A Dark Night's Work by Elizabeth Gaskell
"Where now?" said the canon, as they approached the London Bridge station.
"To the Great Western," said she; "Hellingford is on that line, I see. But, please, now we must part."
"Then I may not go with you to Hellingford? At any rate, you will allow me to go with you to the railway station, and do my last office as courier in getting you your ticket and placing you in the carriage."
So they went together to the station, and learnt that no train was leaving for Hellingford for two hours. There was nothing for it but to go to the hotel close by, and pass away the time as best they could.
Ellinor called for her maid's accounts, and dismissed her. Some refreshment that the canon had ordered was eaten, and the table cleared. He began walking up and down the room, his arms folded, his eyes cast down. Every now and then he looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. When that showed that it only wanted a quarter of an hour to the time appointed for the train to start, he came up to Ellinor, who sat leaning her head upon her hand, her hand resting on the table.
"Miss Wilkins," he began--and there was something peculiar in his tone which startled Ellinor--"I am sure you will not scruple to apply to me if in any possible way I can help you in this sad trouble of yours?"
"No indeed I won't!" said Ellinor, gratefully, and putting out her hand as a token. He took it, and held it; she went on, a little more hastily than before: "You know you were so good as to say you would go at once and see Miss Monro, and tell her all you know, and that I will write to her as soon as I can."
"May I not ask for one line?" he continued, still holding her hand.
"Certainly: so kind a friend as you shall hear all I can tell; that is, all I am at liberty to tell."
"A friend! Yes, I am a friend; and I will not urge any other claim just now. Perhaps--"
Ellinor could not affect to misunderstand him. His manner implied even more than his words.
"No!" she said, eagerly. "We are friends. That is it. I think we shall always be friends, though I will tell you now--something--this much--it is a sad secret. God help me! I am as guilty as poor Dixon, if, indeed, he is guilty--but he is innocent--indeed he is!"
"If he is no more guilty than you, I am sure he is! Let me be more than your friend, Ellinor--let me know all, and help you all that I can, with the right of an affianced husband."
"No, no!" said she, frightened both at what she had revealed, and his eager, warm, imploring manner. "That can never be. You do not know the disgrace that may be hanging over me."
"If that is all," said he, "I take my risk--if that is all--if you only fear that I may shrink from sharing any peril you may be exposed to."
"It is not peril--it is shame and obloquy--" she murmured.
"Well! shame and obloquy. Perhaps, if I knew all I could shield you from it."
"Don't, pray, speak any more about it now; if you do, I must say 'No.'"
She did not perceive the implied encouragement in these words; but he did, and they sufficed to make him patient.
The time was up, and he could only render her his last services as "courier," and none other but the necessary words at starting passed between them.
But he went away from the station with a cheerful heart; while she, sitting alone and quiet, and at last approaching near to the place where so much was to be decided, felt sadder and sadder, heavier and heavier.
All the intelligence she had gained since she had seen the Galignani in Paris, had been from the waiter at the Great Western Hotel, who, after returning from a vain search for an unoccupied Times, had volunteered the information that there was an unusual demand for the paper because of Hellingford Assizes, and the trial there for murder that was going on.
There was no electric telegraph in those days; at every station Ellinor put her head out, and enquired if the murder trial at Hellingford was ended. Some porters told her one thing, some another, in their hurry; she felt that she could not rely on them.
"Drive to Mr. Johnson's in the High street--quick, quick. I will give you half-a-crown if you will go quick."
For, indeed, her endurance, her patience, was strained almost to snapping; yet at Hellingford station, where doubtless they could have told her the truth, she dared not ask the question. It was past eight o'clock at night. In many houses in the little country town there were unusual lights and sounds. The inhabitants were showing their hospitality to such of the strangers brought by the assizes, as were lingering there now that the business which had drawn them was over. The Judges had left the town that afternoon, to wind up the circuit by the short list of a neighbouring county town.
Mr. Johnson was entertaining a dinner-party of attorneys when he was summoned from dessert by the announcement of a "lady who wanted to speak to him immediate and particular."
He went into his study in not the best of tempers. There he found his client, Miss Wilkins, white and ghastly, standing by the fireplace, with her eyes fixed on the door.
"It is you, Miss Wilkins! I am very glad--"
"Dixon!" said she. It was all she could utter.
Mr. Johnson shook his head.
"Ah; that's a sad piece of business, and I'm afraid it has shortened your visit at Rome."
"Ay, I'm afraid there's no doubt of his guilt. At any rate, the jury found him guilty, and--"
"And!" she repeated, quickly, sitting down, the better to hear the words that she knew were coming -
"He is condemned to death."
"The Saturday but one after the Judges left the town, I suppose--it's the usual time."
"Who tried him?"
"Judge Corbet; and, for a new judge, I must say I never knew one who got through his business so well. It was really as much as I could stand to hear him condemning the prisoner to death. Dixon was undoubtedly guilty, and he was as stubborn as could be--a sullen old fellow who would let no one help him through. I'm sure I did my best for him at Miss Monro's desire and for your sake. But he would furnish me with no particulars, help us to no evidence. I had the hardest work to keep him from confessing all before witnesses, who would have been bound to repeat it as evidence against him. Indeed, I never thought he would have pleaded 'Not Guilty.' I think it was only with a desire to justify himself in the eyes of some old Hamley acquaintances. Good God, Miss Wilkins! What's the matter? You're not fainting!" He rang the bell till the rope remained in his hands. "Here, Esther! Jerry! Whoever you are, come quick! Miss Wilkins has fainted! Water! Wine! Tell Mrs. Johnson to come here directly!"
Mrs. Johnson, a kind, motherly woman, who had been excluded from the "gentleman's dinner party," and had devoted her time to superintending the dinner her husband had ordered, came in answer to his call for assistance, and found Ellinor lying back in her chair white and senseless.
"Bessy, Miss Wilkins has fainted; she has had a long journey, and is in a fidget about Dixon, the old fellow who was sentenced to be hung for that murder, you know. I can't stop here, I must go back to those men. You bring her round, and see her to bed. The blue room is empty since Horner left. She must stop here, and I'll see her in the morning. Take care of her, and keep her mind as easy as you can, will you, for she can do no good by fidgeting."
And, knowing that he left Ellinor in good hands, and with plenty of assistance about her, he returned to his friends.
Ellinor came to herself before long.
"It was very foolish of me, but I could not help it," said she, apologetically.
"No; to be sure not, dear. Here, drink this; it is some of Mr. Johnson's best port wine that he has sent out on purpose for you. Or would you rather have some white soup--or what? We've had everything you could think of for dinner, and you've only to ask and have. And then you must go to bed, my dear--Mr. Johnson says you must; and there's a well-aired room, for Mr. Horner only left us this morning."
"I must see Mr. Johnson again, please."
"But indeed you must not. You must not worry your poor head with business now; and Johnson would only talk to you on business. No; go to bed, and sleep soundly, and then you'll get up quite bright and strong, and fit to talk about business."
"I cannot sleep--I cannot rest till I have asked Mr. Johnson one or two more questions; indeed I cannot," pleaded Ellinor.
Mrs. Johnson knew that her husband's orders on such occasions were peremptory, and that she should come in for a good conjugal scolding if, after what he had said, she ventured to send for him again. Yet Ellinor looked so entreating and wistful that she could hardly find in her heart to refuse her. A bright thought struck her.
"Here is pen and paper, my dear. Could you not write the questions you wanted to ask? and he'll just jot down the answers upon the same piece of paper. I'll send it in by Jerry. He has got friends to dinner with him, you see."
Ellinor yielded. She sat, resting her weary head on her hand, and wondering what were the questions which would have come so readily to her tongue could she have been face to face with him. As it was, she only wrote this:
"How early can I see you to-morrow morning? Will you take all the necessary steps for my going to Dixon as soon as possible? Could I be admitted to him to-night?"
The pencilled answers were:
"Eight o'clock. Yes. No."
"I suppose he knows best," said Ellinor, sighing, as she read the last word. "But it seems wicked in me to be going to bed--and he so near, in prison."
When she rose up and stood, she felt the former dizziness return, and that reconciled her to seeking rest before she entered upon the duties which were becoming clearer before her, now that she knew all and was on the scene of action. Mrs. Johnson brought her white-wine whey instead of the tea she had asked for; and perhaps it was owing to this that she slept so soundly.