A Dark Night's Work by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter XVI and Last.
"Is Judge Corbet at home? Can I see him?" she asked of the footman, who at length answered the door.
He looked at her curiously, and a little familiarly, before he replied,
"Why, yes! He's pretty sure to be at home at this time of day; but whether he'll see you is quite another thing."
"Would you be so good as to ask him? It is on very particular business."
"Can you give me a card? your name, perhaps, will do, if you have not a card. I say, Simmons" (to a lady's-maid crossing the hall), "is the judge up yet?"
"Oh, yes! he's in his dressing-room this half-hour. My lady is coming down directly. It is just breakfast-time."
"Can't you put it off and come again, a little later?" said he, turning once more to Ellinor--white Ellinor! trembling Ellinor!
"No! please let me come in. I will wait. I am sure Judge Corbet will see me, if you will tell him I am here. Miss Wilkins. He will know the name."
"Well, then; will you wait here till I have got breakfast in?" said the man, letting her into the hall, and pointing to the bench there, he took her, from her dress, to be a lady's-maid or governess, or at most a tradesman's daughter; and, besides, he was behindhand with all his preparations. She came in and sat down.
"You will tell him I am here," she said faintly.
"Oh, yes, never fear: I'll send up word, though I don't believe he'll come to you before breakfast."
He told a page, who ran upstairs, and, knocking at the judge's door, said that a Miss Jenkins wanted to speak to him.
"Who?" asked the judge from the inside.
"Miss Jenkins. She said you would know the name, sir."
"Not I. Tell her to wait."
So Ellinor waited. Presently down the stairs, with slow deliberate dignity, came the handsome Lady Corbet, in her rustling silks and ample petticoats, carrying her fine boy, and followed by her majestic nurse. She was ill-pleased that any one should come and take up her husband's time when he was at home, and supposed to be enjoying domestic leisure; and her imperious, inconsiderate nature did not prompt her to any civility towards the gentle creature sitting down, weary and heart-sick, in her house. On the contrary, she looked her over as she slowly descended, till Ellinor shrank abashed from the steady gaze of the large black eyes. Then she, her baby and nurse, disappeared into the large dining-room, into which all the preparations for breakfast had been carried.
The next person to come down would be the judge. Ellinor instinctively put down her veil. She heard his quick decided step; she had known it well of old.
He gave one of his sharp, shrewd glances at the person sitting in the hall and waiting to speak to him, and his practised eye recognised the lady at once, in spite of her travel-worn dress.
"Will you just come into this room?" said he, opening the door of his study, to the front of the house: the dining-room was to the back; they communicated by folding-doors.
The astute lawyer placed himself with his back to the window; it was the natural position of the master of the apartment; but it also gave him the advantage of seeing his companion's face in full light. Ellinor lifted her veil; it had only been a dislike to a recognition in the hall which had made her put it down.
Judge Corbet's countenance changed more than hers; she had been prepared for the interview; he was not. But he usually had the full command of the expression on his face.
"Ellinor! Miss Wilkins! is it you?" And he went forwards, holding out his hand with cordial greeting, under which the embarrassment, if he felt any, was carefully concealed. She could not speak all at once in the way she wished.
"That stupid Henry told me 'Jenkins!' I beg your pardon. How could they put you down to sit in the hall? You must come in and have some breakfast with us; Lady Corbet will be delighted, I'm sure." His sense of the awkwardness of the meeting with the woman who was once to have been his wife, and of the probable introduction which was to follow to the woman who was his actual wife grew upon him, and made him speak a little hurriedly. Ellinor's next words were a wonderful relief; and her soft gentle way of speaking was like the touch of a cooling balsam.
"Thank you, you must excuse me. I am come strictly on business, otherwise I should never have thought of calling on you at such an hour. It is about poor Dixon."
"Ah! I thought as much!" said the judge, handing her a chair, and sitting down himself. He tried to compose his mind to business, but in spite of his strength of character, and his present efforts, the remembrance of old times would come back at the sound of her voice. He wondered if he was as much changed in appearance as she struck him as being in that first look of recognition; after that first glance he rather avoided meeting her eyes.
"I knew how much you would feel it. Some one at Hellingford told me you were abroad, in Rome, I think. But you must not distress yourself unnecessarily; the sentence is sure to be commuted to transportation, or something equivalent. I was talking to the Home Secretary about it only last night. Lapse of time and subsequent good character quite preclude any idea of capital punishment." All the time that he said this he had other thoughts at the back of his mind--some curiosity, a little regret, a touch of remorse, a wonder how the meeting (which, of course, would have to be some time) between Lady Corbet and Ellinor would go off; but he spoke clearly enough on the subject in hand, and no outward mark of distraction from it appeared.
"I came to tell you, what I suppose may be told to any judge, in confidence and full reliance on his secrecy, that Abraham Dixon was not the murderer." She stopped short, and choked a little.
The judge looked sharply at her.
"Then you know who was?" said he.
"Yes," she replied, with a low, steady voice, looking him full in the face, with sad, solemn eyes.
The truth flashed into his mind. He shaded his face, and did not speak for a minute or two. Then he said, not looking up, a little hoarsely, "This, then, was the shame you told me of long ago?"
"Yes," said she.
Both sat quite still; quite silent for some time. Through the silence a sharp, clear voice was heard speaking through the folding- doors.
"Take the kedgeree down, and tell the cook to keep it hot for the judge. It is so tiresome people coming on business here, as if the judge had not his proper hours for being at chambers."
He got up hastily, and went into the dining-room; but he had audibly some difficulty in curbing his wife's irritation.
When he came back, Ellinor said:
"I am afraid I ought not to have come here now."
"Oh! it's all nonsense!" said he, in a tone of annoyance. "You've done quite right." He seated himself where he had been before; and again half covered his face with his hand.
"And Dixon knew of this. I believe I must put the fact plainly--to you--your father was the guilty person? he murdered Dunster?"
"Yes. If you call it murder. It was done by a blow, in the heat of passion. No one can ever tell how Dunster always irritated papa," said Ellinor, in a stupid, heavy way; and then she sighed.
"How do you know this?" There was a kind of tender reluctance in the judge's voice, as he put all these questions. Ellinor had made up her mind beforehand that something like them must be asked, and must also be answered; but she spoke like a sleep-walker.
"I came into papa's room just after he had struck Mr. Dunster the blow. He was lying insensible, as we thought--dead, as he really was."
"What was Dixon's part in it? He must have known a good deal about it. And the horse-lancet that was found with his name upon it?"
"Papa went to wake Dixon, and he brought his fleam--I suppose to try and bleed him. I have said enough, have I not? I seem so confused. But I will answer any question to make it appear that Dixon is innocent."
The judge had been noting all down. He sat still now without replying to her. Then he wrote rapidly, referring to his previous paper, from time to time. In five minutes or so he read the facts which Ellinor had stated, as he now arranged them, in a legal and connected form. He just asked her one or two trivial questions as he did so. Then he read it over to her, and asked her to sign it. She took up the pen, and held it, hesitating.
"This will never be made public?" said she.
"No; I shall take care that no one but the Home Secretary sees it."
"Thank you. I could not help it, now it has come to this."
"There are not many men like Dixon," said the judge, almost to himself, as he sealed the paper in an envelope.
"No," said Ellinor; "I never knew any one so faithful."
And just at the same moment the reflection on a less faithful person that these words might seem to imply struck both of them, and each instinctively glanced at the other.
"Ellinor!" said the judge, after a moment's pause, "we are friends, I hope?"
"Yes; friends," said she, quietly and sadly.
He felt a little chagrined at her answer. Why, he could hardly tell. To cover any sign of his feeling he went on talking.
"Where are you living now?"
"At East Chester."
"But you come sometimes to town, don't you? Let us know always-- whenever you come; and Lady Corbet shall call on you. Indeed, I wish you'd let me bring her to see you to-day."
"Thank you. I am going straight back to Hellingford; at least, as soon as you can get me the pardon for Dixon."
He half smiled at her ignorance.
"The pardon must be sent to the sheriff, who holds the warrant for his execution. But, of course, you may have every assurance that it shall be sent as soon as possible. It is just the same as if he had it now."
"Thank you very much," said Ellinor rising.
"Pray don't go without breakfast. If you would rather not see Lady Corbet just now, it shall be sent in to you in this room, unless you have already breakfasted."
"No, thank you; I would rather not. You are very kind, and I am very glad to have seen you once again. There is just one thing more," said she, colouring a little and hesitating. "This note to you was found under papa's pillow after his death; some of it refers to past things; but I should be glad if you could think as kindly as you can of poor papa--and so--if you will read it--"
He took it and read it, not without emotion. Then he laid it down on his table, and said -
"Poor man! he must have suffered a great deal for that night's work. And you, Ellinor, you have suffered, too."
Yes, she had suffered; and he who spoke had been one of the instruments of her suffering, although he seemed forgetful of it. She shook her head a little for reply. Then she looked up at him-- they were both standing at the time--and said:
"I think I shall be happier now. I always knew it must be found out. Once more, good-by, and thank you. I may take this letter, I suppose?" said she, casting envious loving eyes at her father's note, lying unregarded on the table.
"Oh! certainly, certainly," said he; and then he took her hand; he held it, while he looked into her face. He had thought it changed when he had first seen her, but it was now almost the same to him as of yore. The sweet shy eyes, the indicated dimple in the cheek, and something of fever had brought a faint pink flush into her usually colourless cheeks. Married judge though he was, he was not sure if she had not more charms for him still in her sorrow and her shabbiness than the handsome stately wife in the next room, whose looks had not been of the pleasantest when he left her a few minutes before. He sighed a little regretfully as Ellinor went away. He had obtained the position he had struggled for, and sacrificed for; but now he could not help wishing that the slaughtered creature laid on the shrine of his ambition were alive again.
The kedgeree was brought up again, smoking hot, but it remained untasted by him; and though he appeared to be reading the Times, he did not see a word of the distinct type. His wife, meanwhile, continued her complaints of the untimely visitor, whose name he did not give to her in its corrected form, as he was not anxious that she should have it in her power to identify the call of this morning with a possible future acquaintance.
When Ellinor reached Mr. Johnson's house in Hellingford that afternoon, she found Miss Monro was there, and that she had been with much difficulty restrained by Mr. Johnson from following her to London.
Miss Monro fondled and purred inarticulately through her tears over her recovered darling, before she could speak intelligibly enough to tell her that Canon Livingstone had come straight to see her immediately on his return to East Chester, and had suggested her journey to Hellingford, in order that she might be of all the comfort she could to Ellinor. She did not at first let out that he had accompanied her to Hellingford; she was a little afraid of Ellinor's displeasure at his being there; Ellinor had always objected so much to any advance towards intimacy with him that Miss Monro had wished to make. But Ellinor was different now.
"How white you are, Nelly!" said Miss Monro. "You have been travelling too much and too fast, my child."
"My head aches!" said Ellinor, wearily. "But I must go to the castle, and tell my poor Dixon that he is reprieved--I am so tired! Will you ask Mr. Johnson to get me leave to see him? He will know all about it."
She threw herself down on the bed in the spare room; the bed with the heavy blue curtains. After an unheeded remonstrance, Miss Monro went to do her bidding. But it was now late afternoon, and Mr. Johnson said that it would be impossible for him to get permission from the sheriff that night.
"Besides," said he, courteously, "one scarcely knows whether Miss Wilkins may not give the old man false hopes--whether she has not been excited to have false hopes herself; it might be a cruel kindness to let her see him, without more legal certainty as to what his sentence, or reprieve, is to be. By to-morrow morning, if I have properly understood her story, which was a little confused--"
"She is so dreadfully tired, poor creature," put in Miss Monro, who never could bear the shadow of a suspicion that Ellinor was not wisest, best, in all relations and situations of life.
Mr. Johnson went on, with a deprecatory bow: "Well, then--it really is the only course open to her besides--persuade her to rest for this evening. By to-morrow morning I will have obtained the sheriff's leave, and he will most likely have heard from London."
"Thank you! I believe that will be best."
"It is the only course," said he.
When Miss Monro returned to the bedroom, Ellinor was in a heavy feverish slumber; so feverish and so uneasy did she appear, that, after the hesitation of a moment or two, Miss Monro had no scruple in wakening her.
But she did not appear to understand the answer to her request; she did not seem even to remember that she had made any request.
The journey to England, the misery, the surprises, had been too much for her. The morrow morning came, bringing the formal free pardon for Abraham Dixon. The sheriff's order for her admission to see the old man lay awaiting her wish to use it; but she knew nothing of all this.
For days, nay weeks, she hovered between life and death, tended, as of old, by Miss Monro, while good Mrs. Johnson was ever willing to assist.
One summer evening in early June she wakened into memory, Miss Monro heard the faint piping voice, as she kept her watch by the bedside.
"Where is Dixon?" asked she.
"At the canon's house at Bromham." This was the name of Dr. Livingstone's county parish.
"We thought it better to get him into country air and fresh scenes at once."
"How is he?"
"Much better. Get strong, and he shall come to see you."
"You are sure all is right?" said Ellinor.
"Sure, my dear. All is quite right."
Then Ellinor went to sleep again out of very weakness and weariness.
From that time she recovered pretty steadily. Her great desire was to return to East Chester as soon as possible. The associations of grief, anxiety, and coming illness, connected with Hellingford, made her wish to be once again in the solemn, quiet, sunny close of East Chester.
Canon Livingstone came over to assist Miss Monro in managing the journey with her invalid. But he did not intrude himself upon Ellinor, any more than he had done in coming from home.
The morning after her return, Miss Monro said:
"Do you feel strong enough to see Dixon?"
"Is he here?"
"He is at the canon's house. He sent for him from Bromham, in order that he might be ready for you to see him when you wished."
"Please let him come directly," said Ellinor, flushing and trembling.
She went to the door to meet the tottering old man; she led him to the easy-chair that had been placed and arranged for herself; she knelt down before him, and put his hands on her head, he trembling and shaking all the while.
"Forgive me all the shame and misery, Dixon. Say you forgive me; and give me your blessing. And then let never a word of the terrible past be spoken between us."
"It's not for me to forgive you, as never did harm to no one--"
"But say you do--it will ease my heart."
"I forgive thee!" said he. And then he raised himself to his feet with effort, and, standing up above her, he blessed her solemnly.
After that he sat down, she by him, gazing at him.
"Yon's a good man, missy," he said, at length, lifting his slow eyes and looking at her. "Better nor t'other ever was."
"He is a good man," said Ellinor.
But no more was spoken on the subject. The next day, Canon Livingstone made his formal call. Ellinor would fain have kept Miss Monro in the room, but that worthy lady knew better than to stop.
They went on, forcing talk on indifferent subjects. At last he could speak no longer on everything but that which he had most at heart. "Miss Wilkins!" (he had got up, and was standing by the mantelpiece, apparently examining the ornaments upon it)--"Miss Wilkins! is there any chance of your giving me a favourable answer now--you know what I mean--what we spoke about at the Great Western Hotel, that day?"
Ellinor hung her head.
"You know that I was once engaged before?"
"Yes! I know; to Mr. Corbet--he that is now the judge; you cannot suppose that would make any difference, if that is all. I have loved you, and you only, ever since we met, eighteen years ago. Miss Wilkins--Ellinor--put me out of suspense."
"I will!" said she, putting out her thin white hand for him to take and kiss, almost with tears of gratitude, but she seemed frightened at his impetuosity, and tried to check him. "Wait--you have not heard all--my poor, poor father, in a fit of anger, irritated beyond his bearing, struck the blow that killed Mr. Dunster--Dixon and I knew of it, just after the blow was struck--we helped to hide it--we kept the secret--my poor father died of sorrow and remorse--you now know all--can you still love me? It seems to me as if I had been an accomplice in such a terrible thing!"
"Poor, poor Ellinor!" said he, now taking her in his arms as a shelter. "How I wish I had known of all this years and years ago: I could have stood between you and so much!"
Those who pass through the village of Bromham, and pause to look over the laurel-hedge that separates the rectory garden from the road, may often see, on summer days, an old, old man, sitting in a wicker- chair, out upon the lawn. He leans upon his stick, and seldom raises his bent head; but for all that his eyes are on a level with the two little fairy children who come to him in all their small joys and sorrows, and who learnt to lisp his name almost as soon as they did that of their father and mother.
Nor is Miss Monro often absent; and although she prefers to retain the old house in the Close for winter quarters, she generally makes her way across to Canon Livingstone's residence every evening.
SO ENDS "A DARK NIGHT'S WORK."