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Cousin Henry

 

 

CHAPTER VII

Looking for the Will
 

The search was carried on up to nine o'clock that evening, and then Mr Apjohn returned to Carmarthen, explaining that he would send out two men to continue the work on the Tuesday, and that he would come out again on the Wednesday to read whatever might then be regarded as the old Squire's will,—the last prepared document if it could be found, and the former one should the search have been unsuccessful. "Of course," said he, in the presence of the two cousins, "my reading the document will give it no force. Of those found, the last in date will be good—until one later be found. It will be well, however, that some steps should be taken, and nothing can be done till the will has been read." Then he took his leave and went back to Carmarthen.

Isabel had not shown herself during the whole of the afternoon. When Mr Apjohn's explanation had been given, and the search commenced, she retired and went to her own room. It was impossible for her to take a part in the work that was being done, and almost equally impossible for her to remain without seeming to take too lively an interest in the proceeding. Every point of the affair was clear to her imagination. It could not now be doubted by her that her uncle, doubly actuated by the presence of the man he disliked and the absence of her whom he so dearly loved, had found himself driven to revoke the decision to which he had been brought. As she put it to herself, his love had got the better of his conscience during the weakness of his latter days. It was a pity,—a pity that it should have been so! It was to be regretted that there should have been no one near him to comfort him in the misery which had produced such a lamentable result. A will, she thought, should be the outcome of a man's strength, and not of his weakness. Having obeyed his conscience, he should have clung to his conscience. But all that could not affect what had been done. It seemed to be certain to her that this other will had been made and executed. Even though it should have been irregularly executed so as to be null and void, still it must for a time at least have had an existence. Where was it now? Having these thoughts in her mind, it was impossible for her to go about the house among those who were searching. It was impossible for her to encounter the tremulous misery of her cousin. That he should shiver and shake and be covered with beads of perspiration during a period of such intense perturbation did not seem to her to be unnatural. It was not his fault that he had not been endowed with especial manliness. She disliked him in his cowardice almost more than before; but she would not on that account allow herself to suspect him of a crime.

Mr Apjohn, just before he went, had an interview with her in her own room.

"I cannot go without a word," he said, "but its only purport will be to tell you that I cannot as yet express any decided opinion in this matter."

"Do not suppose, Mr Apjohn, that I am anxious for another will," she said.

"I am;—but that has nothing to do with it. That he did make a will, and have it witnessed by these two Cantors, is, I think, certain. That he should afterwards have destroyed the will without telling the witnesses, who would be sure hereafter to think and talk of what they had done, seems to be most unlike the thoughtful consideration of your uncle. But his weakness increased upon him very quickly just at that time. Dr Powell thinks that he was certainly competent on that day to make a will, but he thinks also he may have destroyed it a day or two afterwards when his mind was hardly strong enough to enable him to judge of what he was doing. If, at last, this new will shall not be forthcoming, I think we must be bound to interpret the matter in that way. I tell you this before I go in order that it may assist you perhaps a little in forming your own opinion." Then he went.

It was impossible but that she should bethink herself at that moment that she knew more than either Dr Powell or Mr Apjohn. The last expression of the old man's thoughts upon that or upon any matter had been made to herself. The last words that he had uttered had been whispered into her ears; "It is all right. It is done." Let the light of his failing intellect have been ever so dim, let his strength have faded from him ever so completely, he would not have whispered these words had he himself destroyed that last document. Mr Apjohn had spoken of the opinion which she was to form, and she felt how impossible to her it would be not to have an opinion in the matter. She could not keep her mind vacant even if she would. Mr Apjohn had said that, if the will were not found, he should think that the Squire had in his weakness again changed his mind and destroyed it. She was sure that this was not so. She, and she alone, had heard those last words. Was it or was it not her duty to tell Mr Apjohn that such words had been uttered? Had they referred to the interest of any one but herself, of course it would have been her duty. But now,—now she doubted. She did not choose to seem even to put forth a claim on her own account. And of what use would be any revelation as to the uttering of these words? They would be accepted in no court of law as evidence in one direction or another. Upon the whole, she thought she would keep her peace regarding them, even to Mr Apjohn. If it was to be that her cousin should live there as squire and owner of Llanfeare, why should she seek to damage his character by calling in question the will under which he would inherit the property? Thus she determined that she would speak of her uncle's last words to no one.

But what must be her opinion as to the whole transaction? At the present moment she felt herself bound to think that this missing document would be found. That to her seemed to be the only solution which would not be terrible to contemplate. That other solution,—of the destruction of the will by her uncle's own hands,—she altogether repudiated. If it were not found, then—! What then? Would it not then be evident that some fraud was being perpetrated? And if so, by whom? As these thoughts forced themselves upon her mind, she could not but think of that pallid face, those shaking hands, and the great drops of sweat which from time to time had forced themselves on to the man's brow. It was natural that he should suffer. It was natural that he should be perturbed under the consciousness of the hostile feeling of all those around him. But yet there had hardly been occasion for all those signs of fear which she had found it impossible not to notice as she had sat there in the parlour while Mr Apjohn was explaining the circumstances of the two wills. Would an innocent man have trembled like that because the circumstances around him were difficult? Could anything but guilt have betrayed itself by such emotions? And then, had the will in truth been made away with by human hands, what other hands could have done it? Who else was interested? Who else was there at Llanfeare not interested in the preservation of a will which would have left the property to her? She did not begrudge him the estate. She had acknowledged the strength of the reasons which had induced the Squire to name him as heir; but she declared to herself that, if that latter document were not found, a deed of hideous darkness would have been perpetrated by him. With these thoughts disturbing her breast she lay awake during the long hours of the night.

When Mr Apjohn had taken his departure, and the servants had gone to their beds, the butler having barred and double-barred the door after his usual manner, Cousin Henry still sat alone in the book-room. After answering those questions from Mr Apjohn, he had spoken to no one, but still sat alone with a single candle burning on the table by his elbow. The butler had gone to him twice, asking him whether he wanted anything, and suggesting to him that he had better go to his bed. But the heir, if he was the heir, had only resented the intrusion, desiring that he might be left alone. Then he was left alone, and there he sat.

His mind at this moment was tormented grievously within him. There was a something which he might do, and a something which he might not do, if he could only make up his mind. "Honesty is the best policy!" "Honesty is the best policy!" He repeated the well-known words to himself a thousand times, without, however, moving his lips or forming a sound. There he sat, thinking it all out, trying to think it out. There he sat, still trembling, still in an agony, for hour after hour. At one time he had fully resolved to do that by which he would have proved to himself his conviction that honesty is the best policy, and then he sat doubting again—declaring to himself that honesty itself did not require him to do this meditated deed. "Let them find it," he said to himself at last, aloud. "Let them find it. It is their business: not mine." But still he sat looking up at the row of books opposite to him.

When it was considerably after midnight, he got up from his chair and began to walk the room. As he did so, he wiped his brow continually as though he were hot with the exertion, but keeping his eye still fixed upon the books. He was urging himself, pressing upon himself the expression of that honesty. Then at last he rushed at one of the shelves, and, picking out a volume of Jeremy Taylor's works, threw it upon the table. It was the volume on which the old Squire had been engaged when he read the last sermon which was to prepare him for a flight to a better world. He opened the book, and there between the leaves was the last will and testament which his uncle had executed.

At that moment he heard a step in the hall and a hand on the door, and as he did so with quick eager motion he hid the document under the book.

"It is near two o'clock, Mr Henry," said the butler. "What are you doing up so late?"

"I am only reading," said the heir.

"It is very late to be reading. You had better go to bed. He never liked people to be a-reading at these contrairy hours. He liked folk to be all a-bed."

The use of a dead man's authority, employed against him by one who was, so to say, his own servant, struck even him as absurd and improper. He felt that he must assert himself unless he meant to sink lower and lower in the estimation of all those around him. "I shall stay just as late as I please," he said. "Go away, and do not disturb me any more."

"His will ought to be obeyed, and he not twenty-four hours under the ground," said the butler.

"I should have stayed up just as long as I had pleased even had he been here," said Cousin Henry. Then the man with a murmur took his departure and closed the door after him.

For some minutes Cousin Henry sat perfectly motionless, and then he got up very softly, very silently, and tried the door. It was closed, and it was the only door leading into the room. And the windows were barred with shutters. He looked round and satisfied himself that certainly no other eye was there but his own. Then he took the document up from its hiding-place, placed it again exactly between the leaves which had before enclosed it, and carefully restored the book to its place on the shelf.

He had not hidden the will. He had not thus kept it away from the eyes of all those concerned. He had opened no drawer. He had extracted nothing, had concealed nothing. He had merely carried the book from his uncle's table where he had found it, and, in restoring it to its place on the shelves, had found the paper which it contained. So he told himself now, and so he had told himself a thousand times. Was it his duty to produce the evidence of a gross injustice against himself? Who could doubt the injustice who knew that he had been summoned thither from London to take his place at Llanfeare as heir to the property? Would not the ill done against him be much greater than any he would do were he to leave the paper there where he had chanced to find it?

In no moment had it seemed to him that he himself had sinned in the matter, till Mr Apjohn had asked him whether his uncle had told him of this new will. Then he had lied. His uncle had told him of his intention before the will was executed, and had told him again, when the Cantors had gone, that the thing was done. The old man had expressed a thousand regrets, but the young one had remained impassive, sullen, crushed with a feeling of the injury done to him, but still silent. He had not dared to remonstrate, and had found himself unable to complain of the injustice.

There it was in his power. He was quite awake to the strength of his own position,—but also to its weakness. Should he resolve to leave the document enclosed within the cover of the book, no one could accuse him of dishonesty. He had not placed it there. He had not hidden it. He had done nothing. The confusion occasioned by the absence of the will would have been due to the carelessness of a worn-out old man who had reached the time of life in which he was unfit to execute such a deed. It seemed to him that all justice, all honesty, all sense of right and wrong, would be best served by the everlasting concealment of such a document. Why should he tell of its hiding-place? Let them who wanted it search for it, and find it if they could. Was he not doing much in the cause of honesty in that he did not destroy it, as would be so easy for him?

But, if left there, would it not certainly be found? Though it should remain week after week, month after month,—even should it remain year after year, would it not certainly be found at last, and brought out to prove that Llanfeare was not his own? Of what use to him would be the property,—of what service;—how would it contribute to his happiness or his welfare, knowing, as he would know, that a casual accident, almost sure to happen sooner or later, might rob him of it for ever? His imagination was strong enough to depict the misery to him which such a state of things would produce. How he would quiver when any stray visitor might enter the room! How terrified he would be at the chance assiduity of a housemaid! How should he act if the religious instincts of some future wife should teach her to follow out that reading which his uncle had cultivated?

He had more than once resolved that he would be mad were he to leave the document where he found it. He must make it known to those who were searching for it,—or he must destroy it. His common sense told him that one alternative or the other must be chosen. He could certainly destroy it, and no one would be the wiser. He could reduce it, in the solitude of his chamber, into almost impalpable ashes, and then swallow them. He felt that, let suspicion come as it might into the minds of men, let Apjohn, and Powell, and the farmers—let Isabel herself—think what they might, no one would dare to accuse him of such a deed. Let them accuse him as they might, there would be no tittle of evidence against him.

But he could not do it. The more he thought of it, the more he had to acknowledge that he was incapable of executing such a deed. To burn the morsel of paper;—oh, how easy! But yet he knew that his hands would refuse to employ themselves on such a work. He had already given it up in despair; and, having told himself that it was impossible, had resolved to extricate the document and, calling Isabel up from her bed in the middle of the night, to hand it over to her at once. It would have been easy to say he had opened one book after another, and it would, he thought, be a deed grand to do. Then he had been interrupted, and insulted by the butler, and in his anger he had determined that the paper should rest there yet another day.


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