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Chapter II Wine with Mr. Magruder

THERE was a party at Albuera House in Davey Street.

Hobarton was singing with a cold south wind. The house, with its brass doorstep, iron railings, window pediments, and brown freestone, might have been shipped holus bolus hot from Bath or Tunbridge Wells. Davey Street sloped steeply towards the sea, and the two lit carriages, waiting without, had their brakes down, and their wheels blocked with drags.

The prisoner, Jarvis Carnt, wandered up with his rusty chimney-pot, his seedy great-coat with the little shoulder cape, his war-worn Malacca, and paused on the threshold. The door was ajar and opened upon a square, slated ante-room. Wandering in, he sat, with an assumed negligence, on his cane: his hat—nonchalantly awry as its habit was—still upon his falling, untidy hair. His face was thinnish, bored-looking, and harassed. He seemed rather humorous, rather sad, rather wicked, rather affectionate, rather sick, and rather viciously on his rickety dignity. His buttoned shoes, round which his trousers were strapped, had lost two buttons on the left foot, and were very old and carefully cleaned.

A man-servant—old and pompous—issued at this moment from a side-door with some tea on a tray. He came ceremoniously towards the prisoner, but at a closer glance, asked his business—staring grimly. Carnt, with a forced air of condescension, collapsing rapidly to one of mere harassment, coughed, removed his hat with a crestfallen air, replaced it with bravado, and said, in a fine, rattling voice, “A message from Major Leete of the Cascades Prison, for a gentleman named O'Crone—if he be present.”

The other, in a deep bleat, said he would “discover,” and passed with the tray through the end door, from which came a flush of light and women's voices. Carnt went wearily round the dim hall, sitting on his cane and staring into print after print of Hogarth's, “Idle and industrious apprentices.” With a sudden cry of impatience he left these—these famous prints indissolubly

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connected with the repellent side of London—and returned into the middle of the hall, whence a faint and soothing smell of wine and fruit came to him. His pale, puffy face fell, as with some sad thought, as he stood tapping his cane on the floor behind him.

The butler suddenly returned and announced that the gentlemen were at their wine. “Mr. Magruder,” said he, “asks you to remove your coat, and step in with your message.” For an instant Carnt hesitated, and then began to peel off his coat. His old clawhammer was green, patched under the elbows, and lacking in a breast button, but if passe, it had an elaborate once-fashionable air. His rusty satin stock—mounted without collar—was transfixed with two immense pins joined by a chain. His linen was soiled and dirty, but his hands were roughly clean. The butler flustered him by offering to remove his coat, which he relinquished warily, clutching suddenly at it with his first free arm, and pulling it to him that the other might not see the lacerated arm-holes.

The butler opened the first door on the left, and motioned him in with elaborate ceremony. Carnt strode in with pale face and baffled air. There were four men in the room, two at a mahogany and two by the fire. Wine was on the table, and candles. The room was of a gold-black tint, with portraits on the walls of two broad-faced men with hands in breasts—and one of a woman trying to smile through some inner harshness. Three of the men made no movement as the butler shut the door behind him.

A little man, with fair whiskers, and a snarling crestfallen face, perked forward by the mantelpiece and looked from Carnt to the company. His air was mystified. He seemed puzzled at the reception of the new-comer, and indeed, barely certain of his own. He frowned, however, and seemed himself about to make some advance, when an old, careful gentleman at the table head spoke with reserve and deliberation. “Sit down, Mr. Carnt. Will you take some wine?” (Then with a slurring and subtly sour modulation) “This is the gentleman—Mr. O'Crone—for whom you have a message from the women's factory. Perhaps you—er—may learn what you desire of the life of the women from him.” He bowed coldly towards the fire.

The little man sprang hungrily from the fire-place, and advanced on Carnt with outstretched hand. Misplaced as was his eagerness, he seemed nearly reckless of concealing it. Perhaps the necessity had gone, and was dragging down with it self-respect. Or was it temper had him by the neck? So earnest was he for news or message, that he seemed unaware of Carnt's nice and tragic attempt to accept Magruder's invitation, and his own hand, with some measure of deliberate ease. As Carnt took a chair—concealing, as he did so, the lapel of his coat with his hand—O'Crone began to whisper, even as he drew another before him:

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ingratiating himself, as it were, with snarling smile alone, that he might unburden his heart, without compliment.

Magruder rose with a decanter, and, waddling along, placed it between Carnt and O'Crone. Carnt shivered back into his chair (as the magistrate bent over them) watching, spell-bound, his stern eyes. Motioning hospitably at the decanter, Magruder drew back and returned. As he did so, the man left at the fire joined him and his companion. He had coal-black whiskers, and grinned, grim and half-indifferent, like some keen, kind hound of death, in leash. “You conjecture right, Doctor,” muttered Magruder, in answer to a grinning whisper; “it is the one who conveys the assigned women from the prison. Hush, hush!” Did Carnt hear him? His face was of a purplish grey; the same colour as that to which the face of O'Crone was turning as he listened to his message.

“Major Leete,” he said, in a low voice (it might have been remarked that the bearing of the message was known to the somewhat disquieted trio at the head of the table)—“Major Leete wishes me to say that he regrets he can do nothing against special advices, and that the signature of the Duke, which you have submitted, though still carrying some weight at home, is not sufficient to cancel the special prison-regulation attaching to the keep of this woman. Major Leete suggests, if Mr. O'Crone still has the leisure, and with the signature to back him, a letter to the Home Office might bring about some commutation of the penalty—even a conditional pardon.”

O'Crone had poured Carnt and himself a glass of Madeira, and as the latter concluded his message, he bent over his, and hastily drank it. He remained noticeably pale. For a while he sat in silence, with hand on cheek, concealing his face from the three gentlemen—who muttered, fingering their almonds, with a plausible appearance of concentration.

Now Jarvis Carnt, despite the constraint under which he laboured, began to observe O'Crone with a sort of curiosity. It might be his own affection for Madam Ruth was not such that he could comprehend this earnestness—nay agony—of one who was not a prisoner; on the other hand perhaps it was. O'Crone, like his host, was in evening dress—white cravat, satin waistcoat, kid boots—there was nothing distinctive about him except his face, his hastiness, a slight frill to his shirt, and a pair of diamond sleeve-buttons. Carnt knew this traveller of distinction by town-rumour, and by one other interview. Arriving in a wooden steam-vessel in the Derwent, he had—like Colonel Mundy, Darwin, and M. Domeny de Rienzi—done the usual round of the prisons and waterfalls. The ship proving a private yacht, and himself a person of intellect and means, though a romantic recommendation to Hobarton, hardly palliated an insatiable curiosity and peremptory temper, which, jarring from the first on the overworked officials and stipendiaries (sick already of the

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scribbling traveller, and his subsequent horror-mongering in London), culminated disastrously from a hostile interest in the “prison systems,” to a too tragic curiosity in a welfare of a particular prisoner, incarcerated in the Cascades for murder. Like a Phœnix from the flames of the gentleman's indignation against “the system,” was born a romantic letter, demanding a personal interview with the murderess, and refused on the excuse of a high-strung female's frail health and approaching release (she was to be liberated on a conditional pardon in five years). Out of this had sprung the quarrel, already public property, between the prison officials and their persistent petitioner: the latter not improving his position by losing his discretion, and backing an amazing demand for her release on Ticket-of-leave with an exalted signature; indeed, only bringing to a head the now obvious pique of his hosts. It was now that his tragic requests began to smell of appeal, and, as in most human cases, when one has begun with an exalted argument, and later adopted this method, it was soon apparent that he was done. The authorities were beginning individually, and then collectively, to avoid him as a busybody, an offended prancer, a bewitched person, a crazy devotee, without solid faith in his bona fides, or in a backing out-of-office, if renowned, and but chillingly inscribed.

The female prisoner thus forced into notice had been transported for a tragic crime, and Carnt, in his capacity of clerk to the factory, saw her weekly, and had once even spoken with her. Madam Ruth's life-sentence had been given her for homicide, and the history of her crime closely resembled that of Lucy Ashton, or rather the legend on which the great weaver, Scott, wove his saddest and most poetical tapestry. She had shot her dissipated husband. A special interest clung to her figure in the prison. As one of the commandant's servants, and for some reasons connected with her state of health and nurture, prison discipline was somewhat lightened for her. She shared a single room with a fellow-servant; was attached to the hospital; and had the privilege of private dress. Thus she had been seen for three years reading or drawing at her window; hurrying with head down from hospital; or wheeling the commandant's child in the quadrangle. She drew pictures of flowers, which were brought to her now and then by Mr. Shaneson, the quadrangle women, or even saved for her, in a withered state, from the table of the Commandant. Some examples of these Mr. Shaneson had in his room off the gate for the amusement and charity of visitors. Sir John Franklin, himself, had accepted one of a cabbage flower. It was indeed the habit of the generous visitor to buy one as a momento. In short, it was in this room, with its sidelong peep-holes or curious places of espial, for observing unseen the knocker or incomer at the gate; with its rows of light manacles, leather tawse, and iron gags; the little

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pictures of single flowers always held by a conventional pink hand with motto, that Carnt docketed his ledgers. In the evening, as he lingered in the arch of the gate, preparatory to exit, he would often see the woman hugging the wall with the child's carriage, or talking with the females, few of whom seemed to bear her malice for her privileges. Yes, he would often see the tall and fragile figure, and sometimes a stooping woman picking up a toy in her track. He had once fallen in love with her auburn hair and her melancholy, but only once had dared to speak with her. He knew what it would mean, did he accost her—while she—with her chill, hard face—was not one who looked at men.

It happened thus.

He had ascended one evening to the Major's dining-room, at the door of which he had been bidden to wait. The soldier-servant had gone in, leaving him in the passage. Below, on the flags, he had left a string of good-conduct women, who had been assigned, by doctor's orders, to domestic situations. He was often chosen to conduct the reformed women on his way town-wards. It seemed beneath the gravity of the free warder—unless in special cases. This was a favour that he loathed, but dared not, or was too kind to refuse—loathed because of its indignity to one whose pose was the swell devil-may-care. For the females, pleased at their “fresh chance,” and even, for the moment, timid, they seldom gave him trouble. Indeed, there is no doubt, he was made use of by the prison psychologists, because the women bowed to the easy merriness of his character, his strange, witty way, his good-humour, tact, and ready tongue—even if they battened on his sensitiveness to ridicule and affectionate indecision of will.

It was the Major's habit to descend himself into the yard, and address a few words to the women before signing them through the gate, but that winter, grown rheumaticky with the Cascades mists, the clerk had been bidden up with the book and he had docketed his charges and harangued them from the window. That night, as Carnt waited, an opposite door opened, and a woman in black came into the passage with a kettle and tray of medicine bottles. Seeing her bewildered, as with a service unusual, and more at the absence of the man-servant whom she wildly looked for, Carnt offered to give the man the tray, whereupon she spoke to him in a low voice, saying it was Mr. Carnt, and she was afraid his life was not congenial to him, there, any more than was her own; but, please, would he make the best of it, and keep his heart up. Carnt saw that it was Madam Ruth, but for heaviness could say nothing. The woman put the tray into his hands, and with a touch on his arm, went back. He was waiting there with the tray when the man came out, but it was some seconds before he explained how he got it. This was Carnt's one interview with Madam Ruth. He did, however,

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sometimes pass her in the laundry-courtyard on her way to and from the hospital; but her face, though it smiled, had beseeched him vaguely not to speak. Once only, on a day of exasperations, he had dared whisper “Ruth” as she passed, but the fragile figure, when next he met it, was so grandly troubled, the pale face so fearfully averted, that he had been grateful enough, when one day she palely smiled.

Now Carnt sat and faced this accomplished traveller, so broken by a last assurance that he would not be allowed to even look on the poor artist of the Cascades. Short as was the time Carnt had been in the room, his wine-driven wits, aided by rumour, had perceived admonition in the manner of Magruder and Tresham, the two magistrates, and even of their companion, Dr. Wardshaw, directed not only against himself. Indeed, he, the prisoner, felt himself if anything happier than the poor gentleman, nay—in the higher favour. He knew that the message he bore was not friendly; more especially the second thought about the Home Office, with its sneer at the conditional pardon. That something in the traveller's bearing—that mixture of tragic appeal and peremptory demand—that subtle weakness in a proud carriage—which had shaken the faith of all in him and his backing, had chilled Leete also, whom Carnt had overheard to add, as he took the message, that “money-bags has seen the prison, but shall not interfere with a hysterical woman for a mere buttonholing of a great man,”—referring of course to O'Crone, to whom Carnt himself had shown the laundry and great hall. Leete was ill and might be forgiven some shortness of temper. For Carnt's own feelings, he had, at that visit, noted an excitement and compunction in O'Crone, where other visitors—like O'Crone, not taking their guide for a prisoner—had been grim, mildly ribald, or nervously congratulatory. At this moment he knew something of what the man—before the pictures in the porter's room and under the windows of the courtyards—had managed to conceal. Indeed, Carnt might well have hated this figure with the stoop, the fair whiskers and the heavy head, but that he had seen a head of the same reflective cast, bent not unlike it, so often, in that upper window on the left of the gate in Courtyard I. One of those surges of grim generosity to which he was subject shot into his heart as he leant with an elbow on the cloth, stiffly sipping at his wine. A tragic frown was on his sickly face. He did not know it, but he was eyeing O'Crone with a grim distaste. His wild heart was troubled with sympathy for the poor traveller, facing, like himself, a black wall of authority, and burning with it for the woman whose sad and shrinking vision he had grown to seek along the quadrangles. He bent forward and began to talk of Madam Ruth, unquestioned, and in a low voice: at times much moved—as it were, sulkily harassed—at others with a wide, stiff ease, as he recollected his position. While doing so, he consciously

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or unconsciously revealed more and more of his half-official position in the factory, and in a while, O'Crone's face rose again out of its apathy, and eyed him steadily.