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The Legacy of Cain, Page 2

Wilkie Collins

return to the waiting-room. She returned at once in silence. The Prisoner looked

  after her as she went out, with such an expression of hatred in her eyes that

  the Minister noticed it.

  "What has that person done to offend you?" he asked.

  "She is the last person in the whole world whom I should have chosen to take

  care of my child, if the power of choosing had been mine. But I have been in

  prison, without a living creature to represent me or to take my part. No more of

  that; my troubles will be over in a few hours more. I want you to look at my

  little girl, whose troubles are all to come. Do you call her pretty? Do you feel

  interested in her?"

  The sorrow and pity in his face answered for him.

  Quietly sleeping, the poor baby rested on her mother's bosom. Was the heart of

  the murderess softened by the divine influence of maternal love? The hands that

  held the child trembled a little. For the first time it seemed to cost her an

  effort to compose herself, before she could speak to the Minister again.

  "When I die to-morrow," she said, "I leave my child helpless and

  friendless--disgraced by her mother's shameful death. The workhouse may take

  her--or a charitable asylum may take her." She paused; a first tinge of color

  rose on her pale face; she broke into an outburst of rage. "Think of my daughter

  being brought up by charity! She may suffer poverty, she may be treated with

  contempt, she may be employed by brutal people in menial work. I can't endure

  it; it maddens me. If she is not saved from that wretched fate, I shall die

  despairing, I shall die cursing--"

  The Minister sternly stopped her before she could say the next word. To my

  astonishment she appeared to be humbled, to be even ashamed: she asked his

  pardon: "Forgive me; I won't forget myself again. They tell me you have no

  children of your own. Is that a sorrow to you and your wife?"

  Her altered tone touched him. He answered sadly and kindly: "It is the one

  sorrow of our lives."

  The purpose which she had been keeping in view from the moment when the Minister

  entered her cell was no mystery now. Ought I to have interfered? Let me confess

  a weakness, unworthy perhaps of my office. I was so sorry for the child--I


  My silence encouraged the mother. She advanced to the Minister with the sleeping

  infant in her arms.

  "I daresay you have sometimes thought of adopting a child?" she said. "Perhaps

  you can guess now what I had in my mind, when I asked if you would consent to a

  sacrifice? Will you take this wretched innocent little creature home with you?"

  She lost her self-possession once more. "A motherless creature to-morrow," she

  burst out. "Think of that."

  God knows how I still shrunk from it! But there was no alternative now; I was

  bound to remember my duty to the excellent man, whose critical position at that

  moment was, in some degree at least, due to my hesitation in asserting my

  authority. Could I allow the Prisoner to presume on his compassionate nature,

  and to hurry him into a decision which, in his calmer moments, he might find

  reason to regret? I spoke to him. Does the man live who--having to say what I

  had to say--could have spoken to the doomed mother?

  "I am sorry to have allowed this to go on," I said. "In justice to yourself,

  sir, don't answer!"

  She turned on me with a look of fury.

  "He shall answer," she cried.

  I saw, or thought I saw, signs of yielding in his face. "Take time," I

  persisted--"take time to consider before you decide."

  She stepped up to me.

  "Take time?" she repeated. "Are you inhuman enough to talk of time, in my


  She laid the sleeping child on her bed, and fell on her knees before the

  Minister: "I promise to hear your exhortations--I promise to do all a woman can

  to believe and repent. Oh, I know myself! My heart, once hardened, is a heart

  that no human creature can touch. The one way to my better nature--if I have a

  better nature--is through that poor babe. Save her from the workhouse! Don't let

  them make a pauper of her!" She sank prostrate at his feet, and beat her hands

  in frenzy on the floor. "You want to save my guilty soul," she reminded him

  furiously. "There's but one way of doing it. Save my child!"

  He raised her. Her fierce tearless eyes questioned his face in a mute

  expectation dreadful to see. Suddenly, a foretaste of death--the death that was

  so near now!--struck her with a shivering fit: her head dropped on the

  Minister's shoulder. Other men might have shrunk from the contact of it. That

  true Christian let it rest.

  Under the maddening sting of suspense, her sinking energies rallied for an

  instant. In a whisper, she was just able to put the supreme question to him.

  "Yes? or No?"

  He answered: "Yes."

  A faint breath of relief, just audible in the silence, told me that she had

  heard him. It was her last effort. He laid her, insensible, on the bed, by the

  side of her sleeping child. "Look at them," was all he said to me; "how could I




  THE services of our medical officer were required, in order to hasten the

  recovery of the Prisoner's senses.

  When the Doctor and I left the cell together, she was composed, and ready (in

  the performance of her promise) to listen to the exhortations of the Minister.

  The sleeping child was left undisturbed, by the mother's desire. If the Minister

  felt tempted to regret what he had done, there was the artless influence which

  would check him! As we stepped into the corridor, I gave the female warder her

  instructions to remain on the watch, and to return to her post when she saw the

  Minister come out.

  In the meantime, my companion had walked on a little way.

  Possessed of ability and experience within the limits of his profession, he was

  in other respects a man with a crotchety mind; bold to the verge of recklessness

  in the expression of his opinion; and possessed of a command of language that

  carried everything before it. Let me add that he was just and merciful in his

  intercourse with others, and I shall have summed him up fairly enough. When I

  joined him he seemed to be absorbed in reflection.

  "Thinking of the Prisoner?" I said.

  "Thinking of what is going on, at this moment, in the condemned cell," he

  answered, "and wondering if any good will come of it."

  I was not without hope of a good result, and I said so.

  The Doctor disagreed with me. "I don't believe in that woman's penitence," he

  remarked; "and I look upon the parson as a poor weak creature. What is to become

  of the child?"

  There was no reason for concealing from one of my colleagues the benevolent

  decision, on the part of the good Minister, of which I had been a witness. The

  Doctor listened to me with the first appearance of downright astonishment that I

  had ever observed in his face. When I had done, he made an extraordinary reply:

  "Governor, I retract what I said of the parson just now. He is one of the

bsp; boldest men that ever stepped into a pulpit."

  Was the doctor in earnest? Strongly in earnest; there could be no doubt of it.

  Before I could ask him what he meant, he was called away to a patient on the

  other side of the prison. When we parted at the door of my room, I made it a

  request that my medical friend would return to me and explain what he had just


  "Considering that you are the governor of a prison," he replied, "you are a

  singularly rash man. If I come back, how do you know I shall not bore you?"

  "My rashness runs the risk of that," I rejoined.

  "Tell me something, before I allow you to run your risk," he said. "Are you one

  of those people who think that the tempers of children are formed by the

  accidental influences which happen to be about them? Or do you agree with me

  that the tempers of children are inherited from their parents?"

  The Doctor (as I concluded) was still strongly impressed by the Minister's

  resolution to adopt a child whose wicked mother had committed the most atrocious

  of all crimes. Was some serious foreboding in secret possession of his mind? My

  curiosity to hear him was now increased tenfold. I replied without hesitation:

  "I agree with you."

  He looked at me with his sense of humor twinkling in his eyes. "Do you know I

  rather expected that answer?" he said, slyly. "All right. I'll come back."

  Left by myself, I took up the day's newspaper.

  My attention wandered; my thoughts were in the cell with the Minister and the

  Prisoner. How would it end? Sometimes, I was inclined to doubt with the Doctor.

  Sometimes, I took refuge in my own more hopeful view. These idle reflections

  were agreeably interrupted by the appearance of my friend, the Chaplain.

  "You are always welcome," I said; "and doubly welcome just now. I am feeling a

  little worried and anxious."

  "And you are naturally," the Chaplain added, not at all disposed to receive a


  "Is the stranger a friend of yours?" I asked.

  "Oh, no! Having occasion, just now, to go into the waiting-room, I found a young

  woman there, who asked me if she could see you. She thinks you have forgotten

  her, and she is tired of waiting. I merely undertook, of course, to mention what

  she had said to me."

  The nurse having been in this way recalled to my memory, I felt some little

  interest in seeing her, after what had passed in the cell. In plainer words, I

  was desirous of judging for myself whether she deserved the hostile feeling

  which the Prisoner had shown toward her. I thanked the Chaplain before he left

  me, and gave the servant the necessary instructions. When she entered the room,

  I looked at the woman attentively for the first time.

  Youth and a fine complexion, a well-made figure and a natural grace of

  movement--these were her personal attractions, so far as I could see. Her

  defects were, to my mind, equally noticeable. Under a heavy forehead, her

  piercing eyes looked out at persons and things with an expression which was not

  to my taste. Her large mouth--another defect, in my opinion--would have been

  recommended to mercy, in the estimation of many men, by her magnificent teeth;

  white, well-shaped, cruelly regular. Believers in physiognomy might perhaps have

  seen the betrayal of an obstinate nature in the lengthy firmness of her chin.

  While I am trying to describe her, let me not forget her dress. A woman's dress

  is the mirror in which we may see the reflection of a woman's nature. Bearing in

  mind the melancholy and impressive circumstances under which she had brought the

  child to the prison, the gayety of color in her gown and her bonnet implied

  either a total want of feeling, or a total want of tact. As to her position in

  life, let me confess that I felt, after a closer examination, at a loss to

  determine it. She was certainly not a lady. The Prisoner had spoken of her as if

  she was a domestic servant who had forfeited her right to consideration and

  respect. And she had entered the prison, as a nurse might have entered it, in

  charge of a child. I did what we all do when we are not clever enough to find

  the answer to a riddle--I gave it up.

  "What can I do for you?" I asked.

  "Perhaps you can tell me," she answered, "how much longer I am to be kept

  waiting in this prison."

  "The decision," I reminded her, "doesn't depend on me."

  "Then who does it depend on?"

  The Minister had undoubtedly acquired the sole right of deciding. It was for him

  to say whether this woman should, or should not, remain in attendance on the

  child whom he had adopted. In the meanwhile, the feeling of distrust which was

  gaining on my mind warned me to remember the value of reserve in holding

  intercourse with a stranger.

  She seemed to be irritated by my silence. "If the decision doesn't rest with

  you," she asked, "why did you tell me to stay in the waiting-room?"

  "You brought the little girl into the prison," I said; "was it not natural to

  suppose that your mistress might want you--"

  "Stop, sir!"

  I had evidently given offense; I stopped directly.

  "No person on the face of the earth," she declared, loftily, "has ever had the

  right to call herself my mistress. Of my own free will, sir, I took charge of

  the child."

  "Because you are fond of her?" I suggested.

  "I hate her."

  It was unwise on my part--I protested. "Hate a baby little more than a year

  old!" I said.

  "Her baby!"

  She said it with the air of a woman who had produced an unanswerable reason. "I

  am accountable to nobody," she went on. "If I consented to trouble myself with

  the child, it was in remembrance of my friendship--notice, if you please, that I

  say friendship--with the unhappy father."

  Putting together what I had just heard, and what I had seen in the cell, I drew

  the right conclusion at last. The woman, whose position in life had been thus

  far an impenetrable mystery to me, now stood revealed as one, among other

  objects of the Prisoner's jealousy, during her disastrous married life. A

  serious doubt occurred to me as to the authority under which the husband's

  mistress might be acting, after the husband's death. I instantly put it to the


  "Do I understand you to assert any claim to the child?" I asked.

  "Claim?" she repeated. "I know no more of the child than you do. I heard for the

  first time that such a creature was in existence, when her murdered father sent

  for me in his dying moments. At his entreaty I promised to take care of her,

  while her vile mother was out of the house and in the hands of the law. My

  promise has been performed. If I am expected (having brought her to the prison)

  to take her away again, understand this: I am under no obligation (even if I

  could afford it) to burden myself with that child; I shall hand her over to the

  workhouse authorities."

  I forgot myself once more--I lost my temper.

  "Leave the room," I said. "Your unworthy hands will not touch the poor baby

  again. She is provided for."

  "I don't believe you!" the wretc
h burst out. "Who has taken the child?"

  A quiet voice answered: "I have taken her."

  We both looked round and saw the Minister standing in the open doorway, with the

  child in his arms. The ordeal that he had gone through in the condemned cell was

  visible in his face; he looked miserably haggard and broken. I was eager to know

  if his merciful interest in the Prisoner had purified her guilty soul--but at

  the same time I was afraid, after what he had but too plainly suffered, to ask

  him to enter into details.

  "Only one word," I said. "Are your anxieties at rest?"

  "God's mercy has helped me," he answered. "I have not spoken in vain. She

  believes; she repents; she has confessed the crime."

  After handing the written and signed confession to me, he approached the

  venomous creature, still lingering in the room to hear what passed between us.

  Before I could stop him, he spoke to her, under a natural impression that he was

  addressing the Prisoner's servant.

  "I am afraid you will be disappointed," he said, "when I tell you that your

  services will no longer be required. I have reasons for placing the child under

  the care of a nurse of my own choosing."

  She listened with an evil smile.

  "I know who furnished you with your reasons," she answered. "Apologies are quite

  needless, so far as I am concerned. If you had proposed to me to look after the

  new member of your family there, I should have felt it my duty to myself to have

  refused. I am not a nurse--I am an independent single lady. I see by your dress

  that you are a clergyman. Allow me to present myself as a mark of respect to

  your cloth. I am Miss Elizabeth Chance. May I ask the favor of your name?"

  Too weary and too preoccupied to notice the insolence of her manner, the

  Minister mentioned his name. "I am anxious," he said, "to know if the child has

  been baptized. Perhaps you can enlighten me?"

  Still insolent, Miss Elizabeth Chance shook her head carelessly. "I never

  heard--and, to tell you the truth, I never cared to hear--whether she was

  christened or not. Call her by what name you like, I can tell you this--you will

  find your adopted daughter a heavy handful."

  The Minister turned to me. "What does she mean?"

  "I will try to tell you," Miss Chance interposed. "Being a clergyman, you know

  who Deborah was? Very well. I am Deborah now; and I prophesy." She pointed to

  the child. "Remember what I say, reverend sir! You will find the tigress-cub

  take after its mother."

  With those parting words, she favored us with a low curtsey, and left the room.



  THE Minister looked at me in an absent manner; his attention seemed to have been

  wandering. "What was it Miss Chance said?" he asked.

  Before I could speak, a friend's voice at the door interrupted us. The Doctor,

  returning to me as he had promised, answered the Minister's question in these


  "I must have passed the person you mean, sir, as I was coming in here; and I

  heard her say: 'You will find the tigress-cub take after its mother.' If she had

  known how to put her meaning into good English, Miss Chance--that is the name

  you mentioned, I think--might have told you that the vices of the parents are

  inherited by the children. And the one particular parent she had in her mind,"

  the Doctor continued, gently patting the child's cheek, "was no doubt the mother

  of this unfortunate little creature--who may, or may not, live to show you that

  she comes of a bad stock and inherits a wicked nature."

  I was on the point of protesting against my friend's interpretation, when the

  Minister stopped me.

  "Let me thank you, sir, for your explanation," he said to the Doctor. "As soon

  as my mind is free, I will reflect on what you have said. Forgive me, Mr.

  Governor," he went on, "if I leave you, now that I have placed the Prisoner's

  confession in your hands. It has been an effort to me to say the little I have

  said, since I first entered this room. I can think of nothing but that unhappy

  criminal, and the death that she must die to-morrow."