I am the last surviving witness who appeared at the trail, and unless I reduce to writing what I happen to know, there will be no record of the true particulars left after my death.
In the town of Betminster, and round about it for many a good English mile, I am known as Dame Roundwood. I have never been married, and at my present age, I never shall be. My one living relative, at the past time of which I now write, was my sister – married to a man named Morcom. He was settled in France, as a breeder of horses. Now and then he crossed over to England on his business, and went back again.
I took such a dislike to Morcom that I refused to be present at the wedding. This led, of course, to a quarrel. Nephews and nieces, if there had been any, might perhaps have reconciled me with my sister. As it was, we never wrote to each other after she went to France with her husband. And I never saw her again until she lay on her deathbed. So much about myself, to begin with.
Circumstances, which it is neither needful nor pleasant to dwell on in this place, occasioned the loss of my income, while I was still in the prime of my life. I had no choice but to make the best of a bad bargain, and to earn my bread by going out to service.
Having provided myself with good recommendations, I applied for the vacant place of housekeeper to Farmer Fairweather. I had heard of him as a well-to-do old bachelor, cultivating his land nigh on five miles in a northerly direction beyond Betminster. But I positively declare that I had never been in his house, or exchanged a word with him, on the day when I set forth for the farm.
The door was opened to me by a nice little girl. I noticed that her manners were pretty, and her voice was a remarkably strong one for her age. She had, I may also mention, the finest blue eyes I ever saw in any young creature’s face. When she looked at you, there was just a cast, as they call it, in her left eye, barely noticeable, and not a deformity in any sense of the word. The one drawback that I could find in this otherwise pleasing young person was that she had a rather sullen look, and that she seemed to be depressed in her spirits.
But, like most people the girl was ready enough to talk about herself. I found that her name was Dina Coomb, and that she had lost both her parents. Farmer Fairweather was her guardian, as well as her uncle, and held a fortune of ten thousand pounds ready and waiting for her when she came of age.
What would become of the money if she died in her youth, was more than Dina could tell me. Her mother’s timepiece had already been given to her, by directions in her mother’s will. It looked of great value to my eyes, and it flattered her vanity to see how I admired her grand gold watch.
‘I hope you are coming to stay here,’ she said to me.
This seemed, as I thought, rather a sudden fancy to take to a stranger. ‘Why do you want me to stay with you?’ I asked.
And she hung her head, and had nothing to say. The farmer came in from his fields, and I entered on my business with him. At the same time I noticed, with some surprise, that Dina slipped out of the room by one door when her uncle came in by the other.
He was pleased with my recommendations, and he civilly offered me sufficient wages. Moreover, he was still fair to look upon, and not (as some farmers are) slovenly in his dress. So far from being an enemy to this miserable man, as has been falsely asserted, I gladly engaged to take my place at the farm on the next day at twelve o’clock, noon.
A friendly neighbour at Betminster, one Master Gouch, gave me a cast in his gig. We arrived true to the appointed time. While Master Gouch waited to bring my box after me, I opened the garden gate and rang the bell at the door. There was no answer. I had just rung once more, when I heard a scream in the house. There were words that followed the scream, in a voice which I recognised as the voice of Dina Coomb:
‘Oh, uncle, don’t kill me!’
I was too frightened to know what to do. Master Gouch, having heard that dreadful cry as I did, jumped out of the gig and tried the door. It was not fastened inside. Just as he was stepping over the threshold, the farmer bounced out of a room that opened into the passage, and asked what he did there.
My good neighbour answered, ‘Here, sir, is Dame Roundwood, come to your house by your own appointment.’
Thereupon Farmer Fairweather said he had changed his mind, and meant to do without a housekeeper. He spoke in an angry manner, and he took the door in his hand, as if he meant to shut us out. But before he could do this, we heard a moaning in the room that he had just come out of. Says my neighbour,
‘There’s somebody hurt, I’m afraid.’
Says I, ‘Is it your niece, sir?’
The farmer slammed the door in our faces, and then locked it against us. There was no help for it after this but to go back to Betminster.
Master Gouch, a cautious man in all things, recommended that we should wait awhile before we spoke of what had happened, on the chance of receiving an explanation and apology from the farmer when he recovered his temper. I agreed to this. But there! I am a woman, and I did take a lady (a particular friend of mine) into my confidence. The next day it was all over the town. Inquiries were made; some of the labourers on the farm said strange things; the mayor and aldermen heard of what was going on. When I next saw Farmer Fairweather he was charged with the murder of his niece, and I was called, along with Master Gouch and the labourers, as witnesses against him.
The ins and outs of the law are altogether beyond me. I can only report that Dina Coomb was certainly missing, and this, taken with what Master Gouch and I had heard and seen, was (as the lawyers said) the case against the farmer. His defence was that Dina was a bad girl. He found it necessary, standing towards her in the place of her father, to correct his niece with a leather strap from time to time; and we upset his temper by trying to get into his house when strangers were not welcome, and might misinterpret his actions. As for the disappearance of Dina, he could only conclude that she had run away, and where she had gone to was more than he had been able to discover.
To this the law answered, ‘You have friends to help you, and you are rich enough to pay the expense of a strict search. Find Dina Coomb, and produce her here to prove what you have said. We will give you reasonable time. Make the best use of it.’
Ten days passed, and we, the witnesses, were summoned again. How it came out I don’t know. Everybody in Betminster was talking of it; Farmer Fairweather’s niece had been found.
The girl told her story, and the people who had discovered her told their story. It was all plain and straightforward, and I had just begun to wonder what I was wanted for, when up got the lawyer who had the farmer’s interests in charge, and asked that the witnesses might be ordered to leave the court. We were turned out under the care of an usher; and we were sent for as the authorities wanted us, to speak to the identity of Dina, one at a time. The parson of Farmer Fairweather’s parish church was the first witness called. Then came the turn of the labourers. I was sent for last.
When I had been sworn, and when the girl and I were, for the first time, set close together face to face, a most extraordinary interest seemed to be felt in my evidence. How I first came to be in Dina’s company, and how long a time had passed while I was talking with her, were questions which I answered as I had answered them once already, ten days since.
When a voice warned me to be careful and to take my time, and another said. ‘Is that Dina Coomb?’ I was too much excited – I may even say, too much frightened – to turn my head and see who was speaking to me. The longer I looked at the girl, the more certain I felt that I was not looking at Dina.
What could I do? As an honest woman giving evidence on her oath I was bound, come what might of it, to tell the truth. To the voice which had asked me if that was Dina Coomb, I answered positively, ‘No.’
My reasons when given, were two in number. First, both this girl’s eyes were as straight as straight could be – not so much as the vestige of a cast could I see in her left eye. Secondly, she was fatter than Dina in the face, and fatter in the neck and arms, and rounder in the shoulders. I owned, when the lawyer put the question to me, that she was the same height as Dina, and had the same complexion and the same fine blue colour in her eyes. But I stuck fast to the differences I had noticed – and they said I turned the scale against the prisoner.
As I afterwards discovered, we witnesses had not been agreed. The labourers declared that the girl was Dina. The parson, who had seen Dina hundreds of times at his school, said exactly what I had said. Other competent witnesses were sought for and found the next day. Their testimony was our testimony repeated again and again. Later still, the abominable father and mother who had sold their child for purposes of deception were discovered, and were afterwards punished, along with the people who had paid the money.
Driven to the wall, the prisoner owned that he had failed to find his runaway niece; and that, in terror of being condemned to die on the scaffold for murder, he had made this desperate attempt to get himself acquitted by deceiving the law. His confession availed him nothing; his solemn assertion of innocence availed him nothing. Farmer Fairweather was hanged.
With the passing away of time the memory of things passes away too. I was beginning to be an old woman, and the trial was only remembered by elderly people like myself, when I got a letter relating to my sister. It was written for her by the English consul at the French town in which she lived. he informed me that she had been a widow for some years past; and he summoned me instantly to her bedside if I wished to see her again before she died.
I was just in time to find her living. She was past speaking to me but, thank God, she understood what I meant when I kissed her and asked her to forgive me. Towards evening the poor soul passed away quietly, with her head resting on my breast.
The consul had written down what she had wanted to say to me. I leave the persons who may read this to judge what my feelings were when I discovered that my sister’s husband was the wretch who had assisted the escape of Dina Coomb, and who had thus been the means of condemning an innocent man to death on the scaffold.
On one of those visits on business to England of which I have already spoken , he had met a little girl sitting under a hedge at the side of the high road, lost, footsore, and frightened, and had spoken to her. She owned that she had run away from home after a most severe beating. She showed the marks. A worthy man would have put her under the protection of the nearest magistrate.
My rascally brother-in-law noticed her valuable watch, and, suspecting that she might be connected with wealthy people, he encouraged her to talk. When he was well assured of her expectations, and of the use to which he might put them in her friendless situation, he offered to adopt her, and he took her away with him to France.
My sister, having no child of her own took a liking to Dina, and readily believed what her husband chose to tell her. For three years the girl lived with them. She cared little for the good woman who was always kind to her, but she was most unreasonably fond of the villain who had kidnapped her.
After his death this runaway creature – then aged fifteen – was missing again. She left a farewell letter to my sister, saying that she had found another friend: and from that time forth nothing more had been heard of her, for years on years. This had weighed on my sister’s mind, and this was what she had wanted to tell me on her deathbed. Knowing nothing of the trial, she was aware that Dina belonged to the neighbourhood of Betminster, and she thought in her ignorance that I might communicate with Dina’s friends, if such persons existed.
On my return to England I thought it a duty to show to the Mayor of Betminster what the consul had written from my sister’s dictation. He read it and heard what I had to tell him. Then he reckoned up the years that had passed. says he, ‘The girl must be of age by this time: I shall cause inquiries to be made in London.’
In a week more we did hear of Dina Coomb. She had returned to her own country, with a French husband at her heels, had proved her claim, and had got her money.
Buy on Amazon
First Published in 1886
William Wilkie Collins (1824 – 1889) was a writer. He was best known for his novels including The Woman in White and The Moonstone.