The One Black Spot, by Samuel Warren

Experiences of a Barrister, and Confessions of an Attorney

On the evening of a bleak, cold March day, in an early year of this century, a woman, scantily clad, led a boy about eight years old, along the high-road towards the old city of Exeter. They crept close to the hedge-side to shelter themselves from the clouds of dust, which the sudden gusts of east wind blew in their faces.

They had walked many miles, and the boy limped painfully. He often looked up anxiously into his mother's face, and asked if they had much farther to go? She scarcely appeared to notice his inquiries; her fixed eyes and sunken cheek gave evidence that sorrow absorbed all her thoughts. When he spoke, she drew him closer to her side, but made no reply; until, at length, the child, wondering at her silence, began to sob. She stopped and looked at her child for a moment, her eyes filled with tears. They had gained the top of a hill, from which was visible in the distance, the dark massive towers of the cathedral and the church-spires of the city; she pointed them out, and said, "We shall soon be there, Ned." Then, sitting down on a tree that was felled by the road-side, she took "Ned" on her lap, and, bending over him, wept aloud.

"Are you very tired, mother?" said the boy, trying to comfort her. "'Tis a long way—but don't cry—we shall see father when we come there."

"Yes—you will see your father once more."

She checked herself; and, striving to dry her tears, sat looking wistfully towards the place of her destination.

The tramp of horses, coming up the hill they had just ascended, drew the boy's attention to that direction. In a moment he had sprung from his mother, and was shouting, with child-like delight, at the appearance of a gay cavalcade which approached. About thirty men on horseback, in crimson liveries, surrounded two carriages, one of which contained two of His Majesty's Judges, accompanied by the High Sheriff of the county, who, with his javelin-men, was conducting them to the city, in which the Lent Assizes were about to be held.

The woman knelt until the carriages and the gaudy javelin-men had turned the corner at the foot of a hill, and were no longer visible; with her hands clasped together, she had prayed to God to temper with mercy the heart of the Judge, before whom her unfortunate husband, now in jail, would have to stand his trial. Then, taking the boy again by the hand—unable to explain to him what he had seen—she pursued her way with him, silently, along the dusty road.

As they drew nearer to the city, they overtook various groups of stragglers, who had deemed it their duty, in spite of the inclement weather to wander some miles out of the city to catch an early glimpse of "My Lord Judge," and the gay Sheriff's officers. Troops, also, of itinerant ballad-singers, rope-dancers, mountebanks, and caravans of wild beasts, still followed the Judges, as they had done throughout the circuit. "Walk more slowly, Ned," said the mother, checking the boy's desire to follow the shows. "I am very tired; let us rest a little here." They lingered until the crowd was far ahead of them—and were left alone on the road.

Late in the evening, as the last stragglers were returning home, the wayfarers found themselves in the suburbs of the city, and the forlorn woman looked around anxiously for a lodging. She feared the noisy people in the streets; and, turning timidly towards an old citizen who stood by his garden-gate, chatting to his housekeeper, and watching the passers-by—there was a kindness in his look which gave her confidence—so, with a homely courtesy, she ventured to inquire of him where she might find a decent resting-place.

"Have you never been here before?" he asked.

"Never but once, sir, when I was a child, many years ago."

"What part of the country do you come from?"

"Uffeulme."

"Uffeulme? How did you get here?"

"We have walked."

"You don't say that you have trudged all the way with that youngster?"

The housekeeper drowned the reply by loudly announcing to the old gentleman that his supper was waiting—"We have no lodgings, my good woman," she said, turning away from the gate.

"Stop, Martha, stop," said the citizen. "Can't we direct them somewhere?—you see they are strangers. I wonder where they could get a lodging?"

"I am sure I don't know," replied Martha, peevishly; "your supper will be cold—come in!"

"We've had no supper," said the boy.

"Poor little fellow!" said the old gentleman; "then I am sure you shall not go without. Martha, the bread and cheese!" And, opening the garden-gate, he made the travelers enter and sit down in the summer-house, whilst he went to fetch them a draught of cider.

In spite of Martha's grumbling, he managed to get a substantial repast; but it grieved him that the woman, though she thanked him very gratefully and humbly, appeared unable to eat.

"Your boy eats heartily," said he, "but I am afraid you don't enjoy it."

With a choking utterance she thanked him, but could not eat.

The good old man was striving, as well as he could, to explain to them their way to a part of the city, where they might find a lodging, when the garden-gate opened, and a young man gave to the host a hearty greeting.

At the sound of his voice, the cup the woman held in her hand, fell to the ground. This drew the youth's attention to her; he looked earnestly at her for a moment, and with an exclamation of surprise, said, "Why, this is Susan Harvey?"

The woman hid her face in her hands, and moaned.

"Do you know her, then, Alfred?" said the uncle.

"She nursed me when I was a little sickly boy," replied the youth; "she lived many years in my father's house."

"Then I am sure you will take her to some lodging to-night, for she is quite a stranger here. There is Martha calling to me again; she is not in the best temper to-night, so I had better go in, and I leave them to your care."

"Oh! tell me, Mr. Gray, have you seen him?" cried the woman eagerly.

"I have been with him to-day, Susan," said Gray, kindly taking her hand—"do not be cast down; all that can be done for Martin, shall be done. Let me take you where you can rest to-night, and to-morrow you can be with him."

The weary little boy had fallen asleep on the seat; the mother strove to arouse him, but Alfred Gray prevented her, by taking the little fellow in his arms. He carried him by her side through the streets; she could utter no words of gratitude, but her tears flowed fast, and told how the young man's sympathy had fallen like balm upon her wounded heart. "God has taken pity on me," she said, when they parted.

With a quick step Alfred regained his uncle's cottage; he had a difficult task to accomplish. Martin Harvey, now awaiting his trial for poaching, and for being concerned in an affray with Sir George Roberts' game-keepers, had once been his father's apprentice. Young Gray had been endeavoring to procure for him all the legal help which the laws then allowed; but his own means were limited, and, when he met Susan and her boy in the garden, he had come to visit his uncle to ask his assistance. He had now returned on the same errand. He pleaded earnestly, and with caution, but was repulsed. It was in vain he urged the poverty of agricultural laborers at that season, and the temptation which an abundance of game afforded to half-starved men and their wretched families.

"Nonsense, Alfred!" said old Mr. Gray. "I would not grudge you the money if you did not want it for a bad purpose. You must not excuse men who go out with guns and fire at their fellow-creatures in the dark."

"Martin did not fire, uncle—that is what I want to prove, and save him, if I can, from transportation. He has a wife and child."

"Wife and child!" repeated the old man thoughtfully. "You did not tell me he had a wife and child; that poor woman came from Uffeulme."

"Providence must have guided her," said the younger Gray. "It was indeed
Harvey's wife and son whom you so lately relieved."

"You shall have the money. I have all through life prayed that my heart may not be hardened; and I find, old as I am, that, every day I have fresh lessons to learn."

The next morning, while Alfred held anxious consultation with the lawyers, the wife and husband met within the prison walls. They sat together in silence, for neither could speak a single word of hope. The boy never forgot that long and dreary day, during which he watched, with wondering thoughts, the sad faces of his ruined parents.

The Crown Court of the Castle was next morning crowded to overflowing. Among the struggling crowd that vainly sought to gain admission, was Martin Harvey's wife. She was rudely repulsed by the door-keepers, who "wondered what women wanted in such places." She still strove to keep her ground, and watched with piteous looks the doors of the court. She braved the heat and pressure for some time; but a sickly faintness at length came over her. She was endeavoring to retreat into the open air, when she felt some one touch her shoulder, and turning, saw Alfred Gray making his way toward her. After a moment's pause in the cool air, he led her round to a side-door, through which there was a private entrance into the court. He whispered a word to an officer, who admitted them, and pointed to a seat behind the dock, where they were screened from observation, and where the woman could see her husband standing between his two fellow-prisoners.

The prisoners were listening anxiously to the evidence which the principal game-keeper was offering against them. The first, a man about sixty, excited greater interest than the others. He earnestly attended to what was going on, but gave no sign of fear, as to the result. Brushing back his gray locks, he gazed round the court, with something like a smile. This man's life had been a strange one. Early in his career he had been ejected from a farm which he had held under the father of the present prosecutor, Sir George Roberts; he soon after lost what little property had been left him, and, in despair enlisted—was sent abroad with his regiment—and for many years shared in the toils and achievements of our East Indian warfare. Returning home on a small pension, he fixed his abode in his native village, and sought to indulge his old enmity against the family that had injured him by every kind of annoyance in his power. The present baronet, a narrow-minded tyrannical man, afforded by his unpopularity good opportunity to old Ralph Somers to induce others to join him in his schemes of mischief and revenge. "The game," which was plentiful on the estate, and the preservation of which was Sir George's chief delight, formed the principal object of attack; the poverty of the laborers tempted them to follow the old soldier, who managed affairs so warily, that for nine years he had been an object of the utmost terror and hatred to Sir George and his keepers, whilst all their efforts to detect and capture him had, until now, been fruitless.

Martin Harvey, who stood by his side with his shattered arm in a sling, bore marks of acute mental suffering and remorse; but his countenance was stamped with its original, open, manly expression—a face often to be seen among a group of English farm laborers, expressive of a warm heart, full of both courage and kindness.

The evidence was soon given. The game-keepers, on the night of the 24th of February, were apprised that poachers were in the plantations. Taking with them a stronger force than usual, all well-armed, they discovered the objects of their search, in a lane leading out into the fields, and shouted to them to surrender. They distinctly saw their figures flying before them, and when they approached them, one of the fugitives turned round and fired, wounding one of the keepers' legs with a quantity of small shot. The keeper immediately fired in return, and brought down a poacher; old Ralph's voice was heard shouting to them to desist, and upon coming up they found him standing by the side of Martin Harvey, who had fallen severely wounded. Three guns lay by them, one of which had been discharged, but no one could swear who had fired it; search was made all night for the other man, but without success.

When the prisoners were called on for their defence, they looked at one another for a moment as if neither wished to speak first; Ralph, however, began. He had little to say. Casting a look of defiance at Sir George and his lady, who sat in a side-gallery above the court, he freely confessed that hatred to the man who had injured him in his youth, and who had treated him with harshness on his return from abroad, had been the motive of his encouraging and aiding in these midnight depredations; he expressed sorrow for having occasioned trouble to his neighbor Harvey. "What I can say will be of little use to me here," said Martin Harvey, in a hollow voice; "I am ruined, beyond redress; but I was a very poor man when I first joined, with others, in snaring game; I often wanted bread, and saw my wife and child pinched for food also. The rich people say game belongs to them; but—well—all I can say more is, that I take God to witness I never lifted a murderous gun against my fellow-man; he who did it has escaped; and I have suffered this broken limb—but that I don't mind—I have worse than that to bear—I have broken my wife's heart, and my child will be left an orphan."

His voice failed. There was an uneasy movement among the audience: and a lady, who had been leaning over the rails of the side-gallery listening with deep attention, fainted, and was carried out of court. The prisoner's pale wife, who had bowed her head behind him in silent endurance, heard a whisper among the bystanders that it was Lady Roberts, and a hope entered her mind that the lady's tender heart might feel for them.

"Have you any witnesses to call?" asked the Judge.

Martin looked round with a vacant gaze; the attorney whispered to him, and beckoned to Alfred Gray.

Alfred went into the witness-box, and told of the honesty, sobriety, and good conduct of Martin Harvey, during all the years he was in his father's house—"He was there before I was born," said the young man, "and only left when I was obliged to leave also, sixteen years after. A better man never broke bread—he was beloved by every body who knew him. Till now his character was never tainted. It's the one black spot."

The Judge commenced summing up; it was evident to all who had paid attention to the evidence, that the conviction of two of the prisoners was certain. Alfred Gray knew this, and strove to induce the wife to leave with him before the fatal close of proceedings; but she shook her head and would not go. "I shall have strength to bear it," she said.

He sat down by her side, and heard the fearful verdict of "guilty" pronounced against her husband and Ralph Somers; and then the dreaded doom of transportation for life awarded to them. As they turned to leave the dock, Martin looked down upon the crushed and broken-hearted being whom he had sworn to protect and cherish through life, and in spite of every effort to repress it, a cry of agony burst from his lips; it was answered by a fainter sound, and Alfred Gray lifted the helpless, lifeless woman from the ground, and carried her into the open air.

Months passed; and on the day when the convict ship, with its freight of heavy hearts, began its silent course over the greatwaters, the widowed wife took her fatherless child by the hand, and again traversed the weary road which led them to their desolated home.

The kindness of the Grays had supplied a few immediate necessaries. Some one had told her of women having, by the aid of friends, managed to meet their husbands once more in those distant parts of the earth; and this knowledge once in her agitated mind, raised a hope which inspired her to pursue her daily task without fainting, and to watch an opportunity of making an attempt which she had meditated, even during that dreadful day of Martin's trial. She resolved to seek admission into Sir George Roberts' mansion, and appeal to the pity of his wife. It was told in the village that Lady Roberts had implored her husband to interpose in behalf of the men; that his angry and passionate refusal had caused a breach between them; that they had lived unhappily ever since; that he had strictly forbidden any one to mention the subject, or to convey to Lady Roberts any remarks that were made in the neighborhood.

Susan Harvey trembled when she entered the mansion, and timidly asked leave to speak to Lady Roberts.

The servant she addressed had known her husband, and pitied her distress; and, fearing lest Sir George might pass, he led her into his pantry, watching an opportunity to let the lady know of her being there.

After a time Lady Roberts' maid came, and beckoned her to follow up-stairs. In a few moments the soft voice of the lady of the mansion was cheering her with kind words, and encouraging her to disclose her wishes.

Before she had concluded, a step was heard without, at which the lady started and turned pale. Before there was time for retreat Sir George hastily entered the apartment.

"Who have you here, Lady Roberts?"

"One who has a request to make, I believe," said the lady, mildly. "I wish a few moments with her."

"Have the goodness to walk out of this house," said the baronet to Susan. "Lady Roberts, I know this woman and I will not allow you to harbor such people here."

Although the convict's wife never again ventured into that house, her wants, and those of her child, were, during three years, ministered to by the secret agency of the Good Heart that lived so sadly there; and when, at the expiration of that period, Lady Roberts died, a trusty messenger brought to the cottage a little legacy—sufficient, if ever news came of Martin, to enable the wife and child, from whom he was separated, to make their way across the earth, and to meet him again.

But during those weary years no tidings of his fate had reached either his wife or Alfred Gray—to whom he had promised to write when he reached his destination. Another year dragged its slow course over the home of affliction, and poor Susan's hopes grew fainter day by day. Her sinking frame gave evidence of the sickness that cometh from the heart.

One summer evening, in the next year, Alfred Gray, entered his uncle's garden with a letter, and was soon seated in the summer-house reading it aloud to his uncle and Martha. Tears stood in the old man's eyes, as some touching detail of suffering or privation was related. And, indeed, the letter told of little beside. It was from Martin. Soon after his arrival in the settlement, Martin had written to Alfred, but the letter had never reached England—not an unusual occurrence in those times. After waiting long, and getting no reply, he was driven by harsh treatment, and the degradation attending the life he led, to attempt, with old Ralph, an escape from the settlement. In simple language, he recorded the dreary life they led in the woods; how, after a time, old Ralph sickened and died; and how, in a desolate place, where the footsteps of man had, perhaps, never trod before, Martin Harvey had dug a grave, and buried his old companion. After that, unable to endure the terrible solitude, he had sought his way back to his former master, and had been treated more harshly than before. Fever and disease had wasted his frame, until he had prayed that he might die and be at rest; but God had been merciful to him, and had inclined the heart of one for whom he labored, who listened with compassion to his story, took him under his roof, and restored him to health. And now, Martin had obtained a ticket of leave, and served his kind master for wages, which he was carefully hoarding to send to Alfred Gray, as soon as he should hear from him that those he loved were still preserved, and would come and embrace him once more in that distant land.

"They shall go at once, Alfred," said old Mr. Gray, the moment the last sentence was read; "they shall not wait; we will provide the means—hey, Martha?"

He did not now fear to appeal to his companion. Martha had grown kinder of late, and she confessed she had learned of her cousin what gives most comfort to those who are drawing near their journey's end. "I can help them a little," she said.

"We will all help a little," Alfred replied. "I shall be off at break of day to-morrow, on neighbor Collins's pony, and shall give him no rest until he sets me down at Uffeulme."

Accordingly, early next morning, Alfred Gray was riding briskly along through the pleasant green lanes which led toward his native village. It was the middle of June, bright, warm, sunny weather; and the young man's spirits was unusually gay, everything around him tending to heighten the delight which the good news he carried had inspired him with. The pony stepped out bravely, and was only checked when Alfred came in sight of the dear old home of his childhood, and heard the well-known chimes calling the villagers to their morning service, for it was Sunday. Then for a few moments the young man proceeded more slowly, and his countenance wore a more saddened look, as the blessed recollections of early loves and affections with which the scene was associated in his mind, claimed their power over all other thoughts. The voice of an old friend, from an apple-orchard hard by, recalled him from his reveries.

He shook hands through the hedge. "I will come and see you in the evening, Fred. I must hasten on now. She will go to church this morning, and I must go with her."

"Who?" asked the other.

Alfred pointed to the cottage where Susan Harvey dwelt. "I bring her good news—I have a letter. Martin is living and well."

The friend shook his head.

Alfred dismounted, and walked towards Susan Harvey's cottage. The door was closed, and when he looked through the window he could see no one inside. He lifted the latch softly and entered. There was no one there; but his entrance had been heard, and a moment after, a fine stout lad came out of the inner chamber, took Alfred's proffered hand, and in answer to his inquiries, burst into tears.

"She says she cannot live long, sir; but she told me last night, that before she died, you would come and tell us news of father. She has been saying all the past week that we should hear from him soon."

Whilst the boy spoke, Alfred heard a weak voice, calling his name from the inner room.

"Go in," he said, "and tell her I am here."

The boy did so, and then beckoned him to enter.

Susan's submissive features were but little changed, from the time when her husband was taken from her; but the weak and wasted form that strove to raise itself in vain, as Alfred approached the bed-side, too plainly revealed that the struggle was drawing to a close—that the time of rest was at hand.

"Thank God, you are come," she said; "you have heard from him? Tell me quickly, for my time is short."

"I come to tell you good news, Susan. You may yet be restored to him."

"I shall not see Martin in this world again, Mr. Gray; but I shall close my eyes in peace. If you know where he is, and can tell me that my boy shall go and be with him, and tell him how, through these long weary years, we loved him, and thought of him, and prayed for him—" Here she broke off, and beckoned the boy to her. She held his hands within her own, whilst Alfred Gray read from the letter all that would comfort her.

When he had done, she said, "God will bless you—you have been very good to us in our misery. Now, will you promise me one thing more? Will you send my boy to his father, when I am gone?"

The promise was made; and the boy knelt long by her bedside, listening to the words of love and consolation which, with her latest breath, she uttered for the sake of him who, she hoped, would hear them again from his child's lips.

* * * * *

Nearly forty years have passed since they laid her among the graves of the humble villagers of Uffeulme. Few remain now who remember her story or her name—but, on the other side of the world, amid scenery all unlike to that in which she dwelt, there stands a cheerful settler's home, and under the shadow of tall acacia trees which surround the little garden in which some few English flowers are blooming, there are sitting, in the cool of the summer evening, a group whose faces are all of the Anglo-Saxon mould. A happy looking couple, in the prime of life, are there, with children playing around them; and one little gentle girl, they call Susan, is sitting on the knee of an aged, white-haired man, looking lovingly into his face, and wondering why his eye so watches the setting sun every night, as it sinks behind the blue waters in the distance. Two tall, handsome lads, with guns on their shoulders, enter the garden, and hasten to show the old man the fruits of their day's exploits.

"We have been lucky to-day, grandfather," says the younger; "but Alfred says these birds are not like the birds in old England."

"You should hear the sailors talk about the game in England, Martin," replies the brother.

"Grandfather has told us all about England, except the 'birds.' He thinks we should run away, if he were to describe them."

The old man looks steadily at the boys for a moment, and his eyes fill with tears. "It is a glorious land," he says, with a faltering voice; "it is our country; but, Alfred, Martin, you will never leave this happy home to go there. Birds there are the rich man's property, and you would not dare carry those guns of yours over English ground. If ever you go there, your father will tell you where there is a church-yard—and among the graves of the poor, there is one—"

He stopped, for Edward Harvey came to the place where his father sat, and took his trembling hand within his own; the boys obeyed their mother's signal, and followed her into the house; the two men remained sitting together, until the silent stars came out.

Then the aged man, leaning on his son's arm, rejoined the family at the supper-table—and the peace of God rested on the solitary home. Edward Harvey had faithfully kept within his heart, the memory of his mother's dying commands.

Martin, his father, had nobly effaced the one Black Spot.