On the advice of his doctor, Philip Lefrank, junior barrister in London, is taking some time off from work. He alarmed his clerk by fainting at his desk. The doctor diagnosed over work. Philip decides for no particular reason to take a ship across the Atlantic and visit relatives in the United States. He’s expecting to be bored into health.
Instead, he finds the family in turmoil. Elderly Mr. Isaac Meadowcroft of Morwick Farm is confined to an “invalid chair” and attended by his daughter, Miss Meadowcroft who spouts Bible verses and disapproves of the behavior of her brothers, Ambrose and Silas. They give her quite a bit to disapprove of. The “overlooker,” John Jago, has let his beard grow in mourning for the wife he lost. He and the brothers argue constantly. Some of the arguments come to blows. During his first meal at Morwick Farm, Philip notices the bandage on Silas’ hand and the smirk and Jago’s face.
And then there’s cousin Naomi Colebrook, a frank, fearless American girl among this English (so they consider themselves) family. She’s engaged to Ambrose. Later she appeals to Philip to help the family, to “shame” the brothers into better behavior.
As they’re talking outside in the garden, the overlooker Jago approaches and begs to speak to Miss Colebrook in private. It can’t wait till morning. She seems reluctant to be alone with him, but eventually agrees. Philip excuses himself.
The next morning, Jago is gone, claiming to have business in nearby Narrabee, but not before he once again has words with the Meadowcroft brothers. He doesn’t come back the next day, or the next, or the next. Ambrose rides into Narrabee, only to find out that Jago was never there.
It doesn’t look good for Jago, and it seems that Ambrose and Silas are to blame.
This is a mystery story with a couple of little twists. Author Wilkie Collins includes a note at the end of the narrative stating this story was inspired by a printed account the 1819 trial of Jesse and Stephen Boorn for the murder of Russell Colvin,which is often considered the first documented wrongful murder conviction. Two men were convicted of murder—one was about to be hanged—when the victim was still alive. The authorities even had confessions.
Collins’ story relies on the conventional perception of differences between the English and the Americans (“We don’t stand on ceremony in America.”) and men and women. Naomi says more than once, “I’m only a woman.” She relies on Philip’s help for such things as writing and placing as ad for anyone seeing a man matching John Jago’s description. Poor helpless thing.
But many of the dynamics in Collins’ story as well as the Boorne trial might give one pause.
Note in conclusion: The first idea of this little story was suggested to the author by a printed account of a trial which actually took place early in the present century, in the United States. The published narrative of this strange case is entitled “the Trial, Confessions, and Conviction of Jessa and Stephen Boorn for the Murder of Russell Colvin, and the Return of the Man supposed to have been murdered. By Hon. Leonard Sargeant, Ex-lieutenant Governor or Vermont (Manchester, Vermont, Journal Book and Job Office 1873)” It may not be amiss to add, for the benefit of incredulous reader, hat all the “improbable event” in the story are matters of fact, take from the printed narrative. Anything which “looks like truth” is, in nine cases out of ten, the invention of the author.