A Sad Death and a Brave Life
First published in Boston, USA York in The Youth's Companion 19 August 1886. as the second of three stories under the collective title 'The Victims of Circumstances: Discovered in Records of Old Trials' all of which dealt with serious miscarriages of justice. It was reprinted in London in The Boy's Own Paper on 23 October 1886.
AT THAT MEMORABLE period in the early history of the United States when American citizens resented the tyranny of George the Third and his Parliament by destroying a cargo of taxed tea, a Bristol trader arrived in the harbour of Boston, having one passenger on board. This person was a young English woman, named Esther Calvert, daughter of a shopkeeper at Cheltenham, and niece of the captain of the ship.
Some years before her departure from England, Esther had suffered an affliction -- associated with a deplorable public event -- which had shaken her attachment to her native land. Free, at a later period, to choose for herself, she resolved on leaving England, as soon as employment could be found for her in another country. After a weary interval of expectation, the sea-captain had obtained a situation for his niece, as housekeeper in the family of Mrs Anderkin -- a widow lady living in Boston.
Esther had been well practised in domestic duties during the long illness of her mother. Intelligent, modest and sweet-tempered, she soon became a favourite with Mrs Anderkin and the members of her young family. The children found but one fault with the new housekeeper; she dressed invariably in dismal black; and it was impossible to prevail upon her to give the cause. It was known that she was an orphan, and she acknowledged that no relation of hers had recently died -- and yet she persisted in wearing mourning. Some great grief had evidently overshadowed the life of the gentle English housekeeper.
In her intervals of leisure, she soon became the chosen friend of Mrs Anderkin's children; always ready to teach them new games, clever at dressing the girls' dolls and at mending the boys' toys, Esther was in one respect only not in sympathy with her young friends -- she never laughed. One day, they boldly put the question to her: 'When we are all laughing, why don't you laugh too?'
Esther took the right way to silence children whose earliest lessons had taught them the golden rule: Do unto others as you would they should do unto you. She only replied in these words:
'I shall think it kind of you if you won't ask me that question again.'
The young people deserved her confidence in them: they never mentioned the subject from that time forth.
But there was another member of the family, whose desire to know something of the housekeeper's history was, from motives of delicacy, concealed from Esther herself. This was the governess -- Mrs Anderkin's well-loved friend, as well as the teacher of her children.
On the day before he sailed on his homeward voyage, the sea-captain called to take leave of his niece -- and then asked if he could also pay his respects to Mrs Anderkin. He was informed that the lady of the house had gone out, but that the governess would be happy to receive him. At the interview which followed they talked of Esther, and agreed so well in their good opinion of her, that the captain paid a long visit. The governess had persuaded him to tell the story of his niece's wasted life.
But he insisted on one condition.
'If we had been in England,' he said, 'I should have kept the matter secret, for the sake of the family. Here, in America, Esther is a stranger -- here she will stay -- and no slur will be cast on the family name at home. But mind one thing! I trust to your honour to take no one into your confidence -- excepting only the mistress of the house.'
More than one hundred years have passed since those words were spoken.
Esther's sad story may be harmlessly told now. In the year 1762, a young man named John Jennings, employed as a waiter at a Yorkshire inn, astonished his master by announcing that he was engaged to be married, and that he proposed retiring from service on next quarter-day.
Further inquiry showed that the young woman's name was Esther Calvert, and that Jennings was greatly inferior in social rank. Her father's consent to the marriage depended on her lover's success in rising in the world. Friends with money were inclined to trust Jennings, and to help him to start a business of his own, if Miss Calvert's father would do something for the young people on his side. He made no objection, and the marriage engagement was sanctioned accordingly.
One evening, when the last days of Jennings' service were drawing to an end, a gentleman on horseback stopped at the inn. In a state of great agitation, he informed the landlady that he was on his way to Hull, but that he had been so frightened as to make it impossible for him to continue his journey. A highwayman had robbed him of a purse containing twenty guineas. The thief's face (as usual in those days) was concealed by a mask; and there was but one chance of bringing him to justice. It was the traveller's custom to place a private mark on every gold piece that he carried with him on a journey: and the stolen guineas might possibly be traced in that way.
The landlord (one Mr Brunell) attended on his guest at supper. His wife had only that moment told him of the robbery; and he had a circumstance to mention which might lead to the discovery of the thief. In the first place, however, he wished to ask at what time the crime had been committed. The traveller answered that he had been robbed late in the evening, just as it was beginning to get dark. On hearing this, Mr Brunell looked very much distressed.
'I have got a waiter here, named Jennings,' he said; 'a man superior to his station in life -- good manners and a fair education -- in fact, a general favourite. But for some little time past I have observed that he has been rather free with his money and that habits of drinking have grown on him. I am afraid he is not worthy of the good opinion entertained of him by myself and by other persons. This evening I sent him out to get some small silver for me; giving him a guinea to change. He came back intoxicated, telling me that change was not to be had. I ordered him to bed -- and then happened to look at the guinea which he had brought back. Unfortunately I had not at that time, heard of the robbery; and I paid the guinea away with some other money, in settlement of a tradesman's account. But this I am sure of -- there was a mark on the guinea which Jennings gave back to me. It is, of course, possible that there might have been a mark (which escaped my notice) on the guinea which I took out of my purse when I sent for change.'
'Or,' the traveller suggested, 'it may have been one of my stolen guineas, given back by mistake by this drunken waiter of yours instead of the guinea handed to him by yourself. Do you think he is asleep?'
'Sure to be asleep, sir, in his condition.'
'Do you object, Mr Brunell, after what you have told me, to setting this matter at rest by searching the man's clothes?'
The landlord hesitated.
'It seems hard on Jennings,' he said, 'if we prove to have been suspicious of him without a cause. Can you speak positively, sir, to the mark which you put on your money?'
The traveller declared that he could swear to his mark. Mr Brunell yielded. The two went up together to the waiter's room.
Jennings was fast asleep. At the very outset of the search they found the stolen bag of money in his pocket. The guineas -- nineteen in umber -- had a mark on each one of them, and that mark the traveller identified After this discovery there was but one course to take. The waiter's protestations of innocence, when they woke him and accused him of the robbery, were words flatly contradicted by facts. He was charged before a magistrate with the theft of the money, and, as a matter of course, was committed for trial.
The circumstances were so strongly against him that his own friends recommended Jennings to plead guilty, and appeal to the mercy of the Court. He refused to follow their advice, and he was bravely encouraged to persist in that decision by the poor girl, who believed in his innocence with her whole heart. At that dreadful crisis in her life she secured the best legal assistance, and took from her little dowry the money that paid the expenses.
At the next assizes the case was tried. The proceedings before the judge were a repetition (at great length and with more solemnity) of the proceedings before the magistrate. No skill in cross-examination could shake the direct statement of the witnesses. The evidence was made absolutely complete by the appearance of the tradesman to whom Mr Brunell had paid the marked guinea. The coin (so marked) was a curiosity: the man had kept it, and he now produced it in court.
The judge summed up, finding literally nothing that he could say, as an honest man, in favour of the prisoner. The jury returned a verdict of guilty, after a consultation which was a mere matter of form. Clearer circumstantial evidence of guilt had never been produced, in the opinion of every person -- but one -- who was present at the trial. The sentence on Jennings for highway robbery was, by the law of those days, death on the scaffold.
Friends were found to help Esther in the last effort that the faithful creature could now make -- the attempt to obtain a commutation of the sentence. She was admitted to an interview with the Home Secretary, and her petition was presented to the king. Here, again, the indisputable evidence forbade the exercise of mercy. Esther's betrothed husband was hanged at Hull. His last words declared his innocence -- with the rope round his neck.
Before a year had passed the one poor consolation that she could hope for in this world found Esther in her misery. The proof that Jennings had died a martyr to the fallibility of human justice was made public by the confession of the guilty man.
Another criminal trial took place at the assizes. The landlord of an inn was found guilty of having stolen the property of a person staying in his house. It was stated in evidence that this was not his first offence. He had been habitually a robber on the highway, and his name was Brunell.
The wretch confessed that he was the masked highwayman who had stolen the bag of guineas. Riding, by a nearer way than was known to the traveller, he had reached the inn first. There he found a person in trade waiting by appointment for the settlement of a bill. Not having enough money of his own about him to pay the whole amount, Brunell had made use of one of the stolen guineas, and had only heard the traveller declare that his money was marked after the tradesman had left the house. To ask for the return of the fatal guinea was more than he dared to attempt. But one other alternative presented itself. The merciless villain ensured his own safety by the sacrifice of an innocent man.
After the time when the sea-captain had paid his visit at Mrs Anderkin's house, Esther's position became subject to certain changes. One little domestic privilege followed another, so gradually and so modestly that the housekeeper found herself a loved and honoured member of the family, without being able to trace by what succession of events she had risen to the new place that she occupied. The secret confided to the two ladies had been strictly preserved; Esther never even suspected that they knew the deplorable story of her lover's death. Her life, after what she had suffered, was not prolonged to a great age. She died, peacefully unconscious of the terrors of death. Her last words were spoken with a smile. She looked at the loving friends assembled round her bed, and said to them, 'My dear one is waiting for me. Good-bye.'