SEND for Bartley. I have something
to confess. I cannot die with it on my conscience."
These words were spoken in a
querulous voice by a man who lay sick unto death in one of the oldest
country-seats in England. The attendants knew that the hand of death was
upon him, and his physician had at last told him his days ó
nay, even his hours
ó were numbered.
Archibald Stanhope lay dying. As
if by the mockery of fate, he had, during his last sickness, entered
into possession of the earldom and the estates he had coveted, and of
which he had dispossessed his brotherís son. Weighed down by guilt,
visited by all the terrors a superstitious mind could evoke, he cried
out for mercy when the time for reparation, if not even for repentance,
had gone by. Eagerly he now sought to undo the wrong he had done, so far
at least as it could still be repaired, hoping desperately that he might
then seek for mercy, and perchance find pardon.
The physician, having feared for
some days that the illness would result fatally, and thinking it
probable that various legal dispositions would require to be made, had
already warned the lawyer to be on hand. Only a few moments, therefore,
elapsed between Lord Archibaldís summons and the entrance of Mr.
Bartley. A few brief words of explanation, and the dying man proceeded
to dictate the following statement ó"I, Archibald Stanhope, by
supposition fourth Earl of Beaumont, being on my death-bed, and learning
from my physicians that I have but a few more hours to live, desire to
make such reparation as lies in my power for a crime committed against
the rightful heir of the title and estates that are now held by me. My
eldest brother, Edwin, married against my fatherís will, and shortly
afterwards went abroad. At Naples he contracted a fever, from which he
died. Eleanor, his wife, returned to her home. A son, whom she named
Colin, was born. But for the birth of this child I should have been
heir. I regarded him as an interloper, who had deprived me of that which
I coveted. His mother, a stranger, to whom I had hitherto been
indifferent, now was the object of my resentment, too. I brooded over my
ruined prospects, and from that I fell to contriving plans for regaining
what I had lost.
"Edwinís marriage had been a
runaway affair hastily and informally celebrated before chance
witnesses, by a clergyman who had been induced by money to waive the
usual enquiries, who was not in charge of any parish, and who had no
regular means of livelihood. I conceived the project of impeaching the
validity of the marriage. Edwinís wife knew nothing of the clergyman;
Edwin himself was dead. The clergyman and witnesses, I found, were ready
to sell their silence for gold. I bought it. I also procured false
affidavits, setting forth that the marriage ceremony between my brother
Edwin and Eleanor had been performed by a lay impostor, that in
consequence the marriage was illegal, and Colinís birth illegitimate. I
went so far as to produce a confession from the man who was supposed to
have performed the ceremony. Our evidence was accepted as conclusive.
Eleanor was dismissed to her uncleís roof, and I was recognised as the
"One step in wrong-doing led to
another. So long as Colin was alive and near at hand, there was danger
that some of my purchased accomplices might betray me, in the hope of
reward. I arranged to have Colin abducted and placed on board some
emigrant ship, in such a manner that all trace of his identity would be
lost and also of the man who delivered him. The plan miscarried, for
persons who had seen him in the ship wrote to his people, on reading the
account of the abduction of a child corresponding to his description.
Eleanorís brother Walter immediately went in search of him, and
succeeded in recovering him. But in the meanwhile, Eleanor died, and
Walter decided to remain in Canada. All enquiries set on foot by Walter
to find some trace of the man who had delivered Colin on board the
vessel, failed completely, but from that time forth I lived in continual
dread lest some chance should lead to the discovery of my crime, and to
public shame and irretrievable disaster.
"Time perhaps might have lulled me
into security but for the new anxiety that came to me on behalf of the
children my wife bore to me. Of her death and theirs I shall not speak.
I felt that Godís wrath was upon me, and as one after another was taken
from me, I lived in terror and apprehension; but, hoping to appease
Heaven by religious zeal, I still clung to the heirship I had wrongfully
secured. In another hour or two I must leave it all. May God have mercy
on my unhappy soul !"