by Ada Lindsay Duncan aka Mrs T C Cloud
A country solicitor employs a governess for his children and discovers she has a mysterious past.
Mr. James Coulson, solicitor and notary public, is a deservedly respected inhabitant of our township. Bluff, frank, and hearty, he is about as far removed from the old-fashioned, conventional style of story-book lawyers, as – well, suppose we say, as any class of living men can be unlike their literary prototypes. With a fairly good practice and a little private property, he is able to live in a very comfortable way, in a quiet, inexpensive place like Scrubhilltown; and as he is undoubtedly popular, his neat, verandahed house, with his trimly kept garden, his sturdy cob and sturdy buggy are regarded as matters for vicarious pride by the less fortunate members of our community. Somewhat late in life he married a pleasant-faced lady, past the first freshness of youth, and increasing years added three nice little girls to his family responsibilities. At the time with which we are concerned these little girls had reached an age at which it had seem desirable to engage a nursery governess, with the view to their introduction to preliminaries of education; and, as the result of an advertisement and some correspondence on the subject, a young person call Rachel Gardner had been an inmate of their household for some five or six months.
“I can’t make Miss Gardner out at all, James,” observed Mrs. Coulson to her husband one day about this time, a puzzled line defining itself on her placid forehead. Mr. Coulson looked up from this Register in some surprise.
“You can’t make Miss Gardener out, Sophy?” he repeated. “How do you mean, my dear? She seems a very quiet, straightforward sort of a girl, I think.”
“She certainly seems straightforward enough, “assented Mrs. Coulson. “And yet – don’t laugh at me, James – I’m convinced that there is some mystery connected with her.”
But in spite of his wife’s appeal, Mr. Coulson could not help laughing.
“Well, feminine romance beats all,” he remarked. “I should certainly never have dreamt of associating the idea of mystery with a matter-of-fact young woman like Miss Gardner.”
“She never speaks of her parents, James, not of her childhood, either. One day last week I happened to make some chance allusion to her father – asking where he died, I believe it was – and she turned as white as a sheet, and shivered all over, and made some excuse for getting out of the room without replying.”
“Perhaps she can’t speak of her father without emotion, and wished to hide it.”
“Evidently. But it was not the emotion of simple regret, I’m quite sure. Besides in her first letter she wrote that she had been an orphan for some years – and however affectionate girls my be, they get over such losses in the course of time.”
“Well, well, my dear, so long as she does her duty by the children, I don’t see that her past concerns us. The lady to whom she referred couched for her respectability, and she seems a nice girl enough.”
“She is a very nice girl, and she answers our purpose admirably,” assented good Mrs. Coulson warmly. “She has no self-assertion, and I should hardly have believed it possible that we should experience so little discomfort from the constant presence of a stranger in the house. “All the same––”
But Mr. Coulson was once more deep in his newspaper and the conversation dropped.
One morning during the following week a new client presented himself in Mr. Coulson’s office.
“A queer-looking customer,” thought the lawyer when the new client made his appearance.
He was a roughly dressed man past middle age apparently, of medium height, which was lessened by a stoop in his shoulders. His features were coarse and common-place, but his eyes were strikingly peculiar. He seldom raised them, but frequently cast furtive sideway glances about him when, however, his eyes were lifted they were certainly startling. Set in cavernous depths beneath beetling grizzled brows, they glowed with a curious greenish light, which Mr. Coulson fancied, rather uncomfortably, was unpleasantly suggestive of mental aberration. But the man’s manner was sane and quiet enough. He wanted to consult the lawyer about some business detail connected with the purchase of a piece of land some ten miles out of the township; and he gave all the needful particulars with perfect clearness and circumstantiality. There was some unusual complication about the matter, and the interview ended by the making of another appointment; and then the queer client shuffled, in an awkward and secretive manner, out of the office.
At the termination of the second interview Mr. Coulson stepped out of the office at the same time as his departing client. His buggy stood at the door, and he was about to drive over to N–, the nearest township, on professional business. Robinson (for that was the name given by the queer-looking client) acknowledged the lawyer’s nod of dismissal by a curiously uncouth gesture, which was probably intended for a bow, and turned to pursue his furtive way down the street. Mr. Coulson had the reins in his hand and one foot upon the buggy step, when a heavy grasp upon his arm pulled him roughly back on to the footpath. Indignant at the liberty, Mr. Coulson turned hastily, and met Robinson’s strange eyes, all ablaze with excitement. His face was livid, and his coarse mouth worked convulsively. He pointed excitedly up the quiet street. “That gal – that young woman, there – with the children – coming this way,” he gasped, brokenly, still clutching the lawyer’s arm in a trembling grip.
Looking in the direction indicated, Mr. Coulson saw his three little girls returning from a morning walk, in company with their governess.
“Who is she? Who is she? What’s her name?” Robinson went on rapidly, evidently in a state of excessive agitation.
His recent conversation with his wife flashed into Mr. Coulson’s mind as he answered, slowly –
“If you mean the young lady who is coming towards us with three little girls, her name is Gardner – Miss Rachel Gardner.”
“Rachel Gardner!” muttered the other. “I knew it was her. I’d ha’ known her anywhere.”
A new expression replaced the frantic excitement in his face – a look which Mr. Coulson thought was on of awe, as if the simply dressed, quiet looking girl on whom his eyes were fixed had been an object of terror to the strange man beside him.
“Don’t le her see me,” he went on, in a low shaking voice. “I don’t want to have them big eyes of hers upon me. I’ll go now; but tell me first where she lives, will you?”
“She lives her – in my house,” replied Mr. Coulson. “She is my children’s governess!”
“In your house?” ejaculated Robinson. “In your house? And I come here to consult you, knowing nothing about it! There’s a fate in it, for a certainly. P’raps the time has come for” –
He broke off, drew the back of his rough hand across his eyes as though to rouse himself, and muttering –
“She’s a good girl – a rare good girl, is Rachel – be kind to her. I’ll see you again afore long,” he hurried away in the opposite direction, just as the laughing children came running up to their father. followed more slowly by the unconscious Rachel, whose grave lips were smiling at their eagerness.
In no way remarkable for beauty, Rachel was fairly agreeable to look at. She was slight and rather tall, with a somewhat sallow complexion and irregular features, which were nevertheless pleasing from their good-tempered expression, and the honest look of her grey eyes.
Mr. Coulson criticized the girl more narrowly than he had ever done before as she advanced towards him.
“It is certainly queer,” he thought. “But I’m no judge of character if that young woman has anything personal to be ashamed of. ‘A good girl,’ the fellow said. But what the deuce should he know about her? A vagabond like him! If he hasn’t at some time or other become acquainted with the tender mercies of the law I’m a Dutchman.”
But he only made some trifling remark to the girl as she rejoined her charges, and, springing into his buggy, drove hastily away, being already late for his appointment. Later in the day, however, he remarked casually –
“By-the-by, Miss Gardner, a client of mine was enquiring your name to-day. He thought he recognized you – fancied he had seen you before. Rather an odd sort of man – his name is Robinson. Do you know anything of him?”
Miss Gardener’s face was a trifle paler than usual, but her eyes were steady and truthful as she answered –
“Robinson! No, I don’t think so. It is not an uncommon name, though, is it? Still I don’t recollect having known anybody called Robinson.”
“No? Oh, well, probably it is a delusion on his part. He seems rather an excitable person. A queer-looking fellow he is too, with stooping shoulders and a strange, shuffling walk. Remarkable eyes, too – greenish, like a cat’s and very deep-set. He has lost a couple of fingers from his left hand, by-the-way. I thought it must be a mistake. It is not likely you should know anything of him, he is such a singularly unprepossessing part.”
Watching her closely, Mr. Coulson saw the governess gradually grow white to the very lips as he went on with his description. At its conclusion she attempted to speak, but the attempt ended in a painful gasp, and she rose unsteadily and hurried from the room.
“I’m afraid Miss Gardner is ill, my dear,” Mr. Coulson said, perplexedly, to his wife.
“Poor girl, I will go to her,” said that good lady, rising from her needlework, puzzled, but pitiful. She was a good woman, but she could not resist – human nature could not have resisted – pausing just long enough to remark, “It is only feminine romance that could possibly associate mystery of any kind with a matter-of-fact girl like that, isn’t it, James?” before she disappeared.
For a few days things went on as usual outwardly, though there was an uncomfortable sense of constraint in the Coulson’s household. Miss Gardner fulfilled her duties as satisfactorily as ever, but she was evidently nervous and ill at ease. Mr. and Mrs. Coulson were perturbed and irresolute. They liked the girl, but they did not like the mystery which enveloped her past – a mystery which so far she had made no attempt to explain.
Matters were in this state when Mr. Coulson’s queer client turned up again. Mr. Coulson was alone in the office when he made his appearance.
“She’s gone out with the children,” he half whispered, with a backward jerk of his thumb. “I’ve been watching, and I seen them go. They won’t be back yet awhile, will they?”
“Not for an hour at least,” replied Mr. Coulson. “And now look here, Robinson, I’m glad you’ve come, for I want to have a little talk with you. It seems to me that the least you can do is to explain yourself. What do you know of this young lady, and why were you so agitated at the sight of her? Above all, why are you so anxious that she should not see you?”
Robinson looed a little startled at this plain questioning; but presently a cunning leer spread itself over his heavy face as he said –
“No, no, gov’nor, you’re not goin’ to get it all out of me as easy as that. But this I will tell you. Rachel Gardner is a good girl – a mighty deal too good, I’ve often thought – and more than that, she’s a lady born and bred, and the man that says she ain’t he’s a liar, that’s what he is. She ain’t got nothing to be ashamed of.”
He said this defiantly, with one of those rare, sudden upliftings of the gleaming greenish eyes that were so startling.
“What are you afraid of her?” persisted Mr. Coulson, quietly.
“Afraid!” he repeated, dropping his eyes again, with a nervous attempt at a laugh. “Bless you, I ain’t afraid of her. Do you suppose I’m frightened of a girl? But never mind all that. I’ve come on business, and I want to get it over. I want to make my will. I supposed I might have done it without coming here; but I want it all tight and square so that there can’t be no mistakes about it after – after – when it’s wanted, I mean.”
Seeing it was useless to question him further just then, Mr. Coulson proceeded to take his client’s instructions. They were of rather a surprising nature. the testator bequeathing all his property, which was mostly banked in various Banks in the colony, and amounted to between five and six thousand pounds, to Rachel Gardner, without any reserve or condition whatsoever.
When the will had been properly drawn out, signed, and witnessed, Robinson placed it in Mr. Coulson’s hands, together with a sealed envelope, addressed in an awkward handwriting to “Miss Rachel Gardner.”
“I want you to keep these here papers for me,” he said. “P’raps it may be a long time before they’re wanted – p’raps it mayn’t. Anyhow, they’re safe with you. When I’m dead give the letter to Rachel, but don’t tell her nothing about it beforehand. I ain’t much of a scholar, but I’ve made out to say all that’s necessary. And don’t you forget what I told you. She’s a lady born and bred, and she ain’t got nothing to be ashamed of. Mind that! No matter what she says herself, you just take my word for it – she ain’t got nothing to be ashamed of.”
And with a farewell flash from his cavernous eyes the queer client departed.
Mr. Coulson did not feel by any means convinced that his client’s word was to be relied upon, but his own belief led him to the same conclusion. In spite of her silence, her agitation, and her pallor, neither he nor his wife could bring themselves to believe that Rachel Gardner was guilty of any personal wrongdoing. The children loved her dearly. She was a constant help and comfort in the household, and Mr. and Mrs. Coulson treated her with a consistent kindness and consideration that gradually banished her nervousness and constraint. So for the next three months all went on quietly. Suddenly the township was startled and horrified by the news that a man had committed suicide by hanging himself in a shanty about 10 miles out of the township. The awful discovery had been made by a man who was employed by the deceased to clear some land. Having occasion to consult the owner, he had gone up to the shanty in which the latter lived alone – and found him thus.
The unhappy suicide was none other than Mr. Coulson’s queer client. Those who had seen him lately had remarked the strangeness of his behaviour for some time past. He had wandered aimlessly about muttering to himself; had apparently eaten next to nothing for many days, and altogether there was no hesitation at the inquest as to a verdict of “unsound mind.”
So Rachel Gardner found herself in possession of a handsome legacy; but far more to her than the money, was the strange confession contained in the sealed letter. Badly written, oddly expressed it might be, but it lifted a bitter load from her heart.
“You must have thought very badly of me, dear Mrs. Coulson,” she said, tearfully, when she had read the letter. “But I could not bear any allusion to the past, and I dreaded any discovery of my secret. You asked me once where my father died. Do you remember? I ran away; I could not tell you a falsehood, and I could not tell you the truth – that he died in prison. But now I know that he was innocent of the robbery for which he was punished, I can bear better to speak of it. My poor mother died with I was 12 years old – worn out, I believe, by worry and anxiety. She educated me herself, and we were never apart until I lost her. We had been well off once, but what with gambling and – and drinking, my father had reduced us to the most abject poverty before she died. Of the next few years I hardly dare to think. He sank lower and lower, and fell at last into the company of men like Bowers – for that is the real name of the poor creature who lately called himself Robinson, and whom I recognised at once from Mr. Coulson’s description. At last a robbery was committed – my father was arrented, found guilty, and sent to prison, where he died within three weeks from heart disease. Bu the help of a lady who had known my mother, I obtained a situation as pupil-teacher in a school, and my life has since been one long dread, lest the shameful associations of my past should come to light. I was glad to leave the colony where all this happened, and take a situation in South Australia.”
“Then does that letter prove your father’s innocence?” queried Mrs. Coulson, with much interest.
“It does. Bowers admits that he himself committed the robbery without my father’s knowledge, and afterwards contrived to make him appear guilty while he escaped. He says his conscience has long troubled him, and that he vowed if ever he found me again, he would try to repair the wrong he did my father. I don’t like taking his money, though,” she added, with a little shudder. “Who knows by what villainous means it came into the poor wretch’s possession?’
“You need not be uneasy,” said Mr. Coulson, to whom she had handed the letter. “There is a postscript which you haven’t noticed. It says, ‘Don’t be afraid of this here money. I’ll swear it is all come by honest. The most of it was made at the diggings. I was lucky enough when being lucky warnt no more use to me.”
So Mr. Coulson’s queer client had in some vague way repented him of his sin, and sought to make reparation.
Duncan, Lindsay. “Mr Coulson’s Queer Client“, Adelaide Observer, 10 Mar 1888:41-42.
Perhaps we should be planning an anthology: Best Forgotten Stories from the Australian Women Writers Challenge, 2022. Have it out for Christmas and make enough for you to shout us a drink.
They are certainly varied and entertaining.
Great idea, Bill, but I’m a long way from knowing which ones are “best”!