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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Culprit and the Judge
By Grace Aguilar (1816–1847)
From ‘Home Influence’

MRS. HAMILTON was seated at one of the tables on the dais nearest the oriel window, the light from which fell on her, giving her figure—though she was seated naturally enough in one of the large maroon-velvet oaken chairs—an unusual effect of dignity and command, and impressing the terrified beholder with such a sensation of awe that had her life depended on it, she could not for that one minute have gone forward; and even when desired to do so by the words “I desired your presence, Ellen, because I wished to speak to you: come here without any more delay,”—how she walked the whole length of that interminable room, and stood facing her aunt, she never knew.  1
  Mrs. Hamilton for a full minute did not speak, but she fixed that searching look, to which we have once before alluded, upon Ellen’s face; and then said, in a tone which, though very low and calm, expressed as much as that earnest look:—  2
  “Ellen! is it necessary for me to tell you why you are here—necessary to produce the proof that my words are right, and that you have been influenced by the fearful effects of some unconfessed and most heinous sin? Little did I dream its nature.”  3
  For a moment Ellen stood as turned to stone, as white and rigid—the next she had sunk down with a wild, bitter cry, at Mrs. Hamilton’s feet, and buried her face in her hands.  4
  “Is it true—can it be true—that you, offspring of my own sister; dear to me, cherished by me as my own child—you have been the guilty one to appropriate, and conceal the appropriation of money, which has been a source of distress by its loss, and the suspicion thence proceeding, for the last seven weeks?—that you could listen to your uncle’s words, absolving his whole household as incapable of a deed which was actual theft, and yet, by neither word nor sign, betray remorse or guilt?—could behold the innocent suffering, the fearful misery of suspicion, loss of character, without the power of clearing himself, and stand calmly, heedlessly by—only proving by your hardened and rebellious temper that all was not right within—Ellen, can this be true?”  5
  “Yes!” was the reply, but with such a fearful effort that her slight frame shook as with an ague: “thank God that it is known! I dared not bring down the punishment on myself; but I can bear it.”  6
  “This is mere mockery, Ellen: how dare I believe even this poor evidence of repentance, with the recollection of your past conduct? What were the notes you found?”  7
  Ellen named them.  8
  “Where are they?—This is but one, and the smallest.”  9
  Ellen’s answer was scarcely audible.  10
  “Used them—and for what?”  11
  There was no answer; neither then nor when Mrs. Hamilton sternly reiterated the question. She then demanded:—  12
  “How long have they been in your possession?”  13
  “Five or six weeks;” but the reply was so tremulous it carried no conviction with it.  14
  “Since Robert told his story to your uncle, or before?”  15
  “Before.”  16
  “Then your last answer was a falsehood, Ellen: it is full seven weeks since my husband addressed the household on the subject. You could not have so miscounted time, with such a deed to date by. Where did you find them?”  17
  Ellen described the spot.  18
  “And what business had you there? You know that neither you nor your cousins are ever allowed to go that way to Mrs. Langford’s cottage, and more especially alone. If you wanted to see her, why did you not go the usual way? And when was this?—you must remember the exact day. Your memory is not in general so treacherous.”  19
  Again Ellen was silent.  20
  “Have you forgotten it?”  21
  She crouched lower at her aunt’s feet, but the answer was audible—“No.”  22
  “Then answer me, Ellen, this moment, and distinctly: for what purpose were you seeking Mrs. Langford’s cottage by that forbidden path, and when?”  23
  “I wanted money, and I went to ask her to take my trinkets—my watch, if it must be—and dispose of them as I had read of others doing, as miserable as I was; and the wind blew the notes to my very hand, and I used them. I was mad then; I have been mad since, I believe: but I would have returned the whole amount to Robert if I could have but parted with my trinkets in time.”  24
  To describe the tone of utter despair, the recklessness as to the effect her words would produce, is impossible. Every word increased Mrs. Hamilton’s bewilderment and misery. To suppose that Ellen did not feel was folly. It was the very depth of wretchedness which was crushing her to earth, but every answered and unanswered question but deepened the mystery, and rendered her judge’s task more difficult.  25
  “And when was this, Ellen? I will have no more evasion—tell me the exact day.”  26
  But she asked in vain. Ellen remained moveless and silent as the dead.  27
  After several minutes Mrs. Hamilton removed her hands from her face, and compelling her to lift up her head, gazed searchingly on her death-like countenance for some moments in utter silence, and then said, in a tone that Ellen never in her life forgot:—  28
  “You cannot imagine, Ellen, that this half confession will either satisfy me, or in the smallest degree redeem your sin. One, and one only path is open to you; for all that you have said and left unsaid but deepens your apparent guilt, and so blackens your conduct, that I can scarcely believe I am addressing the child I so loved—and could still so love, if but one real sign be given of remorse and penitence—one hope of returning truth. But that sign, that hope, can only be a full confession. Terrible as is the guilt of appropriating so large a sum, granted it came by the merest chance into your hand; dark as is the additional sin of concealment when an innocent person was suffering—something still darker, more terrible, must be concealed behind it, or you would not, could not, continue thus obdurately silent. I can believe that under some heavy pressure of misery, some strong excitement, the sum might have been used without thought, and that fear might have prevented the confession of anything so dreadful; but what was this heavy necessity for money, this strong excitement? What fearful and mysterious difficulties have you been led into to call for either? Tell me the truth, Ellen, the whole truth; let me have some hope of saving you and myself the misery of publicly declaring you the guilty one, and so proving Robert’s innocence. Tell me what difficulty, what misery so maddened you, as to demand the disposal of your trinkets. If there be the least excuse, the smallest possibility of your obtaining in time forgiveness, I will grant it. I will not believe you so utterly fallen. I will do all I can to remove error, and yet to prevent suffering; but to win this, I must have a full confession—every question that I put to you must be clearly and satisfactorily answered, and so bring back the only comfort to yourself, and hope to me. Will you do this, Ellen?”  29
  “Oh that I could!” was the reply in such bitter anguish, Mrs. Hamilton actually shuddered. “But I cannot—must not—dare not. Aunt Emmeline, hate me; condemn me to the severest, sharpest suffering; I wish for it, pine for it: you cannot loathe me more than I do myself, but do not—do not speak to me in these kind tones—I cannot bear them. It was because I knew what a wretch I am, that I have so shunned you. I was not worthy to be with you; oh, sentence me at once! I dare not answer as you wish.”  30
  “Dare not!” repeated Mrs. Hamilton, more and more bewildered; and to conceal the emotion Ellen’s wild words and agonized manner had produced, adopting a greater sternness.  31
  “You dare commit a sin, from which the lowest of my household would shrink in horror, and yet tell me you dare not make the only atonement, give me the only proof of real penitence I demand. This is a weak and wicked subterfuge, Ellen, and will not pass with me. There can be no reason for this fearful obduracy, not even the consciousness of greater guilt, for I promise forgiveness, if it be possible, on the sole condition of a full confession. Once more, will you speak? Your hardihood will be utterly useless, for you cannot hope to conquer me; and if you permit me to leave you with your conduct still clothed in this impenetrable mystery, you will compel me to adopt measures to subdue that defying spirit, which will expose you and myself to intense suffering, but which must force submission at last.”  32
  “You cannot inflict more than I have endured the last seven weeks,” murmured Ellen, almost inarticulately. “I have borne that; I can bear the rest.”  33
  “Then you will not answer? You are resolved not to tell me the day on which you found that money, the use to which it was applied, the reason of your choosing that forbidden path, permitting me to believe you guilty of heavier sins than may be the case in reality. Listen to me, Ellen; it is more than time this interview should cease; but I will give you one chance more. It is now half-past seven,”—she took the watch from her neck, and laid it on the table—“I will remain here one-half hour longer: by that time this sinful temper may have passed away, and you will consent to give me the confession I demand. I cannot believe you so altered in two months as to choose obduracy and misery, when pardon, and in time confidence and love, are offered in their stead. Get up from that crouching posture; it can be but mock humility, and so only aggravates your sin.”  34
  Ellen rose slowly and painfully, and seating herself at the table some distance from her aunt, leaned her arms upon it, and buried her face within them. Never before and never after did half an hour appear so interminable to either Mrs. Hamilton or Ellen. It was well for the firmness of the former, perhaps, that she could not read the heart of that young girl, even if the cause of its anguish had been still concealed. Again and again did the wild longing, turning her actually faint and sick with its agony, come over her to reveal the whole, to ask but rest and mercy for herself, pardon and security for Edward: but then, clear as if held before her in letters of fire, she read every word of her brother’s desperate letter, particularly “Breathe it to my uncle or aunt—for if she knows it he will—and you will never see me more.” Her mother, pallid as death, seemed to stand before her, freezing confession on her heart and lips, looking at her threateningly, as she had so often seen her, as if the very thought were guilt. The rapidly advancing twilight, the large and lonely room, all added to that fearful illusion; and if Ellen did succeed in praying it was with desperate fervor for strength not to betray her brother. If ever there were a martyr spirit, it was enshrined in that young, frail form….  35
  “Aunt Emmeline, Aunt Emmeline, speak to me but one word—only one word of kindness before you go. I do not ask for mercy—there can be none for such a wretch as I am; I will bear without one complaint, one murmur, all you may inflict—you cannot be too severe. Nothing can be such agony as the utter loss of your affection; I thought, the last two months, that I feared you so much that it was all fear, no love: but now, now that you know my sin, it has all, all come back to make me still more wretched.” And before Mrs. Hamilton could prevent, or was in the least aware of her intention, Ellen had obtained possession of one of her hands, and was covering it with kisses, while her whole frame shook with those convulsed, but completely tearless sobs.  36
  “Will you confess, Ellen, if I stay? Will you give me the proof that it is such agony to lose my affection, that you do love me as you profess, and that it is only one sin which has so changed you? One word, and, tardy as it is, I will listen, and if I can, forgive.”  37
  Ellen made no answer, and Mrs. Hamilton’s newly raised hopes vanished; she waited full two or three minutes, then gently disengaged her hand and dress from Ellen’s still convulsive grasp; the door closed, with a sullen, seemingly unwilling sound, and Ellen was alone. She remained in the same posture, the same spot, till a vague, cold terror so took possession of her, that the room seemed filled with ghostly shapes, and all the articles of furniture suddenly transformed to things of life; and springing up, with the wild, fleet step of fear, she paused not till she found herself in her own room, where, flinging herself on her bed, she buried her face on her pillow, to shut out every object—oh, how she longed to shut out thought!  38

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