The next morning came the first wedding presents from the jubilant bridegroom, who was determined to advance step by step, and give no breathing time. When Helen saw them laid out by her maid, she trembled at the consequences of not giving a plump negative to so brisk a wooer.
The second post brought two letters; one of them from Mrs. Undercliff. The other contained no words, but only a pearl of uncommon size, and pear-shaped. Helen received this at first as another wedding present, and an attempt on Arthur's part to give her a pearl as large as those she had gathered on her dear island. But, looking narrowly at the address, she saw it was not written by Arthur; and, presently, she was struck by the likeness of this pearl in shape to some of her own. She got out her pearls, laid them side by side, and began to be moved exceedingly. She had one of her instincts, and it set every fiber quivering with excitement. It was some time before she could take her eyes off the pearls, and it was with a trembling hand she opened Mrs. Undercliff's letter. That missive was not calculated to calm her. It ran thus:
"MY DEAR YOUNG LADY,
A person called here last night and supplied the clew. If you have the courage to know the truth, you have only to come here, and to bring your diary, and all the letters you have received from any person or persons since you landed in England.
I am yours obediently,
The courage to know the truth!
This mysterious sentence affected Helen considerably. But her faith in Robert was too great to be shaken. She would not wait for the canonical hour at which young ladies go out, but put on her bonnet directly after breakfast. Early as she was, a visitor came before she could start--Mr. Burt, the detective. She received him in the library.
Mr. Burt looked at her dress and her little bag, and said, "I'm very glad I made bold to call so early."
"You have got information of importance to communicate to me?"
"I think so, miss;" and he took out his note-book. "The person you are watched by is Mr. Arthur Wardlaw." The girl stared at him. "Both spies report to him twice a day at his house in Russell Square."
"Be careful, Mr. Burt; this is a serious thing to say, and may have serious consequences."
"Well, miss, you told me you wanted to know the truth."
"Of course I want to know the truth."
"Then the truth is that you are watched by order of Mr. Wardlaw."
Burt continued his report.
"A shabby-like man called on you yesterday."
"Yes; it was Mr. Hand, Mr. Wardlaw's clerk. And, oh, Mr. Burt, that wretched creature came and confessed the truth. It was he who forged the note, out of sport, and for a bet, and then was too cowardly to own it." She then detailed Hand's confession.
"His penitence comes too late," said she, with a deep sigh.
"It hasn't come yet," said Burt, dryly. "Of course my lambs followed the man. He went first to his employer, and then he went home. His name is not Hand. He is not a clerk at all, but a little actor at the Corinthian Saloon. Hand is in America; went three months ago. I ascertained that from another quarter."
"Oh, goodness!" cried Helen, "what a wretched world! I can't see my way a yard for stories."
"How should you, miss? It is clear enough, for all that. Mr. Wardlaw hired this actor to pass for Hand, and tell you a lie that he thought would please you."
Helen put her hand to her brow, and thought; but her candid soul got sadly in the way of her brain. "Mr. Burt," said she, "will you go with me to Mr. Undercliff, the expert?"
"With pleasure, ma'am; but let me finish my report. Last night there was something new. Your house was watched by six persons. Two were Wardlaw's, three were Burt's; but the odd man was there on his own hook; and my men could not make him out at all; but they think one of Wardlaw's men knew him; for he went off to Russell Square like the wind and brought Mr. Wardlaw here in disguise. Now, miss, that is all; and shall I call a cab, and we'll hear Undercliff's tale?"
The cab was called, and they went to Undercliff. On the way Helen brooded; but the detective eyed every man and everything on the road with the utmost keenness.
Edward Undercliff was at work at lithographing. He received Helen cordially, nodded to Burt, and said she could not have a better assistant.
He then laid his fac-simile of the forged note on the table, with John Wardlaw's genuine writing and Penfold's indorsement. "Look at that, Mr. Burt."
Burt inspected the papers keenly.
"You know, Burt, I swore at Robert Penfold's trial that he never wrote that forged note."
"I remember," said Burt.
"The other day this lady instructed me to discover, if I could, who did write the forged note. But, unfortunately, the materials she gave me were not sufficient. But, last night, a young man dropped from the clouds, that I made sure was an agent of yours, Miss Rolleston. Under that impression I was rather unguarded, and I let him know how far we had got, and could get no further. 'I think I can help you,' says this young man, and puts a letter on the table. Well, Mr. Burt, a glance at that letter was enough for me. It was written by the man who forged the note."
"A letter!" said Helen.
"Yes. I'll put the letter by the side of the forged note; and, if you have any eye for writing at all, you'll see at once that one hand wrote the forged note and this letter. I am also prepared to swear that the letters signed Hand are forgeries by the same person." He then coolly put upon the table the letter from Arthur Wardlaw that Helen had received on board the Proserpine, and was proceeding to point out the many points of resemblance between the letter and the document, when he was interrupted by a scream from Helen.
"Ah!" she cried, "he is here. Only one man in the world could have brought that letter. I left it on the island. Robert is here. He gave you that letter."
"You are right," said the expert, "and what a fool I must be! I have no eye except for handwriting. He had a beard; and such a beard!"
"It is Robert!" cried Helen, in raptures. "He is come just in time."
"In time to be arrested," said Burt. "Why, his time is not out. He'll get into trouble again."
"Oh, Heaven forbid!" cried Helen, and turned so faint she had to be laid back on a chair, and salts applied to her nostrils.
She soon came to, and cried and trembled, but prepared to defend her Robert with all a woman's wit. Burt and Undercliff were conversing in a low voice, and Burt was saying he felt sure Wardlaw's spies had detected Robert Penfold, and that Robert would be arrested and put into prison as a runaway convict. "Go to Scotland Yard this minute, Mr. Burt," said Helen, eagerly.
"Why, you must take the commission to arrest him. You are our friend."
Burt slapped his thigh with delight.
"That is first-rate, miss," said he. "I'll take the real felon, first, you may depend. Now, Mr. Undercliff, write your report, and hand it to Miss Helen with fac-similes. It will do no harm if you make a declaration to the same effect before a magistrate. You, Miss Rolleston, keep yourself disengaged, and please don't go out. You will very likely hear from me again to-day."
He drove off, and Helen, though still greatly agitated by Robert's danger and the sense of his presence, now sat down, trembling a little, and compared Arthur's letter with the forged document. The effect of this comparison was irresistible. The expert, however, asked her for some letter of Arthur's that had never passed through Robert Penfold's hands. She gave him the short note in which he used the very words, Robert Penfold. He said he would make that note the basis of his report.
While he was writing it, Mrs. Undercliff came in, and Helen told her all. She said, "I came to the same conclusion long ago; but when you said he was to be your husband--"
"Ah," said Helen, "we women are poor creatures; we can always find some reason for running away from the truth. Now explain about the prayer-book."
"Well, miss, I felt sure he would steal it, so I made Ned produce a fac-simile. And he did steal it. What you got back was your mother's prayer-book. Of course I took care of that."
"Oh, Mrs. Undercliff," cried Helen, "do let me kiss you."
Then they had a nice little cry together, and, by the time they had done, the report was ready in duplicate.
"I'll declare this before a magistrate," said the expert, "and then I'll send it you.
At four o'clock of this eventful day, Helen got a message from Burt to say that he had orders to arrest Robert Penfold, and that she must wear a mask, and ask Mr. Wardlaw to meet her at old Mr. Penfold's at nine o'clock. But she herself must be there at half-past eight, without fail, and bring Undercliff's declaration and report with her, and the prayer-book, etc.
Accordingly Helen went down to old Mr. Penfold's at half-past eight and was received by Nancy Rouse, and ushered into Mr. Penfold's room; that is to say, Nancy held the door open, and, on her entering the room, shut it sharply and ran down stairs.
Helen entered the room; a man rose directly, and came to her; but it was not Michael Penfold--it was Robert. A faint scream, a heavenly sigh, and her head was on his shoulder, and her arm round his neck, and both their hearts panting as they gazed, and then clung to each other, and then gazed again with love unutterable. After a while they got sufficient composure to sit down hand in hand and compare notes. And Helen showed him their weapons of defense, the prayer-book, the expert's report, etc.
A discreet tap was heard at the door. It was Nancy Rouse. On being invited to enter, she came in and said, "Oh, Miss Helen, I've got a penitent outside, which he done it for love of me, and now he'll make a clean breast, and the fault was partly mine. Come in, Joe, and speak for yourself."
On this, Joe Wylie came in, hanging his head, piteously.
"She is right, sir," said he; "I'm come to ask your pardon and the lady's. Not as I ever meant you any harm; but to destroy the ship, it was a bad act, and I've never throve since. Nance, she have got the money. I'll give it back to the underwriters; and, if you and the lady will forgive a poor fellow that was tempted with love and money, why, I'll stand to the truth for you, though it's a bitter pill."
"I forgive you," said Robert; "and I accept your offer to serve me."
"And so do I," said Helen. "Indeed, it is not us you have wronged. But oh, I am glad, for Nancy's sake, that you repent."
"Miss, I'll go through fire and water for you," said Wylie, lifting up his head.
Here old Michael came in to say that Arthur Wardlaw was at the door, with a policeman.
"Show him in," said Robert.
"Oh, no, Robert!" said Helen. "He fills me with horror."
"Show him in," said Robert, gently. "Sit down, all of you."
Now Burt had not told Arthur who was in the house, so he came, rather uneasy in his mind, but still expecting only to see Helen.
Robert Penfold told Helen to face the door, and the rest to sit back; and this arrangement had not been effected one second, when Arthur came in, with a lover's look, and, taking two steps into the room, saw the three men waiting to receive him. At sight of Penfold, he started and turned pale as ashes; but, recovering himself, said: "My dearest Helen, this is indeed an unexpected pleasure. You will reconcile me to one whose worth and innocence I never doubted, and tell him I have had some little hand in clearing him."
His effrontery was received in dead silence. This struck cold to his bones, and, being naturally weak, he got violent. He said, "Allow me to send a message to my servant."
He then tore a leaf out of his memorandum-book, wrote on it: "Robert Penfold is here; arrest him directly, and take him away"; and, inclosing this in an envelope, sent it out to Burt by Nancy.
Helen seated herself quietly, and said, "Mr. Wardlaw, when did Mr. Hand go to America?"
Arthur stammered out, "I don't know the exact date."
"Two or three months ago?"
"Then the person you sent to me to tell me that falsehood was not Mr. Hand?"
"I sent nobody."
"Oh, for shame! for shame! Why have you set spies? Why did you make away with my prayer-book; or what you thought was my prayer-book? Here is my prayer-book, that proves you had the Proserpine destroyed; and I should have lost my life but for another, whom you had done your best to destroy. Look Robert Penfold in the face, if you can."
Arthur's eyes began to waver. "I can," said he. "I never wronged him. I always lamented his misfortune."
"You were not the cause?"
"Never!--so help me Heaven!"
"Monster!" said Helen, turning away in contempt and horror.
"Oh, that is it--is it?" said Arthur, wildly. "You break faith with me for him? You insult me for him? I must bear anything from you, for I love you; but, at least, I will sweep him out of the path."
He ran to the door, opened it, and there was Burt, listening.
"Are you an officer?"
"Then arrest that man this moment: he is Robert Penfold, a convict returned before his time."
Burt came into the room, locked the door and put the key in his pocket.
"Well, sir," said he to Robert Penfold, "I know you are a quick hitter. Don't let us have a row over it this time. If you have got anything to say, say it quiet and comfortable."
"I will go with you on one condition," said Robert. "You must take the felon as well as the martyr. This is the felon," and he laid his hand on Arthur's shoulder, who cowered under the touch at first, but soon began to act violent indignation.
"Take the ruffian away at once," he cried.
"What, before I hear what he has got to say?"
"Would you listen to him against a merchant of the city of London, a man of unblemished reputation?"
"Well, sir, you see we have got a hint that you were concerned in scuttling a ship; and that is a felony. So I think I'll just hear what he has got to say. You need not fear any man's tongue if you are innocent."
"Sit down, if you please, and examine these documents," said Robert Penfold. "As to the scuttling of the ship, here is the deposition of two seamen, taken on their death-bed, and witnessed by Miss Rolleston and myself."
"And that book he tried to steal," said Helen.
Robert continued: "And here is Undercliff's fac-simile of the forged note. Here are specimens of Arthur Wardlaw's handwriting, and here is Undercliff's report."
The detective ran his eye hastily over the report, which we slightly condense.
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On comparing the forged note with genuine specimens of John Wardlaw's handwriting, no less than twelve deviations from his habits of writing strike the eye; and every one of these twelve deviations is a deviation into a habit of Arthur Wardlaw, which is an amount of demonstration rarely attained in cases of forgery.
1. THE CAPITAL L.--Compare in London (forged note) with the same letter in London in Wardlaw's letter.
2. THE CAPITAL D.--Compare this letter in "Date" with the same letter in "Dearest."
3. THE CAPITAL T.--Compare it in "Two" and "Tollemache."
4. The word "To"; see "To pay," in forged note and third line of letter.
5. Small "o" formed with a loop in the up-stroke.
6. The manner of finishing the letter "v."
7. Ditto the letter "w."
8. The imperfect formation of the small "a." This and the looped" o" run through the forged note and Arthur Wardlaw 's letter, and are habits entirely foreign to the style of John Wardlaw.
9. See the "th" in connection.
10. Ditto the "of" in connection.
11. The incautious use of the Greek e. John Wardlaw never uses this e. Arthur Wardlaw never uses any other, apparently. The writer of the forged note began right, but, at the word Robert Penfold, glided insensibly into his Greek e, and maintained it to the end of the forgery. This looks as if he was in the habit of writing those two words.
12. Compare the words "Robert Penfold" in the forged document with the same words in the letter. The similarity is so striking that on these two words alone the writer could be identified beyond a doubt.
13. Great pains were taken with the signature, and it is like John Wardlaw's writing on the surface; but go below the surface, and it is all Arthur Wardlaw.
The looped o, the small r, the 1 drooping below the d, the open a, are all Arthur Wardlaw's. The open loop of the final w is a still bolder deviation into A. W. 's own hand. The final flourish is a curious mistake. It is executed with skill and freedom; but the writer has made the lower line the thick one. Yet John Wardlaw never does this.
How was the deviation caused? Examine the final flourish in Arthur Wardlaw's signature. It contains one stroke only, but then that stroke is a thick one. He thought he had only to prolong his own stroke and bring it round. He did this extremely well, but missed the deeper characteristic--the thick upper stroke. This is proof of a high character: and altogether I am prepared to testify upon oath that the writer of the letter to Miss Rolleston, who signs himself Arthur Wardlaw, is the person who forged the promissory note.
To these twelve proofs one more was now added. Arthur Wardlaw rose, and, with his knees knocking together, said, "Don't arrest him, Burt; let him go."
"Don't let him go," cried old Penfold. "A villain! I have got the number of the notes from Benson. I can prove he bribed this poor man to destroy the ship. Don't let him go. He has ruined my poor boy."
At this Arthur Wardlaw began to shriek for mercy. "Oh, Mr. Penfold," said he, "you are a father and hate me. But think of my father. I'll say anything, do anything. I'll clear Robert Penfold at my own expense. I have lost her. She loathes me now. Have mercy on me, and let me leave the country!"
He cringed and crawled so that he disarmed anger, and substituted contempt.
"Ay," said Burt. "He don't hit like you, Mr. Penfold; this is a chap that ought to have been in Newgate long ago. But take my advice; make him clear you on paper, and then let him go. I'll go downstairs awhile. I mustn't take part in compounding a felony."
"Oh, yes, Robert," said Helen "for his father's sake."
"Very well," said Robert. "Now, then, reptile, take the pen, and write in your own hand, if you can."
He took the pen, and wrote to dictation--
"I, Arthur Wardlaw, confess that I forged the promissory note for 2,000 pounds, and sent it to Robert Penfold, and that 1,400 pounds of it was to be for my own use, and to pay my Oxford debts. And I confess that I bribed Wylie to scuttle the ship Proserpine in order to cheat the underwriters."
Penfold then turned to Wylie, and asked him the true motive of this fraud.
"Why, the gold was aboard the Shannon," said Wylie; "I played hanky-panky with the metals in White's store."
"Put that down," said Penfold. "Now go on."
"Make a clean breast," said Wylie. "I have. Say as how you cooked the Proserpine's log, and forged Hiram Hudson's writing."
"And the newspaper extracts you sent me," said Helen, "and the letters from Mr. Hand."
Arthur groaned. "Must I tell all that?" said he.
"Every word, or be indicted," said Robert Penfold, sternly.
He wrote it all down, and then sat staring stupidly. And the next thing was, he gave a loud shriek, and fell on the floor in a fit. They sprinkled water over him, and Burt conveyed him home in a cab, advising him to leave the country, but at the same time promising him not to exasperate those he had wronged so deeply, but rather to moderate them, if required. Then he gave Burt fifty guineas.
Robert Penfold, at Helen's request, went with her to Mr. Hennessy, and with the proofs of Arthur's guilt and Robert's innocence; and he undertook that the matter should go in proper form before the Secretary of State. But, somehow, it transpired that the Proserpine had been scuttled, and several of the underwriters wrote to the Wardlaws to threaten proceedings. Wardlaw senior returned but one answer to these gentlemen: "Bring your proofs to me at my place of business next Monday at twelve, and let me judge the case, before you go elsewhere."
"That is high and mighty," said one or two; but they conferred, and agreed to these terms, so high stood the old merchant's name.
They came; they were received with stiff courtesy. The deposition of Cooper and Welch was produced, and Wylie, kept up to the mark by Nancy, told the truth and laid his two thousand pounds intact down on the table. "Now that is off my stomach," said he, "and I'm a man again."
"Ay, and I'll marry you next week," said Nancy.
"Well, gentlemen," said old Wardlaw, "my course seems very clear. I will undo the whole transaction, and return you your money less the premiums, but plus five per cent. interest." And this he did on the spot, for the firm was richer than ever.
When they were gone, Robert Penfold came in and said, "I hear, sir, you devote this day to repairing the wrongs done by your firm: what can you do for me?" He laid a copy of Arthur's confession before him. The old man winced a moment where he sat, and the iron passed through his soul. It was a long time before he could speak. At last he said, "This wrong is irreparable, I fear."
Robert said nothing. Sore as his own heart was, he was not the one to strike a grand old man, struggling so bravely against dishonor.
Wardlaw senior touched his handbell.
"Request Mr. Penfold to step this way."
Michael Penfold came.
"Gentlemen," said the old merchant, "the house of Wardlaw exists no more. It was built on honesty, and cannot survive a fraud. Wardlaw and Son were partners at will. I had decided to dissolve that partnership, wind up the accounts and put up the shutters. But now, if you like, I will value the effects, and hand the business over to Penfold and Son on easy terms. Robert Penfold has been accused of forging John Wardlaw's name; to prove this was a calumny, I put Penfold over my door instead of Wardlaw. The city of London will understand that, gentlemen, believe me."
"Mr. Wardlaw," said Robert, "you are a just, a noble--" He could say no more.
"Ah, sir," said Michael, "if the young gentleman had only been like you!"
"Mention his name no more to me. His crime and his punishment have killed me."
"Oh," said Robert, hastily, "he shall not be punished for your sake."
"Not be punished? It is not in your hands to decide. God has punished him. He is insane."
"Quite mad;--quite mad. Gentlemen, I can no longer support this interview. Send me your solicitor's address; the deeds shall be prepared. I wish the new firm success. Probity is the road to it. Good-day."
He wound up the affairs, had his name and Arthur's painted out at his own expense, and directed the painters to paint the Penfolds' in at theirs; went home to Elmtrees, and died in three days. He died lamented and honored, and Robert Penfold was much affected. He got it into his head that he had killed him with Arthur's confession, putting it before him so suddenly. "I have forgotten who said 'Vengeance is mine,' " said Robert Penfold.
The merchant priest left the office to be conducted by his father; he used the credit of the new firm to purchase a living in the Vale of Kent; and thither he retired, grateful to Providence, but not easy in his conscience. He now accused himself of having often distrusted God, and seen his fellow creatures in too dark a light. He turned toward religion and the care of souls.
Past suffering enlightens a man, and makes him tender; and people soon began to walk and drive considerable distances to hear the new vicar. He had a lake with a peninsula, the shape of which he altered, at a great expense, as soon as he came there. He wrote to Helen every day, and she to him. Neither could do anything con amore till the post came in.
One afternoon as he was preaching with great unction, he saw a long puritanical face looking up at him with a droll expression of amazement and half-irony. The stranger called on him and began at once. "Wal, parson, you are a buster, you air. You ginn it us hot--you did. I'm darned if I ain't kinder ashamed to talk of this world's goods to a saint upon airth like you. But I never knowed a parson yet as couldn't collar the dollars."
After this preamble he announced that he had got a lease of the island from Chili, dug a lot of silver plate out of the galleon, sold ten tons of choice coral, and a ship-load of cassia and cocoanuts. He had then disposed of his lease to a Californian company for a large sum. And his partner's share of net profits came to 17,247 pounds 13s. 3 1/2 d. which sum he had paid to Michael, for Robert, Penfold in drafts on Baring, at thirty days after sight.
Robert shook his hand, and thanked him sincerely for his ability and probity. He stayed that night at the Vicarage, and by that means fell in with another acquaintance. General Rolleston and his daughter drove down to see the parsonage. Helen wanted to surprise Robert; and, as often happens, she surprised herself. She made him show her everything; and so he took her on to his peninsula. Lo! the edges of it had been cut and altered, so that it presented a miniature copy of Godsend Island.
As soon as she saw this, Helen turned round with a sudden cry of love, "Oh, Robert!" and the lovers were in each other's arms. "What could any other man ever be to me?"
"And what could any other woman ever be to me?"
They knew that before. But this miniature island made them speak out and say it. The wedding-day was fixed before she left.
Her majesty pardoned this scholar, hero, and worthy, the crime he had never committed.
Nancy Rouse took the penitent Wylie without the 2,000 pounds. But old Penfold, who knew the whole story, lent the money at three per cent; so the Wylies pay a ground-rent of 60 pounds a year for a property which, by Mrs. Wylie's industry and judgment, is worth at least 400 pounds. She pays this very cheerfully, and appeals to Joe whether that is not better than the other way.
"Why, Joe," says she, "to a woman like me, that's a-foot all day, 'tis worth sixty pounds a year to be a good sleeper; and I shouldn't be that if I had wronged my neighbor."
Arthur Wardlaw is in a private lunatic asylum, and is taken great care of. In his lucid intervals he suffers horrible distress of mind; but, though sad to see, these agonies furnish the one hope of his ultimate recovery. When not troubled by these returns of reason, he is contented enough. His favorite employment is to get Mr. Undercliff's fac-similes, and to write love-letters to Helen Rolleston which are duly deposited in the post-office of the establishment. These letters are in the handwriting of Charles I., Paoli, Lord Bacon, Alexander Pope, Lord Chesterfield, Nelson, Lord Shaftesbury, Addison, the late Duke of Wellington, and so on. And, strange to say, the Greek e never appears in any of them. They are admirably like, though the matter is not always equally consistent with the characters of those personages.
Helen Rolleston married Robert Penfold. On the wedding-day, the presents were laid out, and among them there was a silver box incrusted with coral. Female curiosity demanded that this box should be opened. Helen objected, but her bridesmaids rebelled; the whole company sided with them, and Robert smiled a careless assent. A blacksmith and carpenter were both enlisted, and with infinite difficulty the poor box was riven open.
Inside was another box, locked, but with no key. That was opened with comparative ease, and then handed to the bride. It contained nothing but Papal indulgences and rough stones, and fair throats were opened in some disappointment. A lady, however, of more experience, examined the contents, and said, that, in her opinion, many of them were uncut gems of great price; there was certainly a quantity of jaspers and blood-stones, and others of no value at all. "But look at these two pearl-shaped diamonds," said she; "why, they are a little fortune! and oh!" The stone that struck this fair creature dumb was a rough ruby as big as a blackbird's egg, and of amazing depth and fire. "No lady in England," said she, "has a ruby to compare with this."
The information proved correct. The box furnished Helen with diamonds and emeralds of great thickness and quality. But the huge ruby placed her on a level with sovereigns. She wears it now and then in London, but not often. It attracts too much attention, blazing on her fair forehead like a star, and eclipses everything.
Well, what her ruby is among stones she is among wives. And he is worthy of her. Through much injustice, suffering, danger, and trouble, they have passed to health, happiness, and peace, and that entire union of two noble hearts, in loyal friendship and wedded love, which is the truest bliss this earth affords.
THE END of FOUL PLAY by CHARLES READE and DION BOUCICAULT.
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