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Punctually at ten o'clock Helen returned to Frith Street, and found Mr. Undercliff behind a sort of counter, employed is tracing; a workman was seated at some little distance from him; both bent on their work.
"Mr. Undercliff?" said Helen.
He rose and turned toward her politely--a pale, fair man, with a keen gray eye and a pleasant voice and manner; "I am Edward Undercliff. You come by appointment?"
"A question of handwriting?"
"Not entirely, sir. Do you remember giving witness in favor of a young clergyman, Mr. Robert Penfold, who was accused of forgery?"
"I remember the circumstance, but not the details."
"Oh, dear! that is unfortunate," said Helen, with a deep sigh; she often had to sigh now.
"Why, you see," said the expert, "I am called on such a multitude of trials. However, I take notes of the principal ones. What year was it in?"
Mr. Undercliff went to a set of drawers arranged chronologically, and found his notes directly. "It was a forged bill, madam, indorsed and presented by Penfold. I was called to prove that the bill was not in the handwriting of Penfold. Here is my fac-simile of the Robert Penfold indorsed upon the bill by the prisoner." He handed it her, and she examined it with interest.
"And here are fac-similes of genuine writing by John Wardlaw; and here is a copy of the forged note."
He laid it on the table before her. She started, and eyed it with horror. It was a long time before she could speak. At length she said, "And that wicked piece of paper destroyed Robert Penfold."
"Not that piece of paper, but the original; this is a fac-simile, so far as the writing is concerned. It was not necessary in this case to imitate paper and color. Stay, here is a sheet on which I have lithographed the three styles; that will enable you to follow my comparison. But perhaps that would not interest you." Helen had the tact to say it would. Thus encouraged, the expert showed her that Robert Penfold's writing had nothing in common with the forged note. He added: "I also detected in the forged note habits which were entirely absent from the true writing of John Wardlaw. You will understand there were plenty of undoubted specimens in court to go by."
"Then, oh, sir," said Helen, "Robert Penfold was not guilty."
"Certainly not of writing the forged note. I swore that, and I'll swear it again. But when it came to questions whether he had passed the note, and whether he knew it was forged, that was quite out of my province."
"I can understand that," said Helen; "but you heard the trial; you are very intelligent, sir, you must have formed some opinion as to whether he was guilty or not."
The expert shook his head. "Madam," said he, "mine is a profound and difficult art, which aims at certainties. Very early in my career I found that to master that art I must be single-minded, and not allow my ear to influence my eye. By purposely avoiding all reasoning from external circumstances, I have distanced my competitors in expertise; but I sometimes think I have rather weakened my powers of conjecture through disuse. Now, if my mother had been at the trial, she would give you an opinion of some value on the outside facts. But that is not my line. If you feel sure he was innocent, and want me to aid you, you must get hold of the handwriting of every person who was likely to know old Wardlaw's handwriting, and so might have imitated it; all the clerks in his office, to begin with. Nail the forger; that is your only chance."
"What, sir!" said Helen, with surprise, "if you saw the true handwriting of the person who wrote that forged note, should you recognize it?"
"Why not? It is difficult; but I have done it hundreds of times."
"Oh! Is forgery so common?"
"No. But I am in all the cases; and, besides, I do a great deal in a business that requires the same kind of expertise--anonymous letters. I detect assassins of that kind by the score. A gentleman or lady, down in the country, gets a poisoned arrow by the post, or perhaps a shower of them. They are always in disguised handwriting; those who receive them send them up to me, with writings of all the people they suspect. The disguise is generally more or less superficial; five or six unconscious habits remain below it, and often these undisguised habits are the true characteristics of the writer. And I'll tell you something curious, madam; it is quite common for all the suspected people to be innocent; and then I write back, 'Send me the handwriting of the people you suspect the least;' and among them I often find the assassin."
"Oh, Mr. Undercliff," said Helen, "you make my heart sick."
"Oh, it is a vile world, for that matter," said the expert; "and the country no better than the town, for all it looks so sweet with its green fields and purling rills. There they sow anonymous letters like barley. The very girls write anonymous letters that make my hair stand on end. Yes, it is a vile world."
"Don't you believe him, miss," said Mrs. Undercliff, appearing suddenly. Then, turning to her son, "How can you measure the world? You live in a little one of your own--a world of forgers and anonymous writers; you see so many of these, you fancy they are common as dirt; but they are only common to you because they all come your way."
"Oh, that is it, is it?" said the expert, doubtfully.
"Yes, that is it, Ned," said the old lady, quietly. Then after a pause she said "I want you to do your very best for this young lady."
"I always do," said the artist. "But how can I judge without materials? And she brings me none."
Mrs. Undercliff turned to Helen, and said: "Have you brought him nothing at all, no handwritings--in your bag?"
Then Helen sighed again. "I have no handwriting except Mr. Penfold's; but I have two printed reports of the trial."
"Printed reports," said the expert, "they are no use to me. Ah! here is an outline I took of the prisoner during the trial. You can read faces. Tell the lady whether he was guilty or not," and he handed the profile to his mother with an ironical look; not that he doubted her proficiency in the rival art of reading faces, but that he doubted the existence of the art.
Mrs. Undercliff took the profile, and, coloring slightly, said to Miss Rolleston: "It is living faces I profess to read. There I can see the movement of the eyes and other things that my son here has not studied." Then she scrutinized the profile. "It is a very handsome face," said she.
The expert chuckled. "There's a woman's judgment," said he. "Handsome! the fellow I got transported for life down at Exeter was an Adonis, and forged wills, bonds, and powers of attorney by the dozen."
"There's something noble about this face," said Mrs. Undercliff, ignoring the interruption, "and yet something simple. I think him more likely to be a cat's-paw than a felon." Having delivered this with a certain modest dignity, she laid the profile on the counter before Helen.
The expert had a wonderful eye and hand; it was a good thing for society he had elected to be gamekeeper instead of poacher, detector of forgery instead of forger. No photograph was ever truer than this outline. Helen started, and bowed her head over the sketch to conceal the strong and various emotions that swelled at sight of the portrait of her martyr. In vain; if the eyes were hidden, the tender bosom heaved, the graceful body quivered, and the tears fell fast upon the counter.
Mrs. Undercliff was womanly enough, though she looked like the late Lord Thurlow in petticoats; and she instantly aided the girl to hide her beating heart from the man, though that man was her son. She distracted his attention.
"Give me all your notes, Ned," said she, "and let me see whether I can make something of them; but first perhaps Miss Rolleston will empty her bag on the counter. Go back to your work a moment, for I know you have enough to do."
The expert was secretly glad to be released from a case in which there were no materials; and so Helen escaped unobserved except by one of her own sex. She saw directly what Mrs. Undercliff had done for her, and lifted her sweet eyes, thick with tears, to thank her. Mrs. Undercliff smiled maternally, and next these two ladies did a stroke of business in the twinkling of an eye, and without a word spoken, whereof anon. Helen being once more composed, Mrs. Undercliff took up the prayer-book, and asked her with some curiosity what could be in that.
"Oh," said Helen, "only some writing of Mr. Penfold. Mr. Undercliff does not want to see that; he is already sure Robert Penfold never wrote that wicked thing."
"Yes, but I should like to see some more of his handwriting, for all that," said the expert, looking suddenly up.
"But it is only in pencil."
"Never mind; you need not fear I shall alter my opinion."
Helen colored high. "You are right; and I should disgrace my good cause by withholding anything from your inspection. There, sir."
And she opened the prayer-book and laid Cooper's dying words before the expert; he glanced over them with an eye like a bird, and compared them with his notes.
"Yes," said he, "that is Robert Penfold's writing; and I say again that hand never wrote the forged note."
"Let me see that," said Mrs. Undercliff.
"Oh, yes," said Helen, rather irresolutely; "but you look into the things as well as the writing, and I promised papa--"
"Can't you trust me?" said Mrs. Undercliff, turning suddenly cold and a little suspicious.
"Oh, yes, madam; and indeed I have nothing to reproach myself with. But my papa is anxious. However, I am sure you are my friend; and all I ask is that you will never mention to a soul what you read there."
"I promise that," said the elder lady, and instantly bent her black brows upon the writing. And, as she did so, Helen observed her countenance rise, as a face is very apt to do when its owner enters on congenial work.
"You would have made a great mistake to keep this from me," said she, gravely. Then she pondered profoundly; then she turned to her son and said, "Why, Edward, this is the very young lady who was wrecked in the Pacific Ocean, and cast on a desolate island. We have all read about you in the papers, miss; and I felt for you, for one, but, of course, not as I do now I have seen you. You must let me go into this with you."
"Ah, if you would!" said Helen. "Oh, madam, I have gone through tortures already for want of somebody of my own sex to keep me in countenance! Oh, if you could have seen how I have been received, with what cold looks, and sometimes with impertinent stares, before I could even penetrate into the region of those cold looks and petty formalities! Any miserable straw was excuse enough to stop me on my errand of justice and mercy and gratitude."
"Oh, yes, madam. The papers have only told you that I was shipwrecked and cast away. They don't tell you that Robert Penfold warned me the ship was to be destroyed, and I disbelieved and affronted him in return, and he never reproached me, not even by a look. And we were in a boat with the sailors all starved--not hungry; starved--and mad with thirst, and yet in his own agony he hid something for me to eat. All his thought, all his fear, was for me. Such things are not done in those great extremities of the poor, vulgar, suffering body, except by angels in whom the soul rises above the flesh. And he is such an angel. I have had a knife lifted over me to kill me, madam--yes; and again it was he who saved me. I owe my life to him on the island over and over again; and in return I have promised to give him back his honor, that he values far more than life, as all such noble spirits do. Ah, my poor martyr, how feebly I plead your cause! Oh, help me! pray, pray, help me! All is so dark, and I so weak, so weak." Again the loving eyes streamed; and this time not an eye was dry in the little shop.
The expert flung down his tracing with something between a groan and a curse. "Who can do that drudgery," he cried, "while the poor young lady-- Mother, you take it in hand; find me some material, though it is no bigger than a fly's foot, give me but a clew no thicker than a spider's web, and I'll follow it through the whole labyrinth. But you see I'm impotent; there's no basis for me. It is a case for you. It wants a shrewd, sagacious body that can read facts and faces; and-- I won't jest any more, Miss Rolleston, for you are deeply in earnest. Well, then, she really is a woman with a wonderful insight into facts and faces. She has got a way of reading them as I read handwriting; and she must have taken a great fancy to you, for as a rule she never does us the honor to meddle."
"Have you taken a fancy to me, madam?" said Helen, modestly and tenderly, yet half archly.
"That I have," said the other. "Those eyes of yours went straight into my heart last night, or I should not be here this morning. That is partly owing to my own eyes being so dark and yours the loveliest hazel. It is twenty years since eyes like yours have gazed into mine. Diamonds are not half so rare, nor a tenth part so lovely, to my fancy."
She turned her head away, melted probably by some tender reminiscence. It was only for a moment. She turned round again, and said quietly, "Yes, Ned, I should like to try what I can do; I think you said these are reports of his trial. I'll begin by reading them."
She read them both very slowly and carefully, and her face grew like a judge's, and Helen watched each shade of expression with deep anxiety.
That powerful countenance showed alacrity and hope at first. Then doubt and difficulty, and at last dejection. Helen's heart turned cold, and for the first time she began to despair. For now a shrewd person, with a plain prejudice in her favor and Robert's, was staggered by the simple facts of the trial.
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