The doctor began cautiously. "Winterfield is not a very common name," he said. "But it may not be amiss, Father Benwell, to discover, if we can, whether your Winterfield is the man of whom I am in search. Do you only know him by name? or are you a friend of his?"
I answered, of course, that I was a friend.
Dr. Wybrow went on. "Will you pardon me if I venture on an indiscreet question? When you are acquainted with the circumstances, I am sure you will understand and excuse me. Are you aware of any—what shall I call it?—any romantic incident in Mr. Winterfield's past life?"
This time—feeling myself, in all probability, on the brink of discovery—I was careful to preserve my composure. I said, quietly: "Some such incident as you describe has occurred in Mr. Winterfield's past life." There I stopped discreetly, and looked as if I knew all about it.
The doctor showed no curiosity to hear more. "My object," he went on, "was merely to be reasonably sure that I was speaking to the right person, in speaking to you. I may now tell you that I have no personal interest in trying to discover Mr. Winterfield; I only act as the representative of an old friend of mine. He is the proprietor of a private asylum at Sandsworth—a man whose integrity is beyond dispute, or he would not be my friend. You understand my motive in saying this?"
Proprietors of private asylums are, in these days, the objects of very general distrust in England. I understood the doctor's motive perfectly.
He proceeded. "Yesterday evening, my friend called upon me, and said that he had a remarkable case in his house, which he believed would interest me. The person to whom he alluded was a French boy, whose mental powers had been imperfectly developed from his childhood. The mischief had been aggravated, when he was about thirteen years old, by a serious fright. When he was placed in my asylum, he was not idiotic, and not dangerously mad—it was a case (not to use technical language) of deficient intelligence, tending sometimes toward acts of unreasoning mischief and petty theft, but never approaching to acts of downright violence. My friend was especially interested in the lad—won his confidence and affection by acts of kindness—and so improved his bodily health as to justify some hope of also improving the state of his mind, when a misfortune occurred which has altered the whole prospect. The poor creature has fallen ill of a fever, and the fever has developed to typhus. So far, there has been little to interest you—I am coming to a remarkable event at last. At the stage of the fever when delirium usually occurs in patients of sound mind, this crazy French boy has become perfectly sane and reasonable!"
I looked at him, when he made this amazing assertion, with a momentary doubt of his being in earnest. Doctor Wybrow understood me.
"Just what I thought, too, when I first heard it!" he said. "My friend was neither offended nor surprised. After inviting me to go to his house, and judge for myself, he referred me to a similar case, publicly cited in the 'Cornhill Magazine,' for the month of April, 1879, in an article entitled 'Bodily Illness as a Mental Stimulant.' The article is published anonymously; but the character of the periodical in which it appears is a sufficient guarantee of the trustworthiness of the statement. I was so far influenced by the testimony thus cited, that I drove to Sandsworth and examined the case myself."
"Did the examination satisfy you?"
"Thoroughly. When I saw him last night, the poor boy was as sane as I am. There is, however, a complication in this instance, which is not mentioned in the case related in print. The boy appears to have entirely forgotten every event in his past life, reckoning from the time when the bodily illness brought with it the strange mental recovery which I have mentioned to you."
This was a disappointment. I had begun to hope for some coming result, obtained by the lad's confession.
"Is it quite correct to call him sane, when his memory is gone?" I ventured to ask.
"In this case there is no necessity to enter into the question," the doctor answered. "The boy's lapse of memory refers, as I told you, to his past life—that is to say, his life when his intellect was deranged. During the extraordinary interval of sanity that has now declared itself, he is putting his mental powers to their first free use; and none of them fail him, so far as I can see. His new memory (if I may call it so) preserves the knowledge of what has happened since his illness. You may imagine how this problem in brain disease interests me; and you will not wonder that I am going back to Sandsworth tomorrow afternoon, when I have done with my professional visits. But you may be reasonably surprised at my troubling you with details which are mainly interesting to a medical man."
Was he about to ask me to go with him to the asylum? I replied very briefly, merely saying that the details were interesting to every student of human nature. If he could have felt my pulse at that moment, I am afraid he might have thought I was in a fair way of catching the fever too.
"Prepare yourself," he resumed, "for another surprising circumstance. Mr. Winterfield is, by some incomprehensible accident, associated with one of the mischievous tricks played by the French boy, before he was placed under my friend's care. There, at any rate, is the only explanation by which we can account for the discovery of an envelope (with inclosures) found sewn up in the lining of the lad's waistcoat, and directed to Mr. Winterfield—without any place of address."
I leave you to imagine the effect which those words produced on me.
"Now," said the doctor, "you will understand why I put such strange questions to you. My friend and I are both hard-working men. We go very little into society, as the phrase is; and neither he nor I had ever heard the name of Winterfield. As a certain proportion of my patients happen to be people with a large experience of society, I undertook to make inquiries, so that the packet might be delivered, if possible, to the right person. You heard how Mrs. Eyrecourt (surely a likely lady to assist me?) received my unlucky reference to the madhouse; and you saw how I puzzled Sir John. I consider myself most fortunate, Father Benwell, in having had the honor of meeting you. Will you accompany me to the asylum to-morrow? And can you add to the favor by bringing Mr. Winterfield with you?"
This last request it was out of my power—really out of my power—to grant. Winterfield had left London that morning on his visit to Paris. His address there was, thus far, not known to me.
"Well, you must represent your friend," the doctor said. "Time is every way of importance in this case. Will you kindly call here at five to-morrow afternoon?"
I was punctual to my appointment. We drove together to the asylum.
There is no need for me to trouble you with a narrative of what I saw—favored by Doctor Wybrow's introduction—at the French boy's bedside. It was simply a repetition of what I had already heard. There he lay, at the height of the fever, asking, in the intervals of relief, intelligent questions relating to the medicines administered to him; and perfectly understanding the answers. He was only irritable when we asked him to take his memory back to the time before his illness; and then he answered in French, "I haven't got a memory."
But I have something else to tell you, which is deserving of your best attention. The envelope and its inclosures (addressed to "Bernard Winterfield, Esqre.") are in my possession. The Christian name sufficiently identifies the inscription with the Winterfield whom I know.
The circumstances under which the discovery was made were related to me by the proprietor of the asylum.
When the boy was brought to the house, two French ladies (his mother and sister) accompanied him and mentioned what had been their own domestic experience of the case. They described the wandering propensities which took the lad away from home, and the odd concealment of his waistcoat, on the last occasion when he had returned from one of his vagrant outbreaks.
On his first night at the asylum, he became excited by finding himself in a strange place. It was necessary to give him a composing draught. On going to bed, he was purposely not prevented from hiding his waistcoat under the pillow, as usual.
When the sedative had produced its effect, the attendant easily possessed himself of the hidden garment. It was the plain duty of the master of the house to make sure that nothing likely to be turned to evil uses was concealed by a patient. The seal which had secured the envelope was found, on examination, to have been broken.
"I would not have broken the seal myself," our host added. "But, as things were, I thought it my duty to look at the inclosures. They refer to private affairs of Mr. Winterfield, in which he is deeply interested, and they ought to have been long since placed in his possession. I need hardly say that I consider myself bound to preserve the strictest silence as to what I have read. An envelope, containing some blank sheets of paper, was put back in the boy's waistcoat, so that he might feel it in its place under the lining, when he woke. The original envelope and inclosures (with a statement of circumstances signed by my assistant and myself) have been secured under another cover, sealed with my own seal. I have done my best to discover Mr. Bernard Winterfield. He appears not to live in London. At least I failed to find his name in the Directory. I wrote next, mentioning what had happened, to the English gentleman to whom I send reports of the lad's health. He couldn't help me. A second letter to the French ladies only produced the same result. I own I should be glad to get rid of my responsibility on honorable terms."
All this was said in the boy's presence. He lay listening to it as if it had been a story told of some one else. I could not resist the useless desire to question him. Not speaking French myself (although I can read the language), I asked Doctor Wybrow and his friend to interpret for me.
My questions led to nothing. The French boy knew no more about the stolen envelope than I did.
There was no discoverable motive, mind, for suspecting him of imposing on us. When I said, "Perhaps you stole it?" he answered quite composedly, "Very likely; they tell me I have been mad; I don't remember it myself; but mad people do strange things." I tried him again. "Or, perhaps, you took it away out of mischief?" "Yes." "And you broke the seal, and looked at the papers?" "I dare say." "And then you kept them hidden, thinking they might be of some use to you? Or perhaps feeling ashamed of what you had done, and meaning to restore them if you got the opportunity?" "You know best, sir." The same result followed when we tried to find out where he had been, and what people had taken care of him, during his last vagrant escape from home. It was a new revelation to him that he had been anywhere. With evident interest, he applied to us to tell him where he had wandered to, and what people he had seen!
So our last attempts at enlightenment ended. We came to the final question of how to place the papers, with the least possible loss of time, in Mr. Winterfield's hands.
His absence in Paris having been mentioned, I stated plainly my own position toward him at the present time.
"Mr. Winterfield has made an appointment with me to call at his hotel, on his return to London," I said. "I shall probably be the first friend who sees him. If you will trust me with your sealed packet, in consideration of these circumstances, I will give you a formal receipt for it in Doctor Wybrow's presence—and I will add any written pledge that you may require on my part, acting as Mr. Winterfield's representative and friend. Perhaps you would like a reference as well?"
He made a courteous reply. "A friend of Dr. Wybrow's," he said, "requires no other reference."
"Excuse me," I persisted. "I had the honor of meeting Doctor Wybrow, for the first time, yesterday. Permit me to refer you to Lord Loring, who has long known me as his spiritual director and friend."
This account of myself settled the matter. I drew out the necessary securities—and I have all the papers lying before me on my desk at this moment.
You remember how seals were broken, and impressed again, at the Roman post-office, in the revolutionary days when we were both young men? Thanks to the knowledge then obtained, the extraordinary events which once associated Mr. Winterfield and Miss Eyrecourt are at last plainly revealed to me. Copies of the papers are in my possession, and the originals are sealed again, with the crest of the proprietor of the asylum, as if nothing had happened. I make no attempt to excuse myself. You know our motto:—THE END JUSTIFIES THE MEANS.
I don't propose to make any premature use of the information which I have obtained. The first and foremost necessity, as I have already reminded you, is to give Penrose the undisturbed opportunity of completing the conversion of Romayne. During this interval, my copies of the papers are at the disposal of my reverend brethren at headquarters.
THE STOLEN PAPERS.—(COPIES.)
Number One.—From Emma Winterfield to Bernard Winterfield.
4 Maidwell Buildings, Belhaven.
How shall I address you? Dear Bernard, or Sir? It doesn't matter. I am going to do one of the few good actions of my life: and familiarities or formalities matter nothing to a woman who lies on her deathbed.
Yes—I have met with another accident. Shortly after the date of our separation, you heard, I think, of the fall in the circus that fractured my skull? On that occasion, a surgical operation, and a bit of silver plate in place of the bone, put me right again. This time it has been the kick of a horse, in the stables. Some internal injury is the consequence. I may die to-morrow, or live till next week. Anyway—the doctor has confessed it—my time has come.
Mind one thing. The drink—that vile habit which lost me your love and banished me from your house—the drink is not to blame for this last misfortune. Only the day before it happened I had taken the pledge, under persuasion of the good rector here, the Reverend Mr. Fennick. It is he who has brought me to make this confession, and who takes it down in writing at my bedside. Do you remember how I once hated the very name of a parson—and when you proposed, in joke, to marry me before the registrar, how I took it in downright earnest, and kept you to your word? We poor horse-riders and acrobats only knew clergymen as the worst enemies we had—always using their influence to keep the people out of our show, and the bread out of our mouths. If I had met with Mr. Fennick in my younger days, what a different woman I might have been!
Well, regrets of that kind are useless now. I am truly sorry, Bernard, for the evil that I have done to you; and I ask your pardon with a contrite heart.
You will at least allow it in my favor that your drunken wife knew she was unworthy of you. I refused to accept the allowance that you offered to me. I respected your name. For seven years from the time of our separation I returned to my profession under an assumed name and never troubled you. The one thing I could not do was to forget you. If you were infatuated by my unlucky beauty, I loved devotedly on my side. The well-born gentleman who had sacrificed everything for my sake, was something more than mortal in my estimation; he was—no! I won't shock the good man who writes this by saying what he was. Besides, what do you care for my thoughts of you now?
If you had only been content to remain as I left you—or if I had not found out that you were in love with Miss Eyrecourt, and were likely to marry her, in the belief that death had released you from me—I should have lived and died, doing you no other injury than the first great injury of consenting to be your wife.
But I made the discovery—it doesn't matter how. Our circus was in Devonshire at the time. My jealous rage maddened me, and I had a wicked admirer in a man who was old enough to be my father. I let him suppose that the way to my favor lay through helping my revenge on the woman who was about to take my place. He found the money to have you watched at home and abroad; he put the false announcement of my death in the daily newspapers, to complete your delusion; he baffled the inquiries made through your lawyers to obtain positive proof of my death. And last, and (in those wicked days) best service of all he took me to Brussels and posted me at the door of the English church, so that your lawful wife (with her marriage certificate in her hand) was the first person who met you and the mock Mrs. Winterfield on your way from the altar to the wedding breakfast.
I own it, to my shame. I triumphed in the mischief I had done.
But I had deserved to suffer; and I did suffer, when I heard that Miss Eyrecourt's mother and her two friends took her away from you—with her own entire approval—at the church door, and restored her to society, without a stain on her reputation. How the Brussels marriage was kept a secret, I could not find out. And when I threatened them with exposure, I got a lawyer's letter, and was advised in my own interests to hold my tongue. The rector has since told me that your marriage to Miss Eyrecourt could be lawfully declared null and void, and that the circumstances would excuse you, before any judge in England. I can now well understand that people, with rank and money to help them, can avoid exposure to which the poor, in their places, must submit.
One more duty (the last) still remains to be done.
I declare solemnly, on my deathbed, that you acted in perfect good faith when you married Miss Eyrecourt. You have not only been a man cruelly injured by me, but vilely insulted and misjudged by the two Eyrecourts, and by the lord and lady who encouraged them to set you down as a villain guilty of heartless and shameless deceit.
It is my conviction that these people might have done more than misinterpret your honorable submission to the circumstances in which you were placed. They might have prosecuted you for bigamy—if they could have got me to appear against you. I am comforted when I remember that I did make some small amends. I kept out of their way and yours, from that day to this.
I am told that I owe it to you to leave proof of my death behind me.
When the doctor writes my certificate, he will mention the mark by which I may be identified, if this reaches you (as I hope and believe it will) between the time of my death and my burial. The rector, who will close and seal these lines, as soon as the breath is out of my body, will add what he can to identify me; and the landlady of this house is ready to answer any questions that may be put to her. This time you may be really assured that you are free. When I am buried, and they show you my nameless grave in the churchyard, I know your kind heart—I die, Bernard, in the firm belief that you will forgive me.
There was one thing more that I had to ask of you, relating to a poor lost creature who is in the room with us at this moment. But, oh, I am so weary! Mr. Fennick will tell you what it is. Say to yourself sometimes—perhaps when you have married some lady who is worthy of you—There was good as well as bad in poor Emma. Farewell.
Number Two—From The Rev. Charles Fennick to Bernard Winterfield.
The Rectory, Belhaven.
Sir—It is my sad duty to inform you that Mrs. Emma Winterfield died this morning, a little before five o'clock. I will add no comment of mine to the touching language in which she has addressed you. God has, I most sincerely believe, accepted the poor sinner's repentance. Her contrite spirit is at peace, among the forgiven ones in the world beyond the grave.
In consideration of her wish that you should see her in death, the coffin will be kept open until the last moment. The medical man in attendance has kindly given me a copy of his certificate, which I inclose. You will see that the remains are identified by the description of a small silver plate on the right parietal bone of the skull.
I need hardly add that all the information I can give you is willingly at your service.
She mentions, poor soul, something which she had to ask of you. I prefer the request which, in her exhausted state, she was unable to address to you in her own words.
While the performances of the circus were taking place in the next county to ours, a wandering lad, evidently of deficient intelligence, was discovered, trying to creep under the tent to see what was going on. He could give no intelligible account of himself. The late Mrs. Winterfield (who was born and brought up, as I understand, in France) discovered that the boy was French, and felt interested in the unfortunate creature, from former happy association with kind friends of his nation. She took care of him from that time to the day of her death—and he appeared to be gratefully attached to her.
I say "appeared," because an inveterate reserve marks one of the peculiarities of the mental affliction from which he suffers. Even his benefactress never could persuade him to take her into his confidence. In other respects, her influence (so far as I can learn) had been successfully exerted in restraining certain mischievous propensities in him, which occasionally showed themselves. The effect of her death has been to intensify that reserve to which I have already alluded. He is sullen and irritable—and the good landlady at the lodgings does not disguise that she shrinks from taking care of him, even for a few days. Until I hear from you, he will remain under the charge of my housekeeper at the rectory.
You have, no doubt, anticipated the request which the poor sufferer wished to address to you but a few hours before her death. She hoped that you might be willing to place this friendless and helpless creature under competent protection. Failing your assistance, I shall have no alternative, however I may regret it, but to send him to the workhouse of this town, on his way, probably, to the public asylum.
Believe me, sir, your faithful servant,
P.S.—I fear my letter and its inclosures may be delayed in reaching you.
Yesterday evening, I had returned to my house, before it occurred to me that Mrs. Winterfield had not mentioned your address. My only excuse for this forgetfulness is, that I was very much distressed while I was writing by her bedside. I at once went back to the lodgings, but she had fallen asleep, and I dared not disturb her. This morning, when I returned to the house, she was dead. There is an allusion to Devonshire in her letter, which suggests that your residence may be in that county; and I think she once spoke of you as a person of rank and fortune. Having failed to find your name in a London Directory, I am now about to search our free library here for a county history of Devon, on the chance that it may assist me. Let me add, for your own satisfaction, that no eyes but mine will see these papers. For security's sake, I shall seal them at once, and write your name on the envelope.
Added by Father Benwell.
How the boy contrived to possess himself of the sealed packet we shall probably never discover. Anyhow, we know that he must have escaped from the rectory, with the papers in his possession, and that he did certainly get back to his mother and sister in London.
With such complete information as I now have at my disposal, the prospect is as clear again as we can desire. The separation of Romayne from his wife, and the alteration of his will in favor of the Church, seem to be