by Caroline Leakey (1827-1881) writing as “Oliné Keese”
The Broad Arrow, the tale of a female convict, was reviewed here on Wednesday. The following extract portrays the moment of the lead character Maida’s downfall.
At the door of an humble lodging-house, in a country town, stood a gentleman in military undress. He seemed turning in his mind whether to enter or not. After a moment’s hesitation he advanced, and ascending the stairs, gently opened the door of a small third-storey room, where he perceived the object of his search — Maida Gwynnham, still beautiful — proudly beautiful, though in person the mere shadow of her former self. Captain Norwell soon found that sorrow had not dimmed the fire of her eye.
The moment had arrived. The prey quivered within hand-grasp. He then told her that his position was precarious. Pecuniary difficulties pressed upon him so hardly, that where another week might find him, he would not harrow her tender feelings by hinting. He told of feverish excitements which sapped his life energies; of harassing vigils which might deprive him of reason. And when Maida inquired what assistance she could possibly render in adversities so hopelessly beyond her aid, Norwell answered that her affectionate participation in his sorrow was in itself an assistance; because it solaced his desponding spirits. On further inquiry he told her the most beggarly part of the trial was, that a mere trifle would relieve him.
To one long accustomed to deal in pence, the trifle of four hundred pounds appeared rather Brobdignaginal. Yet, as she could remember the time when such a sum would not have alarmed her, Maida was disposed to credit Norwell for sincerity in so viewing the amount required.
‘Is there no means of procuring the money, Henry?’
‘There is the very nuisance! The exact sum is promised me, but it doesn’t come. Now it would be salvation; by-and-by it will do more harm than good.’
A gleam of hope shone on Maida, before so dejected. Perceiving which, Captain Norwell
Exclaimed — ‘Yes; it’s only fair, since I have made you partaker of my trouble, that you should share the slight hope which preserves me from sinking.’
Maida was all gratitude and eager attention while Norwell explained that the old uncle, of whom she had so often heard, had promised to send a cheque for four hundred pounds; but that he would obstinately take his leisure in sending it, which leisure might be the ruin of his nephew if prolonged beyond three days more. There was just a chance that the cheque might arrive to-morrow, Norwell having written to hurry the old gentleman.
Maida was now in a fit state of conflicting feeling to be left to follow out the train of thought her betrayer had laid. Her heart, balanced with delicate exactness between the points of suspense — hope — fear—it can work on by itself, advantageously, too, to Norwell. He therefore bade her farewell, solemnly engaging to bring her the result of the next post before nine o’clock A.M. to-morrow morning.
‘Remember, if there is anything I can do, Henry,’ she said, as he quitted the little room.
‘Yes, yes; I’m up to you.’ He waved his hand graciously and descended to the street; and Maida set herself to watch for an hour, distant by whole night’s length. But. to her surprise, ere nine o’clock of that evening, Norwell again showed himself. She saw immediately that something was amiss, for he looked more gloomy than ever.
Throwing himself down on the only chair, he flung a letter on the table.
‘Confound it! It is come, but it’s of no use. I must have four hundred or I’m a ruined man.’
A dismal silence succeeded. Maida once tried to speak, but Norwell impatiently hushed her. At last he started from his seat, enlivened by a bright thought, which presented a way of escape.
‘It is not without remedy, seeing it’s only an old man’s mistake. Yes; it can be done!’
Of course Maida brightened too: her smile was almost happy when Norwell said —
‘You wished to help me; now is the chance for you. Drawing a letter from his pocket-book, he handed it to her. ‘Read this. You see he here promises me four hundred; well, now read that cheque, on the table there. You see it is only for one hundred. What am I to do? Am I to be ruined by the old dotard?’
‘Certainly not; only don’t speak so. Write at once and get him to rectify the blunder. It is an odd one, though, to make.’
‘Not for a man of eighty, just in the flurry of starting for the Continent. As for writing to him, why, before I could receive an answer, I should be — ah! well, never mind where. At any rate it would be useless to write: he has left England by this. We must act first and wake him up afterwards.
Quite amused at the idea of waiting for his uncle’s fidgets, Norwell burst into pretended anger.
‘Oh! botheration take it. Wait for him, indeed, when I can remedy it myself.’
Maida asked how he proposed to do so.
‘Nothing easier. We must alter the cheque to the amount intended, That’s what I want you to do. A woman’s touch is so much lighter than a man’s. Look here.’
Taking the cheque, he seated himself at the table, and pointed with a pencil to the figures.
‘As they are written, it will be easy to turn the one into a four: the distance readily admits it.
See here; a little tail at the end of the one, a stroke through the tail, and it’s done. The spelt figures are the plague.’
He scanned them thoughtfully, then continued; ‘Twill do famously! See, the one is rather indistinct; put an F before it, there’s room enough; and the tiniest touch to the e, and you have a pretty good four. The n is as much a u as an n, thanks to his penmanship.’ He imagined Maida was following the pencil in its course over the cheque. Turning his head to make sure of her attention, he saw her standing erect, a look of horror depicted on her blanched features; her hand, uplifted, had stayed itself half-way to her lips, a passion worked beneath that stricken exterior, but not a passion to vent itself in wrath.
‘O, Norwell! do you too spurn me — and with such a request — this is misery.’
In well-affected surprise, Norwell put his arm around her.
‘You silly child; what tragedy nonsense is this? Listen to me, Maida.’
All truth herself — strangely enough, through the dark experience of more than two years — she had not learned to doubt her deceiver. She listened to his perjured voice, and the rigidity of her features relaxed, her hand reached its destination, and in an attitude of warning laid one finger on her lip.
Norwell went on to say: ‘You may depend it’s all right, and that m his book uncle has placed four
hundred against my name, or rather against this cheque. ’Tis not the first time he has made so doting a mistake. Excusable, too, poor old fellow; but that won’t save me. If you will not help me, I must do it myself. I’m not going to founder for his forgetfulness. Of course I shall write at once and tell him what we’ve done, and he’ll be glad enough.’
‘Not unless you choose ; but if you will not, I must. Your hand would be better than mine, though; it would make the alteration more perfect.’
‘If all this be true, I can discover no necessity for disguise. I understand you do not wish to keep it secret.’
Falsehood is ever petulant over if’s. Truth alone can stand the test of the subtle monosyllable.
‘It is more fun than I expected,’ said Norwell, with a vexed laugh. ‘Secret! no; but, you silly puss, however much my uncle meant four hundred, the bank will not pay a sum disagreeing with the cheque. His intentions must be in black and white, or they can’t be cashed — they’d be cashiered if you please. Or if the figures showed signs of alteration, there would be an immediate fuss to be sure, though that would be of no consequence except for the delay. A word from Nice would stop their righteous qualms in a moment.’
‘Well, but —’
‘Now, dear, trust me, I know what I’m about; (so does Satan when he plants thorns in God’s narrow way;) ‘the only point to be decided is — will you do it, or will you not? — the money I must have; there is no time for debate.’
No, if he stay to debate, Maida’s impulse may decline; he remembers she is impulsive.
‘I do not understand money matters,’ she sighed, resting her eyes trustfully on Norwell. ‘If you assure me there is no harm, I will try my best.’
‘What harm can there be, when it’s from my own uncle? see, here is his name; he’ll be annoyed enough when he finds what a trick he has served me. Under a similar error would you not do the same by your father, if you were hard up for money?’
Doubtless — but he is one of a thousand.’
‘And may not my uncle be one of a million?’
His voice was so earnest, his manner so open, Maida could no longer hesitate; the cloud that had transiently obscured her lover rolled off, and all was fair. Another trusting look.
‘Mind, then, I lean on you!’
Poor Maida! thy pierced hand too soon shall feel the rottenness of the reed thou dependest on.
Would God thy hand could premonitarily smart to warn and save thy soul the barbed arrow there concealed. No, no; the reed is whole to sight — substantial, strong, and ready — it were wrong to doubt it.
Oh, Norwell, Norwell! canst thou let those confiding, loving eyes rest upon thee thus, without a blush thrilling thy very soul? Yes. Howmuchsoever his cheek may flush, a gambler cannot blush. The scarlet tide of anger or riot may flow, but it nears not that gentler stream ebbing from its home, the heart — to proclaim its existence by the outward and visible sign — a blush.
Maida sat at the table and Norwell bent over her directing her pen.
Caroline Leakey, The Broad Arrow (1859) – link to archive.org