< previous chapter <  |  THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON [Vol. II]  |  > next chapter >


[-292-] 

CHAPTER CCXXV.

THE OLD HAG'S HISTORY

    "I MUST carry my recollection back between seven and eighteen years. Not that it requires any effort to call to mind the leading facts in this sad history; no  no  they are too well impressed upon my memory;  but there are certain details connected with my own position at the time which will need the fullest explanation, in order to show how one like me could have become the friend of Harriet Wilmot.
    "At that epoch I kept a boarding-house  a fashionable boarding-house, in a fashionable street at the West End. I was not then ugly and withered as I am now: I had the remains of great beauty  for I was very beautiful when young! I was also of pleasant and agreeable manners, and knew well how to do the honours of a table. You will not therefore be surprised when I tell you that I was a great favourite with the persons who lodged at my establishment, and with the still more numerous visitors. It is true that this establishment was a boarding-house; and it was conducted to all outward appearances, in a most respectable manner. But it had its interior mysteries as well as many other dwellings in this metropolis. The fact is, that I was well known to a large circle of nobles and gentlemen who employed all their leisure time in intrigues and amours. Having been gay myself from fifteen to forty, I was deeply versed in the various modes of entrapping respectable young persons, and even ladies, in the meshes artfully spread to ensure a constant supply of new victims to the lust of those men of pleasure. Having changed my name and thrown a veil as it were ever the past, I opened the boarding-house by means of the funds supplied by my patron., and soon experienced great success. By paying all my tradesmen with the utmost punctuality, I acquired a good character in the neighbourhood; for your tradesmen can always make or mar you, their shops being the scandal-marts where all reports, favourable or unfavourable, are put into circulation; and as they consider that those who pay well must necessarily be respectable, regularity on that point is certain to ensure their advantageous opinion. Having thus founded the respectability of my establishment, the rest was easy enough. The calculations made by myself and patrons were these:  Boarding-houses are usually inhabited by ladies possessing incomes which, though derived from sources that are sure, are too small to enable them to set up in housekeeping for themselves. Elderly widows with their daughters,  young widows who coming from the country or from abroad, are strangers in London, but who wish to marry again, and therefore seek that society which is most easily entered,  friendless orphans who possess small annuities,  aunts and their nieces,  grandmothers with their grand-daughters,  these are the class of ladies who principally support boarding-houses. Thus there is always a large proportion of young ladies in those establishments; and out of a dozen there are sure to be three or four very good-looking. There can now be no difficulty in understanding the motives which induced my patrons to place me at the head of a boarding-house.
    "I must now record the plan of operations. In all boarding-houses the number of ladies preponderates greatly over that of gentlemen. My average was usually about twenty ladies and four or live gentlemen. Three times every week we had music and dancing in the evening; and as there was a lack of beaux, I of course supplied the deficiency by inviting 'some highly respectable gentlemen with whom I had the honour to be acquainted.' These were of course my patrons; and when they were at the house they always took care to treat me with a proper politeness, as if all they knew of me was highly to my credit and honour. They thus became constant visitors, and were enabled to improve their acquaintance with any of the young ladies whom they fancied. As they were very attentive also to the elderly ladies, and as good wine and negus were never spared upon those occasions, the mammas, aunts, and grandmammas were very fond of our evenings' entertainments, and considered the gentlemen whom I invited to be 'the most delightful creatures in the world.' Sometimes rubbers of whist would vary the amusements; and as my patrons were not only all rich, but had their own private purposes to serve in frequenting my house, they allowed the old ladies to cheat them without manifesting the least ill will; or else they actually [-293-] played badly to enable the said old ladies to win. It was therefore impossible that they could have failed to become especial favourites; and of these advantages they availed themselves in their designs upon the young ladies.
    "The lodgers in boarding-houses are always mean and avaricious. The smallness of their incomes does not permit them to indulge largely in their natural taste for dress; and yet nowhere do females maintain such desperate struggles to appear fine in their apparel. Thus the ladies in boarding-houses can easily be persuaded to accept of presents; and of these my patrons were by no means sparing. A gold chain was a certain passport to a young lady's favour; and a velvet or silk dress would secure the good opinion of the aunt or grandmamma, and even of the mamma. Moreover, when one of my patrons appeared particularly attentive to any young lady, she concluded of course that his intentions were honourable; and in a very short time she became his victim. In a word, my boarding-house, though ostensibly so respectable, was nothing more nor less than a brothel conducted with regard to outward decencies, and carefully hushing up scandals that occurred within.
    "I must now proceed to the principal topic of my history. It was, as I said, between seventeen and eighteen years ago, that the Marquis of Holmesford, who was one of my best patrons, called upon me and said, that he had seen a beautiful young woman enter a humble lodging-house in a street not far from my own; and he directed me to institute inquiries concerning her. I did so; and in due course ascertained that her name was Harriet Wilmot  that she lived with her father in poor lodgings  and that they were by no means well off. I managed to get acquainted with Harriet, and called upon her. Her father was very ill  dying, indeed, of a broken heart, through losses in business. It moreover appeared that he had arrived in London only a short time before, and with a small sum of ready money, which he embarked in a little speculation that totally failed. They were sorely pressed by penury when I thus sought them out; and as I then knew well how to offer assistance in a delicate manner that could give no offence, I was looked upon by the poor young woman as an angel sent to minister to the wants of her dying father, The Marquis supplied me liberally with the means of thus aiding them; and I called regularly every day.
    My plan was to instill into Harriet's mind elevated notions of the position which she ought to reach through the medium of her personal attractions. I told her of great lords who had fallen in love with females in obscure stations, and who had married them; and as I also supplied Harriet with clothes, I took good care that they should be of such a nature as was calculated to engender ideas of finery. But all my arts failed to corrupt the pure mind of Miss Wilmot: she listened to me with respect  never with interest;  she wore the garments that I gave her, because she had none others. I saw that it was no use to think of introducing the Marquis to her immediately; and such was the passion he had conceived for her, that he did not become lukewarm with delay.
    "In three weeks after I first became acquainted with the Wilmots, the old man died. The purse of the Marquis supplied, through my agency, the moans of respectable interment; and when the first week of mourning was over, I touched gently upon Harriet's situation. She threw herself into my arms, called me her benefactress and only friend and thanked me for my kindness towards her deceased father and herself, in such sincere  such ardent  and yet such artless terms, that for the first time in my life I experienced a remorse at the treacherous part I was playing. Harriet declared that she could not possibly think of being a burden to me, and implored me to follow up my goodness towards her by procuring her a menial situation  as she was determined to go into service. I told her I would consider what I could do for her; and I went away more than half resolved to gratify her wish and place her beyond the reach of the Marquis by obtaining for her a situation through the means of my tradesmen. But when I reached my own house, I found the Marquis waiting for me; and he was so liberal with his gold, and so useful to me as my best patron, that I did not dare offend him. I accordingly hushed my scruples, and communicated to him all that had just occurred. He directed me to get Harriet into my house on any terms, and leave the rest to him. I was over-persuaded; and the next day I went to Harriet, and said to her "My dear child, I have been thinking of your wish to earn your own living; and I have a proposal to make to you. I require a young person to act as my housekeeper: Will you take the place? You shall have your own room to yourself; and I will make you as comfortable as I can.' The tears of gratitude and the tokens of affection towards me, with which that friendless young woman met my offer, actually wrung my heart. I wept myself  yes, I wept myself! And I weep now, too, as all those memories return to me with overwhelming force.
    "Harriet Wilmot thus entered my service. But the very same day that she came into my house, I was attacked with a sudden and malignant fever, which threw me upon a sick bed. For ten days I was insensible to all that was passing around me; and when I awoke from that mental darkness, I found Harriet by my bed-side. For ten days and ten nights had she watched near me, scarcely snatching a few moments' repose in the arm-chair. She was pale and wan with long vigils; but how her beautiful countenance lighted up with the animation of joy, when the physician declared that I should recover. And this same physician assured me that I owed my life more to the care of the faithful Harriet than to his skill. I was overwhelmed by this demonstration of so much gratitude on her part; and I determined to place her beyond the reach of danger the moment I was convalescent.
    "But when I recovered, and was once more involved in the bustle and intrigues of my business, my good resolutions rapidly vanished  for the gold and the patronage of the Marquis of Holmesford were so necessary to me! The Marquis now became a more constant visitor than ever at the house; and he found opportunities to pay his attentions to Harriet. But she did not comprehend his hints; and he soon spoke more boldly. Then she grew alarmed: still, as she afterwards told me, she did not choose to annoy me by complaints; and she contented herself by shunning the Marquis as much as possible. At length, one evening, when inflamed with wine, he forced his way into her chamber, and declared his views in such unequivocal terms, that the poor creature could no longer sup-[-294-]port his importunities. She indignantly commanded him to leave her: he grew bolder, and attempted violence. She escaped from him, and quitted the house. From a lodging which she immediately took, she wrote me a letter, detailing the insults she had endured, reiterating all her former expressions of gratitude towards me, acquitting me of all blame in the transaction, but declaring that, as she supposed I could not prevent the Marquis from visiting at the house, she must respectfully but firmly decline remaining in my service. I hastened to her, and was not very urgent in my desire that she should return; for I remembered her goodness to me when I was ill, and my heart was softened in her favour. By means of one of my tradesmen she almost immediately obtained a situation as nurserymaid in a family residing at Lower Holloway. I kept this circumstance concealed from the Marquis of Holmesford, to whom I declared that I knew not whither she was gone; and it was impossible that he could now blame me, as he himself had driven her by his rashness from my house.
    "I must observe that all these incidents,  from the first moment of my acquaintance with Harriet until she thus quitted my house,  occurred within a period of three months.
    "Harriet was not happy in her new place. She found that her mistress was an ill-tempered vixen, and her master a despotic upstart. But an event occurred which entirely changed her gloomy prospects, and enabled her to leave her situation without the necessity of seeking for another. During her walks with the children whom she had to attend upon, she met with a gentleman of middle age, but handsome person and agreeable manners; and some accident, which I have forgotten, made them acquainted. From that time they met every day: the gentleman became deeply enamoured of her, but never once did he make a dishonourable proposal. She told him that she was a poor friendless to appreciate the purity of her mind  and he loved orphan and he pitied her:  in a short time he learnt her. He offered her his hand;  but his pride imposed a condition. He was wealthy  he was a widower  he had two children; and he probably disliked the idea of introducing to the world as his wife one who had been a servant. She was unhappy in her place  without friends  without protectors; and she yielded to his solicitations for a private union. They were married  married at Norwood, where the register will doubtless attest the fact!
    "This gentleman was Mr. Markham, of Markham Place. I never was in the neighbourhood of that mansion until about a year ago; then I. saw it for the first time, and I sighed as I thought of Harriet Wilmot! For she ought to have become the mistress of the spacious dwelling;  and so she doubtless would have become, had not my treachery blighted all her hopes  all her prospects! But I must go back to resume the thread of my history in due course.
    "Mr. Markham took a comfortable lodging for his young bride in a Street somewhere near Brunswick Square. Precisely ten months after their union Katherine was born; and Mr. Markham now seriously thought of acknowledging his wife and child. She had hitherto passed by the name of Mrs. Wilmot since the marriage; and the husband regretted that he had not at once boldly proclaimed his second matrimonial connexion to the world. All these facts I subsequently learnt from Harriet's own lips.
    "It was about three months after the birth of Katherine that I met Harriet one day in the street; and she seemed to me more beautiful than ever. She had written to announce to me that she was married, but without saying to whom, nor indicating where she lived. When I thus encountered her, holding her babe in her arms, she invited me to her lodgings, for she said, 'My husband will not he offended with me for communicating all the particulars of my happiness to you; since you were the only friend I found in the time of my poverty and, when my poor father was on his death-bed. Besides,' she added, with a smile of infinite satisfaction, 'my husband is about to acknowledge me as his wife and take me to his own home.' While we were yet speaking, the Marquis of Holmesford rode by on horseback; and, as he turned to nod to me, he instantly recognised Harriet. She also knew him, and hurrying along with some alarm, entered her lodging, which was close by. I followed her: the incident which had disturbed her was soon forgotten; and she then told me all the particulars of her first meeting and her subsequent marriage with Mr. Markham. And how she doted upon her child! Never did I behold a mother so enthusiastic in her tenderness towards the offspring which she loved, and in which she felt pride!
    "I took leave of her, and promised to call soon again. On my return home I was by no means disappointed to find the Marquis waiting for me. He said, 'You are acquainted with Harriet's abode. How happens it that you have kept it secret from me?'  I assured him that I had only just discovered, it.  'Well, it may be as you assert,' he continued; 'but do not deceive me in what I now require at your hands. Harriet looks more lovely than ever; and all my passion for her is revived. She must be mine; and to you I look for aid in obtaining for me the gratification of my wishes.'  I told him that Harriet was married, and that the child he had seen in her arms was her own; but I did not mention the name of her husband.  'I care nothing for her marriage or her maternity,' said the Marquis: 'she is charming, and that is all I choose to think of. When money and cunning can produce any thing in this city, it is not probable that I should entertain ridiculous scruples. The money I possess; and if cunning were wealth, you would be the richest woman in England.'  I remember this conversation as well as if it only occurred yesterday. Vainly did I represent to his lordship the difficulty of accomplishing the design he had in view. I assured him that Harriet's virtue was beyond the possibility of corruption: he replied that artifice could not fail to succeed, and that if I appeared cold in the cause, he would employ another and less scrupulous agent. I trembled lest I should lose his patronage and that of his friends; and I promised to do my best. The Marquis left me, saying, 'Within a week I shall expect that you will have matured some scheme that may make her mine; and your reward shall be liberal.'
    "I was now sorely perplexed: I no longer hesitated to obey the Marquis, because my own interests were concerned; but I knew not what project to devise. At length, after having racked my brain for some short time, I hit upon a device which seemed to be the most feasible my ingenuity could suggest;-[-295-] but I resolved to cultivate the intimacy of Harriet for nearly a week ere I put it into execution. I accordingly contrived to be almost constantly with her for the next five days, saving when she expected her husband. Of his coming she was usually made aware by letters from him: some of those epistles she read to me, in the ingenuous confidence of her pure soul; and well might she rejoice in them  well might she treasure them,  for they were replete with tenderness and love. I know not exactly now what it was that prompted me to possess myself of some of those letters, in which Mr. Markham spoke of Harriet as his wife and the infant Katherine as his own child;  but I most probably thought that my knowledge of that secret union and its fruit might be turned to advantage, especially as I saw that a wealthy and well-born man was struggling with his pride whether to proclaim to the world his marriage with an obscure servant or whether he should continue to keep the affair secret. At all events I cannot conceal the fact that I abstracted, during a temporary absence of Harriet from the room on one occasion when I called, three of the letters from her desk,  three epistles in which Mr. Markham alluded in the most unequivocal terms to his private marriage with Harriet and the existence of the fruit of that union. These letters were addressed simply 'Mrs. Wilmot,' and without the mention of her abode on the envelope; because, as I learnt from Harriet, Mr. Markham always sent them by a messenger from a tavern in Lower Holloway  never from his own house, nor by any one of his servants; and by omitting the address, no clue could be afforded to impertinent curiosity should a letter thus sent happen to be lost.
    But to return to the scheme which I had formed for the ruin of Harriet. During the five days that we were so constantly together, as I have stated above, I professed the most sincere friendship for Harriet; and she declared that the feeling was not only reciprocal, but that on her part 'it was founded on the most sincere gratitude for my former kindness.' And grateful she really was. It was her nature to be grateful and good towards any one who was good  or seemed good  to her. But she could not even have hated her bitterest enemies, had she known any persons who were openly and avowedly her foes. She was all gentleness and amiability  all ingenuousness and candour. But why do I thus dwell upon her excellent qualities  since the more blameless was she, the less pardonable was I!
    "When I took leave of her on the fifth evening she said to me, 'Mr. Markham will not be able to meet me at all to-morrow: you would afford me pleasure by dining with me and passing a long evening.'  The invitation exactly suited my purposes; and I readily accepted it. But on the following day, instead of repairing to Harriet's lodging at four o'clock, as promised, I went straight to Holmesford House. The Marquis was at home: he awaited my coming  for I had communicated my design to him by note on the preceding evening.
    "Holmesford House has long been notorious for the debaucheries of its lordly owner. Separated from his wife, and enjoying an immense fortune, the Marquis has for many years led a life which, were he a private individual, would exclude him from society, but which does not in the least degree injure him in the elevated sphere wherein he moves. His dwelling is fitted up in the most luxurious  the most voluptuous manner, and is provided with all possible means to facilitate his designs upon those virtuous females who may be entrapped into his mansion, but who will not yield to him save when overcome by violence. And to that extreme measure has the Marquis never hesitated to resort;  for who would think, however great her wrongs, of appealing to the law against a nobleman so powerful, so wealthy, and so unprincipled as the Marquis of Holmesford?
    "There was one room in Holmesford House which I must particularly describe. It was a bed-chamber  small, but furnished in the most sumptuous manner. It had no side windows; but there was a sky-light on the roof; and double sets of panes were fixed in the ample wood-work, with an interval of perhaps four inches between each pair. Thus no screams  no shrieks could penetrate beyond that strangely-contrived window: the double panes deadened every sound which transpired in that room. Similar precautions were adopted in respect to the other parts of the chamber The doors were double, and covered with thick baize, so that they fixed tightly in their setting. The walls were also double, with a considerable interval between them: there was even a false floor half a foot above the proper one; and carpets were spread so thickly that not even a footstep echoed in that chamber.
    "I shall now continue the narrative of my project against Harriet. Immediately upon my arrival at Holmesford House, I wrote a note to the intended victim: it was thus worded:  'Come to me, dearest Harriet, without an instant's delay after the receipt of this. I am in sad tribulation  at the house of a friend; but I cannot spare a moment to give you an idea of the sudden misfortune which has overtaken me. If you ever loved me  and if I have the slightest claim upon your kindness  come! The bearer of this note will conduct you to the friend's house where I am!'  Poor Harriet! she naturally conceived that it must be some serious event which could prevent me from keeping my engagement with her; and she hesitated not to accompany the female servant who delivered the note to her. She took her child in her arms: the servant of the Marquis suggested that she should leave the babe in the care of Harriet's own domestic; but Harriet would never separate herself from her beloved infant! The servant could not offer further remonstrance on this point; and Harriet entered the hackney-coach which was waiting to convey her to destruction!
    "It was in the very depth of winter and consequently quite dark when Harriet reached Holmesford House. The lamps over the entrance had been purposely left unlighted; and thus the poor young woman did not observe the vast exterior of the mansion to which she had come. But when the front door had closed behind her, and she found herself in the hall, she exhibited some alarm; for, dimly as it was seen by the lustre of one faint lamp, she observed enough to convince her that she was in no common dwelling. The servant (who had of course received her cue) noticed the impression thus made upon her, and hastened to say something of a reassuring nature. Thus, in a few minutes, Harriet was inveigled into the chamber which I have before described. 'Permit me to hold the baby, madam,' said the servant; 'your friend is ill in that bed.'  Harriet, doubtless bewildered [-296-] at the strangeness of time whole proceeding, mechanically passed the child to the servant, and advanced towards the bed, the curtains of which were drawn around. She heard the doors close: she looked round  the servant had disappeared with the babe  and Harriet was now alone with the Marquis of Holmesford!
    "Two hours elapsed! I was awaiting, in a distant part of the mansion, the issue of that foul plot. Wine and generous cordials were on the table; and I drank deeply of them to drown the sad thoughts which oppressed me. Never had I before experienced  never have I since known such terrible emotions! All the particulars of my connexion with Harriet rushed to my mind. I remembered how I first beheld her, affectionately tending the dying bed of her father,  how she sate day and night by my side, ministering unto me in my malady as if she was my daughter,  how I had seen her a happy wife, content with retirement and privacy  content even with being, as it were, an unacknowledged wife, so long as she enjoyed her husband's love,  and how she had conducted herself as a tender mother, fondling and nursing her innocent little one! I thought of all this; and at the same time I was almost distracted with the idea of the infernal treachery which had now ensnared her! Years have passed since that foul night; and its memory haunts me still. I have made many  many lovely girls victims to the lust of my employers:  but none  no, not one  do I regret, save Harriet Markham!
    "Two hours elapsed, I say; and at length the Marquis of Holmesford made his appearance. He was dreadfully frightened: his manner was wild and excited. I could not gather, from the expression of his countenance, whether he had triumphed or lost the victory to which be aspired over a virtuous and defenceless woman. I interrogated him with a gesture of impatience. 'Damnable woman!' he exclaimed; 'if there were not such creatures as you, there would be less scope for the vices of men like me. Begone! I would not endure another such scene  no, not were I offered a sovereign crown!'  I made some observation; but he interrupted me fiercely, and commanded me to depart. I dared not disobey  his manner was actually terrific. He appeared as if he had just witnessed some horrible spectre, or had perpetrated a dreadful crime. I returned home; and never did I pass such a miserable night.
    "All next day I waited in expectation of hearing from the Marquis; but no communication arrived. In the evening I went to Harriet's lodging, and saw the landlady. In answer to my inquiries, she said, 'Mrs. Wilmot remained out until a very late hour last night, or rather this morning. It was nearly one when she came home with her child. She was in almost a frantic state, and talked so wildly and incoherently that I could not comprehend her. I persuaded her to retire to her chamber, and offered to sit up with her. She allowed me to conduct her to her room, but insisted on remaining alone. Poor thing! I heard her walking up and down the chamber until past five; and then all became quiet. I supposed she had retired to bed. When I rose at eight, I learnt from the servant, that she had gone out with her child half an hour previously. She has not been back since; and I feel alarmed at her absence.'  'Some sudden calamity has perhaps overtaken her,' I said, terribly frightened at these tidings. 'Have the kindness to send your servant to let me know when she returns; but you need not tell her that you do so. I have my reasons.' The landlady, believing me to be an intimate friend of Harriet, readily promised compliance with my request. I was about to depart, when she suddenly recollected something, and said, 'I had nearly forgotten to tell you that about an hour ago, the messenger that usually comes from the gentleman who visits Mrs. Wilmot, and who she says is her husband  '  'Yes, yes,' cried I impatiently.  'The messenger has left a small packet for her,' continued the land-lady.  'Let me see it,' I said, thinking that its contents might afford some clue to the mystery of Harriet's disappearance: 'I am acquainted with all Mrs. Wilmot's affairs, for you know how intimate we are.'  The landlady showed me the packet without the least hesitation, and I instantly recognised in the address the hand writing of Mr. Markham. I longed to open the parcel, but dared not. So I took my departure, having reiterated my desire to be informed of Harriet's return, the moment it might happen.
    "The next evening came, and I had neither heard from the landlady nor seen the Marquis. I sent a note to the latter; but he had left town on the previous day. A thought struck me: could he have persuaded Harriet to accompany him? Had he so far overcome the virtue of that pure-minded creature? I thought of the packet from Mr. Markham, and longed to ascertain its contents. A strong suspicion lurked in my mind that it was connected with the affair in some way or another. I however waited a week; and, hearing no tidings of any kind concerning Harriet, went boldly to her lodgings. 'Mrs. Wilmot's disappearance is so strange,' I said to the landlady, 'that, having consulted my legal adviser, and acting on the plea of being her intimate friend, I am determined to open that packet which was sent for her, and which I think must afford some clue to her absence.'  The landlady gave me the packet, saying, 'If you take the responsibility on yourself, well and good; 'but I will have nothing to do with the business.'  This was better than I had even expected; and I departed with the parcel.
    "I was not long in returning to my house, and the moment I had reached my own chamber, I tore open the parcel. It contained four letters: but the contents of one will explain the presence of the other three. That one was from Mr. Markham, and ran as nearly as I can recollect thus: 'After the terrible discovery which I made last night, I can never see you more. You have wantonly betrayed the confidence and affection of a man who descended from his eminence to court your love in your social obscurity. But the moral bond that united us is riven asunder; and the legal one shall be equally broken should you dare to represent yourself as my wife. The most horrible suspicion now haunts me that even your child may not be mine. Keep that infant, then; and be good to it, if your depraved heart will allow you. And that you may not sink into the lowest grades of crime from the embraces of the noble libertine to whom you have abandoned yourself, I have instructed my banker to pay to you, as Mrs. Wilmot, a monthly stipend of ten pounds. I have destroyed all your letters, save the three which I enclose; and I return them to you in the hope that a re-perusal of them [-297-] 

will place before you in all its glaring flagrancy the contrast between your protestations and your deeds.'
    "This terrible document bore no signature; but it was impossible, either by its nature or the hand-writing, that it could have emanated from any one save Mr. Markham. The three letters accompanying it contained expressions of sincere gratitude and fervent affection towards Mr. Markham, and denoted three particular phrases in Harriet's connexion with him: namely, her assent to their union, the fact that she was in a way to become a mother, and the announcement of approaching maternity. I wept as I read them:  I wept as I thought of all I had done in accomplishing the ruin of poor Harriet!
    "The Marquis came no more to my house;  I saw by the newspapers that he had returned to London, a few weeks after the sad incidents just described;  again I sought an interview with him, but he would neither see nor correspond with me. My other patrons deserted me: they had been introduced by the Marquis; and, finding that he had some private reason to shun me, they fell off rapidly. I was compelled to break up my establishment: it ruined me in pocket, as it had ruined many, many young females in virtue. But for none of my victims did I reck  no, not one, save Harriet Markham.
    "I fell gradually lower and lower in the scale of my avocations; but still I contrived to gain a living in various ways which have no connexion with the object of this narrative. It was about a year after the sad events above recorded, that I one day met Harriet Wilmot face to face in the neighbourhood of Bloomsbury. She was poorly clad and sickly in appearance; and her countenance was expressive of profound mental dejection. She held a letter in her hand; but she had not her child with her; and she was hurrying rapidly along  most probably to the post-office. 'Harriet!' I exclaimed, catching her by the hand.  She started at being thus accosted; but the moment her eyes tell on my countenance, she shuddered visibly, and cried out, 'You!'  then she darted away as if in affright, dropping the letter upon the pavement. For some moments I was so stupefied by her abrupt flight, that I stood as it were paralyzed. But seeing the letter upon the pavement, I recovered the use of my limbs and hastened to pick it up. It was addressed 'To the [-298-] Marquis of Holmesford, Holmesford House.' I hurried away with it, saying to myself, 'Now I shall discover how far the connexion between Harriet and the Marquis went.'  But I was disappointed: the letter merely contained, as far as I can remember, these words:  'I ought not to address your lordship, under the peculiar  the distressing circumstances which made us acquainted; but necessity compels me to appeal to your lordship's bounty. It is not for myself, however, that I implore your aid; but for the sake of my child, who is starving! Oh! my lord, if you only knew what the feelings of a mother are when she beholds her infant shrieking for food, and turning its eyes towards her countenance in so piteous a manner that they speak the language of famine far more eloquently than its tongue could possibly do, were it able to express its wants in words,  if you could understand these feelings, you would not think ill of me because I thus appeal to your bounty.'  An address was given in an obscure street in Bloomsbury; and the letter was signed 'Harriet Wilmot.'
    "Again I felt for that poor creature, who was now reduced, with her poor infant of fifteen months old, to such a state of penury; and I do not say it to render myself less despicable than I must appear in the eyes of those who may peruse this narrative,  but I merely state it as a fact, that I hastened home, gathered together the few shillings which I possessed, and hurried off to the address mentioned in Harriet's letter. But when I reached the house indicated, I learnt from the landlady that Mrs. Wilmot had suddenly departed half an hour before. 'She was very poor,' observed the woman; 'but she was honest. She strove hard to maintain herself, with her needle, and starved herself to feed her infant. She thought herself quite happy when she earned five shillings in a week. Night after night did the poor creature sit up till she was nearly blind, toiling constantly at her work. And when she went away so suddenly just now, she offered me her shawl in payment of the little arrears of rent due. My God! I would sooner have given her all I had than have taken a rag from her! Ah!' added the woman, wiping her eyes, 'there's something very wrong somewhere in the country when such good mothers are allowed to die by inches through sheer famine!'
    "I went away, very miserable. I felt convinced that Harriet, when she perceived she had lost her letter, suspected that it might fall into my hands, and that I should thereby learn her place of abode. And it was clear that she had departed so abruptly to avoid me! I have kept that letter  as well as all the others to which I refer in my history.
    "As nearly as I can recollect, two years and three quarters passed away; and I again saw Harriet. It was in the month of January, about noon on a bitter cold day; and I was walking through Long Acre, when I suddenly perceived her enter a house, which was evidently let in lodgings to poor families. She did not observe me; but I felt a violent longing to make my peace, if possible, with that unfortunate victim of my treachery. The door stood open for the accommodation of the various inmates; and I hurried up the staircase. I heard footsteps before me  and I followed them to the very top of the house: then I caught a glimpse of Harriet entering a back garret. I advanced to the doer, and knocked gently. Harriet immediately opened it; but when she beheld me, she recoiled with, such an expression of horror and alarm upon her death-like countenance, that I was dreadfully embarrassed. 'My dear friend,' I said, at length: 'pray  in the name of heaven! hear me!'  'You!' she cried, in that shrieking kind of tone which had marked her utterance of the word when we met before, and which showed her utter abhorrence of me  a sentiment I well deserved: 'hear you! Oh! no  no!'  and she closed the door violently. I knew not how to act. I felt convinced that she had never communicated with Mr. Markham since the period when he made that mysterious but 'terrible discovery' to which he alluded in his letter that fell into my hands. I thought I would acquaint her with the existence of that letter and the nature of its contents; because it promised an income which would have placed her above want. So I sate down upon the stairs to reflect how I should proceed to induce her to hear me. In a few minutes the door opened quickly, and Harriet, with her child (who was then four years old) in her arms and a small bundle in her hand, appeared on the landing. She shrank back when she saw me  she evidently thought I was gone. Then, recovering herself, she exclaimed 'Wretch! why do you haunt me? Have you not injured me enough already? Will you not even let me die in peace?'  I started up, saying, 'Do hear me! You know not how important  .'  But ere I could utter another word, she rushed wildly past me, and ran down the stairs with a precipitation which manifested her profound horror at my presence.
    "Thus had I involuntarily driven her a second time from her humble home! I was sorely afflicted, for many reasons  but chiefly because my motives were not on either occasion wrong. I was about to take my departure, when I thought I would cast a look at the interior of the chamber which she had inhabited. By its appearance I hoped to judge of her circumstances, which I sincerely wished might be improved. I entered the room: it was evidently a ready-furnished garret. I am able to recognise such facts at a glance. Though not absolutely wretched, it was mean  very mean  too mean to permit the idea that she, poor creature! was comfortable in her resources. Several papers were burning in the grate: she had evidently set fire to them the moment ere she left the room in the precipitous manner described. I hastened to extinguish the smouldering flames, but redeemed the fragment of only one important paper. It contained the commencement of a letter evidently written that morning, as I discovered by the date. Strange to say, It was another epistle addressed 'To the Marquis of Holmesford, Holmesford House.' Its contents were to this effect:  'Your lordship will pardon me for again intruding myself upon your notice; but a deep sense of the duty I owe to my child, and the dread of leaving the poor innocent girl to the mercy of strangers  for the hand of Death seems to be already upon me  must serve as my excuse for thus troubling you. And when your lordship reflects that it is to you that I owe all the hideous misery which has been my lot for nearly four years,  through you that I lost the love and confidence of my husband,  your lordship's heart will not allow this appeal to be made in vain. Hitherto your lordship has remained unacquainted with the name of that husband of whom I speak: but now it is my [-299-] duty to reveal it to you, that your lordship may see him  '
    "The remainder had been so scorched that it was illegible. Conjecture relative to the termination of the sentence was vain. Was the unfinished word explain? Or was it express? Often  often. have I sate and wondered what the end of the passage originally was, ere the flames singed that sad letter. She felt the hand of Death already upon her; and I had driven her from the place where she wished to die in peace!/ Wretch  wretch that I was!
    "From that time forth I never saw her more!
    "All that I know of Harriet Markham is now told. The only link that is missing in the chain of my narrative is the detailed account of the mode in which Mr. Markham discovered that his wife had become the victim of the Marquis of Holmesford. That mystery the Marquis himself may be enabled to explain.
    "My task is terminated: nor would I for worlds be compelled to accomplish it over again. It has given additional poignancy to thoughts that frequently oppress me, and has aroused others equally painful, but which had slumbered for years and, years until now. And where I write  I dare not name the place, nor even those at whose command I write  there is a fearful gloom that is congenial, too congenial with those appalling reminiscences. Perhaps I should have felt and expressed less remorse for the past, had I written under more pleasant circumstances; perhaps, in that case, many of those dread images which here haunt my mind and are reflected in the bewailings and self-reproaches which appear in these pages, would not have visited me: still, had I performed this task in a cheerful chamber and in the gladdening sun-light,  even then I must have felt some remorse  for of all the bad deeds of my life, the treachery which I perpetrated towards Harriet is the blackest!
    "May her sweet daughter Katherine be more happy  more fortunate!"       

< previous chapter <  |  THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON [Vol. II]  |  > next chapter >