In a miserable old house, in Commerce street, north of Pratt street Baltimore,--there are fine stores there now--lived a shoemaker, whose wife took a particular fancy to me as a doctor, (I never felt much flattered by the preference,) and would send for me whenever she was sick. I could do no less than attend her ladyship. For a time I tried, by pretty heavy bills, to get rid of the honour; but it wouldn't do. Old Maxwell, the husband, grumbled terribly, but managed to keep out of my debt. He was the reputed master of his house; but I saw enough to satisfy me that if he were master, his wife was mistress of the master.
Maxwell had three or four apprentices, out of whom he managed to get a good deal of work at a small cost. Among these was a little fellow, whose peculiarly delicate appearance often attracted my attention. He seemed out of place among the stout, vulgar-looking boys, who stitched and hammered away from morning until night in their master's dirty shop.
"Where did you get that child?" I asked of the shoemaker one day.
"Whom do you mean? Bill?"
"Yes, the little fellow you call Bill."
"I took him out of pure charity. His mother died about a year and a half ago, and if I hadn't taken him in, he would have gone to the poor house as like as not."
"Who was his mother?"
"She was a poor woman, who sewed for the slopshops for a living--but their pay won't keep soul and body together."
"And so she died?"
"Yes, she died, and I took her child out of pure charity, as I have said."
"Is he bound to you?"
"Oh yes. I never take a boy without having him bound."
"What was his mother's name?"
"I believe they called her Mrs. Miller."
"Did you ever meet with her?"
"No: but my wife knew her very well. She was a strange kind of woman--feeling something above her condition, I should think. She was always low-spirited, my wife says, but never complained about any thing. Bill was her only child, and he used to go for her work, and carry it home when it was finished. She sent him out, too, to buy every thing. I don't believe she would have stirred beyond her own door if she had starved to death."
"Pride, I reckon."
"Pride? Why should she be proud?"
"Dear knows! Maybe she once belonged to the bettermost class of people, and was afraid of meeting some of them in the street."
This brief conversation awoke an interest in my mind for the lad. As I left the shop, I met him at the door with a large bucket of water in his hand--too heavy for his strength. I looked at him more narrowly than I had ever done before. There was a feminine delicacy about every feature of his face, unusual in boys who ordinarily belong to the station he was filling. His eyes, too, had a softer expression, and his brow was broader and fairer. The intentness with which I looked at him, caused him to look at me as intently. What thoughts were awakened in his mind I could not tell. I put my hand upon his head, involuntarily; but did not speak to him; and then passed on. I could not help turning to take another glance at the boy. He had turned also. I saw that there were tears in his eyes.
"Poor fellow!" I murmured, "he is out of his place." I did, not go back to speak to him, as I wished afterward that I had done, but kept on my way.
Not having occasion to visit the shoemaker's wife again for some months, this boy did not, during the time, fall under my notice. It was midwinter when I next saw him.
I was preparing to go out one stormy morning in February, when a lad came into my office. He was drenched to the skin by the rain, that was driving fiercely along under the pressure of a strong northeaster, and shivering with cold. His teeth chattered so that it was some time before he could make known his errand. I noticed that he was clad in a much worn suit of common corduroy, the cracks in which, here and there, showed the red skin beneath, and proved clearly enough that this was all that protected him from the bitter cold. One of his shoes gaped widely at the toe; and the other was run down at the heel so badly, that part of his foot and old ragged stocking touched the floor. A common sealskin cap, with the front part nearly torn off, was in his hand. He had removed this from his head on entering, and stood, with his eyes now resting on mine, and now dropping beneath my gaze, waiting for me to ask his errand. I did not recognise him.
"Well, my little man," I said, "is any one sick?"
"Please sir, Mr. Maxwell wants you to come down and see Johnny."
"Mr. Maxwell! Do you live with Mr. Maxwell?"
I now recognized the lad. He was a good deal changed since I last saw him, and changed for the worse.
"What is the matter with Johnny?" I asked.
"I believe he's got the croup."
"Indeed! Is he very sick?"
"Yes, sir. He can't hardly breathe at all, and goes all the time just so--" Imitating the wheezing sound attendant upon constricted respiration.
"Very well, my boy, I will be there in a little while, But, bless me! you will get the croup as well as Johnny, if you go out in such weather as this and have on no warmer clothing than covers you now. Come up to the stove and warm yourself--you are shivering all over. Why did not you bring an umbrella?"
"Mr. Maxwell never lets me take the umbreller," said the boy innocently.
"He doesn't? But he sends you out in the rain?"
"Oh yes--always. Sometimes I am wet all day."
"Doesn't it make you sick?"
"I feel bad, and ache all over sometimes after I have been wet; and sometimes my face swells up and pains me so I can't sleep."
"Do not your feet get very cold? Have you no better shoes than these?"
"I've got a better pair of shoes: but they hurt my feet so I can't wear them. Thomas, one of the boys, gave me these old ones."
"Why do they hurt your feet? Are they too small?"
"No, sir, I don't think they are. But my feet are sore."
I feared as much as this. "What is the matter with your feet?" I asked.
"I don't know, sir. The boys say that nothing's the matter with them, only they're a little snow-burnt."
"How do they feel?"
"They burn and itch, and are so tender I can hardly touch them. I can't sleep at nights sometimes for the burning and itching."
I examined the boy's feet, and found them red, shining and tumefied, with other indications of a severe attack of chilblains.
"What have you done for your feet?" I asked. "Does Mr. Maxwell know they are so bad?"
"I showed them to him, and he said it was only a snow-burn, and that I must put my feet in snow and let it draw the cold out."
"Did you do so?"
"Yes, sir, as long as I could bear it; but it hurt dreadful bad. Mr. Maxwell said I didn't keep them in half long enough."
"Were they better afterward?"
"Yes, sir, I think they were; but I go out so much in the snow, and get them wet so often, that they can't get well."
"What is your name?" I asked.
"Is your mother alive?"
The tone and manner of the boy, when he gave a half inarticulate negative, made me regret having asked the question. It was a needless one, for already knew that his mother was dead. It was meant, however, as a preliminary inquiry, and, having been made, I proceeded to question him, in order to learn something, briefly, of his history.
"Were you born in Baltimore?" I continued.
"Have you any relatives here?"
"Mr. P----W----is my uncle."
"Mr. W----?" I said, in surprise.
"Yes, sir--mother said he was my uncle."
"Is he your mother's brother?"
"Did he ever come to see your mother?"
"No, sir, he never came near us, and mother never went to see him."
"What was the reason?"
"I don't know, sir."
The child continued to look intently in my face, but I questioned him no further. I knew Mr. W----very well, and settled it at once in my mind that I would call and see him about the lad. I stood musing for some moments after the boy's last reply, and then said--
"Tell Mr. Maxwell, that I will call down in about half an hour: Run home as quickly as you can, and try and keep out of the rain."
The sad, rebuking earnestness with which the boy looked at me, when I said this, touched my feelings. He had, evidently, expected more than a mere expression of sympathy; but I did not think it right to create any false hopes in his mind. I meant to do all I could to relieve his wretched condition; but did not know how far I would be successful.
I found, on visiting the child of Maxwell, that I had quite a severe case of croup on my hands. His respiration was very difficult, and sounded as if the air were forced through a metallic tube. There was a good deal of fever, and other unfavourable symptoms. The albuminous secretion was large, and the formation of the false membrane so rapid as to threaten suffocation. I resorted to the usual treatment in such cases, and, happily, succeeded in producing a healthy change in the course of a few hours. So urgent had been the case, that, in attending to it, my mind had lost sight of the little boy on my first and second visits. As I was leaving the house on the morning succeeding the day on which I had been called in, I met him coming along the passage with an armful of wood. The look he gave me, as he passed, rebuked my forgetfulness, and forced me to turn back and speak to his master.
"Look here, Maxwell," I said, speaking decidedly, but in a voice so low that my words could not be heard distinctly by others in the room--"you must take better care of that boy Bill, or you will get into trouble."
"How so, doctor? I am not aware that I ill-treat him," returned the shoemaker, looking up with surprise.
"He is not clothed warmly enough for such weather as this."
"You must be mistaken. He has never complained of not feeling warm."
I took hold of Maxwell's pantaloons. They were made of coarse, thick cloth, and I perceived that there were thick woollen drawers under them.
"Take off these heavy trowsers and drawers," said I, and in place of them put on a pair of half-worn corduroy pantaloons, "and go out of doors and stand in the rain until you are drenched to the skin. The experiment will enable you to decide for yourself whether Bill is warmly enough clad."
I spoke with earnestness. Either my manner, or what I said, produced a strong effect upon the shoemaker. I could see that I had offended him, and that he was struggling to keep down a feeling of anger that was ready to pour itself forth upon me for having presumed to remark upon and interfere with his business.
"Understand me," said I, wishing to prevent the threatened outbreak of passion, "I speak as a physician, and my duty as a physician requires me to do so. The knowledge of, and the experience in diseases, which I possess, enable me to understand better than other men the causes that produce them, and to give, as I should give, to the unthinking, a warning of danger. And this I give to you now."
"All very well, doctor," returned Maxwell, "if you don't raise false alarms."
"Do you think I have done so in the present case?"
"I don't think any thing about it. I know you have."
"Then you think the lad warmly enough clothed?"
"If I did not think so, I would dress him more warmly."
"You have on three times the thickness of clothing that he has." I fixed my eyes intently on the man as I spoke.
"And his blood is three times as warm as mine. I need not tell you that, doctor."
"How do you know?"
"How do I know?" speaking contemptuously--"does not everybody know that?"
"How hot do you suppose your blood is?"
"I don't know."
"Let us suppose it to be eighty degrees. Three times eighty would be two hundred and forty. Water boils at two hundred and twelve. If it be indeed true that the lad's blood is above the boiling-point, I must agree with you that his clothes are quite sufficient to keep out the cold at any season."
"You understand me well enough, doctor," replied Maxwell, exhibiting a good deal of confusion. "I mean that a boy's blood is much warmer than a man's, which, with his greater activity, causes him to be less affected by cold. I have seen a good deal of boys, and have been a boy myself, and know all about it."
"Generally speaking, what you affirm about the greater warmth of young persons is true," I said to this. "But there are many exceptions. It is true, where there is good health, good spirits, plenty of good food, and activity. But it is not true where these are lacking. Nor is it true in any case to the extent you seem to imagine. Particularly is it not true in the case of the boy about whom we are conversing."
"Why not in his case, doctor? I can see no reason."
"He has not the vital activity of most boys of his age, and consequently not the warmth of body. His face is pale and thin, and his limbs have not the fulness of youth. He has no activity in his movements."
"Because he is a lazy fellow," replied the shoemaker, knitting his brows. "He wants the strap two or three times a day; that would make his blood circulate freely enough."
"Brutal wretch!" I could hardly keep from exclaiming. But for the boy's sake I put a curb upon my feelings.
"In doing so," I quietly replied, "you would be guilty of sad cruelty and injustice. The lad can no more help what you call laziness, than you could help being born with gray eyes. It his natural bodily temperament. He has not the robust constitution we see in most boys; and this is his misfortune, not his fault."
Maxwell replied to this by pushing out his lips, drawing up his chin, half closing his eyes, and nodding his head in a very contemptuous manner; saying almost as plainly as words could express it--"All gammon, doctor! You needn't try to come over me with that kind of nonsense."
Satisfied that it would be useless to say any thing more upon the subject at that time, I turned away, remarking as I did so--
"If you are not influenced by my advice in this matter, you may chance to feel more potent reasons. A word to the wise is sufficient."
The shoemaker made no reply, and we parted. My first impression was to go immediately to Mr. W----and apprize him of the condition of his nephew. But a little reflection convinced me that it would be much better to make some previous inquiries in regard to his family, and endeavour to ascertain the reason of his estrangement from his sister. I would then be able to act with more certainty of success. I soon obtained all the information I desired. The history was an impressive one. I will give it as briefly as possible.
Anna W----, at the age of twenty, was esteemed and beloved by all who knew her. Her family was one of wealth and standing, and she moved in our first circles. She had but one brother, to whom she was tenderly attached. Philip was her elder by some years. Among the many who sought the regard of Anna, was a young man named Miller, who had been for years the intimate friend of her brother. Extremely fond of his sister, and highly valuing his friend for his many estimable qualities, Philip was more than gratified when he saw evidences of attachment springing up between them.
Besides Miller, Anna had another suitor, a young man named Westfield, who had become quite intimate with her, but who had made no open declaration of love before Miller came forward and offered for her hand. Westfield loved Anna passionately, but hesitated to declare his feelings, long after he had come to the conclusion that without her for his companion through life, existence would be undesirable. This arose from the fact of his not being certain in regard to the maiden's sentiments, Anna was always kind, but reserved. She was, he could see, ever pleased to meet him; but how far this pleasure was the same that she experienced in meeting other friends, he could not tell. While thus hesitating, business required him to go to New Orleans, and spend some months there. Before leaving he called three several times upon Miss W----, with the intention of making known his sentiments, but each time shrank from the avowal, and finally resolved that he would make the declaration in writing immediately on his arrival at New Orleans. With this object in view, he asked her if she were willing to correspond with him. Anna hesitated a moment or two before replying, and then assented with a blushing cheek.
For some months before this, Miller had shown more than his usual attentions to the sister of his friend; and these had been sufficiently marked to attract Anna's notice. He was a man of intelligence, fine attainments, honourable sentiments, and of good personal appearance. To his attractions the maiden was by no means insensible. But Westfield had a prior claim upon her heart--she admired the former, but loved the latter unacknowledged to herself.
Immediately on his arrival at New Orleans, Westfield wrote to Anna, but did not speak of the true nature of his feelings. The letter touched upon all subjects but the one nearest to his heart. Anna replied to it briefly, and with evident reserve. This threw such a damper upon the young man, that he did not write again for nearly two months, and then not with the warmth and freedom that had distinguished his first letter.
Meantime, Miller grew more and more constant in his attentions to Anna: To second these attentions, Philip W----frequently alluded to his friend in terms of admiration. Gradually Anna became interested in the young man, and pleased whenever he made her a visit. When Westfield asked the privilege of opening a correspondence with her, she believed, from many corroborating circumstances, that he designed formally addressing her, and that the correspondence would lead to that result. But as his letters, with the lapse of time, grew less and less frequent, and more constrained and formal, she was led to form a different opinion. During all this time Miller's attentions increased, and Anna's feelings became more and more interested. Finally, an offer of marriage was made, and, after due reflection accepted. Three days afterward Miss W----received the following letter:--
"NEW ORLEANS, June.8th, 18--.
"MY DEAR ANNA,
"A letter from an intimate and mutual friend prompts me at once to open to you my whole heart. For many months--nay, for more than a year--I have loved you with an ardour that has made your image ever present with me, sleeping or waking. Often and often have I resolved to declare this sentiment, but a foolish weakness has hitherto kept me silent; and now the danger of losing you constrains me to speak out as abruptly as freely. When I asked the privilege of opening a correspondence with you, it was that I might, in my very first epistle, say what I am now saying; but the same weakness and hesitation remained. Many times I wrote all I wished to say, folded and sealed the letter, and--cast it into the flames. I had not the courage to send it. Foolish weakness! I tremble to think of the consequences that may follow. Dear Anna!--I will thus address you until you forbid the tender familiarity, and bid my yearning heart despair--Dear Anna! write me at once and let me know my fate. Do not wait for a second post. Until I hear from you I shall be the most unhappy of mortals. If your heart is still free--if no promise to another has passed your lips, let me urge my suit by all the tenderest, holiest, and purest, considerations. No one can love you with a fervour and devotion surpassing mine; no heart can beat responsive to your own more surely than mine; no one can cherish you in his heart of hearts, until life shall cease, more tenderly than I will cherish you. But I will write no more. Why need I? I shall count the days and hours until your answer come.
"Yours, in life and death,
Tears gushed from the eyes of Anna W----, as she read the last line of this unlooked for epistle, her whole frame trembled, and her heart beat heavily in her bosom. It was a long time before she was sufficiently composed to answer the letter. When she did answer, it was, briefly, thus--
"BALTIMORE, June 28, 18--.
"MR. H. WESTFIELD.
"Dear Sir:--Had your letter of the 18th, come a week earlier, my answer might have been different. Now I can only bid you forget me.
"Forget you?" was the answer received to this. "Forget you? Bid me forget myself! No, I can never forget you. A week!--a week earlier? Why should a single week fix our fates for ever. You are not married. That I learn from my friend. It need not, then, be too late. If you love me, as I infer from your letter, throw yourself upon the magnanimity of the man to whom you are betrothed, and he will release you from your engagement. I know him. He is generous-minded, and proud. Tell him he has not and cannot have your whole heart. That will be enough. He will bid you be free."
The reply of Anna was in these few words. "Henry Westfield; it is too late. Do not write to me again. I cannot listen to such language as you use to me without dishonour."
This half-maddened the young man. He wrote several times urging Anna by every consideration he could name to break her engagement with Miller. But she laid his letters aside unanswered.
An early day for the marriage was named. The stay of Westfield at the South was prolonged several months beyond the time at first determined upon. He returned to Baltimore a month after the proposed union of Anna with Miller had been consummated.
Although induced, from the blinding ardency of his feelings, to urge Anna to break the engagement she had formed, this did not arise from any want of regard in his mind to the sacredness of the marriage relation. So suddenly had the intelligence of her contract with Miller come upon him, coupled with the admission that if his proposal had come a week earlier it might have been accepted, that for a time his mind did not act with its usual clearness. But, when the marriage of her he so idolized took place, Westfield, as a man of high moral sense, gave up all hope, and endeavoured to banish from his heart the image of one who had been so dearly beloved. On his return to Baltimore, he did not attempt to renew his acquaintance with Anna. This he deemed imprudent, as well as wrong. But, as their circle of acquaintance was the same, and as the husband and brother of Anna were his friends, it was impossible for him long to be in the city without meeting, her. They met a few weeks after his return, at the house of a friend who had a large company. Westfield saw Anna at the opposite side of one of the parlours soon after he came in. The question of leaving the house came up and was some time debated. This he finally determined not to do, for several reasons. He could not always avoid her; and the attempt to do so would only make matters worse, for it would attract attention and occasion remarks. But, although he remained with the company, he preferred keeping as distant as possible from Anna. His feelings were yet too strong. To meet her calmly was impossible, and to meet her in any other way, would, he felt, be wrong. While he thus thought and felt, the husband of Anna touched him on the arm and said--
"Come! I must introduce you to my wife. You were one of her old friends, but have not once called upon her since your return from the South. She complains of your neglect, and, I think, justly. Come!"
Westfield could not hesitate. There was no retreat. In a space of time shorter than it takes to write this sentence, he was standing before the young bride, struggling manfully for the mastery over himself. This was only partial--not complete. Anna, on the contrary, exhibited very few, if any signs of disturbance. She received him with a warm, frank, cordial manner, that soon made him feel at ease--it caused a pleasant glow in his bosom. As soon as they had fairly entered into conversation, the young husband left them. His presence had caused Westfield to experience some restraint; this gave way as soon as he withdrew to another part of the room, and he felt that no eye but an indifferent one was upon him. An hour passed like a minute. When supper was announced, Westfield offered his arm to conduct Anna to the refreshment room. She looked around for her husband, and, not seeing him, accepted. the attention. Just as they were about leaving the parlour, Miller came up, and Westfield offered to resign his wife to his care, but he politely declined taking her from his arm. At supper, the husband and the former lover seemed to vie with each other in their attention to Anna, who never felt happier in her life. Why she experienced more pleasurable feelings than usual, she did not pause to inquire. She was conscious of being happy, and that was all.
From that time, Westfield became a regular visiter at the house of Mr. Miller, with whom he was now more intimate than before. He came and went without ceremony, and frequently spent hours with Anna while her husband was away. This intimacy continued for two or three years without attracting any attention from the social gossips who infest every circle.
"It is high time you were married."
"Westfield, why don't you go more into company?"
"I really believe you are in love with Mrs. Miller."
Were laughing remarks often made by his friends, to which he always made some laughing answer; but no one dreamed of thinking his intimacy with Anna an improper one. He was looked upon as a warm friend of both her husband and herself, and inclined to be something of an "old bachelor." If she were seen at the theatre, or on the street, with Westfield, it was looked upon almost as much a matter of course as if she were with her husband. It is but fair to state, that the fact of his ever having been an avowed lover was not known, except to a very few. He had kept his own secret, and so had the object of his misplaced affection.
No suspicion had ever crossed the generous mind of Miller, although there were times when he felt that his friend was in the way, and wished that his visits might be less frequent and shorter. But such feelings were of rare occurrence. One day, about three years after his marriage, a friend said to him, half in jest, and half in earnest--
"Miller, a'n't you jealous of Westfield?"
"Oh yes--very jealous," he returned, in mock seriousness.
"I don't think I would like my wife's old flame to be quite as intimate with her as Westfield is with your wife."
"Perhaps I would be a little jealous if I believed him to be an old flame."
"Don't you know it?"
The tone and look that accompanied this question, more than the question itself, produced an instant revulsion in Miller's feelings.
"No, I do not know it!" he replied, emphatically--"Do you know it?"
Conscious that he had gone too far, the friend hesitated, and appeared confused.
"Why have you spoken to me in the way that you have done? Are you jesting or in earnest?"
Miller's face was pale, and his lip quivered as he said this.
"Seriously, my friend," replied the other, "if you do not know that Westfield was a suitor to your wife, and only made known his love to her after you had offered her your hand, it is time that you did know it. I thought you were aware of this."
"No, I never dreamed of such a thing. Surely it cannot be true."
"I know it to be true, for I was in correspondence with Westfield, and was fully aware of his sentiments. Your marriage almost set him beside himself."
As soon as Miller could get away from the individual who gave him this startling information, he turned his steps homeward. He did not ask himself why he did so. In fact, there was no purpose in his mind. He felt wretched beyond description. The information just conveyed, awakened the most dreadful suspicions, that would not yield to any effort his generous feelings made to banish them.
On arriving at home, (it was five o'clock in the afternoon,) he found that his wife had gone out; and further learned that Westfield had called for her in a carriage, and that they had ridden out together. This information did not, in the least, tend to quiet the uneasiness he felt.
Going up into the chambers, he noticed many evidences of Anna's having dressed, herself to go out, in haste. The door of the wardrobe stood open, and also one of her drawers, with her bunch of keys lying upon the bureau. The dress she had on when he left her at dinner-time, had been changed for another, and, instead of being hung up, was thrown across a chair.
The drawer that stood open was her private drawer, in which she kept all her trinkets, and little matters particularly her own. Its contents her husband had never seen, and had never desired to see. Now, however, something more than mere curiosity prompted him to look somewhat narrowly into its contents. In one corner of this drawer he found a small casket, beautifully inlaid, that had never before come under his notice. Its workmanship was costly and exquisite. He lifted it and examined it carefully, and then taking the bunch of keys that lay before him, tried the smallest in the lock. The lid flew open. A few letters, and a small braid of hair, were its only contents. These letters were addressed to her under her maiden name. The husband was about unfolding one of them, when he let it fall suddenly into the casket, saying, as he did so--
"No, no! I have no right to read these letters. They were not addressed to my wife." With an effort he closed the drawer and forced himself from the room. But the fact that Westfield had been a suitor for the hand of Anna, and was now on terms of the closest intimacy with her, coming up vividly in his mind, he came, after some reflection, to the firm conclusion that he ought to know the contents of letters treasured so carefully--letters that he had every reason now to believe were from Westfield. Their post-mark he had noticed. They were from New Orleans.
After again hesitating and debating the question for some time, he finally determined to know their contents. He read them over and over again, each sentence almost maddening him. They were from Westfield. The reader already knows their contents. From their appearance, it was evident that they had been read over very many times; one of them bore traces of tears. For some time the feelings of Miller were in a state of wild excitement. While this continued, had his wife or Westfield appeared, he would have been tempted to commit some desperate act. But this state gradually gave way to a more sober one. The letters were replaced carefully, the casket locked, and every thing restored to its former appearance. The husband then sat down to reflect, as calmly as was in his power, upon the aspect of affairs. The more he thought, the more closely he compared the sentiments of the letters so carefully treasured with the subsequent. familiarity of his wife with Westfield, the more satisfied was he that he had been deeply and irreparably wronged--wronged in a way for which there was no atonement.
As this conviction fully formed itself in his mind, the question of what he should do came up for immediate decision. He had one child, about eighteen months old, around whom his tenderest affections had entwined themselves; but when he remembered that his friend's intimacy with his wife had run almost parallel with their marriage, a harrowing suspicion crossed his mind, and made his heart turn from the form of beauty and innocence it had loved so purely.
The final conclusion of the agonized husband was to abandon his wife at once, taking with him the corroborating evidence of her unfaithfulness. He returned to her private drawer, and taking from it the letters of Westfield and the braid of hair, placed them in his pocket. He then packed his clothes and private papers in a trunk, which he ordered to be sent to Gadsby's Hotel. Half an hour, before his wife's return, he had abandoned her for ever.
When Mrs. Miller came home, it was as late as tea-time. She was accompanied by Westfield, who came into the house with his usual familiarity, intending to share with the family in their evening meal, and enjoy a social hour afterward.
Finding that her husband was not in the parlour--it was past the usual hour of his return--nor anywhere in the house, Mrs. Miller inquired if he had not been home.
"Oh yes, ma'am," said the servant to whom she spoke, "he came home more than two hours ago."
"Did he go out again?" she asked, without suspicion of any thing being wrong.
"Yes, ma'am. He went up-stairs and stayed a good while, and then came down and told Ben to take his trunk to Gadsby's."
The face of Mrs. Miller blanched in an instant. She turned quickly away and ran up to her chamber. Her drawer, which she had not noticed before, stood open. She eagerly seized her precious casket; this, too, was open, and the contents gone! Strength and consciousness remained long enough for her to reach the bed, upon which she fell, fainting.
When the life-blood once more flowed through her veins, and she was sufficiently restored to see what was passing around her, she found the servants and Westfield standing by her bedside. The latter looked anxiously into her face. She motioned him to come near. As he bent his ear low toward her face, she whispered--
"Leave me. You must never again visit this house, nor appear to be on terms of intimacy with me."
"Go, Mr. Westfield. Let what I have said suffice. Neither of us have acted with the prudence that should have governed our conduct, all things considered. Go at once! In time you will know enough, and more than enough."
Westfield still hesitated, but Mrs. Miller motioned him away with an imperative manner; he then withdrew, looking earnestly back at every step.
A glass of wine and water was ordered by Anna, after drinking which, she arose from the bed, and desired all her domestics to leave the room.
Meantime, her husband was suffering the most poignant anguish of mind. On retiring to a hotel, he sent for the brother of his wife, and to him submitted the letters he had taken from Anna's casket. After they had been hurriedly perused, he said--
"You know the intimacy of Westfield with Anna. Put that fact alongside of these letters and their careful preservation, and what is your conclusion?"
"Accursed villain!" exclaimed W----, grinding his teeth and stamping upon the floor, his anger completely overmastering him. "His life shall pay the price of my sister's dishonour. Madness!"
"You think, then, as I do," said the husband, with forced calmness, "that confidence, nay, every thing sacred and holy, has been violated?"
"Can I doubt? If these were his sentiments," (holding up the letters of Westfield,) "before my sister's marriage, can they have changed immediately afterward. No, no; our confidence has been basely betrayed. But the wretch shall pay for this dearly."
On the next day W----called upon Westfield in company with a friend who had possession of the letters, and who read them as a preliminary explanation of the cause of the visit.
"Did you write those letters?" W----asked, with a stern aspect.
"I certainly did," was the firm reply. "Do you question my right to do so?"
"No: not your right to make known to my sister your sentiments before marriage, but your right to abuse her husband's confidence after marriage."
"Who dares say that I did?"
"I dare say it," returned the brother, passionately.
"You! Bring your proof."
"I want no better proof than the fact that, entertaining sentiments such as are here avowed, you have visited her at all times, and under nearly all circumstances. You have abused a husband's and a brother's confidence. You have lain like a stinging viper in the bosom of friendship."
"It is false!" replied Westfield, emphatically.
W----'s feelings were chafed to the utmost already. This remark destroyed entirely the little self-control that remained. He sprang toward Westfield, and would have grappled his throat, had not his friend, who had feared some such result, been perfectly on his guard, and stepped between the two men in time to prevent a collision.
Nothing was now left W----but to withdraw, with his friend. A challenge to mortal combat followed immediately. A meeting was the result, in which Westfield was severely wounded. This made public property of the whole matter; and as public feeling is generally on the side of whoever is sufferer, quite a favourable impression of the case began to prevail, grounded upon the denial of Westfield to the charge of improper intimacy with Mrs. Miller. But this feeling soon changed. The moment Mrs. Miller heard that Westfield had been seriously wounded by her brother, she flew to his bedside, and nursed him with unwearying devotion for three weeks; when he died of inflammation arising from his wound.
This act sealed her fate: it destroyed all sympathy for her; it was, in the mind of every one, proof positive of her guilt. When she returned home, the house was closed against her. An application for a divorce had already been laid before the legislature; then in session at Annapolis, and, as the inferential proofs of defection were strongly corroborated by Mrs. Miller's conduct after the hostile meeting between Westfield and her brother, the application was promptly granted, with the provision of five hundred dollars a year for her support. The decision of the legislature, with information of the annual amount settled upon her, were communicated through the attorney of her husband. Her only answer was a prompt and indignant refusal to accept the support the law had awarded her. From that moment she sank into obscurity with her child, and with her own hands earned the bread that sustained both their lives. From that moment until the day of her death, all intercourse with her family and friends was cut off. How great were her sufferings, no one can know. They must have been nearly up to the level of human endurance.
I learned this much from one who had been intimate with all the circumstances. He remembered the duel very well, but had never before understood the true cause. My informant had no knowledge whatever of Mrs. Miller from the time of her divorce up to the period of my inquiries. Miller himself still lived. I had some slight acquaintance with him.
Under this aspect of things, I hardly knew what course to pursue in order to raise the lad at Maxwell's above his present unhappy condition. I entertained, for some time, the idea of communicating with his father and uncle on the subject; but I could not make up my mind to do this. The indignation with which they had thrown off his erring mother, and the total oblivion that had been permitted to fall upon her memory, made me fearful that to approach them on the subject would accomplish no good for the boy, and might place me in a very unpleasant position toward them. Thus far I had kept my own counsel, although the nature of my inquiries about Mrs. Miller had created some curiosity in the minds of one or two, who asked me a good many questions that I did not see proper to answer directly.
"The child is innocent, even if the mother were guilty." This I said to myself very frequently, as a reason why I should make every effort in my power to create an interest in favour of little Bill, and get him out of the hands of his master, who, in my view, treated him With great cruelty. In thinking about the matter, it occurred to me that in case Mrs. Miller were innocent of the derelictions charged upon her, she would leave some evidence of the fact, for the sake of her child at least. So strongly did this idea take hold of my mind, that I determined to question Bill closely about his mother as early as I could get an opportunity. This did not occur for several weeks. I then met the boy in the street, hobbling along with difficulty. I stopped him and asked him what ailed his feet. He said they were sore, and all cracked open, and hurt him so that he could hardly walk.
"Come round to my office and let me see them," said I.
"I am going to take these shoes to the binder's,"--he had a package of "uppers" in his hand--"and must be back in twenty minutes, or Mr. Maxwell says he will give me the strap." The boy made this reply, and then hobbled on as fast as he could.
"Stop, stop, my lad," I called after him. "I want you for a little while, and will see that Mr. Maxwell does not give you the strap. You must come to my office and get something done for your feet."
"They are very bad," he said, turning round, and looking down at them with a pitiable expression on his young face.
"I know they are, and you must have something done for them immediately."
"Let me go to the binder's first."
"Very well. Go to the binder's. But be sure to come to my office as you return; I want to see you particularly."
My words made the blood rush to the child's pale face. Hope again was springing up in his bosom.
In about ten minutes he entered my office. His step was lighter, but I could see that each footfall gave him pain. The first thing I did was to examine his feet. They were in a shocking condition. One of them had cracked open in several places, and the wounds had become running sores; other parts were red and shining, and much swollen, I dressed them carefully. When I came to replace his shoes, I found them so dilapidated and out of shape, as to be no protection to his feet whatever, but rather tending to fret them, and liable to rub off the bandages I had put on. To remedy this, I sent my man out for a new pair, of soft leather. When these were put on, and he stood upon, his feet, he said that they did not hurt him at all. I needed not his declaration of the fact to convince me of this, for the whole expression of his face had changed. His eyes were no longer fixed and sad; nor were his brows drawn down, nor his lips compressed.
"I think you told me that your name was Miller?" I said to him, as he stood looking earnestly in my face after the dressing of his feet was completed.
"Yes, sir," he replied.
"And that your mother was dead?"
"I think you said that W----was your uncle?"
"Yes, sir. Mother told me that he was my uncle."
"Is your father living?"
"I don't know, sir."
"Did your mother ever speak to you about him?"
"Then you can't tell whether he is living or not?"
"No, sir; but I suppose he is dead."
"Why do you think so?"
"Because I never saw him, nor heard mother speak of him."
"You are sure your name is Miller?"
"Oh yes, sir."
"And that Mr. W----is your uncle?"
"My mother said he was."
"Did you ever see him?"
"Why don't you go, to see him, and tell him who you are?"
"I asked mother, one day, to let me do so, but she said I must never think of such a thing."
"I don't know."
"And so you never went to see him?"
"No, indeed; mother said I must not." This was said with great artlessness.
"What became of your mother's things after she died?"
"The woman we rented from took them all. Mother owed her, she said."
"Indeed! Where did you live?"
"In Commerce street, three or four doors from Mr. Maxwell's. Mother rented a room up-stairs."
"Does the woman live there still?"
"Do you ever go to see her?"
"No, sir; she won't let me come into the house."
"I cannot tell. She was going to send me to the poorhouse, when Mr. Maxwell took me in. I have often and often wanted to see the room where we lived in, and where mother died, but she wouldn't let me go up. One day I begged and cried for her to let me go up--I wanted to, so bad; but she called me a dirty little brat, and told me to go about my business, or she would get Mr. Maxwell to give me a beating. I never have tried to go there since."
"What is the woman's name?"
"Her name is Mrs. Claxon."
"And she lives three or four doors from Mr. Maxwell's?"
"I am going home with you in a little while, and will get you to show me the house. Your mother had some furniture in her room?"
"Yes, sir. We had a bureau, and a bedstead, and a good many things."
"Do you know what was in the bureau?"
"Mother had a beautiful little box that was always locked. It had letters in it, I think."
"Did you ever see her reading them?"
"Oh yes, often, when she thought I was asleep; and she would cry, sometimes, dreadful hard."
"This box Mrs. Claxon kept?"
"Yes, sir; she kept every thing."
"Very well. We will see if we can't make her give up some of the things."
"If she will give me that little box, she may have every thing else," said the lad.
"Why are you so desirous to have that box?"
"I sometimes think if I could get that box, and all the letters and papers it had in it, that I would be able to know better who I am, and why I mustn't go and see my uncle, who is rich, and could take me away from where I am now."
"You don't like to live with Mr. Maxwell, then?"
"Oh no, sir."
I did not question him as to the reason; that was unnecessary.
After putting up one or two prescriptions, (we had not then fallen into the modern more comfortable mode of writing them,) I told the boy that I would walk home with him, and excuse him to his master for having stayed away so long. I had no great difficulty in doing this, although the shoemaker seemed at first a little fretted at my having taken up the lad's cause again. In passing to his shop, the house where Mrs. Claxon lived was pointed out to me. Before leaving, I made Maxwell promise to let the boy come up on the next evening to get his feet dressed, telling him, what was true, that this was necessary to be done, or very serious consequences might follow.
I then called upon Mrs. Claxon. She was a virago. But the grave and important face that I put on when I asked if a Mrs. Miller did not once live in her house, subdued her. After some little hesitation, she replied in the affirmative.
"I knew as much," I said, thinking it well to let her understand from the beginning that it would not do to attempt deception.
"She died here, I believe?" I continued.
"Yes, sir; she died in my house."
"She left some property in your hands, did she not?"
"Property? Humph! If you call an old bed and bedstead, with other trumpery that didn't sell for enough to pay her back rent, property, why, then, she did leave property."
"Of course," I said, calmly. "Whatever she left was property; and, of course, in taking possession of it, you did so under a regular legal process. You took out letters of administration, I presume, and brought in your bill against the effects of the deceased, which was regularly passed by the Orphans' Court, and paid out of the amount for which the things sold."
The effect of this was just what I desired. The woman looked frightened. She had done no such thing, as I knew very well.
"If you have proceeded in this way," I resumed, "all is well enough; but if you have not done so, I am sorry to say that you will most likely get yourself into trouble."
"How so, sir?" she asked, with increasing alarm.
"The law is very rigid in all these matters. When a person dies, there must be a regular administration upon his property. The law permits no one to seize upon his effects. In the case of Mrs. Miller, if you were legally authorized to settle her estate, you can, of course, account for all that came into your hands. Now, I am about instituting a rigid examination into the matter, and if I do not get satisfaction, shall have you summoned to appear before the Orphans' Court, and answer for your conduct. Mrs. Miller was highly connected, and it is believed had papers in her possession of vital importance to the living. These were contained in a small casket of costly and curious workmanship. This casket, with its contents, must be produced. Can you produce them?"
"Y-y-yes!" the alarmed creature stammered out.
"Very well. Produce them at once, if you wish to save yourself a world of trouble."
The woman hurried off up-stairs, and presently appeared with the casket.
"It is locked," she said. "I never could find the key, and did not like to force it open. She handed me the box as she spoke.
"Yes, this is it," I remarked, as if I was perfectly familiar with the casket. "You are sure the contents have not been disturbed?"
"Oh yes: very sure."
"I trust it will be found so. I will take possession of the casket. In a few days you will hear from me."
Saying this, I arose and left the house. I directed my steps to the shop of a locksmith, whose skill quickly gave me access to the contents. They consisted mainly of papers, written in a delicate female hand; but there were no letters. Their contents were, to me, of a most gratifying kind. I read on every, page the injured wife's innocence. The contents of the first paper I read, I will here transcribe. Like the others, it was a simple record of feelings, coupled with declarations of innocence. The object in view, in writing these, was not fully apparent; although the mother had evidently in mind her child, and cherished the hope that, after her death, these touching evidences of the wrong she had endured, would cause justice to be done to him.
The paper I mentioned was as follows, and appeared to have been written a short time after her divorce:--
"That I still live, is to me a wonder. But a few short months ago I was a happy wife, and my husband loved me with a tenderness that left my heart nothing to ask for. I am now cast off from his affections, driven from his home, repudiated, and the most horrible suspicions fastened upon me; And worse, the life of one who never wronged me by a look, or word, or act--in whose eyes my honour was as dear as his own--has been murdered. Oh! I shall yet go mad with anguish of spirit! There are heavy burdens to bear in this life; but none can be heavier than that which an innocent wife has to endure, when all accuse her as I am accused, and no hope of justice is left.
"Let me think calmly. Are not the proofs of my guilt strong? Those letters--those fatal letters--why did I keep them? I had no right to do so. They should have been destroyed. But I never looked at them from the day I gave my hand with my heart at the altar to one who now throws me off as a polluted wretch. But I knew they were there, and often thought of them; but to have read over one line of their contents, would have been false to my husband; and that I could not be, under any temptation. I think Westfield was wrong, under the circumstances, to visit me as constantly as he did; but my husband appeared to like his company, and even encouraged him to come. Many times he has asked him to drive me out, or to attend me to a concert or the theatre, as he knew that I wished to go, and he had business that required his attention, or felt a disinclination to leave home. In not a single instance, when I thus went out, would not my pleasure have been increased, had my husband been my companion; and yet I liked the company of Westfield--perhaps too well. The remains of former feelings may still have lingered, unknown to me, in my heart. But I was never false to my husband, even in thought; nor did Westfield ever presume to take the smallest liberty. Indeed, whether in my husband's presence, or when with me, his manner was polite, and inclined to be deferential rather than familiar. I believe that the sentiments he held toward me before my marriage, remained; and these, while they drew him to my side, made him cherish my honour and integrity as a wife, as he would cherish the apple of his eye. And yet he has been murdered, and I have been cast off, while both were innocent! Fatal haste! Fatal misjudgment! How suddenly have I fallen from the pinnacle of happiness into the dark pit of despair! Alas! alas! Who can tell what a day may bring forth?"
Another, and very important paper, which the casket contained, was a written declaration of Mrs. Miller's innocence, made by Westfield before his death. It was evidently one of his last acts, and was penned with a feeble and trembling hand. It was in these impressive words:--
"Solemnly, in the presence of God, and without the hope of living but a few hours, do I declare that Mrs. Anna Miller is innocent of the foul charges made against her by her husband and brother, and that I never, even in thought, did wrong to her honour. I was on terms of close intimacy with her, and this her husband knew and freely assented to. I confess that I had a higher regard for her than for any living woman. She imbodied all my highest conceptions of female excellence. I was never happier than when in her company. Was this a crime? It would have been had I attempted to win from her any thing beyond a sentiment of friendship. But this I never did after her marriage, and do not believe that she regarded me in any other light than as her own and her husband's friend. This is all that, as a dying man, I can do or say. May heaven right the innocent! HENRY WESTFIELD."
Besides the paper in the handwriting of Mrs. Miller, which I have given, there were many more, evidently written at various times, but all shortly after her separation from her husband. They imbodied many touching allusions to her condition, united with firm expressions of her entire innocence of the imputation under which she lay. One sentiment particularly arrested my attention, and answered the question that constantly arose in my mind, as to why she did not attempt, by means of Westfield's dying asseveration, to establish her innocence. It was this:--
"He has prejudged me guilty and cast me off without seeing me or giving me a hearing, and then insulted me by a legislative tender of five hundred dollars a year. Does he think that I would save myself, even from starvation, by means of his bounty? No--no--he does not know the woman he has wronged."
After going over the entire contents of the casket, I replaced them, and sent the whole to Mr. Miller, with a brief note, stating that they had come into my possession in rather a singular manner, and that I deemed it but right to transmit them to him. Scarcely half an hour had elapsed from the time my messenger departed, before Miller himself entered my office, pale and agitated. I had met him a few times before, and had a slight acquaintance with him.
"This is from you, I believe, doctor?" he said, holding up the note I had written him.
"How did you come in possession of the casket you sent me?" he continued as he took the chair I handed him.
I was about replying, when he leaned over toward me, and laying his hand upon my arm, said, eagerly--
"First tell me, is the writer of its contents living?"
"No," I replied; "she has been dead over two years."
His countenance fell, and he seemed, for some moments, as if his heart had ceased to beat. "Dead!" he muttered to himself--"dead! and I have in my hands undoubted proofs of her innocence."
The expression of his face became agonizing.
"Oh, what would I not give if she were yet alive," he continued, speaking to himself. "Dead--dead--I would rather be dead with her than living with my present consciousness."
"Doctor," said he, after a pause, speaking in a firmer voice, "let me know how those papers came into your hands?" I related, as rapidly as I could, what the reader already knows about little Bill and his mother dwelling as strongly as I could upon the suffering condition of the poor boy.
"Good heavens!" ejaculated Miller, as I closed my narrative--"can all this indeed be true? So much for hasty judgment from appearances! You have heard the melancholy history of my wife?"
I bowed an assent.
"From these evidences, that bear the force of truth, it is plain that she was innocent, though adjudged guilty of one of the most heinous offences against society. Innocent, and yet made to suffer all the penalties of guilt. Ah, sir--I thought life had already brought me its bitterest cup: but all before were sweet to the taste compared with the one I am now compelled to drink. Nothing is now left me, but to take home my child. But, as he grows up toward manhood, how can I look him in the face, and think of his mother whom I so deeply wronged."
"The events of the past, my dear sir," I urged, "cannot be altered. In a case like this, it is better to look, forward with hope, than backward with self-reproaches."
"There is little in the future to hope for," was the mournful reply to this.
"But you have a duty to perform, and, in the path of duty, always lie pleasures."
"You mean to my much wronged and suffering child. Yes, I have a duty, and it shall be performed as faithfully as lies in my power. But I hope for little from that source."
"I think you may hope for much. Your child I have questioned closely. He knows nothing of his history; does not even know that his father is alive. The only information he has received from his mother is, that W----is his uncle."
"Are you sure of this?"
"Oh yes. I have, as I said, questioned him very closely on this point."
This seemed to relieve the mind of Mr. Miller. He mused for some minutes, and then said--
"I wish to see my son, and at once remove him from his present position. May I ask you to accompany me to the place where he now is."
"I will go with pleasure," I returned, rising.
We left my office immediately, and went direct to Maxwell's shop. As we entered, we heard most agonizing cries, mingled with hoarse angry imprecations from the shoemaker and the sound of his strap. He was whipping some one most severely. My heart misgave me that it was poor little Bill. We hurried into the shop. It was true. Maxwell had the child across his knees, and was beating him most cruelly.
"That is your son," I said, in an excited voice to Miller, pointing to the writhing subject of the shoemaker's ire. In an instant Maxwell was lying four or five feet from his bench in a corner of his shop, among the lasts and scraps of leather. A powerful blow on the side of his head, with a heavy cane, had done his. The father's hand had dealt it. Maxwell rose to his feet in a terrible fury, but the upraised cane of Miller, his dark and angry countenance, and his declaration that if he advanced a step toward him, or attempted to lay his hand again upon the boy, he would knock his brains out, cooled his ire considerably.
"Come, my boy," Miller then said, catching hold of the hand of the sobbing child--"let me take you away from this accursed den for ever."
"Stop!" cried Maxwell, coming forward at this; "you cannot take that boy away. He is bound to me by law, until he is twenty-one. Bill! don't you dare to go."
"Villain!" said Miller, in a paroxysm of anger, turning toward him--"I will have you before the the court in less than twenty-four hours for inhuman treatment of this child--of my child."
As Miller said this, the trembling boy at his side started and looked eagerly in his face.
"Oh, sir! Are you indeed my father?" said he, in a voice that thrilled me to the finger ends.
"Yes, William; I am your father, and I have come to take you home."
Tears gushed like rain over the cheeks of the poor boy. He shrank close to his father's side, and clung to him with a strong grasp, still looking up into a face that he had never hoped to see, with a most tender, confiding, hopeful, expressive countenance.
The announcement of the fact subdued the angry shoemaker. He made a feeble effort at apology, but was cut short by our turning abruptly from him and carrying of the child he had so shamefully abused.
I parted from the father and son at the first carriage-stand that came in our way. When I next saw Bill, his appearance was very different indeed from what it was when I first encountered him. His father lived some ten years from this time during the most of which period William was at school or college. At his death he left him a large property, which remained with him until his own death, which took place a few years ago. He never I believe, had the most distant idea of the cause which had separated his mother from his father. That there had been a separation he knew too well but, he always shrank from inquiring the reason, and had always remained in ignorance of the main facts here recorded.
Return to the Mary Roberts Rinehart library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Miracle