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[-58-]

CHAPTER CLVIII.

A HAPPY PARTY.

    In a private room up stairs, at a tavern nearly opposite the Court-house of the Old Bailey, a happy party was assembled
    And yet the group was somewhat motley.
    It consisted of Richard Markham, Katherine Wilmot, the Public Executioner, Gibbet, Rachel Bonnet, and Morris Benstead.
    The best luncheon which the house afforded was spread upon the table.
    "And so you really thought I was lost, sir?" said Benstead. "I am not the man to neglect the business that is entrusted to me; neither do I excite hopes unless I know that they'll be realised."
    "But you have not yet told me how you came to bring all your witnesses into court at one and the same moment," said Richard Markham.
    "Well, sir, I'll soon satisfy your curiosity on that head," returned the policeman. "I made every exertion to sift the entire matter to the bottom, but the farther I went into it, the more mysterious it seemed. At last I was pretty nearly inclined to give it up in despair. One of the principal measures that I adopted was to endeavour to trace, step by step, all that either Mrs. Kenrick or Katherine did on the day when the murder took place. I have seen, in my time, so much important evidence come out of the most trivial  really the most ridiculous things, that I resolved to glean every minute particular I could relative to the motions of both the deceased and the accused on that day. My firm idea was that the housekeeper had committed suicide  saving your presence, ma'am," added Benstead, turning towards Mrs. Bennet. "Well, I found out the principal shops where Mr. Tracy dealt; and I visited them all to ascertain if Mrs. Kenrick had been there on that day; and if so whether her words or manner had betrayed any thing strange. But I could learn nothing material. Various other schemes I thought of, and put into execution; but as they all failed, there's no use in mentioning them. At length, yesterday evening I happened to call at the post-office near Mr. Tracy's house. I got into conversation with the post-mistress, who seemed to be well acquainted with the late Mrs. Kenrick. In the course of comment and observation upon the mysterious event, the post mistress said, 'I do really think there's some ground for supposing that the poor dear woman committed suicide; for she came here to pay a letter to her sister only a few hours before she was found dead, and then I saw that she was n't as she usually was. Something appeared to hang upon her mind.'"
    "That was no doubt the sorrow she experienced at having discovered the hypocrisy of her master," observed Richard.
    "Most likely, sir," said Benstead. "Well, the moment I heard that Mrs. Kenrick had written to her sister only a few hours before her death, I felt more convinced than ever that it was a case of suicide. It was then nine o'clock; but I was determined to start off at once to investigate the business. The post-mistress knew that Mrs. Bennet lived at Hounslow; and this was fortunate. I thanked her for this information, and hurried away. I was obliged to go to St. Giles's, before I started for the country, to ask my Inspector's leave. As I passed by Mr. Smithers' house, I knocked to see if he had come home. But the green-grocer next door answered me, as on several former occasions when I had called. He told me that Mr. Smithers had not come back. I knew it was important for Miss Kate to prove that she had visited her uncle on the [-59-] night of the supposed murder; and so I scribbled a note to Mr. Smithers, desiring him, in case he should return home in time to-day, to lose not a minute in coming to this very tavern and sending over into the Old Court to fetch me. This note I left with the green-grocer; and I then hastened to the station. I obtained permission to absent myself, and lost no time in hiring a post-chaise. But it was midnight before I reached Hounslow; and then I learnt that Mrs. Bennet lived three miles away from that town. So I was obliged to wait till the first thing this morning before I could see her. Then a great deal of time was wasted, because Mrs. Bennet and her husband could not rightly understand why I came, or on whose side I was engaged. I do not blame them for their caution:  I only mention the fact to account for our being so late in court. At length I succeeded in persuading Mrs. Bennet to show me her sister's letter to her; and when I read it, the whole affair wore another appearance in my mind. I saw through it in a moment. Then I resolved upon bringing Mrs. Bennet up to London with me; and to her credit, she did not hesitate an instant to accompany me, when I had communicated to her the suspicions which that letter had awakened in my mind, and impressed upon her the necessity of hastening to save an innocent person from the weight of an unjust accusation. To conclude this long and rambling story, we came up in the post-chaise; and, as luck would have it just as we drove up to this tavern, Mr. Smithers and his son were stepping out of a cab at the door."
    "Ah! Mr. Markham," said Katherine, "how can I ever sufficiently express my gratitude towards you; for it was by means of your generosity that Mr. Benstead was enabled to make those exertions which led to this happy result."
    "I felt convinced of your innocence from the first." returned our hero; "and it was not probable that I should abandon you when such were my sentiments."
    "A life devoted to your service, sir, could not repay the debt which I owe you," said Kate. "And you, my dear cousin," she continued, turning towards Gibbet, who was seated next to her, "you also have been no unimportant instrument in rescuing me from infamy and death."
    "Do not speak of it, Kate," said the hump-back whimpering like a mere child. "I hope you won't scold me for watching you like a cat every evening as I did."
    "Scold you, John! Oh! how can you make use of such words to me  and after the service you have rendered me?" exclaimed Kate, tears also streaming down her own cheeks. "I ought to bless God  and I do  to think that your friendship towards me led you to adopt a step to see me, which has turned so wonderfully  so providentially to my advantage."
    "And now, Kate," said the executioner, "tell me one thing: why did n't you mention to me that evening when you called, that you were going to leave the rector's service?"
    "Because, my dear uncle," answered the young maiden, "you made one observation to me which showed that you were pleased at the idea of me being in Mr. Tracy's service; and as you were so dull and low-spirited, I did not like to tell you anything that might occasion you additional vexation. You said  oh! I shall never forget your words  they made me weep as I followed you from the street door into the parlour  "
    "Yes  because I so seldom spoke kindly to you, poor Kate," exclaimed the executioner, as if struck by a sudden remorse.
    "Do not say that, dear uncle! I owe so much  so very much to you, that even if you have been harsh to me now and then, I never think of it  and then, perhaps I have deserved it," she added slowly; for the amiable girl was anxious to extenuate her uncle's self-accusation in the eyes of those present.
    "No  you did not deserve it, Kate!" cried the executioner, with resolute emphasis; "you are a good girl  too good ever to have been in such a den as mine!"
    Smithers threw himself back in his chair, and compressed his lips together to restrain his emotions.
    But nature asserted her empire.
    A tear trickled from each eye, and rolled slowly down the cheeks of that man whose heart had been so brutalized by his fearful calling.
    Kate rose from her chair, and threw herself into his arms, exclaiming, "Uncle  dear uncle, if you speak kindly to me, I am indeed happy!"
    Gibbet cried, and yet laughed  sobbed, and yet smiled, in so strange a manner, as he contemplated that touching scene, that the result of his emotions presented the most ludicrous aspect.
    "Sit down, Kate dear," said Smithers: "I am not used to be childish;  and yet, I don't know how it is, but I don't seem ashamed of dropping a tear now. I know I'm a harsh, brutal man: but what has made me so? God, who can read all hearts, has it written down in his book that I was once possessed of the same kind feelings as other people. However  it's no use talking: what I am I must remain until the end."
    "Believe me,' exclaimed Richard Markham, who was ever sensibly alive to the existence of generous feelings in others,  "believe me," he cried, grasping Smithers' hand, "society lost a good man when you undertook your present avocation."
    "What, sir!,' ejaculated Smithers, unfeignedly surprised; "do you shake hands with the Public Executioner?"
    "Yes  and unblushingly would I do so before the whole world," replied Markham, "when I discover at the bottom of his soul a spark  aye, even the faintest spark of noble and exalted feeling yet unquenched."
    The Public Executioner fixed upon the animated and handsome countenance of our hero a glance of the deepest gratitude  a glance of respect, almost of veneration!
    He then cast down his eyes, and appeared to plunge into profound rumination.
    "You were going to tell us, Miss Katherine," said Benstead, "what observation it was that prevented you from communicating to your uncle the notice Mrs. Kenrick had given you to leave."
    "Oh! I remember," exclaimed the young maiden, upon whose heart the noble conduct of Richard Markham towards her despised and degraded relative had made a deep impression: "my uncle said to me, 'I am almost sorry that I ever parted with you;   but as you are now in a place that may do you good, I shall not interfere with you."'
    "Ah! my dear young friend," exclaimed Mrs. Bennet, "how fatal might that place have been to [-60-] you after all? But where are you going to live now? If you can make yourself happy with me, I will offer you home and show you the kindness of a mother."
    Katherine turned a look of deep gratitude upon the good woman who made her this generous offer; and then she glanced timidly towards her uncle and Richard Markham.
    "If I may be allowed to speak my thoughts in this matter," said our hero, "I should counsel Katherine to accept a proposition so kindly, so frankly made; and it shall be my duty to see that she becomes not a burden upon the friend who will provide her with a home."
    "I can give no opinion in the matter, sir," observed the executioner: "there is something about you which compels me to say, 'Deal with me and my family as you will.' Command, sir, and we will obey."
    "I never command  but I advise as a friend," said Richard, touched by the strange gentleness of manner which was now evinced by one lately so rude, so brutal, so self-willed. "Katherine, then, has your consent to accompany Mrs. Bennet to Hounslow?"
    "And I sincerely thank Mrs. Bennet for her goodness towards that poor girl who has undergone so much," said the executioner.
    Mrs. Bennet now suggested that her husband would be uneasy if she remained long absent from home; and Richard immediately summoned the waiter, to whom he gave orders to procure a post-chaise.
    This command was speedily executed. Katherine took leave of her relatives, Markham, and Benstead, with streaming eyes.
    "God bless you, my girl," said the executioner, in a tone the tremulousness of which he could not altogether subdue.
    Gibbet could say nothing: his voice was choked with sobs.
    Katherine, however, whispered words of kindness in his ears; and the poor hump-back smiled as he wrung her hand with all the fervour of his affection.
    "To you, Mr. Markham," said Kate, "no words can convey the gratitude  the boundless gratitude and respect which I entertain for you."
    "Be happy, Katherine," returned Richard, shaking her warmly by the hand; "and remember that in me you have a sincere friend, always ready to aid and advise you."
    The young maiden then tendered her thanks to the good-hearted policeman for the interest he had manifested in her favour.
    The farewells were all said; good wishes were given and returned; and Mrs. Bennet hurried Katherine from the room. Those who remained behind, watched their departure from the window.
    The moment the post-chaise had rolled away; from the door of the tavern, Smithers accosted our hero, and said, "I am no great hand at making speeches, sir; but I can't take my leave of you, without saying something to convince you that I am not ungrateful for what you've done for my niece Your goodness, sir, has saved her from death and more than that, has proved her innocence You are the best man I ever met in my life, you are more like an angel than a human being. I did n't think that such men as you could be in existence. It makes me have a better opinion of the world when I look upon you. How happy would a country be if it had such a person as yourself for its sovereign! I cannot understand my own feelings in your presence: I seem as if I could fall at your feet and worship you. Then I think that I am unworthy even to breathe the same air that you do. But; your words have made me happy to some extent: for years I have not felt as I feel to-day. I can say no more, sir: I don't know how I came to say so much!"
    And the executioner turned abruptly aside, for he was weeping  he was weeping!
    Markham had not interrupted him while he spoke, because our hero knew that it was well for that man to give way to the good feelings which the contemplation of humanity and philanthropy in others had so recently awakened.
    But Richard did not perceive that, while the executioner was giving utterance to the invincible promptings of nature, Gibbet had drawn near, had listened to his father with indescribable interest,  had drunk in with surprise and avidity every word that fell from his lips,  and had gradually sunk upon his knees in the presence of that benefactor whom even a rude, brutalized, and savage disposition was now compelled to believe to be something more than man!
    "This, sir," said Benstead, glancing his eyes around, and touching Markham's. arm to direct his attention to the scene,  "this, sir, is doubtless a welcome reward for all your goodness."
    Richard hastily brushed away a tear, and raising Gibbet from his adoring posture, said, "You, my good lad, possess a heart worthy of a nobleman! Look upon me as your friend!"
    Then our hero caught Smithers by the hand, and drawing him into the recess of a window, whispered in a low and rapid tone, "You are not insensible to the charms of being useful to one's fellow-creatures. I implore you to renounce your fearful calling  and I will supply you with the means to enter upon some other pursuit."
    Smithers did not answer for a few moments he appeared to reflect profoundly.
    "Yes  I will follow your advice, sir," he at length said: "but not quite yet! I must hang up that rector  and then, then I will abandon the calling for ever!"
    With these words the executioner turned abruptly away, caught Gibbet by the hand, and hurried from the room.
    A few minutes afterwards Richard Markham and Benstead also took their departure, each in a different direction; but the police-officer's pocket contained substantial proofs of our hero's liberality.

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