The Accommodation Bill, by Samuel Warren

Experiences of a Barrister, and Confessions of an Attorney

Such of the incidents of the following narrative as did not fall within my own personal observation, were communicated to me by the late Mr. Ralph Symonds, and the dying confessions of James Hornby, one of the persons killed by the falling in of the iron roof of the Brunswick Theatre. A conversation the other day with a son of Mr. Symonds, who has been long settled in London, recalled the entire chain of circumstances to my memory with all the vivid distinctness of a first impression.

One evening towards the close of the year 1806, the Leeds coach brought Mr. James Hornby to the village of Pool, on the Wharf, in the West-Riding of Yorkshire. A small but respectable house on the confines of the place had been prepared for his reception, and a few minutes after his descent from the top of the coach, the pale, withered-looking man disappeared within it. Except for occasional trips to Otley, a small market-town distant about three miles from Pool, he rarely afterwards emerged from its seclusion. It was not Time, we shall presently see—he was indeed but four-and-forty years of age—that had bowed his figure, thinned his whitening hair, and banished from his countenance all signs of healthy, cheerful life. This, too, appeared to be the opinion of the gossips of the village, who, congregated, as usual, to witness the arrival and departure of the coach, indulged, thought Mr. Symonds, who was an inside passenger proceeding on to Otley, in remarkably free-and-easy commentaries upon the past, present, and future of the new-comer.

"I mind him well," quavered an old white-haired man. "It's just three-and-twenty years ago last Michaelmas. I remember it because of the hard frost two years before, that young Jim Hornby left Otley to go to Lunnon: just the place, I'm told, to give the finishing polish to such a miscreant as he seemed likely to be. He was just out of his time to old Hornby, his uncle, the grocer."

"He that's left him such heaps of money?"

"Ay, boy, the very same, though he wouldn't have given him or any one else a cheese-paring whilst he lived. This one is a true chip of the old block, I'll warrant. You noticed that he rode outside, bitter cold as it is?".

"Surely, Gaffer Hicks. But do ye mind what it was he went off in such a skurry for? Tom Harris was saying last night at the Horse-Shoe, it was something concerning a horse-race or a young woman; he warn't quite sensible which."

"I can't say," rejoined the more ancient oracle, "that I quite mind all the ups and downs of it. Henry Burton horse-whipped him on the Doncaster race-course, that I know; but whether it was about Cinderella that had, they said, been tampered with the night before the race, or Miss Elizabeth Grainsford, whom Burton married a few weeks afterwards, I can't, as Tom Harris says, quite clearly remember."

"Old Hornby had a heavy grip of Burton's farm for a long time before he died, they were saying yesterday at Otley. The sheepskins will now no doubt be in the nephew's strong box."

"True, lad; and let's hope Master Burton will be regular with his payments; for if not, there's Jail and Ruin for him written in capital letters on yon fellow's cast-iron phiz, I can see."

The random hits of these Pool gossips, which were here interrupted by the departure of the coach, were not very wide of the mark. James Hornby, it was quite true, had been publicly horsewhipped twenty-three years before by Henry Burton on the Doncaster race-course, ostensibly on account of the sudden withdrawal of a horse that should have started, a transaction with which young Hornby was in some measure mixed up; but especially and really for having dared, upon the strength of presumptive heirship to his uncle's wealth, to advance pretensions to the fair hand of Elizabeth Gainsford, the eldest daughter of Mr. Robert Gainsford, surgeon, of Otley—pretensions indirectly favored, it was said, by the father, but contemptuously repudiated by the lady. Be this as it may, three weeks after the races, Elizabeth Gainsford became Mrs. Burton, and James Hornby hurried off to London, grudgingly furnished for the journey by his uncle. He obtained a situation as shopman in one of the large grocer establishments of the metropolis; and twenty-three years afterwards, the attorney's letter, informing him that he had succeeded to all his deceased uncle's property, found him in the same place, and in the same capacity.

A perfect yell of delight broke from the lips of the taciturn man as his glance devoured the welcome intelligence. "At last!" he shouted with maniacal glee; and fiercely crumpling the letter in his hand, as if he held a living foe in his grasp, whilst a flash of fiendish passion broke from the deep caverns of his sunken eyes—"at last I have thee on the hip! Ah, mine enemy!—it is the dead—the dead alone that never return to hurl back on the head of the wrong-doer the shame, the misery, the ruin he inflicted in his hour of triumph!" The violence of passions suddenly unreined after years of jealous curb and watchfulness for a moment overcame him, and he reeled as if fainting, into a chair. The fierce, stern nature of the man soon mastered the unwonted excitement, and in a few minutes he was cold, silent, impassable as ever. The letter which he despatched the same evening gave calm, business orders as to his uncle's funeral, and other pressing matters upon which the attorney had demanded instructions, and concluded by intimating that he should be in Yorkshire before many days elapsed. He arrived, as we have seen, and took up his abode at one of the houses bequeathed to him in Pool, which happened to be unlet.

Yes, for more than twenty bitter years James Hornby had savagely brooded over the shame and wrong inflicted on him before the mocking eyes of a brutal crowd by Henry Burton. Ever as the day's routine business closed, and he retired to the dull solitude of his chamber, the last mind-picture which faded on his waking sense was the scene on the crowded race-course, with all its exasperating accessories—the merciless exultation of the triumphant adversary—the jibes and laughter of his companions—the hootings of the mob—to be again repeated with fantastic exaggeration in the dreams which troubled and perplexed his broken sleep. No wonder that the demons of Revenge and Hate, by whom he was thus goaded, should have withered by their poisonous breath the healthful life which God had given—have blasted with premature old age a body rocker with curses to unblessed repose! It seemed, by his after-confessions, that he had really loved Elizabeth Gainsford with all the energy of his violent, moody nature, and that her image, fresh, lustrous, radiant, as in the dawn of life, unceasingly haunted his imagination with visions of tenderness and beauty, lost to him, as he believed, through the wiles, the calumnies, and violence of his detested, successful rival.

The matronly person who, a few days after the Christmas following Hornby's arrival at Pool, was conversing with her husband in the parlor of Grange farmhouse, scarcely realized the air-drawn image which dwelt in the memory of the unforgiving, unforgetting man. Mrs. Burton was at this time a comely dame, whose embonpoint contour, however indicative of florid health and serenity of temper, exhibited little of the airy elegance and grace said to have distinguished the girlhood of Elizabeth Gainsford. Her soft brown eyes were gentle and kind as ever, but the brilliant lights of youth no longer sparkled in their quiet depths, and time had not only "thinned her flowing hair"—necessitating caps—but had brushed the roses from her cheeks, and swept away, with his searing hand, the pale lilies from the furtive coverts whence they had glanced in tremulous beauty, in life's sweet prime; yet for all that, and a great deal more, Mrs. Burton, I have no manner of doubt, looked charmingly in the bright fire-blaze which gleamed in chequered light and shade upon the walls, pictures, curtains of the room, and the green leaves and scarlet berries of the Christmas holly with which it was profusely decorated. Three of her children—the eldest, Elizabeth, a resuscitation of her own youth—were by her side, and opposite sat her husband, whose frank, hearty countenance seemed to sparkle with careless mirth.

"Hornby will be here presently, Elizabeth," said he. "What a disappointment awaits the rascally curmudgeon! His uncle was a prince compared to him."

"Disappointment, Henry! to receive four hundred pounds he did not expect?"

"Ay, truly, dame. Lawyer Symonds' son Frank, a fine, good-hearted young fellow as ever stepped in shoe-leather—Lizzy, girl, if that candle were nearer your face it would light without a match"—

"Nonsense, father!"

"Very likely. Frank Symonds, I was saying, believes, and so does his father, that Hornby would rejoice at an opportunity of returning with interest the smart score I marked upon his back three-and-twenty years ago"

"It was a thoughtless, cruel act, Henry," rejoined his wife, "and the less said of it the better. I hope the fright we have had will induce you to practice a better economy than heretofore; so that, instead of allowing two years' interest to accumulate upon us, we may gradually reduce the mortgage."

"That we will, dear, depend upon it. We shall be pushed a little at first: Kirkshaw, who lent me the two hundred and fifty, can only spare it for a month; but no doubt the bank will do a bill for part of it by that time. But sufficient for the day is the evil thereof. Here is the money for Hornby at all events: and here at last comes the shrivelled atomy; I hear his horse. Fanny, light the candles."

If Mrs. Burton had consciously or unconsciously entertained the self-flattering notion that the still unwedded bachelor who had unsuccessfully wooed her nearly a quarter of a century before, still retained a feeling of regretful tenderness for her, she must have been grievously surprised by the cold, unrecognizing glance which Hornby threw on her as he entered, and curtly replied to her civil greeting. That was not the image stamped upon his heart and brain! But when her eldest daughter approached the lights to place paper and pens upon the table, the flashing glance and white quivering lip of the grave visitor revealed the tempest of emotion which for an instant shook him. He quickly suppressed all outward manifestation of feeling, and in a dry, business tone, demanded if Mr. Burton was ready to pay the interest of the mortgage.

"Yes, thank God," replied Burton, "I am: here is the money in notes of the Governor and Company of the Bank of England. Count them!"

Hornby bent down over the notes, shading his face with his hand, as if more accurately to examine them, and the glance of baffled rage which swept across his features was not observed.

"They are quite right," he said, rising from his chair; "and here is your receipt."

"Very Good! And now, Hornby, let us have a glass of wine together for the sake of old times. Well, well; you need not look so fierce about it. Let bygones be bygones, I say. Oh, if you will go—go in God's name! Good-night!"

"Good-night!"

"Baffled—foiled!" muttered Hornby as he rode homeward. "Where could he get the money? Borrowed it, doubtless, but of whom? Well, patience—patience! I shall grip thee yet, Henry Burton!" And the possessed man turned round in his saddle, and shook his clenched hand in the direction of the house he had quitted. He then steadily pursued his way, and soon regained his hermitage.

The month for which Burton had borrowed the two hundred and fifty pounds passed rapidly—as months always do to borrowers—and expedient after expedient for raising the money was tried in vain. This money must be repaid, Kirkshaw had emphatically told him, on the day stipulated. Burton applied to the bank at Leeds, with which he usually did business, to discount an acceptance, guaranteed by one or two persons whose names he mentioned. The answer was the usual civil refusal to accept the proffered security for repayment—"the bank was just then full of discounts." Burton ventured, as a last resource, to call on Hornby with a request that, as the rapid advance in the market-value of land consequent on the high war-prices obtained for its produce, had greatly increased the worth of Grange Farm, he would add the required sum to the already-existing mortgage. He was met by a prompt refusal. Mr. Hornby intended to foreclose as speedily as possible the mortgages he already held, and invest his capital in more profitable securities. "Well, then—would he lend the amount at any interest he chose?"

"The usury laws," replied Hornby, with his usual saturnine sneer, "would prevent my acceptance of your obliging offer, even if I had the present means, which I have not. My spare cash happens just now to be temporarily locked up."

Burton, half-crazed with anxiety, went the following day to the Leeds bank with the proffer of a fresh name agreed to be lent him by its owner. Useless! "They did not know the party." The applicant mused a few moments, and then said, "Would you discount the note of Mr. James Hornby of Pool?"

"Certainly; with a great deal of pleasure." Burton hurried away; had his horse instantly saddled, and gallopped off to Pool. Hornby was at home.

"You hinted the other day," said Burton, "that if you had not been short of present means you might have obliged me with the loan I required"

"Did I?"

"At least I so understood you. I am of course not ignorant, Mr. Hornby, that there is no good blood between us two; but I also know that you are fond of money, and that you are fully aware that I am quite safe for a few hundred pounds. I am come, therefore, to offer you ten pounds bonus for your acceptance at one month for two hundred and fifty pounds."

"What?" exclaimed Hornby with strange vehemence. "What"

Burton repeated his offer, and Hornby turned away towards the window without speaking.

When he again faced Burton, his countenance wore its usual color; but the expression of his eyes, the applicant afterwards remembered, was wild and exulting.

"Have you a bill stamp?"

"Yes."

"Then draw the bill at once, and I will accept it."

Burton did not require to be twice told. The bill was quickly drawn; Hornby took it to another table at the further end of the apartment, slowly wrote his name across it, folded, and returned it to Burton, who tendered the ten pounds he had offered, and a written acknowledgment that the bill had been drawn and accepted for his (Burton's) accommodation.

"I don't want your money, Henry Burton," said Hornby, putting back the note and the memorandum. "I am not afraid of losing by this transaction. You do not know me yet."

"A queer stick," thought Burton, as he gained the street; "but Old Nick is seldom so black as he's painted! He was a plaguy while, I thought, signing his name; but I wish I could sign mine to such good purpose."

Burton laid the accepted bill, face downwards, on the bank counter, took a pen, indorsed, and passed it to the managing clerk. The gray-headed man glanced sharply at the signature, and then at Burton, "Why, surely this is not Mr. Hornby's signature? It does not at all resemble it!"

"Not his signature!" exclaimed Burton; "what do you mean by that?"

"Reynolds, look here," continued the clerk, addressing another of the bank employés. Reynolds looked, and his immediate glance of surprise and horror at Burton revealed the impression he had formed.

"Please to step this way, Mr. Burton, to a private apartment," said the manager.

"No—no, I won't," stammered the unfortunate man, over whose mind a dreadful suspicion had glanced with the suddenness of lightning. "I will go back to Hornby;" and he made a desperate but vain effort to snatch the fatal instrument. Then, pale and staggering with a confused terror and bewilderment, he attempted to rush into the street. He was stopped, with the help of the bystanders, by one of the clerks, who had jumped over the counter for the purpose.

The messenger despatched by the bankers to Hornby returned with an answer that the alleged acceptance was a forgery. It was stated on the part of Mr. Hornby that Mr. Burton had indeed requested him to lend two hundred and fifty pounds, but he had refused. The frantic asseverations of poor Burton were of course disregarded, and he was conveyed to jail. An examination took place the next day before the magistrates, and the result was, that the prisoner was fully committed on the then capital charge for trial at the ensuing assize.

It were useless, as painful, to dwell upon the consternation and agony which fell upon the dwellers at Grange Farm when the terrible news reached them. A confident belief in the perfect innocence of the prisoner, participated by most persons who knew his character and that of Hornby, and that it would be triumphantly vindicated on the day of trial, which rapidly approached, alone enabled them to bear up against the blow, and to await with trembling hope the verdict of a jury.

It was at this crisis of the drama that I became an actor in it. I was retained for the defence by my long-known and esteemed friend Symonds, whose zeal for his client, stimulated by strong personal friendship, knew no bounds. The acceptance, he informed me, so little resembled Hornby's handwriting, that if Burton had unfolded the bill when given back to him by the villain, he could hardly have failed to suspect the nature of the diabolical snare set for his life.

In those days, and until Mr., now Sir, Robert Peel's amendment of the criminal law and practice of this country, the acceptor of a bill of exchange, on the principle that he was interested in denying the genuineness of the signature, could not, according to the English law of evidence, be called, on the part of the prosecution, to prove the forgery; and of course, after what had taken place, we did not propose to call Hornby for the defence. The evidence for the crown consisted, therefore, on the day of trial, of the testimony of persons acquainted with Hornby's signature, that the acceptance across the inculpated bill was not in his handwriting. Burton's behavior at the bank, in endeavoring to repossess himself of the bill by violence, was of course detailed, and told heavily against him.

All the time this testimony was being given, Hornby sat on one of the front seats of the crowded court, exulting in the visible accomplishment of his Satanic device. We could see but little of his face, which, supported on his elbow, was partially concealed by a handkerchief he held in his hand; but I, who narrowly observed him, could occasionally discern flashes from under his pent brows—revealments of the fierce struggle which raged within.

The moment at last arrived for the prisoner, whose eyes had been for some time fixed on Hornby, to speak or read his defence, and a breathless silence pervaded the court.

Burton started at the summons, like a man unexpectedly recalled to a sense of an imperious, but for the moment forgotten, duty.

"James Hornby!" he suddenly cried with a voice which rang through the assembly like a trumpet, "stand up, and if you can face an innocent man"—

Hornby, surprised out of his self-possession, mechanically obeyed the strange order, sprang involuntarily to his feet, let fall the handkerchief that had partially concealed his features, and nervously confronted the prisoner.

"Look at me, I say," continued Burton with increasing excitement; "and as you hope to escape the terrors of the last judgment, answer truly: did you not, with your own hand, and in my presence, sign that bill?"—

"This cannot be permitted," interrupted the judge.

"If you do not speak," proceeded the prisoner, heedless of the intimation from the bench; "or if you deny the truth, my life, as sure as there is a God in heaven, will be required at your hands. If, in consequence of your devilish plotting, these men consign me to a felon's grave, I shall not be cold in it when you will be calling upon the mountains to fall and cover you from the vengeance of the Judge of heaven and earth! Speak, man—save me: save your own soul from mortal peril whilst there is yet time for mercy and repentance!"

Hornby's expression of surprise and confusion had gradually changed during this appeal to its usual character of dogged impassibility. He turned calmly and appealingly towards the bench.

"You need not answer these wild adjurations, Mr. Hornby," said the judge, as soon as he could make himself heard.

A smile curled the fellow's lip as he bowed deferentially to his lordship, and he sat down without uttering a syllable.

"May the Lord, then, have mercy on my soul!" exclaimed the prisoner solemnly. Then glancing at the bench and jury-box, he added, "And you, my lord and gentlemen, work your will with my body as quickly as you may: I am a lost man!"

The calling of witnesses to character, the opening of the judge's charge, pointing from its first sentence to a conviction, elicited no further manifestation of feeling from the prisoner: he was as calm as despair.

The judge had been speaking for perhaps ten minutes, when a bustle was heard at the hall, as if persons were striving to force their way into the body of the court in spite of the resistance of the officers.

"Who is that disturbing the court?" demanded the judge angrily.

"For the love of Heaven let me pass!" we heard uttered in passionate tones by a female voice. "I must and will see the judge!"

"Who can this be?" T inquired, addressing Mr. Symonds.

"I cannot conceive," he replied; "surely not Mrs. Burton?"

I had kept my eye, as I spoke, upon Hornby, and noticed that he exhibited extraordinary emotion at the sound of the voice, to whomsoever it belonged, and was now endeavoring to force his way through the crowded and anxious auditory.

"My lord," said I, "I have to request on the part of the prisoner that the person desirous of admittance may be heard."

"What has she to say? Or if a material witness, why have you not called her at the proper time?" replied his lordship with some irritation.

"My lord, I do not even now know her name; but in a case involving the life of the prisoner, it is imperative that no chance be neglected"—

"Let the woman pass into the witness-box," interrupted the judge.

The order brought before our eyes a pale, stunted woman, of about fifty years of age, whose excited and by no means unintellectual features, and hurried, earnest manner, seemed to betoken great and unusual feeling.

"As I'm alive, Hornby's deformed housekeeper!" whispered Symonds. "This poor devil's knot will be unraveled yet."

The woman, whose countenance and demeanor, as she gave her evidence, exhibited a serious, almost solemn intelligence, deposed to the following effect:—

"Her name was Mary McGrath, and she was the daughter of Irish parents, but born and brought up in England. She had been Mr. Hornby's housekeeper, and remembered well the 4th of February last, when Mr. Burton, the prisoner, called at the house. Witness was dusting in an apartment close to her master's business-room, from which it was only separated by a thin wooden partition. The door was partly open, and she could see as well as hear what was going on without being seen herself. She heard the conversation between the prisoner and her master; heard Mr. Hornby agree to sign the paper—bill she ought to say—for two hundred and fifty pounds; saw him do it, and then deliver it folded up to Mr. Burton."

A shout of execration burst from the auditory as these words were uttered, and every eye was turned to the spot where Hornby had been seated. He had disappeared during the previous confusion.

"Silence!" exclaimed the judge sternly. "Why, woman," he added, "have you never spoken of this before?"

"Because, my lord," replied the witness with downcast looks, and in a low, broken voice—"because I am a sinful, wicked creature. When my master, the day after Mr. Burton had been taken up, discovered that I knew his secret, he bribed me with money and great promises of more to silence. I had been nearly all my life, gentlemen, poor and miserable, almost an outcast, and the temptation was too strong for me. He mistrusted me, however—for my mind, he saw, was sore troubled—and he sent me off to London yesterday, to be out of the way till all was over. The coach stopped at Leeds, and, as it was heavy upon me, I thought, especially as it was the blessed Easter-time, that I would step to the chapel. His holy name be praised that I did! The scales seemed to fall from my eyes, and I saw clearer than I had before the terrible wickedness I was committing. I told all to the priest, and he has brought me here to make what amends I can for the sin and cruelty of which I have been guilty. There—there is all that is left of the wages of crime," she added, throwing a purse of money on the floor of the court; and then bursting into a flood of tears, she exclaimed with passionate earnestness, "for which may the Almighty of his infinite mercy pardon and absolve me!"

"Amen!" responded the deep husky voice of the prisoner, snatched back, as it were, from the very verge of the grave to liberty and life. "Amen, with all my soul!"

The counsel for the crown, cross-examined the witness, but his efforts only brought out her evidence in, if possible, a still clearer and more trustworthy light. Not a thought of doubt was entertained by any person in the court, and the jury, with the alacrity of men relieved of a grievous burthen, and without troubling the judge to resume his interrupted charge, returned a verdict of acquittal.

The return of Burton to his home figured as an ovation in the Pool and Otley annals. The greetings which met him on all sides were boisterous and hearty, as English greetings usually are; and it was with some difficulty the rustic constabulary could muster a sufficient force to save Hornby's domicile from sack and destruction. All the windows were, however, smashed, and that the mob felt was something at all events.

Burton profited by the painful ordeal to which he had, primarily through his own thoughtlessness, been exposed, and came in a few years to be regarded as one of the most prosperous yeomen-farmers of Yorkshire. Mr. Frank Symonds' union with Elizabeth Burton was in due time solemnized; Mr. Wilberforce, the then popular member for the West Riding, I remember hearing, stood sponsor to their eldest born; and Mary McGrath passed the remainder of her life in the service of the family her testimony had saved from disgrace and ruin.

Mr. James Hornby disappeared from Yorkshire immediately after the trial, and, except through his business agents, was not again heard of till the catastrophe at the Brunswick Theatre, where he perished. He died penitent, after expressing to Mr. Frank Symonds, for whom he had sent, his deep sorrow for the evil deed he had planned, and, but for a merciful interposition, would have accomplished. As a proof of the sincerity of his repentance, he bequeathed the bulk of his property to Mrs. Symonds, the daughter of the man he had pursued with such savage and relentless hate!