horror of looking hideous, even after her death. Do you know I rather like that woman?”
“Is it possible that you are in earnest?” I asked.
“I know as well as you do,” he answered, “that this is neither a time nor a place for jesting. The fact is, the Prisoner carries out an idea of mine. It is my positive conviction that the worst murders—I mean murders deliberately planned—are committed by persons absolutely deficient in that part of the moral organization which feels. The night before they are hanged they sleep. On their last morning they eat a breakfast. Incapable of realizing the horror of murder, they are incapable of realizing the horror of death. Do you remember the last murderer who was hanged here—a gentleman’s coachman who killed his wife? He had but two anxieties while he was waiting for execution. One was to get his allowance of beer doubled, and the other was to be hanged in his coachman’s livery. No! no! these wretches are all alike; they are human creatures born with the temperaments of tigers. Take my word for it, we need feel no anxiety about to-morrow. The Prisoner will face the crowd round the scaffold with composure; and the people will say, ‘She died game.’”
CHAPTER VIII. THE MINISTER SAYS GOOD-BY.
The Capital Punishment of the Prisoner is in no respect connected with my purpose in writing the present narrative. Neither do I desire to darken these pages by describing in detail an act of righteous retribution which must present, by the nature of it, a scene of horror. For these reasons I ask to be excused, if I limit what I must needs say of the execution within the compass of a few words—and pass on.
The one self-possessed person among us was the miserable woman who suffered the penalty of death.
Not very discreetly, as I think, the Chaplain asked her if she had truly repented. She answered: “I have confessed the crime, sir. What more do you want?” To my mind—still hesitating between the view that believes with the Minister, and the view that doubts with the Doctor—this reply leaves a way open to hope of her salvation. Her last words to me, as she mounted the steps of the scaffold, were: “Remember your promise.” It was easy for me to be true to my word. At that bygone time, no difficulties were placed in my way by such precautions as are now observed in the conduct of executions within the walls of the prison. From the time of her death to the time of her burial, no living creature saw her face. She rests, veiled in her prison grave.
Let me now turn to living interests, and to scenes removed from the thunder-clouds of crime.
On the next day I received a visit from the Minister.
His first words entreated me not to allude to the terrible event of the previous day. “I cannot escape thinking of it,” he said, “but I may avoid speaking of it.” This seemed to me to be the misplaced confidence of a weak man in the refuge of silence. By way of changing the subject, I spoke of the child. There would be serious difficulties to contend with (as I ventured to suggest), if he remained in the town, and allowed his new responsibilities to become the subject of public talk.
His reply to this agreeably surprised me. There were no difficulties to be feared.
The state of his wife’s health had obliged him (acting under medical advice) to try the influence of her native air. An interval of some months might elapse before the good effect of the change had sufficiently declared itself; and a return to the peculiar climate of the town might bring on a relapse. There had consequently been no alternative to but resign his charge. Only on that day the resignation had been accepted—with expressions of regret sincerely reciprocated by himself. He proposed to leave the town immediately; and one of the objects of his visit was to bid me good-by.
“The next place I live in,” he said, “will be more than a hundred miles away. At that distance I may hope to keep events concealed which must be known only to ourselves. So far as I can see, there are no risks of discovery lurking in this place. My servants (only two in number) have both been born here, and have both told my wife that they have no wish to go away. As to the person who introduced herself to me by the name of Miss Chance, she was traced to the railway station yesterday afternoon, and took her ticket for London.”
I congratulated the Minister on the good fortune which had befriended him, so far.
“You will understand how carefully I have provided against being deceived,” he continued, “when I tell you what my plans are. The persons among whom my future lot is cast—and the child herself, of course—must never suspect that the new member of my family is other than my own daughter. This is deceit, I admit; but it is deceit that injures no one. I hope you see the necessity for it, as I do.”
There could be no doubt of the necessity.
If the child was described as adopted, there would be curiosity about the circumstances, and inquiries relating to the parents. Prevaricating replies lead to suspicion, and suspicion to discovery. But for the wise course which the Minister had decided on taking, the poor child’s life might have been darkened by the horror of the mother’s crime, and the infamy of the mother’s death.
Having quieted my friend’s needless scruples by this perfectly sincere expression of opinion, I ventured to approach the central figure in his domestic circle, by means of a question relating to his wife. How had that lady received the unfortunate little creature, for whose appearance on the home-scene she must have been entirely unprepared?
The Minister’s manner showed some embarrassment; he prefaced what he had to tell me with praises of his wife, equally creditable no doubt to both of them. The beauty of the child, the pretty ways of the child, he said, fascinated the admirable woman at first sight. It was not to be denied that she had felt, and had expressed, misgivings, on being informed of the circumstances under which the Minister’s act of mercy had been performed. But her mind was too well balanced to incline to this state of feeling, when her husband had addressed her in defense of his conduct. She then understood that the true merit of a good action consisted in patiently facing the sacrifices involved. Her interest in the new daughter being, in this way, ennobled by a sense of Christian duty, there had been no further difference of opinion between the married pair.
I listened to this plausible explanation with interest, but, at the same time, with doubts of the lasting nature of the lady’s submission to circumstances; suggested, perhaps, by the constraint in the Minister’s manner. It was well for both of us when we changed the subject. He reminded me of the discouraging view which the Doctor had taken of the prospect before him.
“I will not attempt to decide whether your friend is right or wrong,” he said. “Trusting, as I do, in the mercy of God, I look hopefully to a future time when all that is brightest and best in the nature of my adopted child will be developed under my fostering care. If evil tendencies show themselves, my reliance will be confidently placed on pious example, on religious instruction, and, above all, on intercession by prayer. Repeat to your friend,” he concluded, “what you have just heard me say. Let him ask himself if he could confront the uncertain future with my cheerful submission and my steadfast hope.”
He intrusted me with that message, and gave me his hand. So we parted.
I agreed with him, I admired him; but my faith seemed to want sustaining power, as compared with his faith. On his own showing (as it appeared to me), there would be two forces in a state of conflict in the child’s nature as she grew up—inherited evil against inculcated good. Try as I might, I failed to feel the Minister’s comforting conviction as to which of the two would win.
CHAPTER IX. THE GOVERNOR RECEIVES A VISIT.
A few days after the good man had left us, I met with a serious accident, caused by a false step on the stone stairs of the prison.
The long illness which followed this misfortune, and my removal afterward (in the interests of my recovery) to a milder climate than the climate of England, obliged me to confide the duties of governor of the prison to a representative. I was absent from my post for rather more than a year. During this interval no news reached me from my reverend friend.
Having returned to the duties of my office, I thought of writing to the Minister. While the proposed letter was still in contemplation, I was informed that a lady wished to see me. She sent in her card. My visitor proved to be the Minister’s wife.
I observed her with no ordinary attention when she entered the room.
Her dress was simple; her scanty light hair, so far as I could see it under her bonnet, was dressed with taste. The paleness of her lips, and the faded color in her face, suggested that she was certainly not in good health. Two peculiarities struck me in her personal appearance. I never remembered having seen any other person with such a singularly narrow and slanting forehead as this lady presented; and I was impressed, not at all agreeably, by the flashing shifting expression in her eyes. On the other hand, let me own that I was powerfully attracted and interested by the beauty of her voice. Its fine variety of compass, and its musical resonance of tone, fell with such enchantment on the ear, that I should have liked to put a book of poetry into her hand, and to have heard her read it in summer-time, accompanied by the music of a rocky stream.
The object of her visit—so far as she explained it at the outset—appeared to be to offer her congratulations on my recovery, and to tell me that her husband had assumed the charge of a church in a large town not far from her birthplace.
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