Smoking his cigar in his bachelor lodgings, or pausing in a calculation concerning a race, John Rex often wondered at the strange ease with which he had carried out so monstrous and seemingly difficult an imposture. After he was landed in Sydney, by the vessel which Sarah Purfoy had sent to save him, he found himself a slave to a bondage scarcely less galling than that from which he had escaped—the bondage of enforced companionship with an unloved woman. The opportune death of one of her assigned servants enabled Sarah Purfoy to instal the escaped convict in his room. In the strange state of society which prevailed of necessity in New South Wales at that period, it was not unusual for assigned servants to marry among the free settlers, and when it was heard that Mrs. Purfoy, the widow of a whaling captain, had married John Carr, her storekeeper, transported for embezzlement, and with two years of his sentence yet to run, no one expressed surprise. Indeed, when the year after, John Carr blossomed into an “expiree”, master of a fine wife and a fine fortune, there were many about him who would have made his existence in Australia pleasant enough. But John Rex had no notion of remaining longer than he could help, and ceaselessly sought means of escape from this second prison-house. For a long time his search was unsuccessful. Much as she loved the scoundrel, Sarah Purfoy did not scruple to tell him that she had bought him and regarded him as her property. He knew that if he made any attempt to escape from his marriage-bonds, the woman who had risked so much to save him would not hesitate to deliver him over to the authorities, and state how the opportune death of John Carr had enabled her to give name and employment to John Rex, the absconder. He had thought once that the fact of her being his wife would prevent her from giving evidence against him, and that he could thus defy her. But she reminded him that a word to Blunt would be all sufficient.
“I know you don’t care for me now, John,” she said, with grim complacency; “but your life is in my hands, and if you desert me I will bring you to the gallows.”
In vain, in his secret eagerness to be rid of her, he raged and chafed. He was tied hand and foot. She held his money, and her shrewd wit had more than doubled it. She was all-powerful, and he could but wait until her death or some lucky accident should rid him of her, and leave him free to follow out the scheme he had matured. “Once rid of her,” he thought, in his solitary rides over the station of which he was the nominal owner, “the rest is easy. I shall return to England with a plausible story of shipwreck, and shall doubtless be received with open arms by the dear mother from whom I have been so long parted. Richard Devine shall have his own again.”
To be rid of her was not so easy. Twice he tried to escape from his thraldom, and was twice brought back. “I have bought you, John,” his partner had laughed, “and you don’t get away from me. Surely you can be content with these comforts. You were content with less once. I am not so ugly and repulsive, am I?”
“I am home-sick,” John Carr retorted. “Let us go to England, Sarah.”
She tapped her strong white fingers sharply on the table. “Go to England? No, no. That is what you would like to do. You would be master there. You would take my money, and leave me to starve. I know you, Jack. We stop here, dear. Here, where I can hand you over to the first trooper as an escaped convict if you are not kind to me.”
“Oh, I don’t mind your abuse. Abuse me if you like, Jack. Beat me if you will, but don’t leave me, or it will be worse for you.”
“You are a strange woman!” he cried, in sudden petulant admiration.
“To love such a villain? I don’t know that. I love you because you are a villain. A better man would be wearisome to such as I am.”
“I wish to Heaven I’d never left Port Arthur. Better there than this dog’s life.”
“Go back, then. You have only to say the word!” And so they would wrangle, she glorying in her power over the man who had so long triumphed over her, and he consoling himself with the hope that the day was not far distant which should bring him at once freedom and fortune. One day the chance came to him. His wife was ill, and the ungrateful scoundrel stole five hundred pounds, and taking two horses reached Sydney, and obtained passage in a vessel bound for Rio.
Having escaped thraldom, John Rex proceeded to play for the great stake of his life with the utmost caution. He went to the Continent, and lived for weeks together in the towns where Richard Devine might possibly have resided, familiarizing himself with streets, making the acquaintance of old inhabitants, drawing into his own hands all loose ends of information which could help to knit the meshes of his net the closer. Such loose ends were not numerous; the prodigal had been too poor, too insignificant, to leave strong memories behind him. Yet Rex knew well by what strange accidents the deceit of an assumed identity is often penetrated. Some old comrade or companion of the lost heir might suddenly appear with keen questions as to trifles which could cut his flimsy web to shreds, as easily as the sword of Saladin divided the floating silk. He could not afford to ignore the most insignificant circumstances. With consummate skill, piece by piece he built up the story which was to deceive the poor mother, and to make him possessor of one of the largest private fortunes in England.
This was the tale he hit upon. He had been saved from the burning Hydaspes by a vessel bound for Rio. Ignorant of the death of Sir Richard, and prompted by the pride which was known to be a leading feature of his character, he had determined not to return until fortune should have bestowed upon him wealth at least equal to the inheritance from which he had been ousted. In Spanish America he had striven to accumulate that wealth in vain. As vequero, traveller, speculator, sailor, he had toiled for fourteen years, and had failed. Worn out and penitent, he had returned home to find a corner of English earth in which to lay his weary bones. The tale was plausible enough, and in the telling of it he was armed at all points. There was little fear that the navigator of the captured Osprey, the man who had lived in Chile and “cut out” cattle on the Carrum Plains, would prove lacking in knowledge of riding, seamanship, or Spanish customs. Moreover, he had determined upon a course of action which showed his knowledge of human nature.
The will under which Richard Devine inherited was dated in 1807, and had been made when the testator was in the first hopeful glow of paternity. By its terms Lady Devine was to receive a life interest of three thousand a year in her husband’s property—which was placed in the hands of two trustees—until her eldest son died or attained the age of twenty-five years. When either of these events should occur, the property was to be realized, Lady Devine receiving a sum of a hundred thousand pounds, which, invested in Consols for her benefit, would, according to Sir Richard’s prudent calculation exactly compensate for her loss of interest, the remainder going absolutely to the son, if living, to his children or next of kin if dead. The trustees appointed were Lady Devine’s father, Colonel Wotton Wade, and Mr. Silas Quaid, of the firm of Purkiss and Quaid Thavies Inn, Sir Richard’s solicitors. Colonel Wade, before his death had appointed his son, Mr. Francis Wade, to act in his stead. When Mr. Quaid died, the firm of Purkiss and Quaid (represented in the Quaid branch of it by a smart London-bred nephew) declined further responsibility; and, with the consent of Lady Devine, Francis Wade continued alone in his trust. Sir Richard’s sister and her husband, Anthony Frere, of Bristol, were long ago dead, and, as we know, their representative, Maurice Frere, content at last in the lot that fortune had sent him, had given up all thought of meddling with his uncle’s business. John Rex, therefore, in the person of the returned Richard, had but two persons to satisfy, his putative uncle, Mr. Francis Wade, and his putative mother, Lady Devine.
This he found to be the easiest task possible. Francis Wade was an invalid virtuoso, who detested business, and whose ambition was to be known as man of taste. The possessor of a small independent income, he had resided at North End ever since his father’s death, and had made the place a miniature Strawberry Hill. When, at his sister’s urgent wish, he assumed the sole responsibility of the estate, he put all the floating capital into 3 per cents., and was content to see the interest accumulate. Lady Devine had never recovered the shock of the circumstances attending Sir Richard’s death and, clinging to the belief in her son’s existence, regarded herself as the mere guardian of his interests, to be displaced at any moment by his sudden return. The retired pair lived thus together, and spent in charity and bric-a-brac about a fourth of their mutual income. By both of them the return of the wanderer was hailed with delight. To Lady Devine it meant the realization of a lifelong hope, become part of her nature. To Francis Wade it meant relief from a responsibility which his simplicity always secretly loathed, the responsibility of looking after another person’s money.
“I shall not think of interfering with the arrangements which you have made, my dear uncle,” said Mr. John Rex, on the first night of his reception. “It would be most ungrateful of me to do so. My wants are very few, and can easily be supplied. I will see your lawyers some day, and settle it.”
“See them at once, Richard; see them at once. I am no man of business, you know, but I think you will find all right.”
Richard, however, put off the visit from day to day. He desired to have as little to do with lawyers as possible. He had resolved upon his course of action. He would get money from his mother for immediate needs, and when that mother died he would assert his rights. “My rough life has unfitted me for drawing-rooms, dear mother,” he said. “Do not let there be a display about my return. Give me a corner to smoke my pipe, and I am happy.” Lady Devine, with a loving tender pity, for which John Rex could not altogether account, consented, and “Mr. Richard” soon came to be regarded as a martyr to circumstances, a man conscious of his own imperfections, and one whose imperfections were therefore lightly dwelt upon. So the returned prodigal had his own suite of rooms, his own servants, his own bank account, drank, smoked, and was merry. For five or six months he thought himself in Paradise. Then he began to find his life insufferably weary. The burden of hypocrisy is very heavy to bear, and Rex was compelled perpetually to bear it. His mother demanded all his time. She hung upon his lips; she made him repeat fifty times the story of his wanderings. She was never tired of kissing him, of weeping over him, and of thanking him for the “sacrifice” he had made for her.
“We promised never to speak of it more, Richard,” the poor lady said one day, “but if my lifelong love can make atonement for the wrong I have done you—”
“Hush, dearest mother,” said John Rex, who did not in the least comprehend what it was all about. “Let us say no more.”
Lady Devine wept quietly for a while, and then went away, leaving the man who pretended to be her son much bewildered and a little frightened. There was a secret which he had not fathomed between Lady Devine and her son. The mother did not again refer to it, and, gaining courage as the days went on, Rex grew bold enough to forget his fears. In the first stages of his deception he had been timid and cautious. Then the soothing influence of comfort, respect, and security came upon him, and almost refined him. He began to feel as he had felt when Mr. Lionel Crofton was alive. The sensation of being ministered to by a loving woman, who kissed him night and morning, calling him “son”—of being regarded with admiration by rustics, with envy by respectable folk—of being deferred to in all things—was novel and pleasing. They were so good to him that he felt at times inclined to confess all, and leave his case in the hands of the folk he had injured. Yet—he thought—such a course would be absurd. It would result in no benefit to anyone, simply in misery to himself. The true Richard Devine was buried fathoms deep in the greedy ocean of convict-discipline, and the waves of innumerable punishments washed over him. John Rex flattered himself that he had usurped the name of one who was in fact no living man, and that, unless one should rise from the dead, Richard Devine could never return to accuse him. So flattering himself, he gradually became bolder, and by slow degrees suffered his true nature to appear. He was violent to the servants, cruel to dogs and horses, often wantonly coarse in speech, and brutally regardless of the feelings of others. Governed, like most women, solely by her feelings, Lady Devine had at first been prodigal of her affection to the man she believed to be her injured son. But his rash acts of selfishness, his habits of grossness and self-indulgence, gradually disgusted her. For some time she—poor woman—fought against this feeling, endeavouring to overcome her instincts of distaste, and arguing with herself that to permit a detestation of her unfortunate son to arise in her heart was almost criminal; but she was at length forced to succumb.
For the first year Mr. Richard conducted himself with great propriety, but as his circle of acquaintance and his confidence in himself increased, he now and then forgot the part he was playing. One day Mr. Richard went to pass the day with a sporting friend, only too proud to see at his table so wealthy and wonderful a man. Mr. Richard drank a good deal more than was good for him, and returned home in a condition of disgusting drunkenness. I say disgusting, because some folks have the art of getting drunk after a humorous fashion, that robs intoxication of half its grossness. For John Rex to be drunk was to be himself—coarse and cruel. Francis Wade was away, and Lady Devine had retired for the night, when the dog-cart brought home “Mr. Richard”. The virtuous butler-porter, who opened the door, received a blow in the chest and a demand for “Brandy!” The groom was cursed, and ordered to instant oblivion. Mr. Richard stumbled into the dining-room—veiled in dim light as a dining-room which was “sitting up” for its master ought to be—and ordered “more candles!” The candles were brought, after some delay, and Mr. Richard amused himself by spilling their meltings upon the carpet. “Let’s have ’luminashon!” he cried; and climbing with muddy boots upon the costly chairs, scraping with his feet the polished table, attempted to fix the wax in the silver sconces, with which the antiquarian tastes of Mr. Francis Wade had adorned the room.
“You’ll break the table, sir,” said the servant.
“Damn the table!” said Rex. “Buy ’nother table. What’s table t’you?”
“Oh, certainly, sir,” replied the man.
“Oh, c’ert’nly! Why c’ert’nly? What do you know about it?”
“Oh, certainly not, sir,” replied the man.
“If I had—stockwhip here—I’d make you—hic—skip! Whar’s brandy?”
“Here, Mr. Richard.”
“Have some! Good brandy! Send for servantsh and have dance. D’you dance, Tomkins?”
“No, Mr. Richard.”
“Then you shall dance now, Tomkins. You’ll dance upon nothing one day, Tomkins! Here! Halloo! Mary! Susan! Janet! William! Hey! Halloo!” And he began to shout and blaspheme.
“Don’t you think it’s time for bed, Mr. Richard?” one of the men ventured to suggest.
“No!” roared the ex-convict, emphatically, “I don’t! I’ve gone to bed at daylight far too long. We’ll have ’luminashon! I’m master here. Master everything. Richard ’Vine’s my name. Isn’t it, Tomkins, you villain?”
“Oh-h-h! Yes, Mr. Richard.”
“Course it is, and make you know it too! I’m no painter-picture, crockery chap. I’m genelman! Genelman seen the world! Knows what’s what. There ain’t much I ain’t fly to. Wait till the old woman’s dead, Tomkins, and you shall see!” More swearing, and awful threats of what the inebriate would do when he was in possession. “Bring up some brandy!” Crash goes the bottle in the fire-place. “Light up the droring-rooms; we’ll have dance! I’m drunk! What’s that? If you’d gone through what I have, you’d be glad to be drunk. I look a fool”—this to his image in another glass. “I ain’t though, or I wouldn’t be here. Curse you, you grinning idiot”—crash goes his fist through the mirror—“don’t grin at me. Play up there! Where’s old woman? Fetch her out and let’s dance!”
“Lady Devine has gone to bed, Mr. Richard,” cried Tomkins, aghast, attempting to bar the passage to the upper regions.
“Then let’s have her out o’ bed,” cried John Rex, plunging to the door.
Tomkins, attempting to restrain him, is instantly hurled into a cabinet of rare china, and the drunken brute essays the stairs. The other servants seize him. He curses and fights like a demon. Doors bang open, lights gleam, maids hover, horrified, asking if it’s “fire?” and begging for it to be “put out”. The whole house is in an uproar, in the midst of which Lady Devine appears, and looks down upon the scene. Rex catches sight of her; and bursts into blasphemy. She withdraws, strangely terrified; and the animal, torn, bloody, and blasphemous, is at last got into his own apartments, the groom, whose face had been seriously damaged in the encounter, bestowing a hearty kick on the prostrate carcase at parting.
The next morning Lady Devine declined to see her son, though he sent a special apology to her.
“I am afraid I was a little overcome by wine last night,” said he to Tomkins.
“Well, you was, sir,” said Tomkins.
“A very little wine makes me quite ill, Tomkins. Did I do anything very violent?”
“You was rather obstropolous, Mr. Richard.”
“Here’s a sovereign for you, Tomkins. Did I say anything?”
“You cussed a good deal, Mr. Richard. Most gents do when they’ve bin—hum—dining out, Mr. Richard.”
“What a fool I am,” thought John Rex, as he dressed. “I shall spoil everything if I don’t take care.” He was right. He was going the right way to spoil everything. However, for this bout he made amends—money soothed the servants’ hall, and apologies and time won Lady Devine’s forgiveness.
“I cannot yet conform to English habits, my dear mother,” said Rex, “and feel at times out of place in your quiet home. I think that—if you can spare me a little money—I should like to travel.”
Lady Devine—with a sense of relief for which she blamed herself—assented, and supplied with letters of credit, John Rex went to Paris.
Fairly started in the world of dissipation and excess, he began to grow reckless. When a young man, he had been singularly free from the vice of drunkenness; turning his sobriety—as he did all his virtues—to vicious account; but he had learnt to drink deep in the loneliness of the bush. Master of a large sum of money, he had intended to spend it as he would have spent it in his younger days. He had forgotten that since his death and burial the world had not grown younger. It was possible that Mr. Lionel Crofton might have discovered some of the old set of fools and knaves with whom he had once mixed. Many of them were alive and flourishing. Mr. Lemoine, for instance, was respectably married in his native island of Jersey, and had already threatened to disinherit a nephew who showed a tendency to dissipation.
But Mr. Lemoine would not care to recognize Mr. Lionel Crofton, the gambler and rake, in his proper person, and it was not expedient that his acquaintance should be made in the person of Richard Devine, lest by some unlucky chance he should recognize the cheat. Thus poor Lionel Crofton was compelled to lie still in his grave, and Mr. Richard Devine, trusting to a big beard and more burly figure to keep his secret, was compelled to begin his friendship with Mr. Lionel’s whilom friends all over again. In Paris and London there were plenty of people ready to become hail-fellow-well-met with any gentleman possessing money. Mr. Richard Devine’s history was whispered in many a boudoir and club-room. The history, however, was not always told in the same way. It was generally known that Lady Devine had a son, who, being supposed to be dead, had suddenly returned, to the confusion of his family. But the manner of his return was told in many ways.
In the first place, Mr. Francis Wade, well-known though he was, did not move in that brilliant circle which had lately received his nephew. There are in England many men of fortune, as large as that left by the old ship-builder, who are positively unknown in that little world which is supposed to contain all the men worth knowing. Francis Wade was a man of mark in his own coterie. Among artists, bric-a-brac sellers, antiquarians, and men of letters he was known as a patron and man of taste. His bankers and his lawyers knew him to be of independent fortune, but as he neither mixed in politics, “went into society”, betted, or speculated in merchandise, there were several large sections of the community who had never heard his name. Many respectable money-lenders would have required “further information” before they would discount his bills; and “clubmen” in general—save, perhaps, those ancient quidnuncs who know everybody, from Adam downwards—had but little acquaintance with him. The advent of Mr. Richard Devine—a coarse person of unlimited means—had therefore chief influence upon that sinister circle of male and female rogues who form the “half-world”. They began to inquire concerning his antecedents, and, failing satisfactory information, to invent lies concerning him. It was generally believed that he was a black sheep, a man whose family kept him out of the way, but who was, in a pecuniary sense, “good” for a considerable sum.
Thus taken upon trust, Mr. Richard Devine mixed in the very best of bad society, and had no lack of agreeable friends to help him to spend money. So admirably did he spend it, that Francis Wade became at last alarmed at the frequent drafts, and urged his nephew to bring his affairs to a final settlement. Richard Devine—in Paris, Hamburg, or London, or elsewhere—could never be got to attack business, and Mr. Francis Wade grew more and more anxious. The poor gentleman positively became ill through the anxiety consequent upon his nephew’s dissipations. “I wish, my dear Richard, that you would let me know what to do,” he wrote. “I wish, my dear uncle, that you would do what you think best,” was his nephew’s reply.
“Will you let Purkiss and Quaid look into the business?” said the badgered Francis.
“I hate lawyers,” said Richard. “Do what you think right.”
Mr. Wade began to repent of his too easy taking of matters in the beginning. Not that he had a suspicion of Rex, but that he had remembered that Dick was always a loose fish. The even current of the dilettante’s life became disturbed. He grew pale and hollow-eyed. His digestion was impaired. He ceased to take the interest in china which the importance of that article demanded. In a word, he grew despondent as to his fitness for his mission in life. Lady Ellinor saw a change in her brother. He became morose, peevish, excitable. She went privately to the family doctor, who shrugged his shoulders. “There is no danger,” said he, “if he is kept quiet; keep him quiet, and he will live for years; but his father died of heart disease, you know.” Lady Ellinor, upon this, wrote a long letter to Mr. Richard, who was at Paris, repeated the doctor’s opinions, and begged him to come over at once. Mr. Richard replied that some horse-racing matter of great importance occupied his attention, but that he would be at his rooms in Clarges Street (he had long ago established a town house) on the 14th, and would “go into matters”. “I have lost a good deal of money lately, my dear mother,” said Mr. Richard, “and the present will be a good opportunity to make a final settlement.” The fact was that John Rex, now three years in undisturbed possession, considered that the moment had arrived for the execution of his grand coup—the carrying off at one swoop of the whole of the fortune he had gambled for.