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[-20-]

CHAPTER CXLIV.

THE UNFINISHED LETTER.

    THE dawn was now breaking; and Katherine extinguished the candle.
    How gloomily does the young day announce [-21-] itself to the dwellers in the narrow streets and obscure alleys of the poor districts of the metropolis! The struggling gleam appears to contend with difficulty against the dense atmosphere and noxious vapours which prevail in those regions even in the midst of winter; and as each fitful ray steals through the dingy panes, its light seems leaden and dull, not golden and roseate as that of the orb of day.
    Kate wiped away her tears, and set to work to clear the table of the breakfast-things.
    Having performed this duty, she slipped on her neat straw bonnet and warm shawl purchased by the produce of her own industry, and repaired to market.
    But, alas! poor girl as she passed rapidly through the streets, she could not help noticing the people, that were lounging at their doors, nudge each other, as much as to say, "There goes the executioner's niece."
    And no friendly voice welcomed her with a kind "Good morning:" no human being had a passing compliment, not even one of those civil phrases which cost nothing to utter, mean perhaps as little, but still are pleasing to hear, to waste upon the executioner's niece.
    Some old woman, more hard-hearted than the rest, exclaimed, as she hurried timidly by the spot where they were gossiping, "Ah! her uncle has got business on his hands this morning!"
    And when the poor girl reached the shop whither she was going, her eyes were bathed in tears.
    The shopkeeper was cool and indifferent in his manner towards her not obsequious and ready as towards his other customers. He even examined with suspicion the coin which she tendered him in payment for her purchases as if it were impossible that honesty could dwell in the heart of an executioner's niece!
    The ill-conditioned fellow! He saw not the mild-blue eyes, with a tear glittering in each like twin-drops of the diamond dew; he marked not the pretty lips, apart, and expressive of such profound melancholy; he observed not the thick folds of the shawl across the gently-budding bosom rise and sink rapidly: no, he beheld not that interesting young creatures grief; but he treated her rudely and harshly, because she was the executioner's niece!
    Kate retraced her steps homewards. She saw other girls of her own age nod familiarly to their acquaintances at the windows, as they passed; but she had no friend to receive or return her smile of recognition.
    Shrinking within herself, as it were, from the slightest contact with the world which despised her, the poor young creature felt herself an interloper upon the very pavement, and even stepped into the muddy street to make way for those who passed.
    With a broken spirit she returned home, her fate weighing upon her soul like a crime!
    And so it was with her always on those mornings when her uncle was called upon to exercise his fearful functions.
    She was glad to bury herself once more in that dwelling the threshold of which a friendly step so seldom crossed: her little parlour, embellished with her own hands, appeared a paradise of peace after the contumely which she experienced in the bustling streets.
    She had returned home in so depressed a state at mind that she had forgotten to close the front door behind her.
    She opened her work-box, seated herself at the table, and commenced her toil of pleasure for that young girl loved her needle, and abhorred idleness.
    She then fell into a reverie as she worked.
    "To be a hangman is something horrible indeed," she mused aloud; "but to be a member of a hang-man's family is far worse. He knows that he merits what reproach is levelled against him, if indeed his office deserve reproach at all; but I, who abhor the idea, and never so much as witnessed an execution why should shame and obloquy redound upon me? It is like suffering for a crime of which one is innocent! O God, is this human justice? What have I done that the vilest and lowest should despise me? Am I not flesh and blood like them? do my clothes carry pollution, that the ragged beggar draws her tatters close to her as she passes me? Oh! give me strength, heaven, to support my wretched fate; for there are moments when I despair!"
    "You are wrong to mistrust the goodness of the Almighty," said a mild voice close behind her chair.
    Kate started, and looked round.
    It was the rector of St. David's who had entered the room, unperceived by the young maiden.
    "Pardon me, reverend sir," answered Kate; "I know that I am often forgetful of the wholesome lessons which I have received from your lips; but "
    "Well, well, poor child," interrupted Reginald Tracy, to whose cheeks the phrase "wholesome lessons" brought a flush of crimson for he remembered how he himself had deviated from the doctrines which he had long successfully and sincerely taught: "be consoled! I know how sad must be your lot; and I have called this morning to see if I cannot ameliorate it."
    "What? better my condition, sir?" exclaimed Katherine. "Oh! how is that possible?"
    "We will see," answered the rector, taking a chair near the young maiden. "You are not altogether so friendless as you imagine."
    "I am aware, sir, that through your goodness I received an education at the school which your bounty founded; and your excellent housekeeper, Mrs. Kenrick, has furnished me with needle work. Oh! sir, I am not ignorant how much I owe to you both!"
    Kate raised her mild blue eyes towards the rector's countenance; but her glance drooped again instantaneously, for his looks were fixed upon her in a manner which she had never noticed in him before, and which excited a momentary feeling of embarrassment almost of alarm in her mind.
    But that feeling passed away as rapidly as it had arisen; and she blushed to think that she should have experienced such a sentiment in the presence of so holy a man and so great a benefactor.
    "I did not wish to remind you of any trifling services which myself or my housekeeper may have rendered you, Katharine," said Reginald "I alluded to another friend who interests himself in you."
    "Another friend!" ejaculated the young girl. "Is it possible that I have another friend in the whole world?"
    "You have," replied Mr. Tracy. "Did not a [-22-] gentleman, accompanied by a police-officer, visit this house about a fortnight ago?"
    "Yes I remember late one night "
    And she stopped short, being unwilling to allude to that instance of her uncle's cruelty which had led to the visit mentioned by the rector.
    Well, that gentleman feels interested in you," continued Reginald. "He saw how you were treated he knows that you are unhappy."
    "And do strangers thus interest themselves in the wretched?" asked Katherine, her eyes swimming in tears.
    "Not often," replied the rector. "But this gentleman is one of time few noble exceptions to the general rule."
    "He must be indeed!" exclaimed Katherine, with an enthusiasm which was almost pious.
    "That gentleman learnt from the policeman enough to give him a favourable impression of your character, and to render him desirous of serving you. He pondered upon the matter for some days, but could come to no determination on the subject. He heard that you were anxious to leave this house and earn your own bread."
    "Oh! yes how willingly would I do so!" exclaimed Katherine fervently. "But "
    "But what?" demanded Reginald, in whose eyes the young maiden had never been an object of peculiar interest until at present; and now he observed, for the first time, that her personal appearance was far very far from disagreeable.
    The truth was, that, since his fall, he had viewed every woman with different eyes from those through which he had before surveyed the female sex. When he himself was chaste and pure, he observed only the feminine mind and manner: now his glances studied and discriminated between external attractions. His moral survey had become a sensual one.
    "But what?" he said, when Katherine hesitated. "Do you object to leave your uncle?"
    "I should be a hypocrite were I to say that I object to leave him," was the immediate answer. "Nevertheless, if he demanded my services, I would remain with him, through gratitude for the bread which he gave me, and the asylum which he afforded me when I was a child and unable to earn either. But he would not seek to retain me, I know; for he does not he cannot love me! Still, there is one poor creature in this house. "
    "My housekeeper has told me of him. You mean your uncle's son?" said Reginald.
    "I do, sir. He has no friend in the world but me; and, though my intercessions do not save him from much bad treatment, still I have studied to console him."
    "If he be grateful, he will be pleased to think that you may be removed to a happier situation," said the rector.
    "True!" exclaimed Kate. "And if I only earned more money than I do here, I should be able to provide him with a great many little comforts."
    "Assuredly," replied the fashionable preacher, who during this colloquy had gradually drawn his chair closer to that of the young maiden. "The gentleman, to whom I have before alluded, called upon me yesterday. It appears he learnt from the policeman that you had been educated at the school in my district, and that my housekeeper was well acquainted with you. He nobly offered to contribute a sum of money towards settling you in some comfortable manner."
    "The generous stranger!" exclaimed Kate. "What is his name, sir that I may pray for him?"
    "Mr. Markham "
    "Markham!" cried the young girl, strangely excited by the mention of that name.
    "Yes. Have you ever heard of him before?" asked the rector, surprised at the impression thus produced.
    Katherine appeared to reflect profoundly for some moments; then, opening a secret drawer of her work box, she drew forth a small satin bag, carefully sewed all round.
    She took her scissors and unpicked the thread from one end of the bag.
    The rector watched her attentively, and with as much surprise as interest.
    Having thus opened one extremity of the bag, she inserted her delicate fingers, and produced a sheet of letter-paper, folded, and dingy with age.
    Handing it to the rector, she observed, with tears streaming down her cheeks, "These were the last words my mother ever wrote; and she had lost the use of her speech ere she penned them."
    Reginald Tracy unfolded the letter, and read as follows
    
    "Should my own gloomy presages prove true, and the warning of my medical attendant be well founded, if, in a word, the hand of Death be already extended to snatch me away thus in the prime of life, while my darling child is * * * and inform Mr. Markham, whose abode is "
    
    The words that originally stood in the place which we have marked with asterisks, had evidently been blotted out by the tears of the writer.
    Reginald folded the letter as he had received it, and returned it to Katherine.
    The young girl immediately replaced it in the little bag, which she sewed up with scrupulous care. It was the poor creature's sole treasure; and she prized it as the last and only memento that she possessed of her mother.
    "And you know not to whom that unfinished letter alluded?" said the rector, after a long pause, during which the bag, with its precious contents, had been consigned once more to the secret drawer in the work-box.
    "I have not the least idea," answered Kate, drying her tears. "I was only four years old when my mother died, and of course could take no steps to inquire after the Mr. Markham mentioned in the letter. My uncle has often assured me that he took some trouble in the matter, but without success. Markham, you know, sir, is by no means an uncommon name."
    "And your father, Katherine do you remember him?"
    "Oh! no, sir he died before nay mother. When I was old enough to comprehend how dreadful it is to be an orphan, Mr. Tracy, I made that little satin bag to preserve the letter which Death would not allow my poor mother to finish."
    And again the young maiden wept bitterly.
    The rector was deeply affected; and far some minutes his sensual ideas concerning the damsel were absorbed in a more generous sympathy.
    "But did not the medical man who attended your mother in her last moments, and who is also alluded to in the letter," asked Reginald, " did he not afford some clue to unravel the mystery?" [-23-]
    "That question I have asked my uncle more than once," answered Kate; "and he has assured me that the medical man was a perfect. stranger who was casually summoned to attend upon my poor mother only the very day before she breathed her last. Since then the medical man has also died."
    "Your mother was your uncle's own sister, warn she not?" asked the rector.
    "She was, sir."
    "And she married a person named Wilmot?"
    "Yes for my name is Katherine Wilmot."
    "I remember that you were so entered upon the school-books," said the rector. "Your mother must have been a superior woman, for the language of that fragment of a letter is accurate, and the handwriting is good."
    "The same thought has often struck me, sir," observed Katherine. "And now how strange it is that a person bearing the name of Markham should interest himself in my behalf!"
    "Strange indeed!" exclaimed Reginald, whose eye. were once more fixed upon the interesting girl near him, fixed, too, with an ardent glance, and not one of tender sympathy. [-"-]Mr. Richard Markham the gentleman of whom I speak called upon me, as I ere now stated, and besought me to exert myself in your behalf. He seems to think that my position and character enable me to do for you that which, coming from him, might awaken the tongue of scandal. The cause of my visit this morning is now at length explained."
    "I am very grateful, sir, for Mr. Markham's good intentions and your kindness," said Katherine. "The coincidence in names, which led me to show you that letter, seems a providential suggestion to me to follow the counsel of such generous such disinterested friends."
    "I thought as I came along," resumed the clergyman, "that I would procure you a situation with some friends of mine in the country. But-"and he cast upon her a burning look brimful of licentiousness "I have my doubts whether it would not be better for you to come to my house and assist Mrs. Kenrick in her domestic duties especially as she is getting very old and "
    He paused for a moment: he hesitated, because at the back of the offer there was an unworthy motive at which his guilty soul quaked, lest it should betray itself.
    But that pure-minded and artless girl only saw in that offer a noble act of kindness; and she frankly accepted it upon the condition that her uncle approved of her conduct in doing so.
    The rector rose he had no farther excuse for protracting his visit.
    The young girl thanked him for his goodness with the most heart-felt sincerity.
    He then took his leave.    

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