Castle Richmond, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter XL

The Fox in His Earth

Mary Swan the younger hesitated a moment before she executed her mother’s order, not saying anything, but looking doubtfully up into her mother’s face. “Go, my dear,” said the old woman, “and ask your father to come down. It is no use denying him.”

“None in the least,” said Mr. Prendergast; and then the daughter went.

For ten minutes the lawyer and the old woman sat alone, during which time the ear of the former was keenly alive to any steps that might be heard on the stairs or above head. Not that he would himself have taken any active measures to prevent Mr. Mollett’s escape, had such an attempt been made. The woman could be a better witness for him than the man, and there would be no fear of her running. Nevertheless, he was anxious that Mollett should, of his own accord, come into his presence.

“I am sorry to keep you so long waiting, sir,” said Mrs. Swan.

“It does not signify. I can easily understand that your husband should wish to reflect a little before he speaks to me. I can forgive that.”

“And, sir —”

“Well, Mrs. Mollett?”

“Are you going to do anything to punish him, sir? If a poor woman may venture to speak a word, I would beg you on my bended knees to be merciful to him. If you would forgive him now I think he would live honest, and be sorry for what he has done.”

“He has worked terrible evil,” said Mr. Prendergast solemnly. “Do you know that he has harassed a poor gentleman into his grave?”

“Heaven be merciful to him!” said the poor woman. “But, sir, was not that his son? Was it not Abraham Mollett who did that? Oh, sir, if you will let a poor wife speak, it is he that has been worse than his father.”

Before Mr. Prendergast had made up his mind how he would answer her, he heard the sound of footsteps slowly descending upon the stairs. They were those of a person who stepped heavily and feebly, and it was still a minute before the door was opened.

“Sir,” said the woman. “Sir,” and as she spoke she looked eagerly into his face —“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us. We should all remember that, sir.”

“True, Mrs. Mollett, quite true,” and Mr. Prendergast rose from his chair as the door opened.

It will be remembered that Mr. Prendergast and Matthew Mollett had met once before, in the room usually occupied by Sir Thomas Fitzgerald. On that occasion Mr. Mollett had at any rate entered the chamber with some of the prestige of power about him. He had come to Castle Richmond as the man having the whip hand; and though his courage had certainly fallen somewhat before he left it, nevertheless he had not been so beaten down but what he was able to say a word or two for himself. He had been well in health and decent in appearance, and even as he left the room had hardly realized the absolute ruin which had fallen upon him.

But now he looked as though he had realized it with sufficient clearness. He was lean and sick and pale, and seemed to be ten years older than when Mr. Prendergast had last seen him. He was wrapped in an old dressing-gown, and had a night-cap on his head, and coughed violently before he got himself into his chair. It is hard for any tame domestic animal to know through what fire and water a poor fox is driven as it is hunted from hole to hole and covert to covert. It is a wonderful fact, but no less a fact, that no men work so hard and work for so little pay as scoundrels who strive to live without any work at all, and to feed on the sweat of other men’s brows. Poor Matthew Mollett had suffered dire misfortune, had encountered very hard lines, betwixt that day on which he stole away from the Kanturk Hotel in South Main Street, Cork, and that other day on which he presented himself, cold and hungry and almost sick to death, at the door of his wife’s house in Spinny Lane, St. Botolph’s in the East.

He never showed himself there unless when hard pressed indeed, and then he would skulk in, seeking for shelter and food, and pleading with bated voice his husband right to assistance and comfort. Nor was his plea ever denied him.

On this occasion he had arrived in very bad plight indeed: he had brought away from Cork nothing but what he could carry on his body, and had been forced to pawn what he could pawn in order that he might subsist. And then he had been taken with ague, and with the fit strong on him had crawled away to Spinny Lane, and had there been nursed by the mother and daughter whom he had ill used, deserted, and betrayed. “When the devil was sick the devil a monk would be;” and now his wife, credulous as all women are in such matters, believed the devil’s protestations. A time may perhaps come when even — But stop! — or I may chance to tread on the corns of orthodoxy. What I mean to insinuate is this; that it was on the cards that Mr. Mollett would now at last turn over a new leaf.

“How do you do, Mr. Mollett?” said Mr. Prendergast. “I am sorry to see you looking so poorly.”

“Yes, sir. I am poorly enough certainly. I have been very ill since I last had the pleasure of seeing you, sir.”

“Ah, yes, that was at Castle Richmond; was it not? Well, you have done the best thing that a man can do; you have come home to your wife and family now that you are ill and require their attendance.”

Mr. Mollett looked up at him with a countenance full of unutterable woe and weakness. What was he to say on such a subject in such a company? There sat his wife and daughter, his veritable wife and true-born daughter, on whom he was now dependent, and in whose hands he lay, as a sick man does lie in the hands of women: could he deny them? And there sat the awful Mr. Prendergast, the representative of all that Fitzgerald interest which he had so wronged, and who up to this morning had at any rate believed the story with which he, Mollett, had pushed his fortunes in county Cork. Could he in his presence acknowledge that Lady Fitzgerald had never been his wife? It must be confessed that he was in a sore plight. And then remember his ague!

“You feel yourself tolerably comfortable, I suppose, now that you are with your wife and daughter,” continued Mr. Prendergast, most inhumanly.

Mr. Mollett continued to look at him so piteously from beneath his nightcap. “I am better than I was, thank you, sir,” said he.

“There is nothing like the bosom of one’s family for restoring one to health; is there, Mrs. Mollett; — or for keeping one in health?”

“I wish you gentlemen would think so,” said she, dryly.

“As for me, I never was blessed with a wife. When I am sick I have to trust to hired attendance. In that respect I am not so fortunate as your husband; I am only an old bachelor.”

“Oh, ain’t you, sir?” said Mrs. Mollett; “and perhaps it’s best so. It ain’t all married people that are the happiest.”

The daughter during this time was sitting intent on her work, not lifting her face from the shirt she was sewing. But an observer might have seen from her forehead and eye that she was not only listening to what was said, but thinking and meditating on the scene before her.

“Well, Mr. Mollett,” said Mr. Prendergast, “you at any rate are not an old bachelor.” Mr. Mollett still looked piteously at him, but said nothing. It may be thought that in all this Mr. Prendergast was more cruel than necessary, but it must be remembered that it was incumbent on him to bring the poor wretch before him down absolutely on his marrow-bones. Mollett must be made to confess his sin, and own that this woman before him was his real wife; and the time for mercy had not commenced till that had been done.

And then his daughter spoke, seeing how things were going with him. “Father,” said she, “this gentleman has called because he has had a letter from Abraham Mollett: and he was speaking about what Abraham has been doing in Ireland.”

“Oh dear, oh dear!” said poor Mollett. “The unfortunate young man; that wretched, unfortunate young man! He will bring me to the grave at last — to the grave at last.”

“Come, Mr. Mollett,” said Mr. Prendergast, now getting up and standing with his back to the fire, “I do not know that you and I need beat about the bush much longer. I suppose I may speak openly before these ladies as to what has been taking place in county Cork.”

“Sir!” said Mr. Mollett, with a look of deprecation about his mouth that ought to have moved the lawyer’s heart.

“I know nothing about it,” said Mrs. Mollett, very stiffly.

“Yes, mother, we do know something about it; and the gentleman may speak out if it so pleases him. It will be better, father, for you that he should do so.”

“Very well, my dear,” said Mr. Mollett, in the lowest possible voice; “whatever the gentleman likes — only I do hope —” and he uttered a deep sigh, and gave no further expression to his hopes or wishes.

“I presume, in the first place,” began Mr. Prendergast, “that this lady here is your legal wife, and this younger lady your legitimate daughter? There is no doubt, I take it, as to that?”

“Not — any — doubt — in the world, sir,” said the Mrs. Mollett, who claimed to be so de jure. “I have got my marriage lines to show, sir. Abraham’s mother was dead just six months before we came together; and then we were married just six months after that.”

“Well, Mr. Mollett; I suppose you do not wish to contradict that?”

“He can’t, sir, whether he wish it or not,” said Mrs. Mollett.

“Could you show me that — that marriage certificate?” asked Mr. Prendergast.

Mrs. Mollett looked rather doubtful as to this. It may be, that much as she trusted in her husband’s reform, she did not wish to let him know where she kept this important palladium of her rights.

“It can be forthcoming, sir, whenever it may be wanted,” said Mary Mollett the younger; and then Mr. Prendergast, seeing what was passing through the minds of the two women, did not press that matter any further.

“But I should be glad to hear from your own lips, Mr. Mollett, that you acknowledge the marriage, which took place at — at Fulham, I think you said, ma’am?”

“At Putney, sir; at Putney parish church, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and fourteen.”

“Ah, that was the year before Mr. Mollett went into Dorsetshire.”

“Yes, sir. He didn’t stay with me long, not at that time. He went away and left me: and then all that happened, that you know of — down in Dorsetshire, as they told me. And afterwards when he went away on his keeping, leaving Aby behind, I took the child, and said that I was his aunt. There were reasons then; and I feared — But never mind about that, sir; for anything that I was wrong enough to say then to the contrary, I am his lawful wedded wife, and before my face he won’t deny it. And then when he was sore pressed and in trouble he came back to me, and after that Mary here was born; and one other, a boy, who, God rest him, has gone from these troubles. And since that it is not often that he has been with me. But now, now that he is here, you should have pity on us, and give him another chance.”

But still Mr. Mollett had said nothing himself. He sat during all this time, wearily moving his head to and fro, as though the conversation were anything but comfortable to him. And, indeed, it cannot be presumed to have been very pleasant. He moved his head slowly and wearily to and fro; every now and then lifting up one hand weakly, as though deprecating any recurrence to circumstances so decidedly unpleasant. But Mr. Prendergast was determined that he should speak.

“Mr. Mollett,” said he, “I must beg you to say in so many words, whether the statement of this lady is correct or is incorrect. Do you acknowledge her for your lawful wife?”

“He daren’t deny me, sir,” said the woman, who was, perhaps, a little too eager in the matter.

“Father, why don’t you behave like a man and speak?” said his daughter, now turning upon him. “You have done ill to all of us; — to so many; but now —”

“And are you going to turn against me, Mary?” he whined out, almost crying.

“Turn against you! no, I have never done that. But look at mother. Would you let that gentleman think that she is — what I won’t name before him? Will you say that I am not your honest-born child? You have done very wickedly, and you must now make what amends is in your power. If you do not answer him here he will make you answer in some worse place than this.”

“What is it I am to say, sir?” he whined out again.

“Is this lady here your legal wife?”

“Yes, sir,” said the poor man, whimpering.

“And that marriage ceremony which you went through in Dorsetshire with Miss Wainwright was not a legal marriage?”

“I suppose not, sir.”

“You were well aware at the time that you were committing bigamy?”

“Sir!”

“You knew, I say, that you were committing bigamy; that the child whom you were professing to marry would not become your wife through that ceremony. I say that you knew all this at the time? Come, Mr. Mollett, answer me, if you do not wish me to have you dragged out of this by a policeman and taken at once before a magistrate.”

“Oh, sir! be merciful to us; pray be merciful to us,” said Mrs. Mollett, holding up her apron to her eyes.

“Father, why don’t you speak out plainly to the gentleman? He will forgive you, if you do that.”

“Am I to criminate myself, sir?” said Mr. Mollett, still in the humblest voice in the world, and hardly above his breath.

After all, this fox had still some running left in him, Mr. Prendergast thought to himself. He was not even yet so thoroughly beaten but what he had a dodge or two remaining at his service. “Am I to criminate myself, sir?” he asked, as innocently as a child might ask whether or no she were to stand longer in the corner.

“You may do as you like about that, Mr. Mollett,” said the lawyer; “I am neither a magistrate nor a policeman; and at the present moment I am not acting even as a lawyer. I am the friend of a family whom you have misused and defrauded most outrageously. You killed the father of that family —”

“Oh, gracious!” said Mrs. Mollett

“Yes, madam, he has done so; and nearly broken the heart of that poor lady, and driven her son from the house which is his own. You have done all this in order that you might swindle them out of money for your vile indulgences, while you left your own wife and your own child to starve at home. In the whole course of my life I never came across so mean a scoundrel; and now you chaffer with me as to whether or no you shall criminate yourself! Scoundrel and villain as you are — a double-dyed scoundrel, still there are reasons why I shall not wish to have you gibbeted, as you deserve.”

“Oh, sir, he has done nothing that would come to that!” said the poor wife.

“You had better let the gentleman finish,” said the daughter. “He doesn’t mean that father will be hung.”

“It would be too good for him,” said Mr. Prendergast, who was now absolutely almost out of temper. “But I do not wish to be his executioner. For the peace of that family which you have so brutally plundered and ill-used, I shall remain quiet — if I can attain my object without a public prosecution. But, remember, that I guarantee nothing to you. For aught I know you may be in gaol before the night is come. All I have to tell you is this, that if by obtaining a confession from you I am able to restore my friends to their property without a prosecution, I shall do so. Now you may answer me or not, as you like.”

“Trust him, father,” said the daughter. “It will be best for you.”

“But I have told him everything,” said Mollett. “What more does he want of me?”

“I want you to give your written acknowledgment that when you went through that ceremony of marriage with Miss Wainwright in Dorsetshire, you committed bigamy, and that you knew at that time that you were doing so.”

Mr. Mollett, as a matter of course, gave him the written document, and then Mr. Prendergast took his leave, bowing graciously to the two women, and not deigning to cast his eyes again on the abject wretch who crouched by the fire.

“Don’t be hard on a poor creature who has fallen so low,” said Mrs. Mollett as he left the room. But Mary Mollett junior followed him to the door and opened it for him. “Sir,” she said, addressing him with some hesitation as he was preparing to depart.

“Well, Miss Mollett; if I could do anything for you it would gratify me, for I sincerely feel for you — both for you and for your mother.”

“Thank you, sir; I don’t know that there is anything you can do for us — except to spare him. The thief on the cross was forgiven, sir.”

“But the thief on the cross repented.”

“And who shall say that he does not repent? You cannot tell of his heart by scripture word, as you can of that other one. But our Lord has taught us that it is good to forgive the worst of sinners. Tell that poor lady to think of this when she remembers him in her prayers.”

“I will, Miss Mollett; indeed, indeed I will;” and then as he left her he gave her his hand in token of respect. And so he walked away out of Spinny Lane.

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