The Old Woman of Delamere Forest (Part II)
The old woman said she had had a violent fever; and had, in a vision, seen all that to my sister she afterwards described as an actual occurrence. Mr. Wilbraham, willing to humour her fancy, sent the overseer with a labourer to dig wherever she directed. This search proved wholly fruitless; but soon after, Mrs. Hollingsworth having heard that the body of a man had been found in a pond at Marbury, near Whitchurch, she went there immediately, and asserted that she knew the corpse to be that of her son, which after having been buried in the forest had been removed and carried for greater security to this distant pond.
She afterwards went to Liverpool, where she said she discovered that a young German exactly answering the description of her son had landed from a Hamburgh ship, and had enquired his way to Delamere Forest, on the very day on which she saw the traveller in conversation with the supposed murderer. Mr. Wilbraham, hearing this, thought further investigation necessary: he wrote to the chief of the police at Liverpool, stating the facts of the case, and requesting him to make every enquiry. In answer to this application, he heard that a young German had certainly landed on the day specified, but that all the rest of the tale was a fabrication.
Soon after, Mr. Wilbraham being in London called upon Mr. Grollermann, who had been employed as an Almoner to Queen Charlotte, to distribute her bounty to the distressed Germans in England. After having told the whole story, Mr. Wilbraham requested him to make some enquiry in Hanover about the young Hollingsworth. The result was, he was reported to be alive and well. Mr. Wilbraham, determined to leave nothing undone that would satisfy the mind of the mother and establish the innocence of him whom she had accused, wrote to the young man, strongly urging him to come over to tranquillise his mother. Some weeks afterwards, he and his sister came to Delamere House.
She fully recognised him, so did the mother, but she did not seem happy; she evidently could not bear that her story, which had made much noise, should be so totally disproved. Hollingsworth went to Manchester, and got employed in his trade of carpenter.
This is the substance of what Mr. Wilbraham wrote down for me. Strange to say, after all this, the old woman always persisted in saying to my sister and me, that, though appearances were so much against her that she could not maintain it, her own conviction must ever be that the young man was an impostor and no son of hers. The daughter more than joined in these assurances, and even went so far one day as to declare to us that the young man had made love to her and wanted to marry her.
I understand the supposed murderer (whose name I have never heard) is now living at Tarporley respectably. In the strange tale of the old woman, I cannot help believing there was much of self-delusion, and that, when that was removed, she had recourse to falsehood to bolster up her fallen credit: but it seems to me quite impossible to say exactly where delusion ended and deception began. I see that my sister and I should not fix the boundary at the same place: she has more faith in the old liar than I can have.
It was not till some time after this strange occurrence that I happened to see the woman for the first time: we went to her hut; she was then (1827-8) living quite alone: her daughter's education being finished, she sent her to London to be confirmed and to seek a service.
The mother's pride seemed highly gratified in reading to us a letter which she had received from her daughter. It was written partly in German, and partly in English; the former was translated to us, and very much was I astonished at the language, sentiments, and intelligence of the writer. She began by describing her wonder in first seeing London: a great deal of very proper feeling not unmixed with cant (as I thought), was expressed as, with respect to her confirmation, she spoke of the kindness with which she had been received by their friends, and of a play at Covent Garden, to which they had taken her, which she seemed to bewail as a sin, and assured her mother it should never be repeated. She then spoke of the family in whose service she had been placed by the clergyman of the Lutheran chapel.
Mrs. Hollingsworth gave me the idea of a very shrewd woman, who in good language, though her pronunciation was decidedly German, expressed strong religious feelings, mingled with such uncharitable opinions of all mankind, that I could not but term her religion cant. It was at this time that she gave my sister an MS. Of about twenty folio sheets, containing a history of her life. I read it aloud, and can only recollect that it did not even reach the period of her marriage; that, with much cant and more long-windedness, it afforded rather an interesting picture of primaeval manners and a long list of suitors whom she had refused.
I felt that, with much curtailment, this might have made an interesting beginning to her strange story. I lament now that I did not write this at the time. At a subsequent visit she told us that she began to find her absolute solitude very dreary, and that as age and infirmities increased she felt it not safe. She added that by the interest of the Lutheran clergyman and of other friends, she had obtained an admission to the Dutch Almshouses in London.
She had just been giving a leave-taking tea drink to two gossips, her neighbours, and had a letter from her daughter; and it was then that, speaking of the man calling himself her son, and some of the evidence against her statement being brought forward, she said,' I know that very well. I know what everybody says and believes, but if the whole world were to tell me that this piece of paper was black, I could not contradict them, but I never could be persuaded that it is not white.'
Before she went away she gave my sister a 'German Prayer-book, for the use of the Lutheran chapel at St. James's. In the first page is ' A. M. Hollingsworth ein geschend' van der Gravien van Munster, door middle van de goede vtow Goltermann. This book was given me by the Countess of Munster through the virtues of Mrs. Goltermann. I desire me Lady Delamere to take it in remembrance of me, Anna Maria Hollingsworth, July 11, 1829.'
At the same time she sent to Vale Royal as a tribute of her gratitude, the last of her family of goats, with the following rude lines:—
THE PETITION OF A KIDD.
A lonesome stranger creves a boon,
To rove within the shade,
In your spacious park allone,
An hopes your frindly ade.
My friendly dame is going to leve,
The place ware I did dwell,
I humlily hegg do me resieve
An use a stranger well.
Then I will in return agien,
Cheer your lonesome walk;
In all my nature still remane,
In innocence with you talk.
In June 1832 we went to Bishopsgate Street, in search of the Dutch Almshouses, which are in a court near there. A low arch with a gate opened into a paved passage or alley. At a little shop next door we enquired whether Mrs. Hollingsworth was still in the Almshouses, and whether she could come and speak to us at the carriage door; a young woman told us that she was her daughter just come (from Pimlico, I think) to see her, and she would go in and fetch her if she was well enough.
The poor soul came coughing and so weak she could hardly reach the carriage, hut she seemed quite delighted when she saw my sister, whom her daughter had not recognised. We got out, found at the end of the alley seven or eight steps, down which we went to a court, round which were built about a dozen small houses. Our old woman had a room about twelve feet square, neat and tidy, full of old rude knick-knacks; amongst others a sort of model of the hut in Delamere
As far as one could judge during the short time we remained, the woman seemed contented, but sinking fast. The daughter, a decent-mannered person, with language very superior to her appearance, told us she was in service, and could seldom get leave to come and visit her mother. We enquired about the MS. We had seen, and asked whether she had ever concluded it, which we found she had not, and that she had given what we had seen to a bookseller at Manchester.
Both mother and daughter vehemently repeated their assertions that the traveller was not their relative; and at last the daughter asked how she could acknowledge or consider as a brother a man who had attempted to seduce her and wanted to marry her.