“By now you know the man in that trunk was not me, it was my half-brother. It was the day before you were to arrive. He came for his share from the sale of the company. He came with a cleaver–a threat to any refusal to his claim on the money. He was mad. He went on rambling about how I ruined his life. I thought he was going to kill me.”
The purging of his soul was taking a toll on Mr. Caldwell. His breaths became short, shallow wheezes. Despite the struggle needed to continue, he did so, slowly and with purpose.
“At one point he confessed to hiring the ruffian to rob and kill me. The very man your father saved me from. He had intended to take the business for himself. I was enraged. I grabbed the brass poker from the fireplace grate. The next thing I remember I was on the floor lying back against a bookcase, the blood-soaked poker still in my hand. Anderson was staring up at me from a pool of blood, his eyes vacant, his last breath expelled.”
“Why didn’t you step forward?” My course response was barely audible. I took him by the shoulders and shook him. “I’m to hang for your crime.”
He began to sob. “I know. I know. I never intended for this to happen. I thought for sure you would be released. You’ll not hang for ––”
His cough worsened, cutting off his last words. He reached down to the bench. Before I realized what was happening he was pulling my cup away from his moistened lips.
“No!” I shouted, batting the cup from his hand with mine.
Mr. Caldwell gasped. It was too late. The poison had taken its deathly hold on him. He reached out to me with one hand and grabbed at his throat with the other. Choking on his last breath he fell back against the stone wall, eventually sliding down, coming to rest in the very spot where he found me. He was gone.
In a split second I realized the opportunity before me. I quickly unlaced his boots, and just as quickly put them on and laced them up. His wool coat was next, completing the transformation with his scarf and hat. For all he had done to me I still felt embarrassed to be rifling the man’s pockets, but I had no choice. I found thirty pound sterling, a gold pocket watch and a paper with a series of numbers written on it.
I hastily scribbled a note, leaving the pen behind in his hand. It read thus:
I am guilty for the murder I committed. May God forgive me.
“Jailer!” I shouted out, straining to be heard. “Jailer, do you hear me? Come quick. This man has taken poison.”
I heard heavy footsteps in the passage. A grizzled face looked in through the barred opening in the thick oak door. The sound of a key in the lock was followed by the labored, high-pitched groan of the hinges. The door swung open. My heart raced. I felt certain the heavy pounding in my chest would give me away. I stepped to one side, tucking myself as far back into the darkness of the corner as my shaking frame would allow. The candle flickered for a moment, drawn out by the draft caused by the open door. Its brightness returned, illuminating the bench where the body lay slumped over.
Two turnkeys entered. The first was the face I saw peering in through the door. His large body and broad brimmed hat filled the cell, blocking out what little light dared creep in through the steel bars of the window cut into the wall behind him. He stood over the body holding what looked like a large canvas bag. He kicked the body twice then stepped back with a grunt. The other turnkey I’ll never forget. He was smaller with ferret-like features, remarkable to me for the shine on the expensive leather boots sticking out below his well-worn, ankle-high trousers. He knelt down close to the body.
“There’s nothing further you need here,” he grumbled, looking up over his shoulder. “And nothing you need remember.” He stared into the corner where I stood, his eyes burning through me to the stones beyond. It was all I could do to keep my trembling under control. “Leave!” he growled in a fierce tone.
With my hand cinching up the collar of the coat I rapidly shook my head and stepped through the doorway. I know not then nor now what caused the action, but I paused for just a moment and looked back. In that fleeting instant I saw the turnkey, the ferrety looking one in the boots, pick up the small glass vial I had left on the bench. With a nod to the other jailer he put it in his pocket.
At the far end of the passage another turnkey was walking toward me. At this point I was shaking uncontrollably. Suddenly I felt a heavy hand upon my shoulder.
“Get this bloke out of here,” the course voice behind me called out. “Take him out through the yard along Newgate. Off with you now.”
I followed close behind him through the maze of passages, almost tripping over his heels. The passageways and heavy iron gates seemed endless. He unlocked and locked each as we passed through, my heart stopping each time a gate slammed closed behind me. We walked through the large exercise yard along Newgate Street without so much as a single look from the prisoners walking in line, their heads down with one hand on the shoulder of the man in front. Not even a casual glance from the turnkeys who monitored the yard. I could hear noises from the street beyond the wall. We finally entered the small room where I was signed in as a prisoner, a room also used to sign in visitors. From here it was only a short walk through the Keeper’s house to freedom.
“You there,” a gruff voice called out. “Stop right there.”
I froze. His words sent a cold chill up my spine. I could see the main door ahead down the short, stone passage. I could do it. I only needed to make a run for it. Try as I might, I couldn’t move. A hand held tightly to the shoulder of the wool coat of deception I concealed myself in. It was the heavy hand of the turnkey I had followed out from my cell.
“You’ll need to sign out, Mr. Havisham. I’ll need your mark. It’s the rule.”
I slowly turned around. The turnkey put a green cloth book down on the table in front of me. Looking down I noticed the last entry – Mr. J. M. Havisham – to see – John Prior.
I took a deep breath. Picking up a quill from the inkstand I quickly signed the name of Havisham. To this day I have no recollection of what final remark I made afterwards, but it was met with a gnarled smile and the nod of a head to indicate I could show myself down the passage and out. I was a block away and down Newgate Street when I finally exhaled.
I left John Prior behind that day. Within a year the Memoir of Ebenezer Caldwell was published, as told to J. M. Havisham.