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Cousin Henry

 

 

CHAPTER IX

Alone at Llanfeare
 

On the day after the reading of the will, Henry Indefer Jones, Esq., of Llanfeare, as he was now to be called, was left alone in his house, his cousin Isabel having taken her departure from the place in the manner proposed by her. And the lawyer was gone, and the doctor, and the tenants did not come near him, and the butler and the housekeeper kept out of his way, and there was probably no man in all South Wales more lonely and desolate than the new Squire of Llanfeare on that morning.

The cruelty of it, the injustice of it, the unprecedented hardness of it all! Such were the ideas which presented themselves to him as hour after hour he sat in the book-room with his eyes fixed on the volume of Jeremy Taylor's sermons. He had done nothing wrong,—so he told himself,—had not even coveted anything that did not belong to him. It was in accordance with his uncle's expressed desire that he had come to Llanfeare, and been introduced to the tenants as their future landlord, and had taken upon himself the place of the heir. Then the old man had announced to him his change of mind; but had not announced it to others, had not declared his altered purpose to the world at Llanfeare, and had not at once sent him back to his London office. Had he done so, that would have been better. There would have been a gross injustice, but that would have been the end of it, and he would have gone back to his London work unhappy indeed, but with some possibility of life before him. Now it seemed as though any mode of living would be impossible to him. While that fatal paper remained hidden in the fatal volume he could do nothing but sit there and guard it in solitude.

He knew well enough that it behoved him as a man to go out about the estate and the neighbourhood, and to show himself, and to take some part in the life around him, even though he might be miserable and a prey to terror whilst he was doing so. But he could not move from his seat till his mind had been made up as to his future action. He was still in fearful doubt. Through the whole of that first day he declared to himself that his resolution had not yet been made,—that he had not yet determined what it would be best that he should do. It was still open to him to say that at any moment he had just found the will. If he could bring himself to do so he might rush off to Carmarthen with the document in his pocket, and still appear before the lawyer as a man triumphant in his own honesty, who at the first moment that it was possible had surrendered all that which was not legally his own, in spite of the foul usage to which he had been subjected. He might still assume the grand air of injured innocence, give back the property to the young woman who had insulted him, and return to his desk in London, leaving behind him in Carmarthenshire a character for magnanimity and honour. Such a line of conduct had charms in his eyes. He was quite alive to the delight of heaping coals of fire on his cousin's head. She had declared that she would receive nothing at his hands, because she despised him. After that there would be a sweetness, the savour of which was not lost upon his imagination, in forcing her to take all from his hands. And it would become known to all men that it was he who had found the will,—he who might have destroyed it without the slightest danger of discovery,—he who without peril might thus have made himself owner of Llanfeare. There would be a delight to him in the character which he would thus achieve. But then she had scorned him! No bitterer scorn had ever fallen from the lips or flashed from the eyes of a woman. "We take presents from those we love, not from those we despise!" He had not resented the words at the moment; he had not dared to do so; but not the less had they entered upon his very soul,—not the less he hated the woman who had dared so to reply to the generous offer which he had made her.

And then there was an idea present to him through it all that abstract justice, if abstract justice could be reached, would declare that the property should be his. The old man had made his will with all the due paraphernalia of will-making. There had been the lawyer and the witnesses brought by the lawyer; and, above all, there had been the declared reason of the will and its understood purpose. He had been sent for, and all Carmarthenshire had been made to understand why it was to be so. Then, in his sickness, the old man had changed his mind through some fantastic feeling, and almost on his death-bed, with failing powers, in a condition probably altogether unfit for such a duty, had executed a document which the law might respect, but which true justice, if true justice could be invoked, would certainly repudiate. Could the will be abolished, no more than justice would be done. But, though the will were in his own power, it could not be abolished by his own hands.

As to that abolishing he was perfectly conscious of his own weakness. He could not take the will from its hiding-place and with his own hand thrust it into the flames. He had never as yet even suggested to himself that he would do so. His hair stood on end as he thought of the horrors attendant on such a deed as that. To be made to stand in the dock and be gazed at by the angry eyes of all the court, to be written of as the noted criminal of the day, to hear the verdict of guilty, and then the sentence, and to be aware that he was to be shut up and secluded from all comforts throughout his life! And then, and then, the dread hereafter! For such a deed as that would there not be assured damnation? Although he told himself that justice demanded the destruction of the will, justice could not be achieved by his own hand after such fashion as that.

No; he could not himself destroy the document, though it should remain there for years to make his life a burden to him. As to that he had made up his mind, if to nothing else. Though there might be no peril as to this world,—though he might certainly do the deed without a chance of detection from human eyes,—though there would in truth be no prospect of that angry judge and ready jury and crushing sentence, yet he could not do it. There was something of a conscience within him. Were he to commit a felony, from the moment of the doing of the deed the fear of eternal punishment would be heavy on his soul, only to be removed by confession and retribution,—and then by the trial with the judge, and the jury, and the sentence! He could not destroy the document. But if the book could get itself destroyed, what a blessing it would be! The book was his own, or would be in a few days, when the will should have been properly proved. But if he were to take away the book and sink it in a well, or throw it into the sea, or bury it deep beneath the earth, then it would surely reappear by one of those ever-recurring accidents which are always bringing deeds of darkness to the light. Were he to cast the book into the sea, tied with strings or cased in paper, and leaded, that it should surely sink, so that the will should not by untoward chance float out of it, the book tied and bound and leaded would certainly come up in evidence against him. Were he to move the book, the vacant space would lead to suspicion. He would be safe only by leaving the book where it was, by giving no trace that he had ever been conscious of the contents of the book.

And yet, if the document were left there, the book would certainly divulge its dread secret at last. The day would come, might come, ah! so quickly, on which the document would be found, and he would be thrust out, penniless as far as any right to Llanfeare was concerned. Some maid-servant might find it; some religious inmate of his house who might come there in search of godly teaching! If he could only bring himself to do something at once,—to declare that it was there, so that he might avoid all these future miseries! But why had she told him that she despised him, and why had the old man treated him with such unexampled cruelty? So it went on with him for three or four days, during which he still kept his place among the books.

There would be great delight in possessing Llanfeare, if he could in very truth possess it. He would not live there. No; certainly not that. Every tenant about the place had shown him that he was despised. Their manner to him before the old Squire's death, their faces as they had sat there during the ceremonies of the will, and the fact that no one had been near him since the reading of the will, had shown him that. He had not dared to go to church during the Sunday; and though no one had spoken to him of his daily life, he felt that tales were being told of him. He was sure that Mrs Griffith had whispered about the place the fact of his constant residence in one room, and that those who heard it would begin to say among themselves that a practice so strange must be connected with the missing will. No, he would not willingly live at Llanfeare. But if he could let Llanfeare, were it but for a song, and enjoy the rents up in London, how pleasant would that be! But then, had ever any man such a sword of Damocles to hang over his head by a single hair, as would be then hanging over his head were he to let Llanfeare or even to leave the house, while that book with its inclosure was there upon the shelves? It did seem to him, as he thought of it, that life would be impossible to him in any room but that as long as the will remained among the leaves of the volume.

Since the moment in which he had discovered the will he had felt the necessity of dealing with the officials of the office in London at which he had been employed. This was an establishment called the Sick and Healthy Life Assurance Company, in which he held some shares, and at which he was employed as a clerk. It would of course be necessary that he should either resign his place or go back to his duties. That the Squire of Llanfeare should be a clerk at the Sick and Healthy would be an anomaly. Could he really be in possession of his rents, the Sick and Healthy would of course see no more of him; but were he to throw up his position and then to lose Llanfeare, how sad, how terrible, how cruel would be his fate! But yet something must be done. In these circumstances he wrote a letter to the manager, detailing all the circumstances with a near approach to the truth, keeping back only the one little circumstance that he himself was acquainted with the whereabouts of the missing will.

"It may turn up at any moment," he explained to the manager, "so that my position as owner of the property is altogether insecure. I feel this so thoroughly that were I forced at the present to choose between the two I should keep my clerkship in the office; but as the condition of things is so extraordinary, perhaps the directors will allow me six months in which to come to a decision, during which I may hold my place, without, of course, drawing any salary."

Surely, he thought, he could decide on something before the six months should be over. Either he would have destroyed the will, or have sunk the book beneath the waves, or have resolved to do that magnanimous deed which it was still within his power to achieve. The only one thing not possible would be for him to leave Llanfeare and take himself up to the delights of London while the document was yet hidden within the volume.

"I suppose sir, you don't know yet as to what your plans are going to be?" This was said by Mrs Griffith as soon as she made her way into the book-room after a somewhat imperious knocking at the door. Hitherto there had been but little communication between Cousin Henry and his servants since the death of the old Squire. Mrs Griffith had given him warning that she would leave his service, and he had somewhat angrily told her that she might go as soon as it pleased her. Since that she had come to him once daily for his orders, and those orders had certainly been very simple. He had revelled in no luxuries of the table or the cellar since the keys of the house had been committed to his charge. She had been told to provide him with simple food, and with food she had provided him. The condition of his mind had been such that no appetite for the glories of a rich man's table had yet come to him. That accursed book on the opposite shelf had destroyed all his taste for both wine and meat.

"What do you want to know for?" he asked.

"Well, sir; it is customary for the housekeeper to know something, and if there is no mistress she can only go to the master. We always were very quiet here, but Miss Isabel used to tell me something of what was expected."

"I don't expect anything," said Cousin Henry.

"Is there anybody to come in my place?" she asked.

"What can that be to you? You can go when you please."

"The other servants want to go, too. Sally won't stay, nor yet Mrs Bridgeman." Mrs Bridgeman was the cook. "They say they don't like to live with a gentleman who never goes out of one room."

"What is it to them what room I live in? I suppose I may live in what room I please in my own house." This he said with an affectation of anger, feeling that he was bound to be indignant at such inquiries from his own servant, but with more of fear than wrath in his mind. So they had in truth already begun to inquire why it was that he sat there watching the books!

"Just so, Mr Jones. Of course you can live anywhere you like,—in your own house."

There was an emphasis on the last words which was no doubt intended to be impertinent. Every one around was impertinent to him.

"But so can they, sir,—not in their own house. They can look for situations, and I thought it my duty just to tell you, because you wouldn't like to find yourself all alone here, by yourself like."

"Why is it that everybody turns against me?" he asked suddenly, almost bursting into tears.

At this her woman's heart was a little softened, though she did despise him thoroughly. "I don't know about turning, Mr Jones, but they have been used to such different ways."

"Don't they get enough to eat?"

"Yes, sir; there's enough to eat, no doubt. I don't know as you have interfered about that; not but what as master you might. It isn't the victuals."

"What is it, Mrs Griffith? Why do they want to go away?"

"Well, it is chiefly because of your sitting here alone,—never moving, never having your hat on your head, sir. Of course a gentleman can do as he pleases in his own house. There is nothing to make him go out, not even to see his own tenants, nor his own farm, nor nothing else. He's his own master, sir, in course;—but it is mysterious. There is nothing goes against them sort of people,"—meaning the servants inferior to herself,—"like mysteries."

Then they already felt that there was a mystery! Oh! what a fool he had been to shut himself up and eat his food there! Of course they would know that this mystery must have some reference to the will. Thus they would so far have traced the truth as to have learnt that the will had a mystery, and that the mystery was located in that room!

There is a pleasant game, requiring much sagacity, in which, by a few answers, one is led closer and closer to a hidden word, till one is enabled to touch it. And as with such a word, so it was with his secret. He must be careful that no eye should once see that his face was turned towards the shelf. At this very moment he shifted his position so as not to look at the shelf, and then thought that she would have observed the movement, and divined the cause.

"Anyways, they begs to say respectful that they wishes you to take a month's warning. As for me, I wouldn't go to inconvenience my old master's heir. I'll stay till you suits yourself, Mr Jones; but the old place isn't to me now what it was."

"Very well, Mrs Griffith," said Cousin Henry, trying to fix his eyes upon an open book in his hands.


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