The Living Link

The Living Link

THE LIVING LINK JAMES DE MILLE * * * * * CHAPTER I. A TERRIBLE SECRET. On a pleasant evening in the month of May 1840 a group of young ladies might have been seen on the portico of Plympton Terrace a fashionable boarding-school near Derwentwater. They all moved about with those effusive demonstrations so characteristic of young girls; but on this occasion there was a general hush among them which evidently arose from some unusual cause. As they walked up and down arm in arm or with arms entwined or with clasped hands as young girls will they talked in low earnest tones over some one engrossing subject or occasionally gathered in little knots to debate some point in which while each offered a differing opinion all were oppressed by one common sadness. While they were thus engaged there arose in the distance the sound of a rapidly galloping horse. At once all the murmur of conversation died out and the company stood in silence awaiting the new-comer. They did not have to wait long. Out from a place where the avenue wound amidst groves and thickets a young girl mounted on a spirited bay came at full speed toward the portico. Arriving there she stopped abruptly; then leaping lightly down she flung the reins over the horse's neck who forthwith galloped away to his stall. The rider who thus dismounted was young girl of about eighteen and of very striking appearance. Her complexion was dark her hair black with its rich voluminous folds gathered in great glossy plaits behind. Her eyes were of a deep hazel color radiant and full of energetic life. In those eyes there was a certain earnestness of expression however deepening down into something that seemed like melancholy which showed that even in her young life she had experienced sorrow. Her figure was slender and graceful being well displayed by her close-fitting riding-habit while a plumed hat completed her equipment and served to heighten the effect of her beauty. At her approach a sudden silence had fallen over the company and they all stood motionless looking at her as she dismounted. "Why what makes you all look at me so strangely?" she asked in a tone of surprise throwing a hasty glance over them. "Has any thing happened?" To this question no answer was given but each seemed waiting for the other to speak. At length a little thing of about twelve came up and encircling the new-comer's waist with her arm looked up with a sorrowful expression and whispered "Edith dearest Miss Plympton wants to see you." The silence and ominous looks of the others and the whispered words of the little girl together with her mournful face increased the surprise and anxiety of Edith. She looked with a strange air of apprehension over the company. "What is it?" she asked hurriedly. "Something has happened. Do any of you know? What is it?" She spoke breathlessly and her eyes once more wandered with anxious inquiry over all of them. But no one spoke for whatever it was they felt the news to be serious--something in fact which could not well be communicated by themselves. Once more Edith repeated her question and finding that no answer was forth-coming her impatience allowed her to wait no longer; and so gathering up her long skirts in one hand and holding her whip in the other she hurried into the house to see Miss Plympton. Miss Plympton's room was on the second floor and that lady herself was seated by the window as Edith entered. In the young girl's face there was now a deeper anxiety and seating herself near the centre-table she looked inquiringly at Miss Plympton. The latter regarded her for some moments in silence. "Did you wish to see me auntie dear?" said Edith. Miss Plympton sighed. "Yes" she said slowly; "but my poor darling Edie I hardly know how to say to you what I have to say. I--I--do you think you can bear to hear it dear?" At this Edith looked more disturbed than ever; and placing her elbow on the centre-table she leaned her cheek upon her hand and fixed her melancholy eyes upon Miss Plympton. Her heart throbbed painfully and the hand against which her head leaned trembled visibly. But these signs of agitation did not serve to lessen the emotion of the other; on the contrary she seemed more distressed and quite at a loss how to proceed. "Edith" said she at last "my child you know how tenderly I love you. I have always tried to be a mother to you and to save you from all sorrow; but now my love and care are all useless for the sorrow has come and I do not know any way by which I can break bad news to--to--a--a bereaved heart." She spoke in a tremulous voice and with frequent pauses. "Bereaved!" exclaimed Edith with white lips. "Oh auntie! Bereaved! Is it that? Oh tell me all. Don't keep me in suspense. Let me know the worst." Miss Plympton looked still more troubled. "I--I--don't know what to say" she faltered. "You mean _death_!" cried Edith in an excited voice; "and oh! I needn't ask who. There's only one--only one. I had only one--only one--and now--he is--gone!" "Gone" repeated Miss Plympton mechanically and she said no more; for in the presence of Edith's grief and of other facts which had yet to be disclosed--facts which would reveal to this innocent girl something worse than even bereavement--words were useless and she could find nothing to say. Her hand wandered through the folds of her dress and at length she drew forth a black-edged letter at which she gazed in an abstracted way. "Let me see it" cried Edith hurriedly and eagerly; and before Miss Plympton could prevent her or even imagine what she was about she darted forward and snatched the letter from her hand. Then she tore it open and read it breathlessly. The letter was very short and was written in a stiff constrained hand. It was as follows: "DALTON HALL _May_ 6 1840. "Madame--It is my painful duty to communicate to you the death of Frederick Dalton Esq. of Dalton Hall who died at Hobart Town Van Diemen's Land on the 2d of December 1839. I beg that you will impart this intelligence to Miss Dalton for as she is now of age she may wish to return to Dalton Hall. "I remain madame "Your most obedient servant "JOHN WIGGINS. "MISS PLYMPTON _Plympton Terrace_." Of this letter Edith took in the meaning of the first three lines only. Then it dropped from her trembling hands and sinking into a chair she burst into a torrent of tears. Miss Plympton regarded her with a face full of anxiety and for some moments Edith wept without restraint; but at length when the first outburst of grief was past she picked up the letter once more and read it over and over. Deep as Edith's grief evidently was this bereavement was not after all so sore a blow as it might have been under other circumstances. For this father whom she had lost was virtually a stranger. Losing her mother at the age of eight she had lived ever since with Miss Plympton and during this time her father had never seen her nor even written to her. Once or twice she had written to him a pretty childish letter but he had never deigned any reply. If in that unknown nature there had been any thing of a father's love no possible hint had ever been given of it. Of her strange isolation she was never forgetful and she felt it most keenly during the summer holidays when all her companions had gone to their homes. At such times she brooded much over her loneliness and out of this feeling there arose a hope which she never ceased to cherish that the time would come when she might join her father and live with him wherever he might be and set herself to the task of winning his affections. She had always understood that her father had been living in the East since her mother's death. The only communication which she had with him was indirect and consisted of business letters which his English agent wrote to Miss Plympton. These were never any thing more than short formal notes. Such neglect was keenly felt and Edith unwilling to blame her father altogether tried to make some one else responsible for it. As she knew of no other human being who had any connection with her father except this agent she brought herself gradually to look upon him as the cause of her father's coldness and so at length came to regard him with a hatred that was unreasoning and intense. She considered him her father's evil genius and believed him to be somehow at the bottom of the troubles of her life. Thus every year this man John Wiggins grew more hateful and she accustomed herself to think of him as an evil fiend a Mephistopheles by whose crafty wiles her father's heart had been estranged from her. Such then was the nature of Edith's bereavement; and as she mourned over it she did not mourn so much over the reality as over her vanished hope. He was gone and with him was gone the expectation of meeting him and winning his affection. She would never see him--never be able to tell how she loved him and hear him say with a father's voice that he loved his child! These thoughts and feelings overwhelmed Edith even as she held the letter in her hand for a new perusal and she read it over and over without attaching any meaning to the words. At length her attention was arrested by one statement in that short letter which had hitherto escaped her notice. This was the name of the place where her father's death had occurred--Van Diemen's Land. "I don't understand this" said she. "What is the meaning of this--Van Diemen's Land? I did not know that poor papa had ever left India." Miss Plympton made no reply to this for some time but looked more troubled than ever. "What does it mean" asked Edith again--"this Hobart Town Van Diemen's Land? What does it mean?" "Well dear" said Miss Plympton in strangely gentle and mournful voice "you have never known much about your poor father and you have never known exactly where he has been living. He did not live in India dear; he never lived in India. He lived in--in--Van Diemen's Land." Miss Plympton's tone and look affected Edith very unpleasantly. The mystery about her father seemed to grow darker and to assume something of an ill-omened character. The name also--Van Diemen's Land--served to heighten her dark apprehensions; and this discovery that she had known even less than she supposed about her father made it seem as though the knowledge that had thus been hidden could not but be painful. "What do you mean?" she asked again; and her voice died down to a whisper through the vague fears that had been awakened. "I thought that poor papa lived in India--that he held some office under government." "I know that you believed so" said Miss Plympton regarding Edith with a look that was full of pity and mournful sympathy. "That was what I gave out. None of the girls have ever suspected the truth. No one knows whose daughter you really are. They do not suspect that your father was Dalton of Dalton Hall. They think that he was an Indian resident in the Company's service. Yes I have kept the secret well dear--the secret that I promised your dear mother on her death-bed to keep from all the world and from you darling till the time should come for you to know. And often and often dear have I thought of this moment and tried to prepare for it; but now since it has come I am worse than unprepared. But preparations are of no use for oh my darling my own Edith I must speak if I speak at all from my heart." These words were spoken by Miss Plympton in a broken disconnected and almost incoherent manner. She stopped abruptly and seemed overcome by strong agitation. Edith on her part looked at her in equal agitation wondering at her display of emotion and terrified at the dark significance of her words. For from those words she learned this much already--that her father had been living in Van Diemen's Land a penal colony; that around him had been a dark secret which had been kept from her most carefully; that her parentage had been concealed most scrupulously from the knowledge of her school-mates; and that this secret which had been so guarded was even now overwhelming Miss Plympton so that she shrunk from communicating it. All this served to fill the mind of Edith with terrible presentiments and the mystery which had hitherto surrounded her father seemed now about to result in a revelation more terrible than the mystery itself. After some time Miss Plympton rose and drawing her chair nearer sat down in front of Edith and took both her hands. "My poor darling Edith" said she in pitying tones "I am anxious for you. You are not strong enough for this. Your hands are damp and cold. You are trembling. I would not have brought up this subject now but I have been thinking that the time has come for telling you all. But I'm afraid it will be too much for you. You have already enough to bear without having this in addition. You are too weak." Edith shook her head. "Can you bear it?" asked Miss Plympton anxiously "this that I wish to tell you? Perhaps I had better defer it." "No" said Edith in a forced voice. "No--now--now--tell me now. I can bear whatever it is better than any horrible suspense." Miss Plympton sighed and leaning forward she kissed the pale forehead of the young girl. Then after a little further delay during which she seemed to be collecting her thoughts she began: "I was governess once Edith dearest in your dear mamma's family. She was quite a little thing then. All the rest were harsh and treated me like a slave; but she was like an angel and made me feel the only real happiness I knew in all those dreary days. I loved her dearly for her gentle and noble nature. I loved her always and I still love her memory; and I love you as I loved her and for her sake. And when she gave you to me on her death-bed I promised her that I would be a mother to you dear. You have never known how much I love you--for I am not demonstrative--but I do love you my own Edith most dearly and I would spare you this if I could. But after all it is a thing which you must know some time and before very long--the sooner the better." "I wish to know it now" said Edith as Miss Plympton hesitated speaking in a constrained voice the result of the strong pressure which she was putting on her feelings--"now" she repeated. "I can not wait. I must know all to-day. What was it? Was it--crime?" "The charge that was against him" said Miss Plympton "involved crime. But my darling you must remember always that an accusation is not the same as a fact even though men believe it; yes even though the law may condemn the accused and the innocent may suffer. Edith Dalton" she continued with solemn earnestness "I believe that your father was as innocent as you are. Remember that! Cling to that! Never give up that belief no matter what you may hear. There was too much haste and blind passion and prejudice in that court where he was tried and appearances were dark and there was foul treachery somewhere; and so it was that Frederick Dalton was done to ruin and his wife done to death. And now my darling you have to make yourself acquainted not with a father's crimes but with a father's sufferings. You are old enough now to hear that story and you have sufficient independence of character to judge for yourself dear. There is no reason why you should be overwhelmed when you hear it--unless indeed you are overcome by pity for the innocent and indignation against his judges. Even if society considers your father's name a stained and dishonored one there is no reason why his daughter should feel shame for you may take your stand on his own declaration of innocence and hold up your head proudly before the world." Miss Plympton spoke this with vehement emotion and her words brought some consolation to Edith. The horrible thought that had at first come was that her father had been a convict in some penal settlement but this solemn assurance of his innocence mitigated the horror of the thought and changed it into pity. She said not a word however for her feelings were still too strong nor could she find voice for any words. She sat therefore in silence and waited for Miss Plympton to tell the whole story. Miss Plympton surveyed Edith anxiously for a few moments and then rising went over to an escritoire. This she unlocked and taking from it a parcel she returned to her seat. "I am not going to tell you the story" said she. "I can not bear to recall it. It is all here and you may read it for yourself. It was all public ten years ago and in this package are the reports of the trial. I have read them over so often that I almost know them by heart; and I know too the haste of that trial and the looseness of that evidence. I have marked it in places--for your eyes only dearest--for I prepared it for you to be handed to you in case of my death. My life however has been preserved and I now give this into your own hands. You must take it to your own room and read it all over by yourself. You will learn there all that the world believes about your father and will see in his own words what he says about himself. And for my part even if the testimony were far stronger I would still take the word of Frederick Dalton!" Miss Plympton held out the parcel and Edith took it though she was scarce conscious of the act. An awful foreboding of calamity the mysterious shadow of her father's fate descended over her soul. She was unconscious of the kiss which Miss Plympton gave her; nor was she conscious of any thing till she found herself seated at a table in her own room with the door locked and the package lying on the table before her. She let it lie there for a few moments for her agitation was excessive and she dreaded to open it; but at length she mastered her feelings and began to undo the strings. The contents of the parcel consisted of sheets of paper upon which were pasted columns of printed matter cut from some newspaper. It was the report of the trial of Frederick Dalton upon charges which ten years before had filled the public mind with horror and curiosity. In these days the most cursory reader who took up the report came to the work with a mind full of vivid interest and breathless suspense; but that report now lay before the eyes of a far different reader--one who was animated by feelings far more intense since it was the daughter of the accused herself. That daughter also was one who hitherto had lived in an atmosphere of innocence purity and love one who shrank in abhorrence from all that was base or vile; and this was the one before whose eyes was now placed the horrible record that had been made up before the world against her father's name. The printed columns were pasted in such a way that a wide margin was left which was covered with notes in Miss Plympton's writing. To give any thing like a detailed account of this report with the annotations is out of the question nor will any thing be necessary beyond a general summary of the facts therein stated. * * * * * CHAPTER II THE CONTENTS OF THE MANUSCRIPT. On the date indicated in the report then the city of Liverpool and the whole country were agitated by the news of a terrible murder. On the road-side near Everton the dead body of a Mr. Henderson an eminent banker had been found not far from his own residence. The discovery had been made at about eleven o'clock in the evening by some passers-by. Upon examination a wound was found in the back of the head which had been caused by a bullet. His watch and purse were still in their places but his pocket-book was gone. Clasped in one of the hands was a newspaper on the blank margin of which were some red letters rudely traced and looking as though they had been written with blood. The letters were these: "DALTON SHOT ME BEC--" It was evident that the writer intended to write the word "because" and give the reason why he had been shot but that his strength had failed in the middle of the word. A closer search revealed some other things. One was a small stick the point of which was reddened with a substance which microscopic examination afterward showed to be blood. The other was a scarf-pin made of gold the head of which consisted of a Maltese cross of very rich and elegant design. In the middle was black enamel inclosed by a richly chased gold border and at the intersection of the bars was a small diamond of great splendor. If this cross belonged to the murderer it had doubtless become loosened and fallen out while he was stooping over his victim and the loss had not been noticed in the excitement of the occasion. At the coroner's inquest various important circumstances were brought to light. The fact that his watch and purse remained made it plain that it was not a case of common highway robbery and the loss of the pocket-book showed that the deed was prompted by a desire for something more than ordinary plunder. Proceeding from this various circumstances arose which in addition to the terrible accusation traced in blood tended to throw suspicion upon Frederick Dalton. It came out that on the morning of that very day Mr. Henderson had discovered a check for two thousand pounds that had been forged in his name. Being a very choleric man he felt more than the anger which is natural under such circumstances and vowed vengeance to the uttermost upon the forger. That same morning Mr. Frederick Dalton came to see him and was shown into his private office. He had just arrived in the city and had come on purpose to pay this visit. The interview was a protracted one and the clerks outside heard the voice of Mr. Henderson in a very high key and in a strain of what sounded like angry menace and denunciations of vengeance though they could not make out any words. At last the office door opened and Dalton came out. He was very pale and much agitated. One of the clerks heard him say in a low voice "_Only one day--till this time to-morrow_." Whereupon Mr. Henderson roared out in a loud voice which all the clerks heard "_No Sir! Not one day not one hour if I die for it!_" Upon this Dalton walked away looking paler and more agitated than ever. In the course of the day Mr. Henderson told his confidential clerk that the check had just been used by Dalton who however denied that he was the forger; that the visit of Dalton professed to be on behalf of the guilty party whom he wished to screen. Dalton had refused to give the ...