The Dead Alive, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter x.

The Sheriff and the Governor.

THE question of time was now a serious question at Morwick Farm. In six weeks the court for the trial of criminal cases was to be opened at Narrabee.

During this interval no new event of any importance occurred.

Many idle letters reached us relating to the advertisement for John Jago; but no positive information was received. Not the slightest trace of the lost man turned up; not the shadow of a doubt was cast on the assertion of the prosecution, that his body had been destroyed in the kiln. Silas Meadowcroft held firmly to the horrible confession that he had made. His brother Ambrose, with equal resolution, asserted his innocence, and reiterated the statement which he had already advanced. At regular periods I accompanied Naomi to visit him in the prison. As the day appointed for the opening of the court approached, he seemed to falter a little in his resolution; his manner became restless; and he grew irritably suspicious about the merest trifles. This change did not necessarily imply the consciousness of guilt: it might merely have indicated natural nervous agitation as the time for the trial drew near. Naomi noticed the alteration in her lover. It greatly increased her anxiety, though it never shook her confidence in Ambrose. Except at meal-times, I was left, during the period of which I am now writing, almost constantly alone with the charming American girl. Miss Meadowcroft searched the newspapers for tidings of the living John Jago in the privacy of her own room. Mr. Meadowcroft would see nobody but his daughter and his doctor, and occasionally one or two old friends. I have since had reason to believe that Naomi, in these days of our intimate association, discovered the true nature of the feeling with which she had inspired me. But she kept her secret. Her manner toward me steadily remained the manner of a sister; she never overstepped by a hair-breadth the safe limits of the character that she had assumed.

The sittings of the court began. After hearing the evidence, and examining the confession of Silas Meadowcroft, the grand jury found a true bill against both the prisoners. The day appointed for their trial was the first day in the new week.

I had carefully prepared Naomi’s mind for the decision of the grand jury. She bore the new blow bravely.

“If you are not tired of it,” she said, “come with me to the prison tomorrow. Ambrose will need a little comfort by that time.” She paused, and looked at the day’s letters lying on the table. “Still not a word about John Jago,” she said. “And all the papers have copied the advertisement. I felt so sure we should hear of him long before this!”

“Do you still feel sure that he is living?” I ventured to ask.

“I am as certain of it as ever,” she replied, firmly. “He is somewhere in hiding; perhaps he is in disguise. Suppose we know no more of him than we know now when the trial begins? Suppose the jury —” She stopped, shuddering. Death — shameful death on the scaffold — might be the terrible result of the consultation of the jury. “We have waited for news to come to us long enough,” Naomi resumed. “We must find the tracks of John Jago for ourselves. There is a week yet before the trial begins. Who will help me to make inquiries? Will you be the man, friend Lefrank?”

It is needless to add (though I knew nothing would come of it) that I consented to be the man.

We arranged to apply that day for the order of admission to the prison, and, having seen Ambrose, to devote ourselves immediately to the contemplated search. How that search was to be conducted was more than I could tell, and more than Naomi could tell. We were to begin by applying to the police to help us to find John Jago, and we were then to be guided by circumstances. Was there ever a more hopeless programme than this?

“Circumstances” declared themselves against us at starting. I applied, as usual, for the order of admission to the prison, and the order was for the first time refused; no reason being assigned by the persons in authority for taking this course. Inquire as I might, the only answer given was, “not to-day.”

At Naomi’s suggestion, we went to the prison to seek the explanation which was refused to us at the office. The jailer on duty at the outer gate was one of Naomi’s many admirers. He solved the mystery cautiously in a whisper. The sheriff and the governor of the prison were then speaking privately with Ambrose Meadowcroft in his cell; they had expressly directed that no persons should be admitted to see the prisoner that day but themselves.

What did it mean? We returned, wondering, to the farm. There Naomi, speaking by chance to one of the female servants, made certain discoveries.

Early that morning the sheriff had been brought to Morwick by an old friend of the Meadowcrofts. A long interview had been held between Mr. Meadowcroft and his daughter and the official personage introduced by the friend. Leaving the farm, the sheriff had gone straight to the prison, and had proceeded with the governor to visit Ambrose in his cell. Was some potent influence being brought privately to bear on Ambrose? Appearances certainly suggested that inquiry. Supposing the influence to have been really exerted, the next question followed, What was the object in view? We could only wait and see.

Our patience was not severely tried. The event of the next day enlightened us in a very unexpected manner. Before noon, the neighbors brought startling news from the prison to the farm.

Ambrose Meadowcroft had confessed himself to be the murderer of John Jago! He had signed the confession in the presence of the sheriff and the governor on that very day.

I saw the document. It is needless to reproduce it here. In substance, Ambrose confessed what Silas had confessed; claiming, however, to have only struck Jago under intolerable provocation, so as to reduce the nature of his offense against the law from murder to manslaughter. Was the confession really the true statement of what had taken place? or had the sheriff and the governor, acting in the interests of the family name, persuaded Ambrose to try this desperate means of escaping the ignominy of death on the scaffold? The sheriff and the governor preserved impenetrable silence until the pressure put on them judicially at the trial obliged them to speak.

Who was to tell Naomi of this last and saddest of all the calamities which had fallen on her? Knowing how I loved her in secret, I felt an invincible reluctance to be the person who revealed Ambrose Meadowcroft’s degradation to his betrothed wife. Had any other member of the family told her what had happened? The lawyer was able to answer me; Miss Meadowcroft had told her.

I was shocked when I heard it. Miss Meadowcroft was the last person in the house to spare the poor girl; Miss Meadowcroft would make the hard tidings doubly terrible to bear in the telling. I tried to find Naomi, without success. She had been always accessible at other times. Was she hiding herself from me now? The idea occurred to me as I was descending the stairs after vainly knocking at the door of her room. I was determined to see her. I waited a few minutes, and then ascended the stairs again suddenly. On the landing I met her, just leaving her room.

She tried to run back. I caught her by the arm, and detained her. With her free hand she held her handkerchief over her face so as to hide it from me.

“You once told me I had comforted you,” I said to her, gently. “Won’t you let me comfort you now?”

She still struggled to get away, and still kept her head turned from me.

“Don’t you see that I am ashamed to look you in the face?” she said, in low, broken tones. “Let me go.”

I still persisted in trying to soothe her. I drew her to the window-seat. I said I would wait until she was able to speak to me.

She dropped on the seat, and wrung her hands on her lap. Her downcast eyes still obstinately avoided meeting mine.

“Oh!” she said to herself, “what madness possessed me? Is it possible that I ever disgraced myself by loving Ambrose Meadowcroft?” She shuddered as the idea found its way to expression on her lips. The tears rolled slowly over her cheeks. “Don’t despise me, Mr. Lefrank!” she said, faintly.

I tried, honestly tried, to put the confession before her in its least unfavorable light.

“His resolution has given way,” I said. “He has done this, despairing of proving his innocence, in terror of the scaffold.”

She rose, with an angry stamp of her foot. She turned her face on me with the deep-red flush of shame in it, and the big tears glistening in her eyes.

“No more of him!” she said, sternly. “If he is not a murderer, what else is he? A liar and a coward! In which of his characters does he disgrace me most? I have done with him forever! I will never speak to him again!” She pushed me furiously away from her; advanced a few steps toward her own door; stopped, and came back to me. The generous nature of the girl spoke in her next words. “I am not ungrateful to you, friend Lefrank. A woman in my place is only a woman; and, when she is shamed as I am, she feels it very bitterly. Give me your hand! God bless you!”

She put my hand to her lips before I was aware of her, and kissed it, and ran back into her room.

I sat down on the place which she had occupied. She had looked at me for one moment when she kissed my hand. I forgot Ambrose and his confession; I forgot the coming trial; I forgot my professional duties and my English friends. There I sat, in a fool’s elysium of my own making, with absolutely nothing in my mind but the picture of Naomi’s face at the moment when she had last looked at me!

I have already mentioned that I was in love with her. I merely add this to satisfy you that I tell the truth.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30