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The Legacy of Cain

Wilkie Collins

  The Legacy of Cain, Chapters 1-35THE LEGACY OF CAIN



  Wilkie Collins




  Permit me to add your name to my name, in publishing this novel. The pen which

  has written my books cannot be more agreeably employed than in acknowledging

  what I owe to the pen which has skillfully and patiently helped me, by copying

  my manuscripts for the printer.


  Wimpole Street,

  6th December, 1888.



  First Period: 1858-1859.





  AT the request of a person who has claims on me that I must not disown, I

  consent to look back through a long interval of years and to describe events

  which took place within the walls of an English prison during the earlier period

  of my appointment as Governor.

  Viewing my task by the light which later experience casts on it, I think I shall

  act wisely by exercising some control over the freedom of my pen.

  I propose to pass over in silence the name of the town in which is situated the

  prison once confided to my care. I shall observe a similar discretion in

  alluding to individuals--some dead, some living, at the present time.

  Being obliged to write of a woman who deservedly suffered the extreme penalty of

  the law, I think she will be sufficiently identified if I call her The Prisoner.

  Of the four persons present on the evening before her execution three may be

  distinguished one from the other by allusion to their vocations in life. I here

  introduce them as The Chaplain, The Minister, and The Doctor. The fourth was a

  young woman. She has no claim on my consideration; and, when she is mentioned,

  her name may appear. If these reserves excite suspicion, I declare beforehand

  that they influence in no way the sense of responsibility which commands an

  honest man to speak the truth.



  THE first of the events which I must now relate was the conviction of The

  Prisoner for the murder of her husband.

  They had lived together in matrimony for little more than two years. The

  husband, a gentleman by birth and education, had mortally offended his relations

  in marrying a woman of an inferior rank of life. He was fast declining into a

  state of poverty, through his own reckless extravagance, at the time when he met

  with his death at his wife's hand.

  Without attempting to excuse him, he deserved, to my mind, some tribute of

  regret. It is not to be denied that he was profligate in his habits and violent

  in his temper. But it is equally true that he was affectionate in the domestic

  circle, and, when moved by wisely applied remonstrance, sincerely penitent for

  sins committed under temptation that overpowered him. If his wife had killed him

  in a fit of jealous rage--under provocation, be it remembered, which the

  witnesses proved--she might have been convicted of manslaughter, and might have

  received a light sentence. But the evidence so undeniably revealed deliberate

  and merciless premeditation, that the only defense attempted by her counsel was

  madness, and the only alternative left to a righteous jury was a verdict which

  condemned the woman to death. Those mischievous members of the community, whose

  topsy-turvy sympathies feel for the living criminal and forget the dead victim,

  attempted to save her by means of high-flown petitions and contemptible

  correspondence in the newspapers. But the Judge held firm; and the Home

  Secretary held firm. They were entirely right; and the public were scandalously


  Our Chaplain endeavored to offer the consolations of religion to the condemned

  wretch. She refused to accept his ministrations in language which filled him

  with grief and horror.

  On the evening before the execution, the reverend gentleman laid on my table his

  own written report of a conversation which had passed between the Prisoner and


  "I see some hope, sir," he said, "of inclining the heart of this woman to

  religious belief, before it is too late. Will you read my report, and say if you

  agree with me?"

  I read it, of course. It was called "A Memorandum," and was thus written:

  "At his last interview with the Prisoner, the Chaplain asked her if she had ever

  entered a place of public worship. She replied that she had occasionally

  attended the services at a Congregational Church in this town; attracted by the

  reputation of the Minister as a preacher. 'He entirely failed to make a

  Christian of me,' she said; 'but I was struck by his eloquence. Besides, he

  interested me personally--he was a fine man.'

  "In the dreadful situation in which the woman was placed, such language as this

  shocked the Chaplain; he appealed in vain to the Prisoner's sense of propriety.

  'You don't understand women,' she answered. 'The greatest saint of my sex that

  ever lived likes to look at a preacher as well as to hear him. If he is an

  agreeable man, he has all the greater effect on her. This preacher's voice told

  me he was kind-hearted; and I had only to look at his beautiful eyes to see that

  he was trustworthy and true.'

  "It was useless to repeat a protest which had already failed. Recklessly and

  flippantly as she had described it, an impression had been produced on her. It

  occurred to the Chaplain that he might at least make the attempt to turn this

  result to her own religious advantage. He asked whether she would receive the

  Minister, if the reverend gentleman came to the prison. 'That will depend,' she

  said, 'on whether you answer some questions which I want to put to you first.'

  The Chaplain consented; provided always that he could reply with propriety to

  what she asked of him. Her first question only related to himself.

  "She said: 'The women who watch me tell me that you are a widower, and have a

  family of children. Is that true?'

  "The Chaplain answered that it was quite true.

  "She alluded next to a report, current in the town, that the Minister had

  resigned the pastorate. Being personally acquainted with him, the Chaplain was

  able to inform her that his resignation had not yet been accepted. On hearing

  this, she seemed to gather confidence. Her next inquiries succeeded each other

  rapidly, as follows:

  " 'Is my handsome preacher married?'

  " 'Yes.'

  " 'Has he got any children?'

  " 'He has never had any children.'

  " 'How long has he been married?'

  " 'As well as I know, about seven or eight years.

  " 'What sort of woman is his wife?'

  " 'A lady universally respected.'

  " 'I don't care whether she is respected or not. Is she kind?'
  " 'Certainly!'

  " 'Is her husband well off?'

  " 'He has a sufficient income.'

  "After that reply, the Prisoner's curiosity appeared to be satisfied. She said,

  'Bring your friend the preacher to me, if you like'--and there it ended.

  "What her object could have been in putting these questions, it seems to be

  impossible to guess. Having accurately reported all that took place, the

  Chaplain declares, with heartfelt regret, that he can exert no religious

  influence over this obdurate woman. He leaves it to the Governor to decide

  whether the Minister of the Congregational Church may not succeed, where the

  Chaplain of the Jail has failed. Herein is the one last hope of saving the soul

  of the Prisoner, now under sentence of death!"

  In those serious words the Memorandum ended. Although not personally acquainted

  with the Minister I had heard of him, on all sides, as an excellent man. In the

  emergency that confronted us he had, as it seemed to me, his own sacred right to

  enter the prison; assuming that he was willing to accept, what I myself felt to

  be, a very serious responsibility. The first necessity was to discover whether

  we might hope to obtain his services. With my full approval the Chaplain left

  me, to state the circumstances to his reverend colleague.



  DURING my friend's absence, my attention was claimed by a sad incident--not


  It is, I suppose, generally known that near relatives are admitted to take their

  leave of criminals condemned to death. In the case of the Prisoner now waiting

  for execution, no person applied to the authorities for permission to see her. I

  myself inquired if she had any relations living, and if she would like to see

  them. She answered: "None that I care to see, or that care to see me--except the

  nearest relation of all."

  In those last words the miserable creature alluded to her only child, a little

  girl (an infant, I should say), who had passed her first year's birthday by a

  few months. The farewell interview was to take place on the mother's last

  evening on earth; and the child was now brought into my rooms, in charge of her


  I had seldom seen a brighter or prettier little girl. She was just able to walk

  alone, and to enjoy the first delight of moving from one place to another. Quite

  of her own accord she came to me, attracted I daresay by the glitter of my

  watch-chain. Helping her to climb on my knee, I showed the wonders of the watch,

  and held it to her ear. At that past time, death had taken my good wife from me;

  my two boys were away at Harrow School; my domestic life was the life of a

  lonely man. Whether I was reminded of the bygone days when my sons were infants

  on my knee, listening to the ticking of my watch--or whether the friendless

  position of the poor little creature, who had lost one parent and was soon to

  lose the other by a violent death, moved me in depths of pity not easily reached

  in my later experience--I am not able to say. This only I know: my heart ached

  for the child while she was laughing and listening; and something fell from me

  on the watch which I don't deny might have been a tear. A few of the toys,

  mostly broken now, which my two children used to play with are still in my

  possession; kept, like my poor wife's favorite jewels, for old remembrance'

  sake. These I took from their repository when the attraction of my watch showed

  signs of failing. The child pounced on them with her chubby hands, and screamed

  with pleasure. And the hangman was waiting for her mother--and, more horrid

  still, the mother deserved it!

  My duty required me to let the Prisoner know that her little daughter had

  arrived. Did that heart of iron melt at last? It might have been so, or it might

  not; the message sent back kept her secret. All that it said to me was: "Let the

  child wait till I send for her."

  The Minister had consented to help us. On his arrival at the prison, I received

  him privately in my study.

  I had only to look at his face--pitiably pale and agitated--to see that he was a

  sensitive man, not always able to control his nerves on occasions which tried

  his moral courage. A kind, I might almost say a noble face, and a voice

  unaffectedly persuasive, at once prepossessed me in his favor. The few words of

  welcome that I spoke were intended to compose him. They failed to produce the

  impression on which I had counted.

  "My experience," he said, "has included many melancholy duties, and has tried my

  composure in terrible scenes; but I have never yet found myself in the presence

  of an unrepentant criminal, sentenced to death--and that criminal a woman and a

  mother. I own, sir, that I am shaken by the prospect before me."

  I suggested that he should wait a while, in the hope that time and quiet might

  help him. He thanked me, and refused.

  "If I have any knowledge of myself," he said, "terrors of anticipation lose

  their hold when I am face to face with a serious call on me. The longer I remain

  here, the less worthy I shall appear of the trust that has been placed in

  me--the trust which, please God, I mean to deserve."

  My own observation of human nature told me that this was wisely said. I led the

  way at once to the cell.



  THE Prisoner was seated on her bed, quietly talking with the woman appointed to

  watch her. When she rose to receive us, I saw the Minister start. The face that

  confronted him would, in my opinion, have taken any man by surprise, if he had

  first happened to see it within the walls of a prison.

  Visitors to the picture-galleries of Italy, growing weary of Holy Families in

  endless succession, observe that the idea of the Madonna, among the rank and

  file of Italian Painters, is limited to one changeless and familiar type. I can

  hardly hope to be believed when I say that the personal appearance of the

  murderess recalled that type. She presented the delicate light hair, the quiet

  eyes, the finely-shaped lower features and the correctly oval form of face,

  repeated in hundreds on hundreds of the conventional works of Art to which I

  have ventured to allude. To those who doubt me, I can only declare that what I

  have here written is undisguised and absolute truth. Let me add that daily

  observation of all classes of criminals, extending over many years, has

  considerably diminished my faith in physiognomy as a safe guide to the discovery

  of character. Nervous trepidation looks like guilt. Guilt, firmly sustained by

  insensibility, looks like innocence. One of the vilest wretches ever placed

  under my charge won the sympathies (while he was waiting for his trial) of every

  person who saw him, including even the persons employed in the prison. Only the

  other day, ladies and gentlemen coming to visit me passed a body of men at work

  on the road. Judges of physiognomy among them were horrified at the criminal

  atrocity betrayed in every face that they noticed. They condoled with me on the

  near neighborhood of so many convicts to my official pl
ace of residence. I

  looked out of the window and saw a group of honest laborers (whose only crime

  was poverty) employed by the parish!

  Having instructed the female warder to leave the room--but to take care that she

  waited within call--I looked again at the Minister.

  Confronted by the serious responsibility that he had undertaken, he justified

  what he had said to me. Still pale, still distressed, he was now nevertheless

  master of himself. I turned to the door to leave him alone with the Prisoner.

  She called me back.

  "Before this gentleman tries to convert me," she said, "I want you to wait here

  and be a witness."

  Finding that we were both willing to comply with this request, she addressed

  herself directly to the Minister. "Suppose I promise to listen to your

  exhortations," she began, "what do you promise to do for me in return?"

  The voice in which she spoke to him was steady and clear; a marked contrast to

  the tremulous earnestness with which he answered her.

  "I promise to urge you to repentance and the confession of your crime. I promise

  to implore the divine blessing on me in the effort to save your poor guilty


  She looked at him, and listened to him, as if he was speaking to her in an

  unknown tongue, and went on with what she had to say as quietly as ever.

  "When I am hanged to-morrow, suppose I die without confessing, without

  repenting--are you one of those who believe I shall be doomed to eternal

  punishment in another life?"

  "I believe in the mercy of God."

  "Answer my question, if you please. Is an impenitent sinner eternally punished?

  Do you believe that?"

  "My Bible leaves me no other alternative."

  She paused for a while, evidently considering with special attention what she

  was about to say next.

  "As a religious man," she resumed, "would you be willing to make some sacrifice,

  rather than let a fellow-creature go--after a disgraceful death--to everlasting


  "I know of no sacrifice in my power," he said, fervently, "to which I would not

  rather submit than let you die in the present dreadful state of your mind."

  The Prisoner turned to me. "Is the person who watches me waiting outside?"


  "Will you be so kind as to call her in? I have a message for her."

  It was plain that she had been leading the way to the delivery of that message,

  whatever it might be, in all that she had said up to the present time. So far my

  poor powers of penetration helped me, and no further.

  The warder appeared, and received her message. "Tell the woman who has come here

  with my little girl that I want to see the child."

  Taken completely by surprise, I signed to the attendant to wait for further


  In a moment more I had sufficiently recovered myself to see the impropriety of

  permitting any obstacle to interpose between the Minister and his errand of

  mercy. I gently reminded the Prisoner that she would have a later opportunity of

  seeing her child. "Your first duty," I told her, "is to hear and to take to

  heart what the clergyman has to say to you."

  For the second time I attempted to leave the cell. For the second time this

  impenetrable woman called me back.

  "Take the parson away with you," she said. "I refuse to listen to him."

  The patient Minister yielded, and appealed to me to follow his example. I

  reluctantly sanctioned the delivery of the message.

  After a brief interval the child was brought to us, tired and sleepy. For a

  while the nurse roused her by setting her on her feet. She happened to notice

  the Minister first. Her bright eyes rested on him, gravely wondering. He kissed

  her, and, after a momentary hesitation, gave her to her mother. The horror of

  the situation overpowered him: he turned his face away from us. I understood

  what he felt; he almost overthrew my own self-command.

  The Prisoner spoke to the nurse in no friendly tone: "You can go."

  The nurse turned to me, ostentatiously ignoring the words that had been

  addressed to her. "Am I to go, sir, or to stay?" I suggested that she should