Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman Page 01
MISS JEROMETTE AND THE CLERGYMAN.
MY brother, the clergyman, looked over my shoulder before I was aware of him, and discovered that the volume which completely absorbed my attention was a collection of famous Trials, published in a new edition and in a popular form.
He laid his finger on the Trial which I happened to be reading at the moment. I looked up at him; his face startled me. He had turned pale. His eyes were fixed on the open page of the book with an expression which puzzled and alarmed me.
"My dear fellow," I said, "what in the world is the matter with you?"
He answered in an odd absent manner, still keeping his finger on the open page.
"I had almost forgotten," he said. "And this reminds me."
"Reminds you of what?" I asked. "You don't mean to say you know anything about the Trial?"
"I know this," he said. "The prisoner was guilty."
"Guilty?" I repeated. "Why, the man was acquitted by the jury, with the full approval of the judge! What call you possibly mean?"
"There are circumstances connected with that Trial," my brother answered, "which were never communicated to the judge or the jury--which were never so much as hinted or whispered in court. I know them--of my own knowledge, by my own personal experience. They are very sad, very strange, very terrible. I have mentioned them to no mortal creature. I have done my best to forget them. You--quite innocently--have brought them back to my mind. They oppress, they distress me. I wish I had found you reading any book in your library, except that book!"
My curiosity was now strongly excited. I spoke out plainly.
"Surely," I suggested, "you might tell your brother what you are unwilling to mention to persons less nearly related to you. We have followed different professions, and have lived in different countries, since we were boys at school. But you know you can trust me."
He considered a little with himself.
"Yes," he said. "I know I can trust you." He waited a moment, and then he surprised me by a strange question.
"Do you believe," he asked, "that the spirits of the dead can return to earth, and show themselves to the living?"
I answered cautiously--adopting as my own the words of a great English writer, touching the subject of ghosts.
"You ask me a question," I said, "which, after five thousand years, is yet undecided. On that account alone, it is a question not to be trifled with."
My reply seemed to satisfy him.
"Promise me," he resumed, "that you will keep what I tell you a secret as long as I live. After my death I care little what happens. Let the story of my strange experience be added to the published experience of those other men who have seen what I have seen, and who believe what I believe. The world will not be the worse, and may be the better, for knowing one day what I am now about to trust to your ear alone."
My brother never again alluded to the narrative which he had confided to me, until the later time when I was sitting by his deathbed. He asked if I still remembered the story of Jeromette. "Tell it to others," he said, "as I have told it to you."
I repeat it after his death--as nearly as I can in his own words.
ON a fine summer evening, many years since, I left my chambers in the Temple, to meet a fellow-student, who had proposed to me a night's amusement in the public gardens at Cremorne.
You were then on your way to India; and I had taken my degree at Oxford. I had sadly disappointed my father by choosing the Law as my profession, in preference to the Church. At that time, to own the truth, I had no serious intention of following any special vocation. I simply wanted an excuse for enjoying the pleasures of a London life. The study of the Law supplied me with that excuse. And I chose the Law as my profession accordingly.
On reaching the place at which we had arranged to meet, I found that my friend had not kept his appointment. After waiting vainly for ten minutes, my patience gave way and I went into the Gardens by myself.
I took two or three turns round the platform devoted to the dancers without discovering my fellow-student, and without seeing any other person with whom I happened to be acquainted at that time.
For some reason which I cannot now remember, I was not in my usual good spirits that evening. The noisy music jarred on my nerves, the sight of the gaping crowd round the platform irritated me, the blandishments of the painted ladies of the profession of pleasure saddened and disgusted me. I opened my cigar-case, and turned aside into one of the quiet by-walks of the Gardens.
A man who is habitually careful in choosing his cigar has this advantage over a man who is habitually careless. He can always count on smoking the best cigar in his case, down to the last. I was still absorbed in choosing my cigar, when I heard these words behind me--spoken in a foreign accent and in a woman's voice:
"Leave me directly, sir! I wish to have nothing to say to you."
I turned round and discovered a little lady very simply and tastefully dressed, who looked both angry and alarmed as she rapidly passed me on her way to the more frequented part of the Gardens. A man (evidently the worse for the wine he had drunk in the course of the evening) was following her, and was pressing his tipsy attentions on her with the coarsest insolence of speech and manner. She was young and pretty, and she cast one entreating look at me as she went by, which it was not in manhood--perhaps I ought to say, in young-manhood--to resist.
I instantly stepped forward to protect her, careless whether I involved myself in a discreditable quarrel with a blackguard or not. As a matter of course, the fellow resented my interference, and my temper gave way. Fortunately for me, just as I lifted my hand to knock him down, at policeman appeared who had noticed that he was drunk, and who settled the dispute officially by turning him out of the Gardens.
I led her away from the crowd that had collected. She was evidently frightened--I felt her hand trembling on my arm--but she had one great merit; she made no fuss about it.