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[-75-]

CHAPTER CLXIV.

THE EXECUTIONER'S HISTORY.

    ON the following evening Smithers presented himself, according to appointment, at Markham Place.
    Richard received him in the library, and treated him altogether with a condescension and a degree of kindness which made a deep impression on the mind of the executioner.
    Our hero then proceeded to acquaint him with the good fortune of Katherine, and the arrangement which had been made to supply him with the means to establish him in business.
    "But do not imagine that this is all which you are to expect at Katherine's hands," said Richard. "As time progresses, and I find that you are determined not only to persevere in a respectable course of life, but also to make amends, by your altered manner, for the harshness which you have exhibited towards your son on so many occasions,  it will be my pleasing duty to recommend Katherine's trustee, who is disposed to place implicit confidence in me, to grant you such occasional pecuniary succour as may enable you to extend the business, whatever it may be, in which you intend to embark."
    "I cannot find words to express my gratitude to you, sir," said Smithers; "and I hope that when you see Kate again, you will ask her forgiveness in my name for all the unkindness I have shown her at different times."
    "You shall see her yourself  she wishes you and your son to call upon her," answered Richard; "and Mr. Bennet, to whom I communicated every thing, has sent you both an invitation to pass an entire day at his farm so soon as you can find leisure to avail yourself of the offer."
    "Then that shall be to-morrow, sir," exclaimed Smithers; "for now that Katherine has such good prospects, I may as well communicate something to her which she will probably not regret to hear."
    And for a few moments Smithers appeared to be absorbed in deep thought.
    "And I don't know why I should keep any secret away from you, sir," he continued, suddenly breaking silence; "you have done so much for Kate, and you have produced so great a change in my mind, that I ought to conceal nothing from you. In one word, then, sir  Katherine Wilmot is no more my niece than she is yours."
    "Not your niece!" ejaculated Richard.
    "No relation whatever in the world to me," replied Smithers. "I never had either brother or sister; neither had my wife: and thus you see, sir, Kate cannot be my niece."
    "But she believes herself to be so related to you," said Markham, who was not altogether displeased to learn that the young female for whom he experienced a fraternal interest, was not even a connection of the Public Executioner.
    "The story is somewhat a long one  and to me a melancholy subject," continued Smithers; "but if you will have patience to listen to it, I shall have nerve to relate it."
    "Proceed," said Markham. "I feel deeply interested in the topic which now occupies us."
    "You will then excuse me, sir, if I begin by telling you something about myself," resumed Smithers; "because it is more or less connected with Kate's early history."
    Smithers settled himself into a comfortable position in his chair, and then related the following history:  
    "My father was a grocer, in a large way of business, at Southampton. He was a widower; and I was his only son. I was considered to be a steady, exemplary young man; and I can safely say that I attended studiously to my father's business. I never frequented public-houses, but went to church regularly of a Sunday, and was fond of reading good books. Next door to us there lived a corn-dealer of the name of Wilmot;  he also was a widower, and had one child. This was a beautiful girl, about a year or two younger than myself, and whose name was Harriet. The two families had been acquainted for a long, long time; and Harriet and myself were playmates in our infancy. We were therefore very intimate together; and the friendship of childhood ripened into love as we grew up. And, oh! how I did adore that girl! From amidst all the coarse, worldly, and abominable ideas which have of late years crowded in my brain, I have ever singled out that one bright  pure  and holy sentiments [-sic-] as a star that points to a blissful episode in my life. And she loved me in return! Our parents were pleased when they saw our attachment; and it was understood that our marriage should take place on the day that I attained my one-and-twentieth year. It only wanted seven or eight months to that period, when an [-76-] event occurred which quite changed the prospect of affairs. The local bank failed, and old Wilmot was ruined."
    Smithers paused for a moment, heaved a deep sigh, and then continued thus:  
    "Wilmot immediately came to my father and addressed him in these words: 'The failure of the bank will throw me into the Gazette, if I cannot raise twelve or fifteen hundred pounds within a week to sustain my credit. That difficulty being overcome, I have no doubt of retrieving altogether.' My father expressed his great delight at hearing this latter announcement, but instinctively buttoned up his breeches-pockets. Wilmot proceeded to state that he could raise the sum he required if my father would guarantee its repayment. My father was a money-making, close man; and this proposal astounded him. He refused it point blank: Wilmot begged and implored him to save him from ruin;  but all in vain. In the course of ten days the name of Joseph Wilmot, corn-dealer, figured in the list of Bankrupts."
    Again Smithers paused for a few moments.
    "I must tell you, sir," he continued, "that I did all I could to persuade my father to help Wilmot in this business; but my prayers and entreaties had been poured forth entirely without effect. I however, took an opportunity of seeing Harriet, and assuring her that my affection was based upon no selfish motive, but that her father's misfortunes endeared her more than ever to me. My father viewed matters in quite a different light, and spoke to me openly of the impossibility of my marrying a girl without a penny. I remonstrated with him on the cruelty, injustice, and dishonour of such conduct; but he cut me very short by observing that 'his money was his own  he had made it by his industry  be could leave it to whom he chose  and that if I insisted upon marrying Harriet Wilmot I need not darken his threshold afterwards.' I replied that I was resolved to consult my own inclinations, and also to do honour to my vows and promises towards Harriet."
    "You acted in a generous manner," observed Markham; "although you opposed the wishes of your own father."
    "I had no secrets from Harriet," said Smithers; "and I assured her that if she would espouse a man who had nothing but his honest name and exertions to depend upon, I was ready to make her mine. She answered me, with tears in her eyes, that she could never consent to be the cause of marring all my prospects in life, and that, much as she loved me, she would release me from my vows. I wept in concert with her;  for I was not then hard-hearted, sir,  nor had my countenance become impressed with that brutal severity which I know  I feel, it has long, long worn."
    "As the countenance is more or less the index of the soul," said Markham, "so will yours resume all its former serenity of expression."
    "Well  well, sir: let me hope so! I do not wish to die with the word 'EXECUTIONER' traced upon my features. But I will continue my story. Harriet seemed firm in her generous purpose not to be the cause of my ruin: I however implored her to reflect upon the misery into which her decision would plunge me. I then left her. The next morning I heard that Wilmot and his daughter had departed from their house, and had gone-no one knew whither. Malignant people said that the old man was afraid to face his creditors in the local Bankruptcy Court: I thought otherwise. I felt persuaded that Harriet had prevailed upon her father, by some means or another, to leave;  and I now considered her lost to me for ever. My sorrow was great; but I redoubled my attention to business in order to distract my mind from contemplating the misfortune that had befallen me. Weeks and months passed away; and the wound in my head was closed, but it was still painful. One day, during a temporary indisposition which confined my father to his room, I was turning over some papers in his desk, seeking for an invoice which I required, when I perceived a letter addressed to my father and signed 'Joseph Wilmot.' The date especially attracted my attention, because I remembered that this letter must have been written on the very day that I had the last interview with Harriet. I hesitated not for a moment to read it; and its contents revealed to me the cause of that precipitate departure which has so distressed me. Indeed, the letter was in answer to one which Wilmot acknowledged to have just before received from my father, it appears that my father had written to offer old Wilmot two hundred pounds if he would quit the town, with his daughters, and that Wilmot should give a note of hand for this amount, which security my father engaged himself not to enforce so long as Wilmot remained away and left me in ignorance of his future place of residence. Wilmot consented to this arrangement: he was a ruined man, without a shilling; and he gladly availed himself of the means of embarking in business elsewhere. This stratagem on the part of my father I discovered through Wilmot's letter. I said nothing about the letter to my father: I concluded that he had merely acted under the impression that he was consulting my welfare; and moreover the injury appeared to be irrevocable. Well, sir  six months passed away after the departure of Wilmot and his daughter, and my father, who was usually so cautious and prudent, was induced to embark some money in the purchase of smuggled goods. The excise officers discovered the transaction; and a fine was imposed which swept away every farthing. of the sum which my father had been accumulating by the industry and toil of years. It broke his heart: he died, and left me a ruined business, instead of a decent competence. I struggled on for a year, just keeping my head above water, but dreadfully crippled for want of capital. At length I learnt, from a friend, that I had found favour in the sight of a wealthy neighbour's daughter, who was some six or seven years older than myself. I made the best of this circumstance; and, to save myself from total ruin, in a short time married the female alluded to. The fruit of this union was a son  the poor deformed creature whom you have seen. He was not, however, so afflicted at his birth: how he came to be so, I will presently tell you."
    Smithers uttered these words in a tone of deep feeling.
    "I had married for money, sir," be continued; "and I married unhappily. My wife was of a temper befitting a demon. Then she was addicted to drink; and in her cups she was outrageous. My home grew miserable: and I began to neglect the business; and, to avoid my wife in her drunken humours, I went to the public-house. There [-77-] also my temper was so sorely tried that it gave way under the accumulated weight of domestic wretchedness. I grew harsh and uncourteous to my customers; I retaliated against my wife in her own fashion of ill-treatment  by means of stormy words and heavy blows; and, when I was weary of all that, I rushed to the public-house, where I endeavoured to drown my cares in strong drink. In a word, three years after my marriage, I was compelled to abandon my business in Southampton; and, with about a hundred pounds in my pocket  the wrecks of all that my wife had brought me-I removed, with her and the child, to London. On our arrival, I took a small tobacconist's shop in High Street, St. Giles's, and exerted myself to the utmost to obtain an honest livelihood; and for some time my wife seemed inclined to second me. The ruin which our disputes and evil courses had entailed upon us appeared to have made a deep impression upon her mind. She carefully avoided strong drink, and declared her resolution never to take anything stronger than beer. But one day she was prevailed upon by a female friend to accept a little spirits; and a relapse immediately followed. She came home intoxicated; we had fresh quarrels  renewed disputes; and I myself went in an evil hour to the nearest public-house. From that moment we pursued pretty well the same courses that had ruined us in Southampton; and this conduct led to similar results. I was forced to give up the snuff and cigar shop; and we moved into that identical house in St. Giles's which I now inhabit, and where you first saw me."
    Smithers passed his hand over his forehead, as if to alleviate the acuteness of painful recollections.
    He then pursued his narrative in the following manner:  
    "Our sole hope and only resource now consisted in being able to let the greater portion of the house; and as we had managed to save our little furniture from the wreck of the business in High Street, we had still a decent prospect before us. My wife again promised reformation; and, as I never took to drink except when driven to it by her conduct, I was by no means unwilling to second her in her resolutions of economy. We soon let our lodgings, and I did a little business by selling groceries on commission for a wholesale house to which I managed to obtain an introduction. In this way we got on pretty well for a time; and now I come to the most important part of my story."
    Richard drew his chair, by a mechanical movement as it were, closer to that of the executioner, and prepared to listen with redoubled attention, if possible.
    "It was twelve years ago last January," continued Smithers, "that I returned home one evening, after a hard day's application to business, when the first thing my wife told me was that our back room on the second floor, which had long been to let, was at length taken. She added that our new lodger was a female of about eight-and-twenty or thirty, and had a little girl of four years old. My wife also stated that she was afraid the poor creature was in a dreadful state of health, and was not very comfortably off, as all her own and her child's things were contained in a small bundle which she brought with her. When my wife asked for a reference she evaded the inquiry by paying a week's rent in advance; and this pittance was taken from a purse containing a very slender stock of money. I inquired if the new lodger had given any name; but my wife replied that she had not asked her for it. The next day I was taken unwell, and was compelled to stay at home; but my wife went out with our boy, who was then six years old, to pass a few hours with a friend. I was sitting in the little parlour all alone, and thinking of the past, when I heard a gentle knock at the door. I opened it, and saw a nice little girl, about four years old standing in the passage. She asked me to let my wife step up to her mother, who was very ill. I took the child in my arms, and went up to my new lodger's room, to say that my wife was out, but that if I could render any assistance I should be most happy to do so. I knocked at the door; it opened-but the female who appeared uttered a piercing scream, and fell back senseless on the floor. She had recognised me; and I too, had recognised her,  recognised her in spite of her altered appearance and her faded beauty. It was Harriet Wilmot!"
    The executioner paused, averted his head for a moment, and wiped away a tear.
    He then continued his narrative.
    "I instantly did my best to recover her. I fetched vinegar, and bathed her forehead; and in a few minutes she opened her eyes. I laid her upon the bed; and she motioned me to give her the child. This I did; and she pressed it rapturously to her bosom. I stood gazing upon the affecting scene, with tears in my eyes; but I said nothing. She extended her hand towards me, and murmured in a faint tone, 'Is it then in your house that I am come to breathe my last?'  I implored her to compose herself, and assured her that she should meet with every attention. She glanced tenderly upon her child, and large tears roiled down her faded cheeks. Oh! she was so altered that it was no wonder if my wife, who had known her years before at Southampton, had not recognised her! I asked her if I should procure medical attendance. She could not answer me: a dreadful faintness seemed to come over her. I told her that I would return immediately; and I hurried for a doctor The medical man came with me; and we found the poor creature speechless, but still sensible He shook his head with significant hopelessness at me. I understood him  she was dying! The surgeon hastened back home, and speedily returned with various drugs and medicines. But all was of no avail; the poor creature was on the threshold of the grave. The doctor told me what to do, and then took his leave, promising to return in a couple of hours. I seated myself by the side of the bed, and anxiously watched the patient, who had gradually sunk into a deep slumber. I also amused myself with, and pacified the little girl. In this way hour after hour passed; and at length my wife came home. But in what a state did she return? Her friend  the same, as I afterwards learnt, who had seduced her away from the paths of temperance  had accomplished this feat a second time. My wife was in a disgusting state of intoxication. Not finding me in our sitting-room, she came upstairs to search for me. The moment I heard her, I stepped out of Harriet's chamber to meet her, and request her assistance in behalf of the dying woman  for as yet I knew not the state in which my wife had returned. But when she saw me come from that room, she rushed upon me like a tigress: her jealousy was suddenly excited to an ungovernable fit of passion. She tore [-78-] my face with her nails, and dragged out my hair by handfuls. I implored her to hear me; she raved  she stormed  she declared she would have the life of the woman in whose chamber I had been. Then my own anger was fearfully roused: I caught her by the throat, and I do believe that I should have strangled her, had not John  our boy  at that instant caught hold of my legs and begun to kick and pinch me with all his might-for he always took his mother's part. I was now rendered as infuriate as a goaded bull: I hurled my wife away from me, and with one savage blow  may God forgive me  I knocked the child backwards down the stairs."
    Here Smithers covered his face with his hands, and the tears trickled through his fingers.
    "The lodgers rushed up to the floor where the horrible scene took place," he continued, after a long pause; "and I, in that moment of my excited and bewildered senses, justified my conduct by declaring that the woman who lay dying in the next room was my own sister. My wife was insensible, and could not contradict me; and thus the tale was believed. The lodgers removed my wife and my child to their bed-room; and the same surgeon who had attended upon Harriet was instantly sent for! Alas! his skill was all in vain. My wife never rallied again, save to give way to dreadful hysterical fits: in a few weeks, during which she lingered in that manner, she breathed her last;  and my son became deformed, as you have seen him!"
    Again the miserable man paused, and gave way to his emotions.
    Several minutes elapsed ere he continued his narrative; and Markham also remained wrapped in a profound silence.
    At length the executioner proceeded thus:  
    "The condition into which my rage had thrown my wife and child on that memorable day, did not prevent me from watching by the death-bed of Harriet Wilmot. I even attended to her little girl as if she had been my own. I felt my heart yearn towards that poor woman whom I had once known so beautiful and had loved so tenderly. She slept on,  slept throughout that long and weary night; and there I remained, watching by her bed-side. In the morning the doctor came: Harriet awoke, and smiled when she saw me. Then she made signs that she wished to write. Her powers of speech had deserted her. The medical man addressed her in a kind tone, and said that if she had anything to communicate she had better do so, as she was very, very ill. She thanked him with a glance for his candour, and for the delicate manner in which he bade her prepare for death. I placed writing materials before her; and she wrote a few lines, which were, however, so blotted by tears  "
    "I have already been made acquainted with the contents of the only legible portion which still remains of that letter," interrupted our hero.
    "And you are, then, aware, sir, that allusion is made to a certain Mr. Markham?" said Smithers.
    "Perfectly," replied Richard. "The late Mr. Reginald Tracy communicated that fact to me."
    "The poor creature breathed her last ere she could terminate that letter," continued the executioner. "She suddenly dropped her pen, turned one agonising glance upon her child, fell back, and expired. I buried her as decently as my means would permit; and I determined to take care of Katherine. I repeated my original statement that the little girl was my niece; and, in order not to throw shame upon the memory of her mother, I represented her as having been a widow when she came to my house. I have before said that my wife never sufficiently recovered her senses to contradict this story; and my son John was too young at the time to be aware that it was a fiction."
    "And did you never institute any inquiries into the meaning of that allusion to Mr. Markham in the letter?" inquired Richard.
    "I obtained various 'Directories' and 'Guides,' and found that there were thirty or forty persons of that name residing in London, and whose addresses were given in those books. I called upon several; but none knew anything of the business which took me to them. Then I abandoned the task as hopeless: for I reflected that there might be others of the same name who were not to be found in the 'Directories;' and I was not even assured that the Mr. Markham alluded to dwelt in London."
    "Thus you never obtained any further clue to Katherine's parentage?"
    "Never," answered Smithers. "The little child herself, when questioned by me soon after her mother's death, did not recollect ever having seen any one whom she called 'Papa;' and from all I could learn from the orphan girl, her mother must have been living for some time in London before she came to my house. But where this residence was, I could not ascertain. One thing, however, I discovered, which seemed to proclaim the illegitimacy of Katherine's birth: she said that her mamma's name was Wilmot. That was her maiden name!"
    "Poor Katherine," said Richard.
    "And now I have told you all, sir, that concerns her early history  at least all that I know. Some time after my wife's death, evil reports got abroad concerning me. It was said that my brutality had produced her death; and my son was a living reproach against me. No one would employ me  no one would lodge in my house. It was then that I accepted the office of Public Executioner,  to save myself from starving, and to give bread to my own son and the little orphan girl. By degrees my temper, already ruined by the conduct of my wife, became confirmed in its ferocity and cruel callousness. I grew brutal  savage  inhuman. I felt the degradation of my calling  I saw that I was shunned by all the world. I was looked upon as a monster who had murdered his wife and made his son deformed;  but the provocation and the circumstances were never mentioned to palliate the enormity of that double crime. At length I heard all the reproaches, and did not take the trouble to state facts in order to justify myself. But all this was enough to brutalize me,  especially when added to the duties of my new calling. In time I even began to ill-treat that poor orphan girl whom I had at first looked upon as my own child. But, bad as I have been towards her when I thought she had encouraged my son to thwart my will,  shamefully as I used her at times, I never would have abandoned her;  for when she thought that I turned her out of my house the day she went to Mr. Tracy's, it was only my brutal way of letting her go to a place which I knew would be creditable to her, and which, by what she told me, I saw she wished to take. Then I thought within myself, 'Yes, even she will now gladly leave me;'  and, in order to conceal what I felt at that idea  and I did feel deeply  I took refuge [-79-] in my own brutalized temper. But I sent her round all her things in the evening  not forgetting her work-box, which I knew contained the fragment that her poor mother wrote upon her death-bed. Moreover, when she came to see me, I received her with no constrained kindness; for I always liked her  even when I ill-used her;  and I was sorry to have parted with her."
    "The world, my good friend, has not altogether read your heart correctly," said Richard.
    "Thank you, sir,  that you for that assurance," exclaimed Smithers; "and when you 'good friend' me, sir  you, who are so noble-hearted, so generous, so truly grand in your humanity  I could burst into tears."
    "If my example please you," said Markham, kindly, "you will make me happy by profiting by it. Oh! you shall yet live long to convince the world that the human heart never can be so deadened to all good feelings as to be beyond redemption!"
    "I do not think I shall live to an old age, sir," observed Smithers, sinking his voice to a mysterious whisper: "I have already had one warning!"
    "One warning!" repeated Richard, surprised at this announcement.
    "Yes, Mr. Markham. One night I was lying in bed;  the candle was flickering in the fireplace;  I happened to turn my eyes towards that poppet which hangs in the loft where I used to sleep until within the last few days,  and I saw another face looking over its shoulder at me."
    "Another face!" ejaculated Markham; "what do you mean?"
    "I mean, sir, that Harriet Wilmot's countenance appeared above the shoulder of the figure!" answered Smithers, with a shudder.
    "My good friend," said Markham, "your imagination was disordered at the moment. The days of spectre. and apparitions are gone by. The Almighty does not address himself to man by means of terrors which nurses use to frighten children. I will show you, by a simple process of reasoning, that it is impossible to see a ghost  even if such a thing should exist. You do not see with the eye precisely in the way in which you may imagine. Strictly speaking, the eye does not see at all. The effect is this: substantial objects are reflected in the retina of the eye as in a mirror; and the impression is conveyed from the retina into the brain, where it assumes a proper and suitable shape in the imagination or conception. But in order that objects should so strike the retina of the eye, they must be substantial: they must have length, breadth, and thickness;  they must displace so much air as to leave the void filled up by their own forms. Now, even if the spirits of the departed be allowed to revisit this earth, no mortal eye can see them, because they are unsubstantial, and they cannot be reflected in the retina of the eye. I have only entered into this explanation to convince you that an unsettled mind or a disordered imagination  arising from either moral or physical causes  can alone conjure up phantoms."
    "Well, sir, we will not talk any more upon this subject, if you please," said Smithers. "I understand what you say; and I thank you for your goodness in explaining the matter to me. I now wish to ask you whether you would rather that I should communicate all I have told you to Katherine; or whether you will yourself?"
    "My good friend," said Richard, "you acted so noble a part towards her mother that this duty will better become you. Katherine will thank you for your goodness towards her parent  especially as that goodness arose from no interested motives, and you will rejoice in the grateful outpourings of the heart of that orphan whom you reared, and to whom you gave a home. To-morrow you and your son can visit her: the day after to-morrow, in the evening, I wish both of you  yourself and your son  to call upon me."
    Smithers promised to obey our hero's desires in all respects, and then took his leave,  wondering how any human being could possess such influence over the heart, to humanize and reclaim it, as Richard Markham.    

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