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Cousin Henry

 

 

CHAPTER VI

Mr Apjohn's Explanation
 

The reader need not be detained with any elaborate account of the funeral. Every tenant and every labourer about the place was there; as also were many of the people from Carmarthen. Llanfeare Church, which stands on a point of a little river just as it runs into a creek of the sea, is not more than four miles distant from the town; but such was the respect in which the old squire was held that a large crowd was present as the body was lowered into the vault. Then the lunch followed, just as Isabel had said. There was Cousin Henry, and there were the doctor and the lawyer, and there were the tenants who had been specially honoured by invitation, and there was Joseph Cantor the younger. The viands were eaten freely, though the occasion was not a happy one. Appetites are good even amidst grief, and the farmers of Llanfeare took their victuals and their wine in funereal silence, but not without enjoyment. Mr Apjohn and Dr Powell also were hungry, and being accustomed, perhaps, to such entertainments, did not allow the good things prepared to go waste. But Cousin Henry, though he made an attempt, could not swallow a morsel. He took a glass of wine, and then a second, helping himself from the bottle as it stood near at hand; but he ate nothing, and spoke hardly a word. At first he made some attempt, but his voice seemed to fail him. Not one of the farmers addressed a syllable to him. He had before the funeral taken each of them by the hand, but even then they had not spoken to him. They were rough of manner, little able to conceal their feelings; and he understood well from their bearing that he was odious to them. Now as he sat at table with them, he determined that as soon as this matter should be settled he would take himself away from Llanfeare, even though Llanfeare should belong to him. While they were at the table both the lawyer and the doctor said a word to him, making a struggle to be courteous, but after the first struggle the attempt ceased also with them. The silence of the man, and even the pallor of his face might be supposed to be excused by the nature of the occasion.

"Now," said Mr Apjohn, rising from the table when the eating and drinking had ceased, "I think we might as well go into the next room. Miss Brodrick, who has consented to be present, will probably be waiting for us."

They passed through the hall into the parlour in a long string, Mr Apjohn leading the way, followed by Cousin Henry. There they found Isabel sitting with the housekeeper beside her. She shook hands in silence with the attorney, the doctor, and all the tenants, and then, as she took her seat, she spoke a word to Mr Apjohn. "As I have felt it hard to be alone, I have asked Mrs Griffith to remain with me. I hope it is not improper?"

"There can be no reason on earth," said Mr Apjohn, "why Mrs Griffith should not hear the will of her master, who respected her so thoroughly." Mrs Griffith bobbed a curtsey in return for this civility, and then sat down, intently interested in the coming ceremony.

Mr Apjohn took from his pocket the envelope containing the key, and, opening the little packet very slowly, very slowly opened the drawer, and took out from it a bundle of papers tied with red tape. This he undid, and then, sitting with the bundle loosened before him, he examined the document lying at the top. Then, slowly spreading them out, as though pausing over every operation with premeditated delay, he held in his hand that which he had at first taken; but he was in truth thinking of the words which he would have to use at the present moment. He had expected, but had expected with some doubt, that another document would have been found there. Close at his right hand sat Dr Powell. Round the room, in distant chairs, were ranged the six farmers, each with his hat in hand between his knees. On a sofa opposite were Isabel and the housekeeper. Cousin Henry sat alone, not very far from the end of the sofa, almost in the middle of the room. As the operation went on, one of his hands quivered so much that he endeavoured to hold it with the other to keep it from shaking. It was impossible that any one there should not observe his trepidation and too evident discomfort.

The document lying at the top of the bundle was opened out very slowly by the attorney, who smoothed it down with his hand preparatory to reading it. Then he looked at the date to assure himself that it was the last will which he himself had drawn. He knew it well, and was cognizant with its every legal quiddity. He could judiciously have explained every clause of it without reading a word, and might probably have to do so before the occasion was over; but he delayed, looking down upon it and still smoothing it, evidently taking another minute or two to collect his thoughts. This will now under his hand was very objectionable to him, having been made altogether in opposition to his own advice, and having thus created that "scolding" of which the Squire had complained to Isabel. This will bequeathed the whole of the property to Cousin Henry. It did also affect to leave a certain sum of money to Isabel, but the sum of money had been left simply as a sum of money, and not as a charge on the property. Now, within the last few days, Mr Apjohn had learnt that there were no funds remaining for the payment of such a legacy. The will, therefore, was to him thoroughly distasteful. Should that will in truth be found to be the last will and testament of the old Squire, then it would be his duty to declare that the estate and everything upon it belonged to Cousin Henry, and that there would be, as he feared, no source from which any considerable part of the money nominally left to Miss Brodrick could be defrayed. To his thinking nothing could be more cruel, nothing more unjust, than this.

He had heard tidings which would make it his duty to question the authenticity of this will which was now under his hand; and now had come the moment in which he must explain all this.

"The document which I hold here," he said, "purports to be the last will of our old friend. Every will does that as a matter of course. But then there may always be another and a later will." Here he paused, and looked round the room at the faces of the farmers.

"So there be," said Joseph Cantor the younger.

"Hold your tongue, Joe, till you be asked," said the father.

At this little interruption all the other farmers turned their hats in their hands. Cousin Henry gazed round at them, but said never a word. The lawyer looked into the heir's face, and saw the great beads of sweat standing on his brow.

"You hear what young Mr Cantor has said," continued the lawyer. "I am glad that he interrupted me, because it will make my task easier."

"There now, feyther!" said the young man triumphantly.

"You hold your tongue, Joe, till you be asked, or I'll lend ye a cuff."

"Now I must explain," continued Mr Apjohn, "what passed between me and my dear old friend when I received instructions from him in this room as to this document which is now before me. You will excuse me, Mr Jones,"—this he said addressing himself especially to Cousin Henry—"if I say that I did not like this new purpose on the Squire's part. He was proposing an altogether new arrangement as to the disposition of his property; and though there could be no doubt, not a shadow of doubt, as to the sufficiency of his mental powers for the object in view, still I did not think it well that an old man in feeble health should change a purpose to which he had come in his maturer years, after very long deliberation, and on a matter of such vital moment. I expressed my opinion strongly, and he explained his reasons. He told me that he thought it right to keep the property in the direct line of his family. I endeavoured to explain to him that this might be sufficiently done though the property were left to a lady, if the lady were required to take the name, and to confer the name on her husband, should she afterwards marry. You will probably all understand the circumstances."

"We understand them all," said John Griffith, of Coed, who was supposed to be the tenant of most importance on the property.

"Well, then, I urged my ideas perhaps too strongly. I am bound to say that I felt them very strongly. Mr Indefer Jones remarked that it was not my business to lecture him on a matter in which his conscience was concerned. In this he was undoubtedly right; but still I thought I had done no more than my duty, and could only be sorry that he was angry with me. I can assure you that I never for a moment entertained a feeling of anger against him. He was altogether in his right, and was actuated simply by a sense of duty."

"We be quite sure of that," said Samuel Jones, from The Grange, an old farmer, who was supposed to be a far-away cousin of the family.

"I have said all this," continued the lawyer, "to explain why it might be probable that Mr Jones should not have sent for me, if, in his last days, he felt himself called on by duty to alter yet once again the decision to which he had come. You can understand that if he determined in his illness to make yet another will—"

"Which he did," said the younger Cantor, interrupting him.

"Exactly; we will come to that directly."

"Joe, ye shall be made to sit out in the kitchen; ye shall," said Cantor the father.

"You can understand, I say, that he might not like to see me again upon the subject. In such case he would have come back to the opinion which I had advocated; and, though no man in his strong health would have been more ready to acknowledge an error than Indefer Jones, of Llanfeare, we all know that with failing strength comes failing courage. I think that it must have been so with him, and that for this reason he did not avail himself of my services. If there be such another will—"

"There be!" said the irrepressible Joe Cantor the younger. Upon this his father only looked at him. "Our names is to it," continued Joe.

"We cannot say that for certain, Mr Cantor," said the lawyer. "The old Squire may have made another will, as you say, and may have destroyed it. We must have the will before we can use it. If he left such a will, it will be found among his papers. I have turned over nothing as yet; but as it was here in this drawer and tied in this bundle that Mr Jones was accustomed to keep his will,—as the last will which I made is here, as I expected to find it, together with those which he had made before and which he seems never to have wished to destroy, I have had to explain all this to you. It is, I suppose, true, Mr Cantor, that you and your son were called upon by the Squire to witness his signature to a document which he purported to be a will on Monday the 15th of July?"

Then Joseph Cantor the father told all the circumstances as they had occurred. When Mr Henry Jones had been about a fortnight at Llanfeare, and when Miss Isabel had been gone a week, he, Cantor, had happened to come up to see the Squire, as it was his custom to do at least once a week. Then the Squire had told him that his services and those also of his son were needed for the witnessing of a deed. Mr Jones had gone on to explain that this deed was to be his last will. The old farmer, it seemed, had suggested to his landlord that Mr Apjohn should be employed. The Squire then declared that this would be unnecessary; that he himself had copied a former will exactly, and compared it word for word, and reproduced it with no other alteration than that of the date. All that was wanted would be his signature, efficiently witnessed by two persons who should both be present together with the testator. Then the document had been signed by the Squire, and after that by the farmer and his son. It had been written, said Joseph Cantor, not on long, broad paper such as that which had been used for the will now lying on the table before the lawyer, but on a sheet of square paper such as was now found in the Squire's desk. He, Cantor, had not read a word of what had there been set down, but he had been enabled to see that it was written in that peculiarly accurate and laborious handwriting which the Squire was known to use, but not more frequently than he could help.

Thus the story was told,—at least, all that there was to tell as yet. The drawer was opened and ransacked, as were also the other drawers belonging to the table. Then a regular search was made by the attorney, accompanied by the doctor, the butler, and the housemaid, and continued through the whole afternoon,—in vain. The farmers were dismissed as soon as the explanation had been given as above described. During the remainder of the day Cousin Henry occupied a chair in the parlour, looking on as the search was continued. He offered no help, which was natural enough; nor did he make any remark as to the work in hand, which was, perhaps, also natural. The matter was to him one of such preponderating moment that he could hardly be expected to speak of it. Was he to have Llanfeare and all that belonged to it, or was he to have nothing? And then, though no accusation was made against him, though no one had insinuated that he had been to blame in the matter, still there was apparent among them all a strong feeling against him. Who had made away with this will, as to the existence of which at one time there was no doubt? Of course the idea was present to his mind that they must think that he had done so. In such circumstances it was not singular that he should say nothing and do nothing.

Late in the evening Mr Apjohn, just before he left the house, asked Cousin Henry a question, and received an answer.

"Mrs Griffith tells me, Mr Jones, that you were closeted with your uncle for about an hour immediately after the Cantors had left him on that Tuesday,—just after the signatures had been written. Was it so?"

Again the drops of sweat came out and stood thick upon his forehead. But this Mr Apjohn could understand without making an accusation against the man, even in his heart. The unexpressed suspicion was so heavy that a man might well sweat under the burden of it! He paused a moment, and tried to look as though he were thinking. "Yes," said he; "I think I was with my uncle on that morning."

"And you knew that the Cantors had been with him?"

"Not that I remember. I think I did know that somebody had been there. Yes, I did know it. I had seen their hats in the hall."

"Did he say anything about them?"

"Not that I remember."

"Of what was he talking? Can you tell me? I rather fancy that he did not talk much to you."

"I think it was then that he told me the names of all the tenants. He used to scold me because I did not understand the nature of their leases."

"Did he scold you then?"

"I think so. He always scolded me. He did not like me. I used to think that I would go away and leave him. I wish that I had never come to Llanfeare. I do;—I do."

There seemed to be a touch of truth about this which almost softened Mr Apjohn's heart to the poor wretch. "Would you mind answering one more question, Mr Jones?" he said. "Did he tell you that he had made another will?"

"No."

"Nor that he intended to do so?"

"No."

"He never spoke to you about another will,—a further will, that should again bestow the estate on your cousin?"

"No," said Cousin Henry, with the perspiration still on his brow.

Now it seemed to Mr Apjohn certain that, had the old man made such a change in his purpose, he would have informed his nephew of the fact.


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