Castle Richmond, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XXXIX

Fox-Hunting in Spinny Lane

I think it will be acknowledged that Mr. Prendergast had said no word throughout the conversation recorded in a late chapter as having taken place between him and Herbert Fitzgerald over their wine, which could lead Herbert to think it possible that he might yet recover his lost inheritance; but nevertheless during the whole of that evening he held in his pocket a letter, received by him only that afternoon, which did encourage him to think that such an event might at any rate be possible. And, indeed, he held in his pocket two letters, having a tendency to the same effect, but we shall have nothing now to say as to that letter from Mr. Somers of which we have spoken before.

It must be understood that up to this time certain inquiries had been going on with reference to the life of Mr. Matthew Mollett, and that these inquiries were being made by agents employed by Mr. Prendergast. He had found that Mollett’s identity with Talbot had been so fully proved as to make it, in his opinion, absolutely necessary that Herbert and his mother should openly give up Castle Richmond. But, nevertheless, without a hope, and in obedience solely to what he felt that prudence demanded in so momentous a matter, he did prosecute all manner of inquiries; — but prosecuted them altogether in vain. And now, O thou most acute of lawyers, this new twinkling spark of hope has come to thee from a source whence thou least expectedst it!

Quod minime reris Graia pandetur ab urbe.

And then, as soon as Herbert was gone from him, crossing one leg over the other as he sat in his easy chair, he took it from his pocket and read it for the third time. The signature at the end of it was very plain and legible, being that of a scholar no less accomplished than Mr. Abraham Mollett. This letter we will have entire, though it was not perhaps as short as it might have been. It ran as follows:—

“45 Tabernacle row London April — 1847.

“RESPECTIT SIR—

“In hall them doings about the Fitsjerrals at Carsal Richmon I halways felt the most profound respict for you because you wanted to do the thing as was rite wich was what I halways wanted to myself only coodent becase of the guvnor. ‘Let the right un win, guvnor,’ said I, hover hand hover again; but no, he woodent. And what cood the likes of me do then seeing as ow I was obligated by the forth comanment to honor my father and mother, wich however if it wasent that she was ded leving me a horphand there woodent av been none of this trobbel. If she ad livd Mr. Pindargrasp Ide av been brot hup honest, and thats what I weps for. But she dide and my guvnor why hes been a gitten the rong side of the post hever sins that hunfortunate day. Praps you knows Mr. Pindargrasp what it is to lose a mother in your herly hinfantsey. But I was at the guvnor hovers and hovers agin, but hall of no yuse. ‘He as stumpt hoff with my missus and now he shall stump hup the reddy.’ Them was my guvnors hown words halways. Well, Mr. Pindargrasp; what does I do. It warnt no good my talking to him he was for going so confounedly the rong side of the post. But I new as how Appy ouse Fitsjerral was the orse as ort to win. Leestways I thawt I new it, and so you thawt too Mr. Pindargrasp only we was both running the rong cent. But what did I do when I was so confounedly disgusted by my guvnor ankring after the baronnites money wich it wasn’t rite nor yet onest. Why I went meself to Appy ouse as you noes Mr. Pindargrasp, and was the first to tel the Appy ouse gent hall about it. But what dos he do. Hoh, Mr. Pindargrasp, I shal never forgit that faitel day and only he got me hunewairs by the scruf of the nek Im has good a man as he hevery day of the week. But you was ther Mr. Pindargrasp and noes wat I got for befrindin the Appy ouse side wich was agin the guvnor and he as brot me to the loest pich of distress in the way of rino seein the guvnor as cut of my halowence becase I wint agin his hinterest.

“And now Mr. Pindargrasp I ave a terrible secret to hunraffel wich will put the sadel on the rite orse at last and as I does hall this agin my own guvnor wich of corse I love derely I do hope Mr. Pindargrasp you wont see me haltoogether left in the lerch. A litel something to go on with at furst wood be very agrebbel for indeed Mr. Pindargrasp its uncommon low water with your umbel servant at this presant moment. And now wat I has to say is this — Lady Fits warnt niver my guvnors wife hat all becase why hed a wife alivin has I can pruv and will and shes alivin now number 7 Spinny lane Centbotollfs intheheast. Now I do call that noos worse a Jews high Mr. Pindargrasp and I opes youll see me honestly delt with sein as how I coms forward and tels it hall without any haskin and cood keep it all to miself and no one coodent be the wiser only I chews to do the thing as is rite.

“You may fine out hall about it hall at number 7 Spinny lane and I advises you to go there immejat. Missus Mary Swan thats what she calls herself but her richeous name his Mollett — and why not seein who is er usban. So no more at presence but will come foward hany day to pruv hall this agin my guvnor becase he arnt doing the thing as is rite and I looks to you Mr. Pindargrasp to see as I gits someat ansum sein as ow I coms forward agin the Appy ouse gent and for the hother party oos side you is a bakkin.

“I ham respictit Sir

“Your umbel servant to command,

“ABM. MOLLETT.”

I cannot say that Mr. Prendergast believed much of this terribly long epistle when he first received it, or felt himself imbued with any great hope that his old friend’s wife might be restored to her name and rank, and his old friend’s son to his estate and fortune. But nevertheless he knew that it was worth inquiry. That Aby Mollett had been kicked out of Hap House in a manner that must have been mortifying to his feelings, Mr. Prendergast had himself seen; and that he would, therefore, do anything in his power to injure Owen Fitzgerald, Mr. Prendergast was quite sure. That he was a viler wretch even than his father, Mr. Prendergast suspected — having been led to think so by words which had fallen from Sir Thomas, and being further confirmed in that opinion by the letter now in his hand. He was not, therefore, led into any strong opinion that these new tidings were of value. And, indeed, he was prone to disbelieve them, because they ran counter to a conviction which had already been made in his own heart, and had been extensively acted on by him. Nevertheless he resolved that even Aby’s letter deserved attention, and that it should receive that attention early on the following morning.

And thus he had sat for the three hours after dinner, chatting comfortably with his young friend, and holding this letter in his pocket. Had he shown it to Herbert, or spoken of it, he would have utterly disturbed the equilibrium of the embryo law student, and rendered his entrance in Mr. Die’s chambers absolutely futile. “Ten will not be too early for you,” he had said. “Mr. Die is always in his room by that hour.” Herbert had of course declared that ten would not be at all too early for him; and Mr. Prendergast had observed that after leaving Mr. Die’s chambers, he himself would go on to the City. He might have said beyond the City, for his intended expedition was to Spinny lane, at St. Botolph’s in the East When Herbert was gone he sat musing over his fire with Aby’s letter still in his hand. A lawyer has always a sort of affection for a scoundrel — such affection as a hunting man has for a fox. He loves to watch the skill and dodges of the animal, to study the wiles by which he lives, and to circumvent them by wiles of his own, still more wily. It is his glory to run the beast down; but then he would not for worlds run him down, except in conformity with certain laws, fixed by old custom for the guidance of men in such sports. And the two-legged vermin is adapted for pursuit as is the fox with four legs. He is an unclean animal, leaving a scent upon his trail, which the nose of your acute law hound can pick up over almost any ground. And the more wily the beast is, the longer he can run, the more trouble he can give in the pursuit, the longer he can stand up before a pack of legal hounds, the better does the forensic sportsman love and value him. There are foxes of so excellent a nature, so keen in their dodges, so perfect in their cunning, so skilful in evasion, that a sportsman cannot find it in his heart to push them to their destruction unless the field be very large so that many eyes are looking on. And the feeling is I think the same with lawyers.

Mr. Prendergast had always felt a tenderness towards the Molletts, father and son — a tenderness which would by no means have prevented him from sending them both to the halter had that been necessary, and had they put themselves so far in his power. Much as the sportsman loves the fox, it is a moment to him of keen enjoyment when he puts his heavy boot on the beast’s body — the expectant dogs standing round demanding their prey — and there both beheads and betails him. “A grand old dog,” he says to those around him. “I know him well. It was he who took us that day from Poulnarer, through Castlecor, and right away to Drumcollogher.” And then he throws the heavy carcase to the hungry hounds. And so could Mr. Prendergast have delivered up either of the Molletts to be devoured by the dogs of the law; but he did not the less love them tenderly while they were yet running.

And so he sat with the letter in his hand, smiling to think that the father and son had come to grief among themselves; smiling also at the dodge by which, as he thought most probable, Aby Mollett was striving to injure the man who had kicked him, and raise a little money for his own private needs. There was too much earnestness in that prayer for cash to leave Mr. Prendergast in any doubt as to Aby’s trust that money would be forthcoming. There must be something in the dodge, or Aby would not have had such trust.

And the lawyer felt that he might, perhaps, be inclined to give some little assistance to poor Aby in the soreness of his needs. Foxes will not do well in any country which is not provided with their natural food. Rats they eat, and if rats be plentiful it is so far good. But one should not begrudge them occasional geese and turkeys, or even break one’s heart if they like a lamb in season. A fox will always run well when he has come far from home seeking his breakfast.

Poor Aby, when he had been so cruelly treated by the “gent of Appy ouse,” whose side in the family dispute he had latterly been so anxious to take, had remained crouching for some hour or two in Owen’s kitchen, absolutely mute. The servants there for a while felt sure that he was dying; but in their master’s present mood they did not dare to go near him with any such tidings. And then when the hounds were gone, and the place was again quiet, Aby gradually roused himself, allowed them to wash the blood from his hands and face, to restore him to life by whisky and scraps of food, and gradually got himself into his car, and so back to the Kanturk Hotel, in South Main Street, Cork.

But, alas, his state there was more wretched by far than it had been in the Hap House kitchen. That his father had fled was no more than he expected. Each had known that the other would now play some separate secret game. But not the less did he complain loudly when he heard that “his guvnor” had not paid the bill, and had left neither money nor message for him. How Fanny had scorned and upbraided him, and ordered Tom to turn him out of the house “neck and crop;” how he had squared at Tom, and ultimately had been turned out of the house “neck and crop,”— whatever that may mean — by Fanny’s father, needs not here to be particularly narrated. With much suffering and many privations — such as foxes in their solitary wanderings so often know — he did find his way to London; and did, moreover, by means of such wiles as foxes have, find out something as to his “guvnor’s” whereabouts, and some secrets also as to his “guvnor” which his “guvnor” would fain have kept to himself had it been possible. And then, also, he again found for himself a sort of home — or hole rather — in his old original gorse covert of London; somewhere among the Jews, we may surmise, from the name of the row from which he dated; and here, setting to work once more with his usual cunning industry — for your fox is very industrious — he once more attempted to build up a slender fortune by means of the “Fitsjerral” family. The grand days in which he could look for the hand of the fair Emmeline were all gone by; but still the property had been too good not to leave something for which he might grasp. Properly worked, by himself alone, as he said to himself, it might still yield him some comfortable returns, especially as he should be able to throw over that “confounded old guvnor of his.”

He remained at home the whole of the day after his letter was written, indeed for the next three days, thinking that Mr. Prendergast would come to him, or send for him; but Mr. Prendergast did neither the one nor the other. Mr. Prendergast took his advice instead, and putting himself into a Hansom cab, had himself driven to “Centbotollfs intheheast.”

Spinny Lane, St. Botolph’s in the East, when at last it was found, was not exactly the sort of place that Mr. Prendergast had expected. It must be known that he did not allow the cabman to drive him up to the very door indicated, nor even to the lane itself; but contented himself with leaving the cab at St. Botolph’s church. The huntsman in looking after his game is as wily as the fox himself. Men do not talk at the covert side — or at any rate they ought not. And they should stand together discreetly at the non-running side. All manner of wiles and silences and discretions are necessary, though too often broken through by the uninstructed — much to their own discomfort. And so in hunting his fox, Mr. Prendergast did not dash up loudly into the covert, but discreetly left his cab at the church of St. Botolph’s.

Spinny Lane, when at last found by intelligence given to him at the baker’s — never in such unknown regions ask a lad in the street, for he invariably will accompany you, talking of your whereabouts very loudly, so that people stare at you, and ask each other what can possibly be your business in those parts — Spinny Lane, I say, was not the sort of locality that he had expected. He knew the look of the half-protected, half-condemned Alsatias of the present-day rascals, and Spinny Lane did not at all bear their character. It was a street of small new tenements, built, as yet, only on one side of the way, with the pavement only one third finished, and the stones in the road as yet unbroken and untrodden. Of such streets there are thousands now round London. They are to be found in every suburb, creating wonder in all thoughtful minds as to who can be their tens of thousands of occupants. The houses are a little too good for artisans, too small and too silent to be the abode of various lodgers, and too mean for clerks who live on salaries. They are as dull-looking as Lethe itself, dull and silent, dingy and repulsive. But they are not discreditable in appearance, and never have that Mohawk look which by some unknown sympathy in bricks and mortar attaches itself to the residences of professional ruffians.

Number seven he found to be as quiet and decent a house as any in the row, and having inspected it from a little distance he walked up briskly to the door, and rang the bell. He walked up briskly in order that his advance might not be seen; unless, indeed, as he began to think not impossible, Aby’s statement was altogether a hoax.

“Does a woman named Mrs. Mary Swan live here?” he asked of a decent-looking young woman of some seven or eight and twenty, who opened the door for him. She was decent looking, but poverty stricken and wan with work and care, and with that heaviness about her which perpetual sorrow always gives. Otherwise she would not have been ill featured; and even as it was she was feminine and soft in her gait and manner. “Does Mrs. Mary Swan live here?” asked Mr. Prendergast in a mild voice.

She at once said Mrs. Mary Swan did live there; but she stood with the door in her hand by no means fully opened, as though she did not wish to ask him to enter; and yet there was nothing in her tone to repel him. Mr. Prendergast at once felt that he was on the right scent, and that it behoved him at any rate to make his way into that house; for if ever a modest-looking daughter was like an immodest-looking father, that young woman was like Mr. Mollett senior.

“Then I will see her, if you please,” said Mr. Prendergast, entering the passage without her invitation. Not that he pushed in with roughness, but she receded before the authority of his tone, and obeyed the command which she read in his eye. The poor young woman hesitated as though it had been her intention to declare that Mrs. Swan was not within; but if so, she had not strength to carry out her purpose, for in the next moment Mr. Prendergast found himself in the presence of the woman he had come to seek.

“Mrs. Mary Swan?” said Mr. Prendergast, asking a question as to her identity.

“Yes, sir, that is my name,” said a sickly-looking elderly woman, rising from her chair.

The room in which the two had been sitting was very poor; but nevertheless it was neat, and arranged with some attention to appearance. It was not carpeted, but there was a piece of drugget some three yards long spread before the fireplace. The wall had been papered from time to time with scraps of different coloured paper, as opportunity offered. The table on which the work of the two women was lying was very old and somewhat rickety, but it was of mahogany; and Mrs. Mary Swan herself was accommodated with a high-backed arm-chair, which gave some appearance of comfort to her position. It was now spring; but they had a small, very small fire in the small grate, on which a pot had been placed in hopes that it might be induced to boil. All these things did the eye of Mr. Prendergast take in; but the fact which his eye took in with its keenest glance was this — that on the other side of the fire to that on which sat Mrs. Mary Swan, there was a second arm-chair standing close over the fender, an ordinary old mahogany chair, in which it was evident that the younger woman had not been sitting. Her place had been close to the table-side, where her needles and thread were still lying. But the arm-chair was placed idly away from any accommodation for work, and had, as Mr. Prendergast thought, been recently filled by some idle person.

The woman who rose from her chair as she declared herself to be Mary Swan was old and sickly looking, but nevertheless there was that about her which was prepossessing. Her face was thin and delicate and pale, and not hard and coarse; her voice was low, as a woman’s should be, and her hands were white and small. Her clothes, though very poor, were neat, and worn as a poor lady might have worn them. Though there was in her face an aspect almost of terror as she owned to her name in the stranger’s presence, yet there was also about her a certain amount of female dignity, which made Mr. Prendergast feel that it behoved him to treat her not only with gentleness, but also with respect.

“I want to say a few words to you,” said he, “in consequence of a letter I have received; perhaps you will allow me to sit down for a minute or two.”

“Certainly, sir, certainly. This is my daughter, Mary Swan; do you wish that she should leave the room, sir?” And Mary Swan, as her mother spoke, got up and prepared to depart quietly.

“By no means, by no means,” said Mr. Prendergast, putting his hand out so as to detain her. “I would much rather that she should remain, as it may be very likely that she may assist me in my inquiries. You will know who I am, no doubt, when I mention my name; Mr. Mollett will have mentioned me to you — I am Mr. Prendergast.”

“No, sir, he never did,” said Mrs. Swan.

“Oh!” said Mr. Prendergast, having ascertained that Mr. Mollett was at any rate well known at No. 7, Spinny Lane. “I thought that he might probably have done so. He is at home at present, I believe?”

“Sir?” said Mary Swan senior.

“Your father is at home, I believe?” said Mr. Prendergast, turning to the younger woman.

“Sir?” said Mary Swan junior. It was clear at any rate that the women were not practised liars, for they could not bring themselves on the spur of the moment to deny that he was in the house.

Mr. Prendergast did not wish to be confronted at present with Matthew Mollett. Such a step might or might not be desirable before the termination of the interview; but at the present moment he thought that he might probably learn more from the two women as they were than he would do if Mollett were with them.

It had been acknowledged to him that Mollett was living in that house, that he was now at home, and also that the younger woman present before him was the child of Mollett and of Mary Swan the elder. That the young woman was older than Herbert Fitzgerald, and that therefore the connection between Mollett and her mother must have been prior to that marriage down in Dorsetshire, he was sure; but then it might still be possible that there had been no marriage between Mollett and Mary Swan. If he could show that they had been man and wife when that child was born, then would his old friend Mr. Die lose his new pupil.

“I have a letter in my pocket, Mrs. Swan, from Abraham Mollett —” Mr. Prendergast commenced, pulling out the letter in question.

“He is nothing to me, sir,” said the woman, almost in a tone of anger. “I know nothing whatever about him.”

“So I should have supposed from the respectability of your appearance, if I may be allowed to say so.”

“Nothing at all, sir; and as for that, we do try to keep ourselves respectable. But this is a very hard world for some people to live in. It has been very hard to me and this poor girl here.”

“It is a hard world to some people, and to some honest people, too — which is harder still.”

“We’ve always tried to be honest,” said Mary Swan the elder.

“I am sure you have; and permit me to say, madam, that you will find it at the last to be the best policy; — at the last, even as far as this world is concerned. But about this letter — I can assure you that I have never thought of identifying you with Abraham Mollett.”

“His mother was dead, sir, before ever I set eyes on him or his father; and though I tried to do my —” and then she stopped herself suddenly. Honesty might be the best policy, but, nevertheless, was it necessary that she should tell everything to this stranger?

“Ah, yes; Abraham’s mother was dead before you were married,” said Mr. Prendergast, hunting his fox ever so craftily — his fox whom he knew to be lying in ambush upstairs. It was of course possible that old Mollett should slip away out of the back door and over a wall. If foxes did not do those sort of things they would not be worth half the attention that is paid to them. But Mr. Prendergast was well on the scent; all that a sportsman wants is good scent. He would rather not have a view till the run comes to its close. “But,” continued Mr. Prendergast, “it is necessary that I should say a few words to you about this letter. Abraham’s mother was, I suppose, not exactly an — an educated woman?”

“I never saw her, sir.”

“She died when he was very young?”

“Four years old, sir.”

“And her son hardly seems to have had much education?”

“It was his own fault, sir; I sent him to school when he came to me, though, goodness knows, sir, I was short enough of means of doing so. He had better opportunities than my own daughter there, and though I say it myself, who ought not to say it, she is a good scholar.”

“I’m sure she is — and a very good young woman too, if I can judge by her appearance. But about this letter. I am afraid your husband has not been so particular in his way of living as he should have been.”

“What could I do, sir? a poor weak woman!”

“Nothing; what you could do, I’m sure you did do.”

“I’ve always kept a house over my head, though it’s very humble, as you see, sir. And he has had a morsel to eat and a cup to drink of when he has come here. It is not often that he has troubled me this many years past.”

“Mother,” said Mary Swan the younger, “the gentleman won’t care to know about, about all that between you and father.”

“Ah, but it is just what I do care to know.”

“But, sir, father perhaps mightn’t choose it.”

The obedience of women to men — to those men to whom they are legally bound — is, I think, the most remarkable trait in human nature. Nothing equals it but the instinctive loyalty of a dog. Of course we hear of gray mares, and of garments worn by the wrong persons. Xanthippe doubtless did live, and the character from time to time is repeated; but the rule, I think, is as I have said.

“Mrs. Swan,” said Mr. Prendergast, “I should think myself dishonest were I to worm your secrets out of you, seeing that you are yourself so truthful and so respectable.” Perhaps it may be thought that Mr. Prendergast was a little late in looking at the matter in this light. “But it behoves me to learn much of the early history of your husband, who is now living with you here, and whose name, as I take it, is not Swan, but Mollett. Your maiden name probably was Swan?”

“But I was honestly married, sir, in the parish church at Putney, and that young woman was honestly born.”

“I am quite sure of it. I have never doubted it. But as I was saying, I have come here for information about your husband, and I do not like to ask you questions off your guard,”— oh, Mr. Prendergast! —“and therefore I think it right to tell you, that neither I nor those for whom I am concerned have any wish to bear more heavily than we can help upon your husband, if he will only come forward with willingness to do that which we can make him do either willingly or unwillingly.”

“But what was it about Abraham’s letter, sir?”

“Well, it does not so much signify now.”

“It was he sent you here, was it, sir? How has he learned where we are, Mary?” and the poor woman turned to her daughter. “The truth is, sir, he has never known anything of us for these twenty years, nor we of him. I have not set eyes on him for more than twenty years — not that I know of. And he never knew me by any other name than Swan, and when he was a child he took me for his aunt.”

“He hasn’t known then that you and his father were husband and wife?”

“I have always thought he didn’t, sir. But how —”

Then after all the young fox had not been so full of craft as the elder one, thought Mr. Prendergast to himself. But nevertheless, he still liked the old fox best. There are foxes that run so uncommonly short that you can never get a burst after them.

“I suppose, Mrs. Swan,” continued Mr. Prendergast, “that you have heard the name of Fitzgerald?”

The poor woman sat silent and amazed, but after a moment the daughter answered him. “My mother, sir, would rather that you should ask her no questions.”

“But, my good girl, your mother, I suppose, would wish to protect your father, and she would not wish to answer these questions in a court of law.”

“Heaven forbid!” said the poor woman.

“Your father has behaved very badly to an unfortunate lady whose friend I am, and on her behalf I must learn the truth.”

“He has behaved badly, sir, to a great many ladies,” said Mrs. Swan, or Mrs. Mollett as we may now call her.

“You are aware, are you not, that he went through a form of marriage with this lady many years ago?” said Mr. Prendergast, almost severely.

“Let him answer for himself,” said the true wife. “Mary, go upstairs, and ask your father to come down.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43