There was a long silence in the room when that quick answer had been given to Priscilla’s quick question.

Captain Lyman looked first at Priscilla, then at Jack, and lastly at Mr. Liscomb. He seemed not to understand quite why he had been asked that question, but as it had been asked, he was ready to reply to any other that might be put to him. But no one seemed to have a question ready.

It was Mr. Liscomb who broke the silence. He looked up from the newspaper which he had been reading and said:

“Captain Lyman, I should like to ask you how it came that you allowed that report of the man’s being drowned to be published in the papers when you were aware of his being alive, and why you allowed him to be written about as a hero when you knew from the first that he had cast off the line, leaving you and your shipmates to your fate, as you say in this letter? That’s a question which people will be pretty sure to ask, and you may as well be prepared for it.”

“I’m quite prepared for it, sir,” replied Lyman. “I cooked the report for the benefit of my sister, who was—but it’s a long story, sir, and there’s not much in it that you haven’t heard before, of a woman without wisdom and a man without a conscience.”

“It’s the oldest story in the world—and the newest; but every variation of it is interesting—in fact, nobody cares about any other sort of story,” said Mr. Liscomb.

“I’ll cut this particular variation as short as I can,” said the mariner. “I have a sister, and she fell in love with Blaydon, it must be six years ago. There was no reason why they should not have married, for he had a good billet and she had a trifle of her own; but the marriage didn’t come off, and the man behaved badly—she told me so when I returned after a voyage—if I had been at home I’d ha’ taken damgood care that the marriage did come off. But it didn’t, and the next I hear is that he has borrowed money from her and cleared off. It was near about three years before I got wind of him, for you see I’d been knocking about the world, first in one ship and then in another. I had put into Sunderland in the barque Kingsdale, and there I found a letter waiting for me from my sister, telling me that the man was in gaol but would be out in a week or two, and that I was to write to him and then wait for him at the prison gate, and not lose sight of him until I brought him to her. I was able to do what she told me, for the barque was in the graving-dock for a month. I met him the moment he got his freedom, and we sailed the next day. He wasn’t very willing to come with me, but he never said a word about having been married the year before until we were pretty far out of soundings, and then he showed me the paper with accounts of his arrest outside the church, and of his trial, when he was let off light by reason of the jawing of the lawyer about the poor young wife that was waiting for him to turn his erring feet into the straight path, et cetera—you know the sort of stuff lawyers talk, sir!”

“I do—I do; I do it myself,” said Mr. Liscomb. “Never mind the lawyers and their tricks; go on with your story.”

“I ask your pardon, sir. Well, of course, when I saw that he was married already I had no further use for him. All I could do was to give him a sound hiding with a rope’s end; and a sounder one man never got, though I say it that shouldn’t.”

“We’ll pardon your boast, Captain,” said Mr. Liscomb.

“Oh, certainly,” acquiesced Mr. Wingfield, heartily.

“Thank you, gentlemen. I did my best, and no man can do more. Well, nothing happened until the barque ran on the rocks, and then he came to me and said he was a good swimmer and he would like to try to make up for his wickedness by carrying a line ashore for us. I was fool enough to be taken in by him. He got the line ashore, but then he cast it adrift—when we hauled it in we found that the knot had been properly loosed——”

“It couldn’t have become unfastened by the action of the waves?” suggested the lawyer.

The Captain smiled grimly.

“No knot that I tie is of that description, sir,” he said. “No, the rascal slackened the bight and then walked away without saying a word to anyone until he came to a house nine miles from the coast, where he was able to loan a suit of clothes—he had his pockets full of money—and the next day he caught a train for the town where a friend of his lived, and there he lay till he caught sight of a newspaper that told him that his wife had married again, and he came to England to see if there wasn’t some money in it for him.”

“That’s quite clear; but you haven’t said why you allowed the reports of his heroic death to be printed, when you knew the truth,” said Mr. Liscomb.

“I’m sure the lady will see that I did it because I wanted to let my poor sister down gently,” said Captain Lyman. “I wanted her to believe that the man was drowned, and I wanted her to think the best of herself—to feel for the rest of her life that, after all, she had loved a man that showed himself to be a man in the way of his death. But when I landed in England a week ago, and came across the papers with that ‘curious case’ in them, I saw that Lucy was bound to know all; and having picked up with a newspaper young gentleman, he took me, as I told you just now, sir, when we were alone, to the office of his paper and, after a talk with the head boss, I wrote that letter. It was the same gentleman that told me to call on you, sir.”

“You did the right thing, and you’ll never regret it,” said Mr. Liscomb.

“No, I don’t think I’ll regret it, if it puts a spoke in that blackguard’s wheel,” said Captain Lyman, brushing the cylinder of his silk hat with his sleeve. “You have my address, sir, in case you need me at any time,” he added when at the door.

“And I think we shall need you,” said Mr. Liscomb. When Jack and Priscilla were left alone with the man of the law he questioned them as to the result of their interview with the Governor of the prison, mentioning how he had led them to believe what he certainly believed himself—that Marcus Blaydon and the woman who had written to him were man and wife.

“And how do we stand now?” asked Jack. “Are we anything the better for Lyman’s visit?”

“Not a great deal up to the present,” said Mr. Liscomb. “What I now fear is that Blaydon will clear off without waiting to oppose the petition for nullity.”

“Then all will be plain sailing,” cried Jack.

“Anything but that,” said Liscomb, shaking his head. “There’s nothing that the judge is more cautious about than collusion. If a case like this is not opposed, he begins to suspect that the opposition has been bought off. We shall have to make the whole thing very clear to him.”

“And that is more difficult now than it was before,” said Priscilla; “for we cannot now say that he went straight away from the prison to the woman in Canada. As a matter of fact, he was taken away from England practically by main force; and the woman in Canada was the last person whom he wished to be near.”

“I am glad that you appreciate the difficulties of the case,” said the lawyer. “The sacredness of the ceremony of marriage is cherished by the people of England very much more scrupulously than are its obligations. A judge feels that his responsibility in a question of pronouncing a marriage null and void is almost greater than he can bear. I believe that one of them never could be induced to believe that he had the power to pronounce such a decree. It all comes from those foolish words in the marriage service, ‘Whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.’ The old powers of the Church survive in that sentence. The marriage was not a civil contract, but a sacrament of the Church, and some nice hanky-panky tricks the Church played in the same connection. And now when the ceremony in the church is only kept on as an excuse for a display of the dernier cri of fashion, and when the civil contract part—the only part that is according to the law of the land—is made the centre of some beautiful but absolutely useless embroidery of words and phrases, the final aweinspiring sentence, ‘Whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder’ is supposed to be the motto on the seal of a sacred bond. But it is really nothing more than the ordinary phrase of a parson addressing his congregation, unless you wish to assume, which for obvious reasons I don’t, that the civil laws of England have the same Divine origin as the Ten Commandments.”

Priscilla smiled. How much plainer he had expressed what she had often tried to express, was what she was thinking at that moment.

Jack was becoming uneasy. If Priscilla and that lawyer were to begin to exchange opinions and compare views on the great marriage question, they might easily remain in that stuffy office for another hour or two. But as usual, Priscilla’s extraordinary capacity for keeping silence came to his aid. She smiled, but said not a word.

“Then how do we stand just now?” asked Jack, picking up his hat.

“Well,” said Mr. Liscomb. “I am bound to say that I am disappointed, but by no means surprised——”

But at this point he must certainly have been surprised; for he sprang from his chair with an exclamation.

It was not to be wondered at; for with a bang and a rush, the man who had just left the room returned to it. He had a paper in his hand—the first edition of an evening paper.

“She has killed him!” cried Captain Lyman. “Lucy has killed him—my sister—there it is—and I didn’t know that she was in England. She must have read about the case and come across! Oh, my God! she has killed him, and I remember her when she was a little girl with golden hair lying in her cot—as innocent as a lamb. Oh, damn him! but he’s in hell now—thank God there’s a hell for him—thank——”

The room was not big enough for the curses that welled up in the big heart of the sailor. The atmosphere became impregnated in a moment with the smell of turpentine and bilge-water, and a freshly opened consignment of flour of sulphur.

Mr. Liscomb had snatched the paper from him. Jack glanced over his shoulder while he read. Priscilla sat down. Her face had become deathly pale. She watched Captain Lyman weeping into a large handkerchief of the bandana variety. She felt as if she were taking part in a tableau.

Then the door opened, and the senior partner entered with another newspaper in his hand.

“Good heavens! you have seen it also?” he cried. “A terrible thing!—a shocking thing!—the best thing that could have happened! Good-morning, Mrs. Wingfield. Don’t allow yourself to be upset. Let me get you a glass of wine—brandy perhaps would be better.”

“There is no need,” said Priscilla. “You see, I don’t know what has happened. Please don’t try to break it gently to me, Mr. Liscomb.”

“A kiddie with curls as fair as flax, ma’am,” cried Captain Lyman, waving his handkerchief in the direction of the lady.

The senior partner stared at him.

“This is Captain Lyman,” said Priscilla.

“Lucy she was called at her christening, and she was as innocent as a lamb before he got hold of her. But she killed him—killed him dead—it’s all in that paper—and I didn’t even know that she was in this country, sir. She didn’t come across to kill him; I’ll swear that she didn’t. But maybe it would have been better if I’d told her the truth.”

“The truth is—ah—sometimes justifiable,” said Mr. Liscomb. “This, however, is a clear case of self-defence. She will not be imprisoned for a day.”

“But she loved him, sir,” said Captain Lyman. “What is it makes women love a man like that; can you tell me?”

“Self-defence,” came the voice of the junior partner. “He was following her with a revolver. He had fired three shots, one of them grazed her shoulder. There were two witnesses—she seized the first weapon that came to her hand—he ran upon the prongs.”

“Justifiable, oh, of course,” said the senior partner. He glanced towards Priscilla. “Bad taste to congratulate her,” he whispered to his brother Reggie. “Get them out of this as soon as possible; and send me in a copy of the writ in Farraget’s case. Get rid of the sailor. He’s no credit to the office.”

“I can’t forget her—fair hair and such sweet blue eyes,” resumed Captain Lyman.

“Come along with us, Captain Lyman,” said Priscilla. “Thank heaven we’ve got rid of them so easily,” said the senior Liscomb.

“The woman did the best job for the Wingfields that ever was done for them,” said the junior. “As the case stood, I doubt very much if Sir Gabriel would have given us a decree, and there was no evidence for a divorce. They can get married to-morrow.”

The next edition of the evening papers contained a full account of the opportune killing of Marcus Blaydon by Lucy Lyman. It happened the previous evening in the strawyard of Athalsdean Farm, where Marcus Blaydon was staying with Mr. Wadhurst. Three of the yardmen saw the woman enter and enquire for Mr. Blaydon; and she had gone, according to their direction, into one of the outhouses where he had been superintending some work, for it seemed that Farmer Wadhurst did not allow him to eat the bread of idleness. The men shortly afterwards heard the sound as of an altercation, and then of a shot. The woman rushed out shrieking, and Blaydon came after her, with a revolver, from which he fired two more shots at her. He was overtaking her when she picked up one of the two-pronged forks with which the bundles of straw were tossed from the carts, and turned upon him with it. He was in the act of rushing at her, but he never reached her; he rushed upon the two prongs of the fork and fell dead at her feet.

That was the whole story; for although the woman was arrested and admitted that she had produced the revolver in the presence of the man in order to terrify him and force him to go away with her, it was perfectly plain that he had got possession of the weapon, and had endeavoured to take her life, his efforts being only frustrated by the accident of the strawyard fork lying in her way when she was trying to escape.

“Justifiable homicide”—that was the phrase which was in everybody’s mouth during the next few days; and everyone who spoke the words added that he or she supposed that Mr. Wingfield and Priscilla would now get married in proper form.

But that was not Priscilla’s intention at all. She meant to have the contract between herself and Marcus Blaydon pronounced null and void in a court of law, and she expressed herself to this effect to Jack. She thought that she would have some trouble in inducing him to see that it would not be just the same thing if they got married the next day; but she found that he was with her on all points in this matter. Messrs. Liscomb and Liscomb were instructed to proceed with the case; and a good many people, when they heard this—including Messrs. Liscomb and Liscomb—said that Mr. Wingfield and Priscilla were a pair of fools.

And that was exactly what the judge said when he was appealed to a couple of months later in the form of a petition by Priscilla. “A pair of young fools!” This was when he was driving home from the court. When he had had a sleep and a game of whist at the Athenaeum, and a chat with his wife, he said again, “A pair of young fools!”

The next day he granted the petition.

It so happened, however, that there was another scene in this matrimonial comedy; for on the very morning after the return of the Wingfields, the Reverend Osney Possnett called upon Priscilla.

“He is come to tout for a job,” was the comment of Mr. Wingfield upon this incident. “Tell him to send in his estimate, and we’ll consider it with the others. Like his cheek to write ‘Most important’ on his card.”

“I cannot understand what he means,” said Priscilla. “Surely he does not hope to persuade me that a judge of a civil court has no authority to pronounce a decree of nullity!”

“You never can tell,” said Jack.

And then the clergyman entered. He was in a state of great agitation, and Priscilla believed that tears were in his eyes.

He went toward her with both hands extended.

“My poor girl—my poor Priscilla!” he cried. “I am to blame—I only am to blame. Such a thing has happened before, but only once, I believe, during the past twenty years.”

“What has happened, Mr. Possnett?” she enquired. “Are you quite sure that you are to blame?”

“Yes, that’s the question,” said Jack, who did not know when to keep silent.

“No, no; it was my fault. I should have made more ample enquiries; but I was in a hurry, and I never dreamt that he was not all right,” cried Mr. Possnett.

“Do you mean about Mr. Sylvanus Purview?” said Priscilla. “If so, we know all about him; he is in prison. We saw him there some time ago.”

“What, you are aware that he was an impostor—that he had forged his ordination papers—that he had never been a priest in holy orders?”

“We heard nothing of that,” said Priscilla. “Major Crosbie heard nothing of it either, I’m sure. He told us that the man was of superior education, and had been sentenced to imprisonment for forgery, but it was in connection with a bond.”

“No one could have told you about his fraud upon me, for he only confessed to me yesterday,” said Mr. Possnett. “He had expressed a desire to the chaplain to see me, and the Governor wrote to me—a cautious letter—mentioning this fact. Of course I went to the prison, and I saw the unfortunate man. He seemed to me to be truly contrite—the chaplain is well known for a zealous preacher. The man’s right name is Samuel Prosser, and he lived in Australia. He was at Melbourne College, and he had a remarkable career in New South Wales. He came to me from a London agency, bearing, as I thought, satisfactory credentials for a locum tenens. He had forged every one of them. He confessed it to me. I believe he would have done so even if he had not seen you at the prison, and heard your story from the chaplain. But I shall never forgive myself—never! Happily yours was the only marriage he celebrated. The usual procedure in such a case is to take legal steps to have all marriages celebrated by a man who, though unqualified, is accepted bona fide by the contracting parties as an authorized clergyman, pronounced valid—it has been resorted to more than once; but in this case——”

“I don’t think we’ll go to that expense,” said Jack. “At least, my wife and I will talk the matter over first.”

“Ah, just so. But my dear Pris—Mrs. Wingfield, can you ever forgive my want of care in this matter? Oh, it will be a warning to me in future—culpable want of care—can you ever forgive me?”

“Well, yes, I think I can,” said Priscilla.

And there is every reason to believe that she did—freely.

“My dear Priscilla, after all you were the most unmarried woman of all the world when you came to me,” said Jack.

“And now I believe that I am the most married,” said she.

And all Framsby left cards the next day.



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