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Cousin Henry

 

 

CHAPTER XI

Isabel at Hereford
 

Isabel had not been many hours at home at Hereford before, as was natural, her father discussed with her the affairs of the property and her own peculiar interest in the will which had at last been accepted. It has to be acknowledged that Isabel was received somewhat as an interloper in the house. She was not wanted there, at any rate by her stepmother,—hardly by her brothers and sisters,—and was, perhaps, not cordially desired even by her father. She and her stepmother had never been warm friends. Isabel herself was clever and high-minded; but high-spirited also, imperious, and sometimes hard. It may be said of her that she was at all points a gentlewoman. So much could hardly be boasted of the present Mrs Brodrick; and, as was the mother, so were that mother's children. The father was a gentleman, born and bred as such; but in his second marriage he had fallen a little below his station, and, having done so, had accommodated himself to his position. Then there had come many children, and the family had increased quicker than the income. So it had come to pass that the attorney was not a wealthy man. This was the home which Isabel had been invited to leave when, now many years since, she had gone to Llanfeare to become her uncle's darling. There her life had been very different from that of the family at Hereford. She had seen but little of society, but had been made much of, and almost worshipped, by those who were around her. She was to be,—was to have been,—the Lady of Llanfeare. By every tenant about the place she had been loved and esteemed. With the servants she had been supreme. Even at Carmarthen, when she was seen there, she was regarded as the great lady, the acknowledged heiress, who was to have, at some not very distant time, all Llanfeare in her own hands. It was said of her, and said truly, that she was possessed of many virtues. She was charitable, careful for others, in no way self-indulgent, sedulous in every duty, and, above all things, affectionately attentive to her uncle. But she had become imperious, and inclined to domineer, if not in action, yet in spirit. She had lived much among books, had delighted to sit gazing over the sea with a volume of poetry in her hand, truly enjoying the intellectual gifts which had been given her. But she had, perhaps, learnt too thoroughly her own superiority, and was somewhat apt to look down upon the less refined pleasure of other people. And now her altered position in regard to wealth rather increased than diminished her foibles. Now, in her abject poverty,—for she was determined that it should be abject,—she would be forced to sustain her superiority solely by her personal gifts. She determined that, should she find herself compelled to live in her father's house, she would do her duty thoroughly by her stepmother and her sisters. She would serve them as far as it might be within her power; but she could not giggle with the girls, nor could she talk little gossip with Mrs Brodrick. While there was work to be done, she would do it, though it should be hard, menial, and revolting; but when her work was done, there would be her books.

It will be understood that, such being her mood and such her character, she would hardly make herself happy in her father's house,—or make others happy. And then, added to all this, there was the terrible question of money! When last at Hereford, she had told her father that, though her uncle had revoked his grand intention in her favour, still there would be coming to her enough to prevent her from being a burden on the resources of her family. Now that was all changed. If her father should be unable or unwilling to support her, she would undergo any hardship, any privation; but would certainly not accept bounty from the hands of her cousin. Some deed had been done, she felt assured,—some wicked deed, and Cousin Henry had been the doer of it. She and she alone had heard the last words which her uncle had spoken, and she had watched the man's face narrowly when her uncle's will had been discussed in the presence of the tenants. She was quite sure. Let her father say what he might, let her stepmother look at her ever so angrily with her greedy, hungry eyes, she would take no shilling from her Cousin Henry. Though she might have to die in the streets, she would take no bread from her Cousin Henry's hand.

She herself began the question of the money on the day after her arrival. "Papa," she said, "there is to be nothing for me after all."

Now Mr Apjohn, the lawyer, like a cautious family solicitor as he was, had written to Mr Brodrick, giving him a full account of the whole affair, telling him of the legacy of four thousand pounds, explaining that there was no fund from which payment could be legally exacted, but stating also that the circumstances of the case were of such a nature as to make it almost impossible that the new heir should refuse to render himself liable for the amount. Then had come another letter saying that the new heir had assented to do so.

"Oh, yes, there will, Isabel," said the father.

Then she felt that the fighting of the battle was incumbent upon her, and she was determined to fight it. "No, papa, no; not a shilling."

"Yes, my dear, yes," he said, smiling. "I have heard from Mr Apjohn, and understood all about it. The money, no doubt, is not there; but your cousin is quite prepared to charge the estate with the amount. Indeed, it would be almost impossible for him to refuse to do so. No one would speak to him were he to be so base as that. I do not think much of your Cousin Henry, but even Cousin Henry could not be so mean. He has not the courage for such villainy."

"I have the courage," said she.

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, papa, do not be angry with me! Nothing,—nothing shall induce me to take my Cousin Henry's money."

"It will be your money,—your money by your uncle's will. It is the very sum which he himself has named as intended for you."

"Yes, papa; but Uncle Indefer had not got the money to give. Neither you nor I should be angry with him; because he intended the best."

"I am angry with him," said the attorney in wrath, "because he deceived you and deceived me about the property."

"Never; he deceived no one. Uncle Indefer and deceit never went together."

"There is no question of that now," said the father. "He made some slight restitution, and there can, of course, be no question as to your taking it."

"There is a question, and there must be a question, papa. I will not have it. If my being here would be an expense too great for you, I will go away."

"Where will you go?"

"I care not where I go. I will earn my bread. If I cannot do that, I would rather live in the poor-house than accept my cousin's money."

"What has he done?"

"I do not know."

"As Mr Apjohn very well puts it, there is no question whatsoever as to gratitude, or even of acceptance. It is a matter of course. He would be inexpressibly vile were he not to do this."

"He is inexpressibly vile."

"Not in this respect. He is quite willing. You will have nothing to do but to sign a receipt once every half-year till the whole sum shall have been placed to your credit."

"I will sign nothing on that account; nor will I take anything."

"But why not? What has he done?"

"I do not know. I do not say that he has done anything. I do not care to speak of him. Pray do not think, papa, that I covet the estate, or that I am unhappy about that. Had he been pleasant to my uncle and good to the tenants, had he seemed even to be like a man, I could have made him heartily welcome to Llanfeare. I think my uncle was right in choosing to have a male heir. I should have done so myself—in his place."

"He was wrong, wickedly wrong, after his promises."

"There were no promises made to me: nothing but a suggestion, which he was, of course, at liberty to alter if he pleased. We need not, however, go back to that, papa. There he is, owner of Llanfeare, and from him, as owner of Llanfeare, I will accept nothing. Were I starving in the street I would not take a crust of bread from his fingers."

Over and over again the conversation was renewed, but always with the same result. Then there was a correspondence between the two attorneys, and Mr Apjohn undertook to ask permission from the Squire to pay the money to the father's receipt without asking any acknowledgement from the daughter. On hearing this, Isabel declared that if this were done she would certainly leave her father's house. She would go out of it, even though she should not know whither she was going. Circumstances should not be made so to prevail upon her as to force her to eat meat purchased by her cousin's money.

Thus it came to pass that Isabel's new home was not made comfortable to her on her first arrival. Her stepmother would hardly speak to her, and the girls knew that she was in disgrace. There was Mr Owen, willing enough, as the stepmother knew, to take Isabel away and relieve them all from this burden, and with the £4000 Mr Owen would, no doubt, be able at once to provide a home for her. But Mr Owen could hardly do this without some help. And even though Mr Owen should be so generous,—and thus justify the name of "softie" which Mrs Brodrick would sometimes give him in discussing his character with her own daughters,—how preferable would it be to have a relation well-provided! To Mrs Brodrick the girl's objection was altogether unintelligible. The more of a Philistine Cousin Henry was, the more satisfaction should there be in fleecing him. To refuse a legacy because it was not formal was, to her thinking, an act of insanity. To have the payment of one refused to her because of informality would have been heart-breaking. But the making of such a difficulty as this she could not stomach. Could she have had her will, she would have been well pleased to whip the girl! Therefore Isabel's new home was not pleasant to her.

At this time Mr Owen was away, having gone for his holiday to the Continent. To all the Brodricks it was a matter of course that he would marry Isabel as soon as he came back. There was no doubt that he was "a softie." But then how great is the difference between having a brother-in-law well off, and a relation tightly constrained by closely limited means! To refuse,—even to make a show of refusing,—those good things was a crime against the husband who was to have them. Such was the light in which Mrs Brodrick looked at it. To Mr Brodrick himself there was an obstinacy in it which was sickening to him. But to Isabel's thinking the matter was very different. She was as firmly resolved that she would not marry Mr Owen as that she would not take her cousin's money;—almost as firmly resolved.

Then there came the angry letter from Cousin Henry, containing two points which had to be considered. There was the offer to her to come to Llanfeare, and live there as though she was herself the owner. That, indeed, did not require much consideration. It was altogether out of the question, and only dwelt in her thoughts as showing how quickly the man had contrived to make himself odious to every one about the place. His uncle, he said, had made the place a nest of hornets to him. Isabel declared that she knew why the place was a nest of hornets. There was no one about Llanfeare to whom so unmanly, so cringing, so dishonest a creature would not be odious. She could understand all that.

But then there was the other point, and on that her mind rested long.

"I think you ought to be ashamed of what you said to me,—so soon after the old man's death."

She sat long in silence thinking of it, meditating whether he had been true in that,—whether it did behove her to repent her harshness to the man. She remembered well her words;—"We take presents from those we love, not from those we despise."

They had been hard words—quite unjustifiable unless he had made himself guilty of something worse than conduct that was simply despicable. Not because he had been a poor creature, not because he had tormented the old man's last days by an absence of all generous feeling, not because he had been altogether unlike what, to her thinking, a Squire of Llanfeare should be, had she answered him with those crushing words. It was because at the moment she had believed him to be something infinitely worse than that.

Grounding her aversion on such evidence as she had,—on such evidence as she thought she had,—she had brought against him her heavy accusation. She could not tell him to his face that he had stolen the will, she could not accuse him of felony, but she had used such quick mode of expression as had come to her for assuring him that he stood as low in her esteem as a felon might stand. And this she had done when he was endeavouring to perform to her that which had been described to him as a duty! And now he had turned upon her and rebuked her,—rebuked her as he was again endeavouring to perform the same duty,—rebuked her as it was so natural that a man should do who had been subjected to so gross an affront!

She hated him, despised him, and in her heart condemned him. She still believed him to have been guilty. Had he not been guilty, the beads of perspiration would not have stood upon his brow; he would not have become now red, now pale, by sudden starts; he would not have quivered beneath her gaze when she looked into his face. He could not have been utterly mean as he was, had he not been guilty. But yet,—and now she saw it with her clear-seeing intellect, now that her passion was in abeyance,—she had not been entitled to accuse him to his face. If he were guilty, it was for others to find it out, and for others to accuse him. It had been for her as a lady, and as her uncle's niece, to accept him in her uncle's house as her uncle's heir. No duty could have compelled her to love him, no duty would have required her to accept even his friendship. But she was aware that she had misbehaved herself in insulting him. She was ashamed of herself in that she had not been able to hide her feelings within her own high heart, but had allowed him to suppose that she had been angered because she had been deprived of her uncle's wealth. Having so resolved, she wrote to him as follows:—
 

My dear Henry,

Do not take any further steps about the money, as I am quite determined not to accept it. I hope it will not be sent, as there would only be the trouble of repaying it. I do not think that it would do for me to live at Llanfeare, as I should have no means of supporting myself, let alone the servants. The thing is of course out of the question. You tell me that I ought to be ashamed of myself for certain words that I spoke to you. They should not have been spoken. I am ashamed of myself, and I now send you my apology.

Yours truly,

Isabel Brodrick.
 

The reader may perhaps understand that these words were written by her with extreme anguish; but of that her Cousin Henry understood nothing.


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