Says my neighbour,
'There's somebody hurt, I'm afraid.'
Says I, 'Is it your niece, sir?'
The farmer slammed the door in our faces, and then locked it against us. There was no help for it after this but to go back to Betminster.
Master Gouch, a cautious man in all things, recommended that we should wait awhile before we spoke of what had happened, on the chance of receiving an explanation and apology from the farmer when he recovered his temper. I agreed to this. But there! I am a woman, and I did take a lady (a particular friend of mine) into my confidence. The next day it was all over the town. Inquiries were made; some of the labourers on the farm said strange things; the mayor and aldermen heard of what was going on. When I next saw Farmer Fairweather he was charged with the murder of his niece, and I was called, along with Master Gouch and the labourers, as witnesses against him.
The ins and outs of the law are altogether beyond me. I can only report that Dina Coomb was certainly missing, and this, taken with what Master Gouch and I had heard and seen, was (as the lawyers said) the case against the farmer. His defence was that Dina was a bad girl. He found it necessary, standing towards her in the place of her father, to correct his niece with a leather strap from time to time; and we upset his temper by trying to get into his house when strangers were not welcome, and might misinterpret his actions. As for the disappearance of Dina, he could only conclude that she had run away, and where she had gone to was more than he had been able to discover.
To this the law answered, 'You have friends to help you, and you are rich enough to pay the expense of a strict search. Find Dina Coomb, and produce her here to prove what you have said. We will give you reasonable time. Make the best use of it.'
Ten days passed, and we, the witnesses, were summoned again. How it came out I don't know. Everybody in Betminster was talking of it; Farmer Fairweather's niece had been found.
The girl told her story, and the people who had discovered her told their story. It was all plain and straightforward, and I had just begun to wonder what I was wanted for, when up got the lawyer who had the farmer's interests in charge, and asked that the witnesses might be ordered to leave the court. We were turned out under the care of an usher; and we were sent for as the authorities wanted us, to speak to the identity of Dina, one at a time. The parson of Farmer Fairweather's parish church was the first witness called. Then came the turn of the labourers. I was sent for last.
When I had been sworn, and when the girl and I were, for the first time, set close together face to face, a most extraordinary interest seemed to be felt in my evidence. How I first came to be in Dina's company, and how long a time had passed while I was talking with her, were questions which I answered as I had answered them once already, ten days since.
When a voice warned me to be careful and to take my time, and another said. 'Is that Dina Coomb?' I was too much excited -- I may even say, too much frightened -- to turn my head and see who was speaking to me. The longer I looked at the girl, the more certain I felt that I was not looking at Dina.
What could I do? As an honest woman giving evidence on her oath I was bound, come what might of it, to tell the truth. To the voice which had asked me if that was Dina Coomb, I answered positively, 'No.'
My reasons when given, were two in number. First, both this girl's eyes were as straight as straight could be -- not so much as the vestige of a cast could I see in her left eye. Secondly, she was fatter than Dina in the face, and fatter in the neck and arms, and rounder in the shoulders. I owned, when the lawyer put the question to me, that she was the same height as Dina, and had the same complexion and the same fine blue colour in her eyes. But I stuck fast to the differences I had noticed -- and they said I turned the scale against the prisoner.
As I afterwards discovered, we witnesses had not been agreed. The labourers declared that the girl was Dina. The parson, who had seen Dina hundreds of times at his school, said exactly what I had said. Other competent witnesses were sought for and found the next day. Their testimony was our testimony repeated again and again. Later still, the abominable father and mother who had sold their child for purposes of deception were discovered, and were afterwards punished, along with the people who had paid the money.
Driven to the wall, the prisoner owned that he had failed to find his runaway niece; and that, in terror of being condemned to die on the scaffold for murder, he had made this desperate attempt to get himself acquitted by deceiving the law. His confession availed him nothing; his solemn assertion of innocence availed him nothing. Farmer Fairweather was hanged. *
With the passing away of time the memory of things passes away too. I was beginning to be an old woman, and the trial was only remembered by elderly people like myself, when I got a letter relating to my sister.