A Death at Delaford
The knock was light, not frantic, even a little hesitant, yet it woke Marianne instantly. Beside her, Brandon started awake as well, and they were at the door in a moment--to be greeted by Mrs. Baynes, whose countenance wore only the anxiety of a servant forced to intrude upon her master and mistress's rest. Knowing the cause of the alarm in their tired faces, she hastened to assuage their fears.
"Little Joy is just fine--no cause for worry there, sir, madam, I'm glad to say. Polly has just taken Nurse Tarville some tea and she says the dear child is sleeping just as she was when you finally left her. I am sorry to wake you, but Mr. Wilverton is below with Constable Parker and another gentlemen he says is clerk to the lord lieutenant. I told them you were both up all night with a sick babe, but they say it's important that they see you at once, Colonel."
"I do hope Potter and Oakley have not come to blows." Brandon had been arbitrating a dispute between two of his most obstreperous tenants over the ownership of a particular group of cows. To date the argument had been merely verbal, if of considerable volume, and only the previous evening he had met with Mr. Potter and Mr. Oakley at the inn and tried, with but marginal success, to forge a compromise. "Put them in the drawing room and make certain there's a fire, and tell them I shall be down as soon as I dress." Mrs. Baynes withdrew, and to his wife Brandon said, "I wish you had not been disturbed."
"I am sure I will not have any difficulty getting back to sleep--but I shall just look in on Joy first. Do send for me, though, if you should need me." She, too, had been of use in the conflict, by listening with forced patience to the mutual grievances of the tenants' equally obstreperous wives.
He smiled and kissed the tip of her nose. "I always need you, my sweet." The dressing room door closed softly behind him.
In the nursery Nurse Tarville confirmed Mrs. Baynes's reassuring report. "She's hardly stirred since dawn, madam, and it does seem to me her fever is all but gone now." Resting a hand lightly on the tiny forehead, Marianne agreed, and said a silent prayer of heartfelt thanks, the latest of many. It had been Joy's first serious illness, one of those myriad nameless fevers that strike mercilessly at infants and spark helpless terror in their parents at the first glimpse of a listless manner and a flushed, hot cheek. She and Christopher had slept hardly at all during the previous two nights, she and Nurse Tarville closeted in the nursery, spelling each other in the constant application of cool compresses and the administering of minute doses of laudanum to the small figure in the crib; in changing sweaty, soiled night dresses and singing a hundred lullabies in the hope of quieting thin, fitful cries; while he paced the hall and the library floor when he was not asking at the nursery door if there was aught he could do to help--; Marianne had been thankful that occasional estate business had arisen to occupy him. But at last, in the small hours that morning, the high color had begun to subside from Joy's round face, and the eerie, hushed quiet of worry in the household had become the comfortable silence of exhausted sleep.
She kissed the baby's cheek, gently so as not to wake her, and returned to her bed much easier in her mind than when she had sought it last.
"You will of course allow me to inform my wife," Brandon said. His mouth was dry, his voice raspy and unsteady, the room somehow strange and unfamiliar. It was all a mistake, of course, an error in observation or logic. But Wilverton's face was a study in confusion; that good man did not want to be here, did not know what to believe. If Wilverton, who had known him for so many years, could be uncertain--
"Of course," said Mr. Humphries, a thin, balding attorney whose officiousness exceeded even that of his superior. He stepped aside to let Brandon pass--though he stood in the doorway of the drawing room to make certain his host turned toward the stairs rather than the entry hall and escape beyond.
Brandon stopped in the nursery on his way to Marianne, gazing down at the small face so like her mother's; the puffy eyes were squeezed shut beneath the puckered frown of dream, the tiny mouth worked at a damp thumb. He thought he heard the faintest wheeze in her breathing. How could he leave her now, uncertain whether she were truly out of danger? She was his future, the embodiment of his love for Marianne and her affection for him. How would he protect her now?
He was shivering, with a cold no coat could relieve. No coat-- They had sent up for every one of his coats, but the garments had not yielded what they sought. It was a mistake--yet he could not dispel a growing dread. The nurse, sensing his mood, stole a concerned glance at him over her knitting, but did not presume to inquire as to its cause. He brushed his fingers over the fine fuzz of his daughter's hair, then left the room with a heavy step. He had allowed happiness to make him complacent. He should have remembered that happiness was not only elusive, but fleeting.
Marianne, sleeping but lightly, opened her eyes at the soft click of the latch.
"I am sorry to wake you again." Brandon pulled back the curtains a few inches, so that he could see her face when he told her--what he must tell her. He came to the bed and she slid to one side to make room for him; he sat next to her, but did not touch her.
"By the sunlight I have slept quite long enough. What time is it?" She rubbed at her eyes and stretched. What a relief that her first waking thought should not be alarm!
The question seemed unaccountably to confuse him. He fumbled for his watch. "It is--twenty before nine."
"It feels later." She sat up with her arms around her knees beneath the bedclothes. "Why did Mr. Wilverton call? Is it Mr. Potter and Mr. Oakley again?"
"Potter and Oakley?" For a moment he had no idea to what she referred.
As sleep receded she was becoming more alert, and at last took note of his apparent disorientation, his pale, drawn features, a certain vagueness to his speech. She clutched at his hands. "Christopher, what is wrong? Is it Joy?"
His hand on her arm stayed her frantic attempt to throw off the bedclothes. "Joy is fine. I have just been to see her--she is still sleeping quietly. Marianne--" He brushed her cheek with the backs of his fingers, then withdrew his hand as if feeling that he had taken a liberty. "Marianne--"
"Christopher! What has happened? Is it Elinor--or Mama? Do not torment me with this silence--"
Her eyes compelled his own to meet them, but though he tried he could not at once speak. But he must. He must say it straight out; there was no softening such a blow. "Marianne--Willoughby is--dead."
She was not certain she had heard him correctly. She held herself very still. "Dead?" Her voice was barely audible. "Willoughby? But--there must be some mistake--"
"I fear not."
"Oh God!" She began to shake, and he would have given anything to be able to gather her into his arms. She drew her knees again to her chest, protecting her own vitals, the heart that was beginning to ache. Willoughby-- She was not certain whether she murmured his name aloud. Willoughby-- It could not be. A world without Willoughby and all the painful associations his name brought to mind, for herself and for her husband--she could not imagine it. She could not believe it. Tears came to her eyes, but they were tears of shock rather than loss. His face was suddenly before her, suddenly vivid, and she remembered only the pleasure of her association with him. She did say his name then, with a little sob. "Oh Willoughby--"
And in the next instant she was reaching for her husband's hand. "Christopher, I am sorry-- Please do not be angry with me-- My tears do not mean--"
"Why on earth should I be angry with you for mourning the untimely death of someone you once loved? Of course I am not angry. You would be inhuman if you did not mourn him."
But she had seen the flicker of relief cross his face. "As long as you understand that though I might mourn him I do not wish any alteration of my life as it is now." She was glad to see a brief but genuine smile in response. "I cannot believe it. I shall not for days, weeks--ever. He was so young--" Her eyes flew wide. "Oh, but I mean no reprimand or accusation--"
"I know. But it is true that I might have killed him three years ago. Marianne, I have been deeply thankful every day for quite a long while now that I did not--please believe that. You must believe that." But it had been his intention to do his duty for Eliza, and as duty was rarely performed without cost, perhaps Providence was now demanding payment.
"Of course I believe it." She clasped his hands firmly, then drew the bedclothes, which had fallen away with her movement, up over her shoulders once again. "Was it a--a carriage accident, or a fall--" Willoughby still drove and rode too fast, heedless of the vehicles in his path or the condition of the roads, and he was more prone to drink than was good for any man--
"No." Still he did not touch her, though she looked so forlorn. "Would that it had been." Dear God--how to say this to her--? "He was-- Marianne, he was--shot."
"Shot? In a--a duel?" According to Mrs. Jennings's reports, Willoughby had also not altered the behavior that had led to Brandon's long-ago challenge.
"No. He was--murdered."
She recoiled from him. "Murdered! Oh God!" A word that could excite her in the pages of a lurid novel only made her sick with horror when it intruded into her life. In a small voice she added, "I hope that it was quick, that he did not suffer. I cannot help but wish that for him, in such an awful circumstance--" Her tears started anew, and she dabbed at her eyes with the sheet. "But--Allenham is miles away, Combe Magna even farther. How were you informed so quickly? And for that matter--why?" She turned to the suddenly realized puzzle with an eager relief; whatever sadness she might feel--and she would feel it to a greater degree when time had made the event more real to her--must be indulged in privacy; for though her husband was generous and understanding, she must spare him what uncertainty she could.
The blood drained from his face. He had tried to prepare himself for this explanation, in his brief solitary moments upon the stair, but no effort would have been sufficient. Would he ever be warm again? "He was found about midnight in the Delaford turnpike, about three-quarters of a mile from here."
"Here?" She understood now why they would inform him: he was a magistrate and also served on the turnpike trust. "Is--is there a highwayman in the district? You must warn the villagers--"
"They believe I did it."
For a moment she could only stare. She had never heard anything so absurd in all her life. "You! Oh, Christopher, no--!" Laughter bubbled to her lips, laughter that was almost a sob, almost a respite from anguish. "They cannot be serious--"
"They know about our previous encounter." He rose from the bed and began to pace. "Servants' gossip, I suppose--these things can never be kept entirely secret, no matter how one tries-- But worse--they have found a greatcoat button on the--body--a button carved with my crest. No button was missing from any of my coats, but the evidence remains--"
"Evidence! But--this is preposterous! How dare they accuse you? Mr. Wilverton knows your character as well as anyone in the county. They did not see it clearly; they were blinded by darkness or mist--"
"They have shown it to me. It is mine."
She blanched at his grim tone. "But--you were at the inn last night, with Mr. Potter and Mr. Oakley. They can speak to your whereabouts--" Her mind leapt ahead to argument, objection, a deep and swelling anger supplanting nascent grief.
"We adjourned long before midnight. I cannot prove that I did not meet him on the way home. But I want you to know, Marianne, that I did not--" She shook her head, not asking him, but he must say it, must earnestly assure her against the moment when she, too, might begin to doubt.
"It had not for a single instant occurred to me that you did!"
"It might have, in time. I swear to you, on my love for you and our daughter, that I am not guilty of this crime."
She set her jaw. "Then how do we prove it?"
"You shall not face this alone, my husband."
At last he took her hand, touched and relieved and strengthened by her confidence in him, her assumption of his innocence. "I shall, my love, at least for now." A new determination rose within him and banished the crippling shock and disorientation. It was all a mistake, of course, and the answers would soon be clear. "Perhaps Lord Melgrove merely wants to settle some of the facts of the case in his mind. I assure you that I shall not tell him anything that might compromise your reputation."
"You must tell him anything necessary to make him understand how ridiculous is this notion that you are a--a murderer. Do you think I care for reputation when your safety is at stake? I wish I could accompany you and tell him myself!"
He replied firmly, "I would not have you exposed to such a distressing situation, and the unpleasant accounts you would inevitably overhear. In any case you must remain here with Joy. But--" (with a shy smile) "--I appreciate that you want to safeguard me from Lord Melgrove's wrath." She gave a little giggle, and he was glad to have erased her worried frown. "Probably I shall return by dinner-time, but I shall take Tim with me in the event I should need to send a message to you. Do try not to worry. It is simply a preliminary investigation. Further inquiry will uncover pertinent facts, and I shall be cleared of all suspicion." He did not say that Tim would also be useful as a messenger to Mr. Haydock, his attorney, should he judge that protection necessary.
A quiet knock startled them, and the door opened barely a crack. "I beg your pardon, sir," said Mrs. Baynes, "but the gentlemen are getting impatient--"
"A few minutes more, that is all."
Marianne was all at once acutely conscious of his physical form, his presence, of the soft creak of his boots and the slight rustle of fabric as he turned back to her, of the sound of his breathing and the scent of Imperial water in his hair. She slid out of bed and reached for her dressing gown and slippers. "I wish there were time for me to dress and see you to the door." She wanted desperately to be with him until the last possible moment. "I shall worry, until I see you coming up the lane again."
He smiled. "I shall like thinking of you as you are, in your nightdress--thinking of the next occasion I may remove it." This time, however, her frown did not fade. "I must see Joy again."
"I'll go with you to the nursery, at least." She clung to his hand as they walked along the hall, deep in shadow as the sun had not yet touched the window at the landing. Nurse Tarville was sent for tea and they were then alone with their child. Brandon ached to hold her, but did not want to wake her when she so badly needed her rest, and made himself content with a gentle kiss to her soft, soft forehead, still a faint, blotchy pink with the aftermath of fever.
He looked at Marianne then, and despite his earlier assurances could think of nothing whatever to say. It was she who spoke, whispering his name, and he opened his arms and she flew into them. "I will send word when I can," he said, and was gone.
Marianne dressed in a daze, saying hardly a word to Polly, who was fairly quivering with curiosity as she tried to elicit some information from her mistress without being too forward; but Marianne's responses were sporadic and not very coherent, and the poor maid was doomed to continued ignorance. For her breakfast Marianne could stomach only a piece of toast and a cup of tea, and when she went up to the nursery afterward she could not remember the words of the songs she had sung to her daughter every morning of her life.
When Elinor appeared at the nursery door Marianne was at first surprised, but then she remembered the hasty note she had scribbled at breakfast: Elinor, something has happened. Can you come? --M.
Elinor's first thought was to judge the health of her niece, and she was vastly relieved to see Joy actually sitting up in Marianne's lap while her bedclothes were changed. She was half-asleep and pouty, but she recognized her aunt and smiled a little before hiding her face against her mother's breast. Elinor beamed in return, and took a seat beside them. "She looks herself again; I am so glad." Her own Rosalind, though seeming more prone than her younger cousin to minor ailments like sniffles and colic, had never yet been so ill; Elinor too had slept poorly for two nights, dreading terrible news from the manor house. The note telling of Joy's improvement, that had been sent about four o'clock and was brought to her as soon as she woke that morning, had been most welcome.
That concern assuaged, she said more hesitantly, "I rather expected I should hear from you this morning. I am so sorry, Marianne. Despite all that passed, it must still be a shock. It is for me--how much more it must be for you."
Marianne appeared puzzled. "But--when were you informed? Did Mr. Wilverton and his party stop at the parsonage?"
"No--Edward was called to the inn last night, but it was far too late for the services of a clergyman--better he had been allowed to sleep. I could not believe it when he told me--"
"Oh! You are talking of Willoughby! Then--you do not yet know about Christopher. Elinor, they have taken him away to be questioned by Lord Melgrove--they suspect him of murdering Willoughby!"
An explanation of the morning's developments was quickly given, and Elinor at once understood why her sister was not at the moment primarily concerned with Mr. Willoughby's sad and gruesome demise. "When I think of the insult to my husband, the indignity--that he should be subjected to interrogation as if he were a common thief or drunkard--! And he is so tired already, and so worried about Joy--it hurt him so to be taken away from her-- If not for Joy I should certainly have gone with him."
"Oh no--surely that would not have been wise. This is a matter for officials, not irate wives. You would not want your behavior to prejudice the authorities against him."
"But I have never liked Lord Melgrove, and would relish the opportunity to reproach him--under circumstances in which no one could find fault with me!"
Elinor could not but admire her sister's ability to find some nervous amusement in this trying, and not quite believable, situation. She herself, though naturally somewhat unsettled, was yet confident that all would be resolved very soon. Colonel Brandon's innocence would be demonstrated, and the guilty man apprehended. "The indignity will not last long. They will discover their error and all will be well. And you can always reproach Lord Melgrove at a later date."
"But the button--Christopher saw it--" All trace of a smile had vanished from Marianne's face.
"Buttons can be stolen, or copied. Or perhaps in his own fatigue and distress the colonel himself was mistaken."
"You are as quick to believe in him as I," Marianne said, with deep satisfaction. "Why cannot they? They have known him for years."
"But we know him as they do not. We know the depth of his love for you and Joy, that he would never risk a course of action that might separate him from the two of you forever."
"I pray he can convince them-- Elinor! The button!" Joy had fallen asleep and now whimpered softly at her mother's outburst. Marianne soothed her and continued more calmly, "There is a box of extra buttons in Christopher's dressing room. If one is missing--"
At first Elinor shared her sister's lively hope; but then reason intruded with an alternate, and more sinister, interpretation. "If one is missing--it could appear that he himself replaced the one that was torn off."
Marianne's face set in dismay and she said nothing. Then in a low voice: "All the same, we must look."
They proceeded down the hall to Brandon's dressing room, and as Elinor was not in the habit of viewing the private chambers of men other than her own husband, she was not a little embarrassed to find herself there. But Marianne, reluctant to dislodge Joy from her arms, was directing her to the proper shelf and box among breeches and waistcoats and shirts and neckcloths, and she could not refuse, even to obey the impulse of modesty.
The small wooden box, stamped with the name of Brandon's London tailor, was in her hands; she gripped it as tightly as if it were made of crystal. Their eyes were fixed upon it. "I do not know what to hope for," Marianne said in a tight voice. "If one is missing, one of our servants must be involved, and though I do not like to think about such a possibility, it would offer an alternate suspect--but at the same time Christopher himself might be thought to have taken it. If all the buttons are accounted for, then Christopher is not implicated, but we have gained no other line of inquiry. Oh, I do not know whether I should rather learn nothing, or something which might at first do as much harm as good!"
Elinor hesitated a moment longer, then drew a breath and removed the lid. "There are six."
Marianne sagged against a shelf with a harsh sigh. "That is the quantity I ordered." She felt inexpressibly weary. "So we have learned nothing."
Elinor replaced the box on the shelf and straightened her brother's disarranged clothing. "Surely it is something to know that he could not have replaced a missing button last night."
"They might simply say that he must have ordered others."
"A letter to his tailor would quickly establish whether he did or not. As such orders are generally your task, he would not do so as a matter of course, and the alternative is to suppose that he did so in the knowledge that he was planning to--to attack Mr. Willoughby and might in the process lose a button which it would then be necessary to replace in secret. Such a degree of premeditation is, I think, really not very likely."
Marianne was able to produce a trembling smile. "When you state it in those words it does sound improbable. You do have Papa's analytical turn of mind. Perhaps we have learned something after all."
Feeling somewhat reassured by having confronted the one piece of firm evidence against the colonel and partly discrediting it--if not in the process explaining it completely away--they returned Joy to her crib and went downstairs to Marianne's sitting room. Elinor had brought her workbag, but as it was necessary to discuss their discovery and its significance several times, and to reassure each other that Colonel Brandon was not the sort of man to bear a grudge, suddenly deciding after all these years that Eliza should be avenged a second time, neither sister had more than a seam or two to show for three hours of work. Of Willoughby they said little. The turnpike was a major thoroughfare through the south of England, and that Willoughby should travel it from time to time, or even regularly, was not a cause for astonishment; a fall or carriage accident in the vicinity would have been no more than an upsetting coincidence. But the manner of his death and its implications were chilling, and did not yet bear close examination.
At last Elinor, who was expecting a call from representatives of a local friendly society about one of their members who was in dire straits, returned to the parsonage, and Marianne was left alone to reflect, to worry, and to pass the hours remaining until dinner-time as well as she could. She recalled that in the press of events she had not yet written to her mother to inform her of Joy's great improvement; this she did immediately, adding a page or two of inconsequential prattle about various shared acquaintances in Delaford, a description of a recent dinner at the home of General Rumford in Exeter, and the frequent rains and consequent explosions of early autumn blooms. She entrusted this missive into the hands of Jemmy Rivers, instructing him to take it to the post office and send it as an express. Jemmy had proven so useful while working off his debt to Brandon that George had petitioned to retain him for two hours every other afternoon when he finished his work at the livery stable, asserting that he was usually almost punctual, and most often did not have to be told but twice to do a job, and was generally not so wicked a lad as every body thought, only "spirited."
She was dismayed to realize that the task, including walking to the stable and back, had occupied her for only three-quarters of an hour. She considered writing to Sarah and Claude, but as the situation would no doubt be resolved quickly she could not justify alarming them. She could write tomorrow in a light tone: We had something of a fright yesterday. You will laugh to hear-- She knew she must also write to Eliza, a sad duty to which she did not look forward at all; but she decided to wait until Christopher returned, for he might have learned some particulars of the case that could be relayed to her. She regretted that due to Joy's illness the news could not be delivered in person; Eliza's feelings about Willoughby's death would probably be as confused as her own--genuine sorrow, but also renewed resentment and perhaps something like relief, combined in Eliza's case with the extinction of the faint, lingering hope that Willoughby might someday acknowledge John Brandon as his son--and a long talk might be of some comfort to them both. She resolved to invite Eliza and John Brandon for a visit as soon as Joy was fully recovered.
When Joy woke from her nap Marianne nursed her and then played with her for a while, teasing her fingers and toes and rolling a ball about her crib, and sang her all the songs she had been unable to remember that morning. "Papa will be so happy to hold you tonight, since he could not this morning when he told you good-bye. Such a fine, considerate papa you have, not wanting to wake his dear girl!" After Joy was asleep again Marianne went for a long walk, first to the stables to visit Penelope and then across the park through the woods and back around to the parsonage, where she spoke for a few minutes with Edward and was disappointed to hear that he had learned nothing new during the day. Returning to the house she tried to distract herself with music, attempting all her favorite ballads and concerti; but since many of her favorites were Christopher's as well, she managed only to increase her anxiety and irritate her nerves with the many sour notes her fingers struck. Her mood was not lifted by the sight of Polly passing by the sitting room with two coats that had evidently been overlooked after their examination; she fought down an irrational urge to run after her and count all their buttons herself.
The afternoon began to wane. Still there was no message from Wilverton Hall. It required all her energy and concentration not to formulate terrible explanations for the continued silence. She delayed dinner long past the usual hour, until Mrs. Howell began to complain about the roast beef drying out and Mrs. Baynes to cluck over her and remind her that she needed her nourishment if she were to provide her child's. She realized that she was in fact feeling lightheaded and agreed to come to the table, to one of the few solitary dinners she had known in her married life. Her sister and brother would have kept her company if they could, but they had long been engaged for a dinner party at the home of an important parish benefactor, and could not escape. Sated but unable to remember the taste of anything she had eaten, she asked Mrs. Howell to keep the platters hot for her husband, and then went into the library to try to read. It was hopeless, as she had known it would be, the words mere blurs on the pages. Whatever could be keeping him?
He had told her that it was sometimes necessary to make an accused person repeat his story over and over again in order to catch him out in some inconsistency. The story of Willoughby and Eliza and herself was long and complex; multiple retellings could easily account for several hours. And of course he would not tell it all--she knew he would not--and so they would suspect him of withholding incriminating information and ask him all the same questions again. He and Constable Parker had also on occasion escorted a suspected malefactor to the scene of his alleged offense, for the purpose of judging his reactions. If Mr. Wilverton or Lord Melgrove followed that practice, her husband might be just down the road at this very moment; only a little exertion would take her to him. But it was growing dark on a moonless night, the clock ticking on toward ten, and he would worry if he returned and did not find her waiting.
Why had he not informed her of the delay? He had promised to send word! Might there have been an accident? That would be an event too horribly improbable even to be called coincidence. She went upstairs to look in on Joy, then came back down again to pace the library, running her fingers over the spines of the books until the soft tapping gnawed at her nerves. She really could not bear to pass a night alone with this burden of anxiety, growing heavier and heavier as the hours passed.
She was to discover that she had not yet known real worry. It was nearly eleven when hoofbeats sounded at last--at last!--in the sweep, and she rushed to the door. The arrival was not her husband, however, but Tim, alone and saddle sore and agitated, bearing the news that Colonel Brandon was even at that moment being escorted to Dorset Gaol.
"We shall put you in the very best--ahem, you'll pardon me, sir--cell--ahem-- I do wish I could offer you the privilege of living in my house, as I generally do the gentlemen who have the misfortune to spend time within these walls--but forgers and political radicals are a rather different sort of prisoner then a--a--ahem--"
The keeper of Dorset Gaol was Mr. Amos Henley, a slouching, rotund man who, though he wore an habitually sour expression, was yet not uncivil, at least to the magistrates who administered his salary; he was obvious torn between exaggerated deference and unseemly relish at finding in his custody one of his own superiors, especially one accused of such a shocking crime. His stream of nervous chatter echoed off the brick walls as he escorted Brandon past the court yards for female prisoners, past the visiting rooms and the debtors' day rooms, past the chapel and the cells for refractory and condemned prisoners, and across an iron bridge to one of the rear blocks of single cells. The senior of the two turnkeys, a hard and sullen man named Padgett, walked behind them, his keys jangling at his belt. Prisoners already confined for the night peered between the bars at their passage, some amazed and delighted to see under the warden's escort the very magistrate who had sentenced them. A few taunted him with foul epithets and vicious remarks, but were beaten away from the doors with blows from Padgett's stick.
"Here we are, sir. We had to move a man to make room for you, as we're over full just now--but you know that, sir, having just inspected the place last Sessions, and very carefully too. Here it is, sir-- I'll grant you it isn't yet as clean as it might be, for we've just begun the lime washing the magistrates ordered. But soap and water and vinegar are always available, and when your servant arrives tomorrow he can wash down the walls and floor, or you can engage one or two of the female prisoners permitted to work. We shall find your man a cot as well, for a shilling a week, and here is a good strong iron bedstead for yourself, with a straw mattress. And of course you may bring in your own rugs and other furnishings, as six months until the Lent Assizes will be a long stay--
"I do wish I could at the least extend the privilege of my dinner table to you, sir, especially knowing that you would not turn my servants' heads with radical ideas, but my wife is of a somewhat excitable disposition, and pleaded with me not to let a--ahem-- I did try to reassure her that it is all a dreadful misunderstanding, that you would never-- She is a good woman, my wife, but inclined to alarm-- I do hope you will understand and forgive her--"
No response from his prisoner was forthcoming, and he jabbered on.
"It is chilly in here, sir, that it is--but extra blankets are available, and your servant may fetch you a pot of tea from my quarters whenever you like. The female prisoners, too, are always willing to prepare food and do your washing for a few pennies a week--you will of course be spared the indignity of the usual prison uniform-- It is very strange telling you of all these rules, the details of prison governance, but it is a habit, you know, for new arrivals--though you do know the fees as well as I do, being so careful with the accounts as you are--
"Well, if you've no questions, sir-- Then I will bid you goodn--ahem-- I hope you will be comf-- Er, Padgett will return with a supper for you if you like-- Very good, sir."
The door clanged shut.
Brandon stood rigidly in the center of the cell, the mockery of the other prisoners still ringing in his ears. Fists clenched at his sides, he mustered all his dignity and fortitude--but found them inadequate shields against bitter humiliation. Lord Melgrove was harshly virtuous indeed, to subject a gentleman and fellow magistrate to such grievous insult, to this--this violation of his rank and reputation; but the vindictive and inflexible Humphries had persuaded him that the sureties of a man who would commit such a despicable, cowardly crime could hardly be trustworthy. Brandon's observation that this reasoning amounted to a presumption of guilt had swayed his lordship not at all. Humiliation did battle with anger in his breast, and slowly anger triumphed; he threw his shoulders back, his chin up, and drew his first full breath in what seemed hours.
He knew this institution well, having toured it with his colleagues on the bench before each Quarter Sessions to ensure that the keeper abided by the policies laid down by the magistrates on the committee of management. He had walked every corridor and examined numerous cells, inspecting for cleanliness and adequate maintenance; he had evaluated the routine provision of food and clothing and medical care for the prisoners; he had examined the keeper's accounts of administrative costs and the income from the various prison industries, and had on occasion suggested measures of economy. He knew without performing the experiment that he could take but three strides along the length of his cell, two across its width. Unless an answer were found, this small area would be his home for twelve hours out of twenty-four for the next six months. He did not yet consider that if the judgment should go against him at the Assizes he would find himself removed to a smaller block of cells for a much shorter period of time. He smelled old straw, rat droppings, the lingering odors of the chamber pot, and was glad the candle that Henley had left him--"at but sixpence a week, sir"--cast only a small circle of light; to wash down the walls and floor would be a chore of the first importance on the morrow.
Amos Henley, though he might be careless and inefficient, was an adequate keeper, not as dedicated or professional as some but more competent than many; moderate supervision ensured that he performed his duties reasonably well. His accounts usually revealed a few minor infringements, chiefly the too-frequent levying of fees, for which he was regularly reprimanded; but in his dealings with prisoners he was more often than not a fair man, and the magistrates rarely heard serious complaints from prisoners during inspection tours, even those near their discharge who had little reason to fear reprisal. Henley had tonight certainly proven himself a coward, however, refusing to award his newest prisoner what consideration was due him as a gentleman and placing blame for the slight upon a wife who was not present to defend herself. But Brandon could not be too grievously offended: Henley had spared him not only the shapeless prison muslins with their garish parti-colored jackets, but also the added indignity of being bathed under Padgett's insolent eye, apparently presuming that he was considerably cleaner than the usual new arrival.
The senior turnkey was not the paragon that his employer was. About him the magistrates heard many complaints, and only from those within days of their discharge who would soon be out of his reach. He had been accused more than once of such casual cruelties as being slow to call the prison surgeon if an inmate were hurt or ill, or allowing food to be served long past the point of safety. It was true that Henley himself was ultimately responsible for these administrative minutiae, but Henley was more than a little afraid of Padgett and not inclined to cross him. Prison turnkey was not an occupation to which many aspired, and it was difficult to find decent, competent men to fill the post; Brandon and several other magistrates had been trying to get the salary raised so that they could attract more admirable applicants, but had not yet met with success among their colleagues.
Padgett's rude arrogance was apparent when he delivered Brandon's supper to the cell--a plate of bread and butter, a trifle, and a small pitcher of beer--shoving the tray over the threshold with a heavy boot. "I don't recall ever having a gentleman murderer staying with us," he said, with a very unpleasant smile.
Brandon took a step forward. "You do not have one with you now."
Startled by his sudden movement after long stillness, Padgett drew back with his stick raised in defense, and hastily shut the cell door. He departed, muttering sarcastically that he "wished he had a guinea for every innocent man locked away within these walls."
Brandon was furious with himself for even that slight loss of control. He must not give Padgett or especially Henley any reason to believe he might be dangerous; he did not want to find himself chained to a large stone in one of the windowless, solitary cells. He must be free to correspond with his lawyer, to have visitors, to enjoy the several privileges (though paid for) of servants, good food, and release from prison work. At the same time he felt oddly cheered for having asserted himself in that small way, for having put the repugnant fellow in his place. He realized that he was actually hungry, a tense dinner at Wilverton Hall seeming a great while ago; hoping that his appetite spoke well for his state of mind, he stepped forward on legs stiff and aching with tension to pick up the tray and carry it over to the bed, currently the only piece of furniture in the cell. The mattress was lumpy and no doubt infested with vermin, but he had survived worse bedding in the army, and Tim would procure him a new one in the morning. The beer was strong, probably from Henley's own supply, and he felt a little more kindly toward his host; the trifle was stale but the bread was fresh that morning and tasty, from the prison's own well-managed bakery; the butter was a luxury for which he would no doubt be charged. Despite its faults, however, Dorset was more humanely administered than were many of its sister penitentiaries; it was not lost on Brandon that he could thank his own diligence as an inspector that he would experience less misery here than he would in Gloucester or Coldbath Fields.
His equivalent familiarity with the process of investigation had heartened him earlier, as he rode in the carriage with Wilverton, Humphries, and Parker to Wilverton Hall. With the exception of a little desultory conversation with his neighbor, he spent the four-mile drive preparing himself for the questions he would likely face about his movements during the previous evening and night and about his association with Willoughby. The body had been discovered by two tradesmen and their wives returning from a dinner party later than was wise on a moonless night. They had sought out Constable Parker and had then gone to their beds both horrified and titillated, and hopeful that their names would figure prominently in the newspaper accounts, publicity of any kind being good for business. Though the incident had occurred near his own house, Brandon had not immediately been informed because it was not at first obvious that a crime had been committed. Only when the body had been brought into the lamplight at the inn had the fatal bullet wound been discovered--and with it the incriminating button clenched in the stiffening fingers. Upon beholding these, Parker had naturally thought it more advisable to confer with Mr. Wilverton instead.
He spared a silent curse for the gentleman's vanity that insisted on decorating one's smallest item of clothing with one's crest. Engraved buttons! It was an absurd expense, one in which he had but lately indulged, out of a desire to cut the smartest figure possible in honor of his wife. He remembered with what pleasure she had sewn them onto his best greatcoat. How one of them had come into Willoughby's possession he could not begin to guess. Willoughby--still causing suffering even in death. Willoughby dead. It was inconceivable. Brandon could not feel anything approaching sorrow at the demise of a man he himself had once wanted to remove from this earth, but for him to have died in this squalid way, with a bullet in the back on a dark empty road, without comfort of friend or family, was a less dignified end than he would have wished even for a cad. It was, however, a merciful end, far more merciful than that granted to many worthier men. Perhaps Willoughby had been fortunate after all.
It had startled him badly that the authorities knew of the duel. He was not so foolishly confident that he did not realize it was a strong indication of motive. All too easily he could put himself in their place, as examiners and weighers of evidence. A second duel might in some minds be warranted, would certainly have been a private affair of honor between two equals. But this was foul murder in cold blood, a low, mean crime for which there could be no justification, no pardon. It was some consolation that no matter what they might have learned about that encounter he could be fairly certain they did not know about Willoughby's association with Marianne; it was unlikely that news of their intimacy had spread beyond her circle of family and friends. Marianne, in her selfless urging for him to be free with that information, in order to suggest that Willoughby's characteristic behavior might have given many a father or brother or husband reason to feel a murderous rage against him, had not realized that by doing so he would also provide further evidence of possible motive for himself. But even were that not the case, he would not willingly involve her in this matter, and deeply regretted that, as they already knew so much, he would be unable to safeguard Eliza's privacy to the same extent. Surely, however, they would not require him to relay sordid details; surely they would simply take his information and then send him home, where Marianne would embrace him in happy relief, and Joy, God willing, would smile to see him and tug at his hair as he bent over her crib to kiss her.
At the first sight of Lord Melgrove's austere countenance, however, as he was escorted into Wilverton's study and directed to a chair, such confidence as he had summoned began to crumble. Wilverton had explained that Lord Melgrove had come to interview all his justices in that part of the county. "He had been going to call upon you next week. He is a very active and attentive lord lieutenant, as you know." Brandon, who had heard Wilverton's true opinion on the subject many times, easily interpreted this comment to mean, "He is too much involved in his justices' affairs, and really ought to get himself a wife who would keep him otherwise occupied"--an opinion that could not be voiced in the presence of Mr. Humphries, who was, it was widely believed among the justices, generally the architect of many of Lord Melgrove's policies and possibly even the formulator of many of Lord Melgrove's opinions. Humphries had busied himself during the journey in reading from some papers, Parker in frowning out of the window. Upon their arrival the constable quitted the room almost at once, and in a moment hoofbeats were heard in the sweep. This puzzled Brandon, for he had expected to be allowed to question Parker about the finding of the button, the position of the body in the road, and other particulars. But before he could remark upon the constable's departure, Lord Melgrove addressed him in a stern voice.
"Will you tell me, please, Colonel Brandon, about your acquaintance with Mr. John Willoughby and the duel you fought with him."
Brandon was not at all encouraged by the lack of even the most perfunctory greeting. "He offended a member of my family and I challenged him. We met, returned unwounded, and there was an end to it." When he fell silent after so brief a reply Melgrove and Humphries exchanged a dissatisfied glance; but if they desired to hear more they must demean themselves to ask.
"You understate the case, I believe," Humphries said. "Is it not true that in fact you felt the offense very grievous, that he seduced your ward, Miss Elizabeth Williams, and left her with child?"
"It is true."
"A girl of questionable parentage is very fortunate to be able to call upon such an honorable protector."
"Your son was fortunate that his own victim's relations were poor enough that their silence could be bought."
He had spoken quietly, though in outrage that Humphries should speak of Eliza with such indiscretion and contempt, but Humphries flushed a deep red, for he was the sort of man who applies one set of moral principles to himself and another set to every body else, and reacts badly when his hypocrisy is demonstrated. Though there was some gratification in observing the clerk's discomfiture, Brandon realized that it had not been wise to provoke him, and vowed to guard his tongue more carefully.
Before the sputtering Humphries could formulate a reply, Lord Melgrove spoke again into the crackling atmosphere. "I disapprove of duelling. It is not a suitable activity for gentlemen."
"The offense of which my opponent was guilty is far less so."
Brandon could see that Melgrove's own moral rectitude was, at least briefly, engaged on his behalf. Humphries saw it as well, and intervened. "But you a magistrate, sir! What sort of example is that to set for those upon whom you sit in judgment?"
He was successful: Melgrove's frown returned, and Brandon thought it best not to point out that magistrates had been known to duel within view of their colleagues at the Assizes. "I was prepared to face the courts if necessary."
Humphries made a sound rather like a snort. "Knowing full well that a jury will rarely convict a duellist, even when he has killed his opponent. You were in little danger, sir."
"Rarely, perhaps, but it is not unknown."
Again Lord Melgrove interjected. "Did you feel that the 'end to it,' as you say, was unsatisfactory?"
"I did at the time, but no longer."
"You no longer wish that the outcome had been other than it was?"
"Is it not true," said Humphries impatiently, "that Mr. Willoughby attempted to violate the rules of the Code and that you threatened to kill him at a later time?"
Brandon stared at him. "How--have you learned these particulars?"
"You do not deny them?" asked Lord Melgrove.
"I do not deny the truth, but I should like to know where you have discovered details of my private concerns."
It was Wilverton who answered, the first time he had spoken. "From Havers over at the George, while the coroner was examining the body. Evidently a disgruntled former servant was pretty free with information about you before he quitted the neighborhood, especially when in his cups."
"John Burns." When they seemed surprised that he could guess straight away, Brandon explained, "I have never had a man so irksome and corrupt."
"It was he," said Melgrove. "Why does he bear you malice?"
The question was not mere curiosity, Brandon knew; they must contrast his version of events with the story they had heard, directly or indirectly, from Burns, and they must also evaluate Burns's trustworthiness as a witness. "He was deficient from the first, giving the lie to the character I had received from an acquaintance who did not want trouble from him. He was often drunk or hung-over, but abused me when I docked his wages, and at length I discovered that he was pilfering from my stores and shortchanging tradesmen. My servants are told when they enter my household that the first lie shall be the last. I discharged him on the spot and refused him a character. I should have expected that he would find a way to retaliate. He was in London with me, and could not but have learned of my dealings with Mr. Willoughby, as my lodgings did have the usual number of keyholes at which he might listen. I also discovered later that it was his habit to read the post, and so he would have known when I sent for my second and my pistols."
"Servants are often disrespectful of their masters' privacy, but this seems a petty way to discharge a minor grudge."
Humphries, clearly alarmed by Lord Melgrove's apparent sympathy, hastened to reclaim the point of the exchange. "You did, then, threaten to hunt Mr. Willoughby down."
"If he seduced any more innocent young girls and I should have learned of it. To my knowledge he did not, restricting himself instead to married ladies and those rather less reputable." Lord Melgrove's mouth turned down in distaste.
"His attempt to cheat did deprive you of the opportunity to fire at him," said Humphries.
"It also deprived him of the opportunity to fire at me. And being caught out assured that his humiliation was severe, for cowards do not like their cowardice to be discovered."
"Indeed not. In fact it would not have been surprising had resentment simmered within him these past years. Perhaps he found himself near your house and decided to take revenge--or upon seeing him you might have assumed he was there for that purpose."
"If that were the case I would admit it--and if that were the case I assure you that the bullet would have pierced his chest, not his back. Gentlemen, if I did not murder Mr. Willoughby in the heat of anger three years ago, why should I do so now, when the risk of prosecution is far more terrible? And if I were going to kill a man with whom I had once fought a duel, would I not be foolish indeed to commit the crime on my own doorstep? Do you credit me with so little sense?"
Wilverton began to nod with a relieved half-smile, and even Melgrove looked to have been swayed as he wrote something in his note-book. And then Humphries said,
"And the button?"
Of course Brandon could no more explain the button now than he had been able to in his drawing room, and so the questioning began again, going over and over the grim specifics of his brief but ill-fated association with Willoughby. He was sent to the library twice while they discussed what he had told them, and then brought back to the study to be taken through it all again. He could see that Wilverton was inclined to believe him, despite being himself unable to account for the button; that Humphries was so set against him that even another man's confession might not persuade him of his innocence; and that Melgrove was torn between the opinion of a man who was well acquainted with the suspect and that of his own close associate. At about three o'clock they ate a strained dinner--at which Brandon imbibed only a small amount of wine, to Humphries's evident disappointment--and had just reconvened in the study at about five when Constable Parker was announced.
He was tired, dusty, and quite obviously perturbed; he refused to meet Brandon's eyes as the latter, once again, was taken away into the library. Such aloofness from a man who had always been an ally in their shared legal work was his first indication that the unpleasantness of the morning had been but a beginning. The shadows were lengthening on the lawn when he was summoned again to the study, and he was conscious of all their eyes upon him, observing his reactions as he listened to Parker's report, which the constable had no doubt already delivered to the others in the intervening time.
Parker had gone to Allenham, which had become the Willoughbys' primary country residence as a consequence of the elderly Mrs. Smith's increasing frequency of illness, to relay to Mrs. Willoughby both the awful tidings that her husband had been killed and the encouraging addendum that a suspect was already under investigation. Brandon reflected that in the latter portion of this message lay, perhaps, an explanation for Humphries's determination to lay the crime at his feet. Mrs. Smith was a lady of considerable wealth and influence; though infirm, she was not impotent, and could cause some difficulty for a magistrate who failed to apprehend the murderer of her heir. Mrs. Willoughby was herself, according to Mrs. Jennings, every bit the force that a strong-minded woman of independent fortune could be. These two together, with a few words in carefully chosen ears, could conceivably engineer the downfall of an ineffectual lord lieutenant, and then what might befall his poor clerk, cursed with a spendthrift, debauched son?
But Parker had learned to his surprise that Mrs. Willoughby was not at Allenham; that she was in fact--or was believed to be--travelling with her husband; and that Mrs. Smith was at a loss to explain how they might have been separated. Having passed most of the summer at two separate house parties in Kent, the Willoughbys had stopped at Combe Magna on their return journey; but they had departed Somerset more than two weeks before, planning to take an indirect route for the purpose of visiting other friends in Salisbury. Parker had nonetheless dispatched a letter to Mrs. Willoughby at Combe, in the event she had at the last moment decided to stay behind.
To this point the constable's report had been innocuous, if a little puzzling as to Willoughby's affairs. Innocuous it soon ceased to be. "After I had finished interviewing Mrs. Smith--and very cool she was, I must say, very cool indeed, almost as if she had expected the fellow to come to a bad end one day--" To judge by their reactions, his other listeners had not heard that particular comment during his first recitation. "--I asked the housekeeper for a word. As soon as I told her what had happened, she said--" Here Parker stopped, but did not take his eyes from his note-book. He seemed to have to force himself to go on, and his voice was wooden and rough. "She said--'Considering what went on a while back between Mr. Willoughby and the current Mrs. Brandon, I'm not a bit surprised it finally came to this.'" He swallowed hard; still he did not look up. "'And what went on?' I asked her. 'Well, she and Mr. Willoughby were once engaged to be married, you know. He even brought her here one day to take her over the house, as if showing her what was to be hers one day. The colonel was in the neighborhood while it was going on, you know, staying just over in Barton at the Park. I was you--'" Parker cleared his throat. "'I was you I'd find out where he was last night.'" At last the constable forced his gaze to Brandon's face; what he saw there prompted him to say, "I'm that sorry, sir, but--" He fell silent then, closed his note-book, and stood staring at the carpet.
Humphries turned to Brandon with a look that could only be described as predatory. "You did not mention this connection between yourself and Mr. Willoughby."
"It was not a connection between Mr. Willoughby and myself," Brandon replied stiffly, "but between Mr. Willoughby and my wife--though they never were actually engaged. I had no intention of involving Mrs. Brandon in this affair unless absolutely necessary. She has already suffered quite enough on Mr. Willoughby's account." He realized as soon as he had uttered it that such a remark could be interpreted in more than one way.
With the air of a cat poised to pounce, Humphries said, "You yourself used the phrase 'in the heat of anger.' I suggest that you were returning from a long and enervating meeting. You were concerned for the health of your child. Knowing you would be abroad on a dark night, you had brought your pistol. You encountered Mr. Willoughby too near your home--your wife--for your liking. You challenged him again, perhaps, and he, being a coward, ran from you--"
"What you describe did not occur--though I do admire your vivid imagination, Mr. Humphries."
"Then how do you explain your coat button gripped in a dead man's hand?" Lord Melgrove's reedy voice was edged with annoyance.
"I have told you that I cannot explain it. I can only tell you that I was not there, I did not meet him, I did not kill him."
There was a silence. Melgrove wrote something in his note-book. Parker turned through his, perhaps looking for something, anything that might corroborate his patron's statement, or perhaps simply to look at something besides the floor.
And then Humphries said, "You have acknowledged your ward's son as your relation, have you not? You have given him your name?"
Brandon frowned, confused by this new direction of inquiry. "I have."
"He is Mr. Willoughby's son?"
"He is. I must say that Mr. Havers at the George was very forthcoming."
"Your adoption of the boy could be construed as an attempt to prevent Mr. Willoughby's having any influence in the rearing of his child. Last night you might have thought to remove the possibility entirely--"
"Mr. Humphries!" Wilverton expostulated. "You go too far, sir!"
Lord Melgrove was silent.
"I cannot believe," Brandon said to Humphries in a voice of flint, "that even you would use a child as a weapon against me. That you would do so, and that your superior does not reprimand you, is a clear indication that I shall not receive a fair hearing in this room. I demand to be allowed to send for my attorney."
But all Haydock's remonstrances, all his citations of precedent with regard to recognizance and bail, had been useless. As Melgrove signed the commitment order, Humphries was smiling.
"You will not be confined until the Assizes," Haydock had assured his client. "Lord Melgrove has overstepped; another magistrate could have persuaded Mr. Wilverton to bail you. We shall appeal at Sessions in January--that is, of course, if we have no solution to this mystery before then, as I certainly hope we shall. I will come to see you tomorrow, sir, or perhaps the next day, after I have conferred with Mr. Parker and interviewed his informants, and perhaps sent some letters to colleagues in London who are more experienced in this sort of case than I. We have a great deal of time to prepare our defense, and that is something--only think if this had developed mere days or weeks before the Assizes! We shall prevail in the end, sir, you can be certain of that." And yet Brandon could see that Haydock, too, was troubled, as he would be himself in the attorney's place, by that accursed button.
A servant came to take his tray, and he realized that the prison was settling for the night. The square of sky he could see was glimmering with stars. Heavy doors creaked open and closed as the last of the inmates were returned to their cells. He heard low-voiced bickering, a bawdy song, the sobs of a child, Padgett's stick thudding against flesh. From far away he heard merriment at the neighboring inns; as if from farther away, the cries of someone losing his hold on reason in a lightless solitary cell. No matter how luxuriously he might appoint these premises, no matter the feasts he might be served, that juxtaposition of sounds would fill his days and nights for weeks to come. He longed already for the peace of the country, though he had been separated from it only a few hours. Even January was four months in the future. Four months. A generous time in which to investigate and prepare, but also a generous time in which to be carried off by the diseases that still haunted prisons despite efforts to eradicate them. At least he would be allowed to retain his clothing during the coming winter nights, as he was not a convicted felon but merely awaiting trial, and he was fortunate to be able to afford all the blankets he might want. From a nearby cell he heard a deep, hacking cough, and he had seen more than one inmate covered with sores. Four months trying to keep his person and his cell clean, trying to avoid those prisoners who were clearly ill, gulping in each draft of fresh air gusting over the high walls. It was quite conceivable that he would never leave this place, even should his innocence in the end be proven; quite conceivable that he would never see Marianne or Joy again.
Marianne. What terrors must be visiting her now? By this hour Tim would have arrived with the evil tidings, and he also carried a letter to her from her husband; for Humphries had refused to let him be taken home, even briefly, giving as the reason that it would mean travelling four miles in the wrong direction and then four more to retrace their way. Even though he had given his word that he would not try to flee, Humphries had still refused.
"Let him go home for an hour," Wilverton had demanded. "I will vouch for his word."
"But not for his innocence, sir?" Humphries asked, and to that Wilverton had no reply.
"You must allow me to write a letter to my wife," Brandon said, striving not to plead. Haydock looked rather like a dog with its hackles raised; for this humane consideration he would fight there and then. But Melgrove merely said, "Of course," and handed across the desk some paper and a pen.
"I should read what he writes," Humphries insisted. "He should not have open communication with his household until he is safely within the prison walls." At length Melgrove, though frowning with distaste, gave a reluctant nod, and Humphries moved to stand over Brandon's shoulder. Haydock was incensed, but with a gesture Brandon silenced him; they would win no more battles today. As he set pen to paper he momentarily considered being discreet with personal sentiments, but in comparison with what Marianne would have sacrificed for him, such embarrassment was trivial.
"My dearest Marianne," he wrote, "By the time you read this you will already know what fate I have met with at Wilverton Hall. I do not pretend that the situation is not more grave than I anticipated, and made worse by the refusal of my examiners to credit arguments that any reasonable and half-educated man would find sound;--" He was pleased to hear Humphries suck in an offended breath and expel it noisily. "--but Haydock is here with me, and he has also promised to consult with more experienced colleagues in London. I have told him to spare no expense; we shall offer a reward, and hire the most cunning and disreputable thief-takers that can be found, if that should prove necessary. I know what awaits me in the coming months and do not fear it, for all will be well in the end, but I do not like to be taken from you, my love. And yet I must beg you not to come to Dorchester. I would not want you to venture within the prison walls, and I could not bear knowing that you were just outside them yet beyond my reach. I shall take more comfort in the knowledge that you are safely at home, where you can read and play and sing, where you can walk your favorite woodland paths, and caress our dear little Joy. I shall think of you, dearest Marianne, hour by hour, moment by moment. Your loving husband, Christopher."
It had been something of a respite from indignation and fear to reassure her, to reach beyond his own immediate concerns; pretending to confidence had actually restored it to him for a little while. But now he was alone with his thoughts, and they were dark and grim. Whatever anguish she felt, he had brought her with his long-ago conduct--though a liberal portion of the blame might be assigned to Willoughby for having provoked the challenge, Willoughby whose legacy was only grief. From his pocket he drew the miniature of Marianne that he had commissioned--along with the portrait of her at the piano, that took his breath away whenever he gazed upon it--on the occasion of their first anniversary. He opened the gold frame and held it up next to the candle flame, but the pale light showed him only hints of her features. Even less could he distinguish the various shades in the two overlapping locks of hair, Marianne's and Joy's, carefully housed in a gold locket fastened to the opposite end of the ribbon of plum velvet.
He sat back down on the bed and drew from his pocket-book the possession he valued above all others, the note Marianne had written to him very early on the morning of their wedding. Dearest Christopher, I have never been more certain of anything. --M. He was never without it; and though he had moved away from the candle he did not need its light to bring the words to his mind, for he read them almost daily, as the worn creases testified. He was greatly comforted by them now, and still held the paper and the miniature against his breast as he drifted into a fitful sleep.
Marianne did not sleep at all. Tim's arrival occasioned a burst of activity in the house as she and the servants discussed and debated and gathered the items the colonel would need to make his cruel incarceration a little less intolerable: clothing, bedding, wholesome food from Mrs. Howell's kitchen, a writing desk and supplies, the most comfortable of the lighter chairs. She was pathetically grateful for the ceaseless flutter and bustle, even for the buzz of alarmed chatter among the servants, for such distraction saved her a little from the new surge of panic that threatened at the edges of her mind. Christopher imprisoned! Alone and friendless, separated for an endless night from all support, all succor-- It rent her heart to think of him so.
Upon her hearing Tim's report a spell of dizziness had gripped her and she had sunk into a chair; but she vanquished the swoon even before Mrs. Baynes could fumble her salts from her pocket, and was able to read her husband's brief but somewhat reassuring letter without the words swimming too badly upon the page. How good he was to concern himself with her state of mind even during his own ordeal! Seeing his steady hand, she was calmed. She sent word to the parsonage at once, but knew that Elinor and Edward would not return for another hour or more. She too was alone. But Tim had had several miles in which to accustom himself to the appalling situation and was also guided by orders from his master, and even so great a shock had not made Mrs. Baynes incompetent. They began to assemble the items the colonel had requested, piling boxes and cases in the foyer, and soon Marianne was able to direct them a little. No one could know what sort of accommodation he would be granted, and so she chose clothing both warm and cool, both fine and informal--for though he would want to look the gentleman he was, he would not want to soil his best garments should he be forced to engage in any sort of labor. Now and then as she carefully folded his shirts and breeches and collected his toilet articles she was almost overwhelmed with the desire to throw herself upon the bed and sob into the pillows; but such a surrender to anger and despair, no matter how warranted the emotions, would not be of any use to her husband in his awful predicament, and would only give the servants greater cause for gossip. Scolding herself for her weakness, she persevered.
At last all the supplies had been readied, and Tim was sent home to see his parents and siblings for a little while before his departure at dawn, for his absence might be long indeed. George went to his quarters in the stables to sleep; he would drive Tim and his various burdens to Dorchester, and had been checking the cart and harness twice and thrice over so that there would be no delay in their setting out or mishap on the road. Mrs. Baynes, Mrs. Howell, and Polly withdrew to exclaim in the privacy of the kitchen over the horror of their master's plight, and, after two hours of breathless and demanding activity, Marianne found herself suddenly with no distraction at all. Polly had summoned the courage to say that her cousin had spent two months in Dorset Gaol and had reported that "it weren't as terrible as he expected." Marianne had thanked her graciously but reflected that the cousin had not been under accusation of murder. Desperately she busied herself with trying to anticipate her husband's further needs. Books! He must have books. He had requested a number of volumes on the law, but he must have more pleasant reading than those. She filled another box with his favorites and with some that he had planned to read in the coming weeks.
Elinor and Edward arrived some while after midnight, having paused only to look in upon their sleeping daughter. They were full of solicitous consternation and offers of whatever aid they could give, and their sympathy prompted Marianne at last to give full vent to her dismay. "He is there alone in that awful place--it was all I could do not to send Tim at once! Oh, I think I shall go mad if I do not see him and talk with him--!"
"Marianne, you cannot!" her sister protested. "He has begged you not to endanger yourself so. And you must think of Joy--"
"But he will have no friend there at all!"
"He will have one friend, at least," said Edward. "I shall go to see him tomorrow after the vestry meeting. And I shall speak to Haydock and place myself at his disposal, should he want someone to travel to London or elsewhere."
"Oh Edward, you are a dear brother! I do thank you. I have never felt so angry in all my life. I want to hit something--preferably Lord Melgrove!"
Elinor was taken aback by such extreme feeling, but she detected no suggestion of that hysteria that would formerly have rendered her sister helpless; though Marianne clutched at a handkerchief and dabbed repeatedly at eyes and nose reddened from weeping, she was coherent and could successfully direct her outrage into purposeful action. "Word is already spreading," she warned her sister. "We were questioned at the Osgoods' about the events of last night. By midday tomorrow the entire village will know all the particulars of this new development."
"It will be in the papers soon anyway, both the account itself and Mr. Haydock's offer of a reward. Surely all our neighbors will share my belief in Christopher's innocence and my faith in his eventual acquittal. --Though I must say we seem to have little faith in Mr. Haydock--the foyer is filled with enough provisions to keep Christopher half a year."
As there remained but two or three hours until daybreak, Marianne did not sleep after her sister and brother left her, but spent the time writing to her husband, pouring out her worry and indignation as fast as her pen could scrape across the paper. And then she tore that letter into shreds, for how could she burden him with her fears when he must use all his energy to combat his own? She began again, less frantically, and had this new letter ready to entrust to Tim when he and George had finished loading the cart at first light.
She watched them down the lane, wishing them a swift journey though knowing that at the slow pace of a laden cart they would probably not reach Dorchester before noon, and then drifted back into the house to wait. Already she was weary of waiting, weary and half-mad with the strain. Elinor, visiting after breakfast on her way to pay calls, scolded her for not sleeping. "I could not possibly sleep," Marianne replied, "thinking of him in that horrible place--" But she did doze for a few minutes while nursing Joy, and though she felt somehow that she should not have been able even to close her eyes, she admitted that she really must rest--but when she lay down on her bed she was instantly awake.
Sleep proving itself hopeless for the present, she rose again and began to write a few unhappy but necessary letters--to her mother and Margaret, to Sarah and Claude, a very difficult message to Eliza. She also wrote, though it was something of a liberty, to Jonah Masters. She was not as well acquainted with Masters as one might wish before sending such a plea, but she felt that he was the sort of man who might be able to propose a course of action that she and even her husband's lawyer might not consider. She reflected, with a pang of deep regret and offended regard for what she viewed as a betrayal, that only the day before she might have turned to Mr. Wilverton. "I do not ask you to come," she wrote to Masters, "for I know you are concerned for your wife's safety, but I am seeking advice from all avenues I can think of, and I would be most grateful for any suggestion you might make."
Polly took the letters to the post, to be sent as expresses, and Marianne knew that she would be long delayed on her return, its being market day in Delaford. She almost wept to think of the number of inquisitive callers who would soon descend upon her, and wished that the manor were a castle and she could simply raise the drawbridge and shut out the world. But she must face them all, must show herself confident and unafraid, certain of her husband's eventual exoneration. Today, however, she would protect herself, for at last her head was swimming with sleeplessness and shock. She told Mrs. Baynes that she was not at home to any body but Elinor, and this time when she lay down she fell into a deep, but not dreamless, sleep.
At first the knock on the door and the housekeeper's voice made her think that time had fallen back upon itself and it was again the previous morning, before the secure foundations of her world had been snatched from beneath her feet. She turned to Christopher beside her to tell him not to answer the dreadful summons, to fly! fly! from accusation and peril. And then she woke fully to the realization that her husband was not beside her, would not be beside her for days, weeks, months--and she was grateful to have a summons of her own to answer so that she would not collapse back into the bedclothes under the weight of her grief.
"I'm terribly sorry to wake you, madam," said Mrs. Baynes, "knowing that you need your sleep, but it's Mr. Haydock and Constable Parker below, and they greatly wish to see you, and I thought perhaps you would wish to see them, as they are both soon away from the village on errands, they say, and you would have no more chance to talk with them until perhaps two or three days hence. They are very sorry to disturb you, but begged me to ask if you would grant them a bit of your time."
Marianne rubbed sleep from her eyes and looked at the clock; it was almost one o'clock. "It is all right, Mrs. Baynes. Of course I will see them, and I must not sleep the entire day away. I am surprised that Constable Parker is so impudent as to intrude upon me after what he has done."
"He did let Mr. Haydock do all the talking."
"I wonder that Mr. Haydock even suffers his company. Please tell them I shall be down as soon as I dress, and ask Polly to bring me a cup of strong tea."
The hurry of dressing quickly, a splash of cold water upon her face, and a few sips of tea made her feel alert, if not refreshed, and she entered the drawing room scarcely fifteen minutes after her feet had touched the floor.
They rose to meet her, Haydock an elegant, slightly built man with silver hair, Parker a stocky fellow with black hair and strong cheekbones and jaw. She was fairly well acquainted with Mr. Haydock, as he was a not infrequent guest at her table, but with Parker she had had very little direct interaction. She knew, however, that her husband held him in high esteem, had personally persuaded him to accept the post of constable during this period when food shortages and the resultant tension provoked all manner of quick-tempered brawling and petty theft, and resolved, for Christopher's sake, to show him courtesy. But as Parker only bowed and said nothing beyond a respectful greeting, he gave her little reason to be otherwise. Haydock seemed at first to be uncertain what to say, and wasted several minutes apologizing for troubling her, hoping that she understood that they did not like to pry, wishing that there were any way to carry out their investigation without upsetting her--until, impatient with his dithering, she assured both men that anything they said or asked could not possibly upset her to a greater degree than she had been already, and that they could be assured of her complete cooperation in all avenues of their inquiry.
Thus Marianne learned something of what had transpired at Wilverton Hall, the particulars of which Brandon had conveyed to Haydock after the latter's arrival--learned to what indignities her husband had been subjected. "How dare they treat him with such vile disrespect! To accuse him of base ulterior motivation even in the adoption of his ward's child--I can hardly credit such an insult! To twist an act of such generosity into one that is merely self-serving, even sinister-- Have they forgotten all their association with him? They could name few gentlemen among their acquaintance possessing equal integrity, an equal sense of responsibility toward those who depend upon them. How dare they accuse him of such low, deceitful intentions!"
Both men were quite visibly startled by her bitter attack; outrage they had seen many times before, but never from the charming mistress of Delaford. Reminding herself that though emotional storms were in their way satisfying they were hardly productive, she drew a calming breath and made an effort to speak more rationally. "My husband's adoption of John Brandon Williams was, in any case, not his own idea. Miss Williams requested it."
Haydock's eyebrows rose. "The Colonel might have diminished Mr. Humphries's influence on that point had he said as much."
"He is not in the habit of discussing private family matters with others, particularly with such as Mr. Humphries. Besides, your report does seem to suggest that the effort would have been futile."
"I fear so, madam."
"I shall never forgive Mr. Wilverton for this affront--never!"
Constable Parker joined the exchange at last. "He was in somewhat of a corner, ma'am. I don't see as how he could have spoken openly against Lord Melgrove. And to be quite honest, ma'am--he is not entirely convinced of the colonel's innocence." Marianne's cheeks flushed, but she pressed her lips together and said nothing. "He did tell us, though, when we spoke to him earlier, that if he can be of any help to us we are certainly to ask him."
"That is very generous of him," Marianne said with some asperity, "--especially when he has already let pass a better opportunity to be of genuine assistance. And you, Constable? Given your actions, you must be convinced of his guilt."
"You mustn't think so, ma'am. If I might be so bold--I don't feel I've been allowed to do my duty as I see it. The Colonel--and Mr. Wilverton, too, if I may say it to you--has taught me about looking close at evidence and not clutching at one explanation over another because it's the easier. When there are no witnesses such evidence as you have is all the more important, and I do mean evidence of character as well as stray buttons that anybody might pick up in a road. It does seem to me as that housekeeper at Allenham has been reading too many accounts of murder trials, and she's too quick to judge a man she has never met; and were it in my hands alone I wouldn't credit her remarks as highly as some. I've worked with the colonel for nigh onto two years, and I don't believe he'd shoot a man in the back in such a cowardly manner. If he be guilty, I will support a prosecution of him, though he be my patron and has been good to me. But I want the guilty man in prison, not just any man, and I am not yet persuaded that we have him."
Parker was by this time very red in the face, but so far was Marianne from being offended by the length and forcefulness of his speech that she now thought him the finest exemplar of his profession in all of England. Brandon had often said that Parker, owner of a tidy farm worth one hundred twenty pounds a year, was an uneducated but canny man who thought for himself, and she now saw the proof of his assessment. "Oh, Mr. Parker, I am so relieved to hear you say so. Would that Mr. Wilverton also thought as you do. Were you able then to learn nothing of value at Allenham?"
"Very little, ma'am." The constable's voice was pleasant and deliberate. "Nobody at the house seems to be acquainted with Mr. Willoughby's particular friends except one or two, and they were not at home when I called. I do intend to return as soon as ever I can, though I don't expect they will know aught of his doings in this neighborhood--they seem to spend most of their time in town, from what folk say."
Marianne sighed in frustration, and Parker seemed to nod agreement. "How have you proceeded since then?"
"This morning we've spoken with the innkeeper and the coroner, ma'am, and with the people who found the, er, the body. And we've been out to where they found him and looked over the road and the hedges and woods nearby--which I ought to have done yesterday but for being sent on to Allenham."
"Did you find anything there?"
"Nothing in the grass or wood, and if there was ever anything helpful in the road it was long covered over or kicked away. I hoped to find something to tell me whether he'd died at once, or crawled a little ways--whether his hand might have closed about that button as he dragged himself along, if you see my meaning--" Haydock's frantic gestures finally caught the constable's attention, and again the color rose into his face. "Forgive me, Mrs. Brandon! I do get caught up in the puzzle sometimes, and forget who I'm talking to--and you were so keen to know-- Please forgive me, ma'am--I haven't forgotten you were acquainted with the, er, the deceased."
At this unveiled reference to a lady's past and private concerns, Haydock turned pale and lifted a hand as if he were about to clap it over Parker's mouth, or perhaps over his own; but Marianne, not overly sensitive to matters of propriety in the most unremarkable of occasions and very much less so now, waved away Parker's apology. "The circumstances justify any liberty, Mr. Parker. You must ask me anything you believe necessary."
"Well then, ma'am, can you think of any reason that he would come to see you--perhaps, if you will pardon me, ma'am, without your husband's knowledge?"
"No. We had not spoken in a very long time. Indeed I had seen him but twice, at parties, and as he made no attempt to speak with me then, when he could have done so with impunity, I cannot think that he should have suddenly decided to approach me in such an incriminating manner." But there had been his anguished visit to Cleveland-- Was it possible that Willoughby had been coming to see her? But at Cleveland he had only wanted forgiveness before she succumbed to that illness for which he had been in part responsible, a selfish motivation that would not now apply.
"You are very candid, ma'am--I thank you. It does make my job easier if I don't have to be delicate." Parker's broad face fairly glowed with admiration. Haydock looked as if he might faint. "You will, I hope, forgive a further intrusion-- Would Miss Williams, do you suppose, be able to offer any useful information?"
"I do not believe so, Constable, and I hope you will not trouble her. As you know something of her circumstances, you will understand that she is very vulnerable to social embarrassment. In any case, Mr. Willoughby was even less forthcoming with her than he was with me; his deceit was more calculating. It is very unlikely that she learned anything from him that would help you. But I have written to her this morning of what has occurred; if she offers any relevant particulars I shall of course convey them to you at once."
"Thank you, ma'am. We shall hope for the unlikely. We did also hope to speak with your servants today as well, if we may, to see if they can tell us anything about that button."
"Of course you may, but first I must tell you what I myself have learned."
Impressed by her initiative, they drew the same ambiguous conclusions from her investigation as she and Elinor had done, and her discovery was useful to them in their conversations with the servants. One by one, Mr. and Mrs. Baynes, Mrs. Howell, Polly, and the several others went nervously into the drawing room; each emerged relieved, though disappointed that he or she had not been the one to provide the crucial fact needed to solve the mystery. When Marianne, who had passed those two hours alternately in the nursery and the library, rejoined them, the faces of the two men told her that they had learned nothing of immediate relevance.
"What will you do now?" she asked.
"I must first consult my law books," Mr. Haydock replied, "and then I shall visit the colonel and interview his manservant, either this evening or on the morrow. I also intend to appeal to the magistrates in Dorchester."
"And I must try to find out where Mr. Willoughby had been that night," said Parker in his turn, "and whether maybe he met up with some trouble there that followed him."
"And you leave immediately?"
"Do you want a horse, or funds? I know that your expenses will be reimbursed by the parish, but you might well be away for several days. You will need lodging and meals--"
"I do have a good horse, ma'am, but--well, I might have a need to buy a few pints here and there. Folk do get more talkative when their throats are wet." She fetched him a purse full of coins, and he took it with a grateful bow. "Do not hesitate to ask for more if you should need it--you must spare no expense. Mr. Haydock has already been told the same. My husband will be most grateful for your efforts to save him--as, of course, am I."
"I feel I must say again, ma'am," Parker said, a little hesitantly, "that I want to find the truth, whatever it may be."
Marianne smiled. "When you find it, you will prove my husband's innocence."
"I do hope it turns out so, ma'am. I do truly hope it does."
They departed, and seemed to take with them all the energy that had sustained her while she conversed with them and waited anxiously for the result of their interviews with the servants. She was thankful that she had been able to provide a little material aid in the effort to save her husband, rather than merely sit and wait for news, as she was henceforth doomed to do. Aromas of meat and vegetables and pies wafted from the kitchen, but food could not entice her now, and so she returned to the nursery and, excusing the nurse for an hour, lifted Joy, fast asleep though she was, into her arms.
Her last sight of her husband had been in this room; their last embrace had been beside their sleeping child. She missed him, feared for him dreadfully. Those emotions had eclipsed all others--all concern for her own reputation, all pleasure in reading or music or woodland walks, even the grief she should have felt, had briefly felt, for Willoughby.
Why had Willoughby been so near? Once in the vicinity it was not strange that he might perhaps look down the lane toward the house in which she now dwelt, that he might even feel a clutch of envy at his heart that his rival had gained what he himself had lost, but it was very strange indeed that he should meet trouble just here. Surely he had simply been visiting friends in a neighboring town and had been felled by a highwayman--though why he should be abroad so late was a riddle, as was how he might have been separated from his wife when it was known they were travelling together. Or rather--and she did not know whether she should scold herself for the speculation that now occurred to her--it was perhaps nothing much of a riddle after all, given Willoughby's own judgment of himself as a libertine. If he had been visiting a mistress--if it had been the basest of his sins that had caused her husband and herself such misery--she would never grieve for him again, would never regret his passing. And yet in the same moment that she hated him she could feel sorrow that she did.
Joy stirred in her arms, and woke and smiled, and Marianne resolved to give Willoughby no further consideration until her husband was out of danger. How she would divert her mind and heart from their terrors if she did not have her darling Joy to occupy her, she did not know. She began to sing the first song that came into her head, an old ballad about a soldier taken away to war:
Here I sit on Buttermilk Hill
Who could blame me cry my fill,
Every tear would turn a mill,
Johnny's gone for a soldier.
Oh my baby, oh my love,
Gone the rainbow, gone the dove,
Your father was my only love,
Johnny's gone for a soldier.
Me, oh my, I loved him so,
It broke my heart to see him go,
And only time will heal my woe,
Johnny's gone for a soldier.
Oh my baby, oh my love,
Gone the rainbow, gone the dove,
Your father was my only love,
Johnny's gone for a soldier.
I sold my flax, I sold my wheel,
To buy my love a sword of steel,
So it in battle, he may wield,
Johnny's gone for a soldier.
Oh my baby, oh my love,
Gone the rainbow, gone the dove,
Your father was my only love,
Johnny's gone for a soldier.1
As it was a favorite for a melancholy mood, she had sung it many times, but never before had it wrenched from her such a flood of tears.
1 Hear the music at Lesley Nelson's Folk Music Site: Johnny's Gone for a Soldier. Very special thanks to Lou for pointing me to the song and the site!
Continued in Part 2