A Sad Death and Brave Life


Wilkie Collins

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A Sad Death and Brave Life


Originally appeared in the American Youth's Companion, in August 1886. This was the first of two stories collectively entitled 'The Victims of Circumstances: Discovered in Records of Old Trials' which dealt with serious miscarriages of justice. It was reprinted in The Boy's Own Paper in October 1886.


AT THAT MEMORABLE period in the early history of the United States when American citizens resented the tyranny of George the Third and his Parliament by destroying a cargo of taxed tea, a Bristol trader arrived in the harbour of Boston, having one passenger on board. This person was a young English woman, named Esther Calvert, daughter of a shopkeeper at Cheltenham, and niece of the captain of the ship.

Some years before her departure from England, Esther had suffered an affliction -- associated with a deplorable public event -- which had shaken her attachment to her native land. Free, at a later period, to choose for herself, she resolved on leaving England, as soon as employment could be found for her in another country. After a weary interval of expectation, the sea-captain had obtained a situation for his niece, as housekeeper in the family of Mrs Anderkin -- a widow lady living in Boston.

Esther had been well practised in domestic duties during the long illness of her mother. Intelligent, modest and sweet-tempered, she soon became a favourite with Mrs Anderkin and the members of her young family. The children found but one fault with the new housekeeper; she dressed invariably in dismal black; and it was impossible to prevail upon her to give the cause. It was known that she was an orphan, and she acknowledged that no relation of hers had recently died -- and yet she persisted in wearing mourning. Some great grief had evidently overshadowed the life of the gentle English housekeeper.

In her intervals of leisure, she soon became the chosen friend of Mrs Anderkin's children; always ready to teach them new games, clever at dressing the girls' dolls and at mending the boys' toys, Esther was in one respect only not in sympathy with her young friends -- she never laughed. One day, they boldly put the question to her: 'When we are all laughing, why don't you laugh too?'

Esther took the right way to silence children whose earliest lessons had taught them the golden rule: Do unto others as you would they should do unto you. She only replied in these words:

'I shall think it kind of you if you won't ask me that question again.'

The young people deserved her confidence in them: they never mentioned the subject from that time forth.

But there was another member of the family, whose desire to know something of the housekeeper's history was, from motives of delicacy, concealed from Esther herself. This was the governess -- Mrs Anderkin's well-loved friend, as well as the teacher of her children.

On the day before he sailed on his homeward voyage, the sea-captain called to take leave of his niece -- and then asked if he could also pay his respects to Mrs Anderkin. He was informed that the lady of the house had gone out, but that the governess would be happy to receive him. At the interview which followed they talked of Esther, and agreed so well in their good opinion of her, that the captain paid a long visit. The governess had persuaded him to tell the story of his niece's wasted life.

But he insisted on one condition.

'If we had been in England,' he said, 'I should have kept the matter secret, for the sake of the family. Here, in America, Esther is a stranger -- here she will stay -- and no slur will be cast on the family name at home. But mind one thing! I trust to your honour to take no one into your confidence -- excepting only the mistress of the house.'

More than one hundred years have passed since those words were spoken.

Esther's sad story may be harmlessly told now. In the year 1762, a young man named John Jennings, employed as a waiter at a Yorkshire inn, astonished his master by announcing that he was engaged to be married, and that he proposed retiring from service on next quarter-day.

Further inquiry showed that the young woman's name was Esther Calvert, and that Jennings was greatly inferior in social rank. Her father's consent to the marriage depended on her lover's success in rising in the world. Friends with money were inclined to trust Jennings, and to help him to start a business of his own, if Miss Calvert's father would do something for the young people on his side. He made no objection, and the marriage engagement was sanctioned accordingly.

One evening, when the last days of Jennings' service were drawing to an end, a gentleman on horseback stopped at the inn. In a state of great agitation, he informed the landlady that he was on his way to Hull, but that he had been so frightened as to make it impossible for him to continue his journey. A highwayman had robbed him of a purse containing twenty guineas.

Wilkie Collins

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