“I’ll tell you a story,” said the gentleman addressed. “There was an ancient family in Yorkshire, and the lord of the house was of a very splenetive temper. One day in a fit of jealousy he killed his wife, and put to death all of his children who were at home by throwing them over the battlements of his castle. He had one remaining child, and it was an infant, and was nursed at a farmhouse a mile away. He had set out for the farm with an intent to destroy his only remaining child, when a storm of thunder and lightning came on, and he stopped.”
“Thought it was a warning, I should say,” interrupted a listener.
“It awakened the compunctions of conscience, and he desisted from his purpose.”
“What do you think he did next?”
“Cannot guess—drowned himself?”
“No, and this proves what I say, that a murderer and a hero are all but one. He surrendered himself to justice, and stood mute at the bar, and, in order to secure his estates to his surviving child, he had the resolution to die under the dreadful punishment of peine forte.”
“What is that, lawyer?”
“Death by iron weights laid on the bare body until the life is crushed out of it.”
“Dreadful! And did he secure his estates to his child by suffering such a death?”
“He did. He stood mute at the bar, and let judgment go against him without trial. It is all in black and white. The Crown cannot confiscate a man’s estate until he is tried and condemned.”
“What of an outlaw?” asked Ralph somewhat eagerly.
“A man’s flight is equal to a plea of guilty.”
“I had a comrade once,” said Ralph with some tremor of voice; “he fled from judgment and was outlawed, and his poor children were turned into the road. Could he have kept his lands for his family by delivering his body to that death you speak of?”
“He could. The law stands so to this day.”
“Think you, in any sudden case, a man could do as much now?”
“He could,” answered the lawyer; “but where’s the man who would? Only one who must die in any chance, and then none but a murderer, I should say.”
“I don’t know—I don’t know that,” said Ralph, rising with ill-concealed agitation, and stalking out of the room, without the curtest leave-taking.
On Tuesday, Ralph was walking through Kendal on his northward journey. The day was young. Ralph meant to take a meal at the old coaching house, the Woodman, in Kirkland, by the river Kent, and then push on till nightfall.
The horn of the incoming coach fell on his ear, and the coach itself—the Carlisle coach, laden with passengers from back to front—swept into the courtyard of the inn at the moment he entered it afoot.
There was a little commotion there. A group of the serving folk, the maids in their caps, the ostlers bareheaded, and some occasional stable people were gathered near the taproom door. The driver of the coach got off his box and crushed into the middle of this company. His passengers paused in their descent from the top to look over the heads of those who were on the ground.