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"How very unfortunate! and a letter so urgent as this! Sir, can you give me any idea of the danger that threatens Lady Vincent?" inquired Ishmael, raising his eyes for a moment from his study of the letter.
"Read this second letter; I received it, and a third one, by the very same mail that brought the long-delayed first one," replied the judge.
Ishmael took this letter also, and read:
"McGruder's Hotel, Edinboro', Scotland, "November 25, 184--. "My Dearest Father: I wrote to you about six weeks ago, informing you that I was in sorrow and in danger, and imploring you to come and comfort and protect me. And since that time I have been waiting with the most acute anxiety to hear from you by letter or in person. Expecting this with confidence, I did not think it necessary to write again. But, as so long a time has elapsed, I begin to fear that you have not received my letter, and so I write again. Oh, my father! if you should not be already on your way to my relief--if you should be still lingering at home on the receipt of this letter, fly to me at once! My situation is desperate; my danger imminent; my necessity extreme. Oh, sir! an infamous plot has been hatched against me; I have been driven with ignominy from my husband's house; my name has gone over the length and breadth of England, a by-word of reproach! I am alone and penniless in this hotel; in which I know not how short the time may be that they will permit me to stay. Come! Come quickly! Come and save, if it be possible, your wretched child, "Claudia."
"Heaven of heavens! how can this be?" cried Ishmael, looking up from these fearful lines into the woe-worn face of the judge.
"Oh, I know but little more than yourself. Head this third letter."
Ishmael eagerly took and opened it and read:
"Cameron Court, near Edinboro', "November 27, l84--, "Judge Merlin--Sir: Your unhappy daughter is under my roof. As soon as I heard what had happened at Castle Cragg, and learned that she was alone and unprotected at McGruder's, I lost no time in going to her and offering my sympathy and protection. I induced her to come with me to my home. I have heard her story from her own lips. And I believe her to be the victim of a cunningly contrived conspiracy. Lord Vincent has filed a petition for divorce, upon the ground of alleged infidelity. Therefore I join my urgent request to hers that, if this finds you still in America, you will instantly on its receipt leave for England. I write in great haste to send my letter by the Irish Express so as it may intercept the steamer at Queenstown and reach you by the same mail that carries hers of the 25th; and so mitigate your anxiety by assuring you of her personal safety, with sympathizing friends; although her honor is endangered by a diabolical conspiracy, from which it will require the utmost legal skill to deliver her. "With great respect, sir, I remain, "Berenice, Countess of Hurstmonceux."
"You will go by the first steamer, sir," said Ishmael.
"Certainly. This is Saturday morning; one sails at noon from New York to-day; but I could not catch that."
"Of course not; but the 'Oceana' sails from Boston on Wednesday."
"Yes; I shall go by her. But, Ishmael, can you go with me?" inquired the judge, with visible anxiety.
"Certainly," promptly replied the young man, never hinting at the sacrifices he would have to make in order to accompany his friend on so long a journey.
"Thank you, thank you, my dear Ishmael! I knew you would. You will be of great assistance. Of course we must oppose this rascally viscount's petition, and do our best to unmask his villainy. But how to do it? I was never very quick-witted, Ishmael; and now my faculties are blunted with age. But I have much to hope from your aid in this case. I know that you cannot appear publicly for Lady Vincent; but at the same time you may be of inestimable value as a private counselor. Your genius, acumen, and wonderful insight will enable us to expose this conspiracy, defeat the viscount, and save Claudia, if anything on earth can do so. Thank you, thank you, good and noble young friend!" said the judge, taking and cordially pressing his hand.
"Judge, you know that you are most heartily welcome to all my services. There is no one in the world that I would work for with more pleasure than for you," replied the young man, returning the pressure.
"I know it, my boy. Heaven bless you!"
"And now let us arrange for our journey. As the steamer leaves Boston on next Wednesday morning, we should leave here on Tuesday morning at latest."
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Therefore, you see, we have but three days before us; and, as the Sabbath intervenes, we have really but two for preparation--to-day and Monday."
"That will be sufficient."
"Yes, sir. But, judge, I must run down into St. Mary's, and take leave of my betrothed, before starting on so long a journey."
"Oh, Ishmael, you will not have time. Suppose you should be too late to meet the steamer?"
"I will not be too late, Judge Merlin. I will hire a horse and start this morning. I can get fresh horses at several places on the road, and reach the Beacon before twelve o'clock at night. I can spend the Sabbath there, and go to church with the family. And on Monday morning I will make an early start, so as to be here on Monday night."
"Oh, Ishmael, it will be a great risk."
"Not at all; I shall be sure to come up in time. And, besides, you know I must see Bee before I go," said Ishmael, with that confiding smile that no one could resist.
"Well, well, I suppose it must be so; so go on; but only be punctual."
"I surely will."
"And oh, by the way, Ishmael, tell Mr. Middleton all about it; that is, all we know, which is very little, since neither Lady Vincent nor Lady Hurstmonceux has given us any details."
"Then Mr. Middleton knows nothing of this?"
"Not a syllable. I left the neighborhood without breathing a hint of it to any human being. I did not even think of doing so. Oh, Ishmael, I was in a state of distraction when I left home! Think of it! I had been tormented with anxiety for weeks before the receipt of these letters. For, listen: you know that Claudia sailed on the first of October. Well; I calculated it would take about two weeks for her to reach Liverpool, and about two more weeks for a letter to return. So I made myself contented until the first of November, when, as I expected, I received my first letter from her. It was a very long letter, dated at various times from the sea, and written during the voyage, and mailed at Queenstown. Three days later I received another and shorter letter, merely advising me of her safe arrival in England, and mailed from Liverpool. Still three days later a letter dated Aberdeen, and informing me of her journey to Scotland. A whole week later--for it appeared this last letter was much delayed on its route--I got a short letter from her dated Banff, and telling me that she had arrived that far on her journey, and expected to be at Castle Cragg the same evening. Now these letters were all dated within one or two days of each other, though there was a longer time between the reception of each; a fact, I suppose, to be accounted for by the irregularity of the ocean mails. The last letter, dated October 14th, did not reach me until November 12th. And after that I received no more letters, until I got these three all by one mail. You may judge how intense my anxiety was until these letters came; and how distracted my mind, as soon as I had read them."
"Oh, yes, sir, yes!"
"Therefore, you see, I never thought of what was due to Middleton, or anybody else. So just tell him all about it, but in strict confidence; for Claudia must not become the subject of gossip here, poor child!"
"No, sir; certainly she must not. I will bind Mr. Middleton to secrecy before I tell him anything about it."
"Yes, and--stop a moment! You had better just show him these letters. They will speak for themselves and save you the trouble. Tell him that we know no more than these letters reveal."
"I will do so, Judge Merlin."
"And now, Ishmael, I must return to my hotel, where I expect to meet my old friend, General Tourneysee. When do you start for St. Mary's?"
"Within an hour from this."
"Well, then, call at the hotel on your way and take leave of me."
"I will do so."
"Good-by, for the present," said the judge, shaking hands with his young friend.
As soon as Judge Merlin had left the office Ishmael sank down into his chair and yielded up his mind to intense thought.
It was true, then, the terrible presentiment of evil that had haunted his imagination in regard to Claudia was now realized! The dark storm cloud that his prophetic eye had seen lowering over her had now burst in ruin on her head! How strange! how unexplainable by human reason were these mysteries of the spirit! But Ishmael lost no
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