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Cousin Henry

 

 

CHAPTER XIII

The Carmarthen Herald
 

There was a great deal said at Carmarthen about the old Squire's will. Such scenes as that which had taken place in the house, first when the will was produced, then when the search was made, and afterwards when the will was read, do not pass without comment. There had been many present, and some of them had been much moved by the circumstances. The feeling that the Squire had executed a will subsequent to that which had now been proved was very strong, and the idea suggested by Mr Apjohn that the Squire himself had, in the weakness of his latter moments, destroyed this document, was not generally accepted. Had he done so, something of it would have been known. The ashes of the paper or the tattered fragments would have been seen. Whether Mr Apjohn himself did or did not believe that it had been so, others would not think it. Among the tenants and the servants at Llanfeare there was a general feeling that something wrong had been done. They who were most inclined to be charitable in their judgment, such as John Griffith of Coed, thought that the document was still hidden, and that it might not improbably be brought to light at last. Others were convinced that it had fallen into the hands of the present possessor of the property, and that it had been feloniously but successfully destroyed. No guess at the real truth was made by any one. How should a man have guessed that the false heir should have sat there with the will, as it were, before his eyes, close at his hand, and neither have destroyed it nor revealed its existence?

Among those who believed the worst as to Cousin Henry were the two Cantors. When a man has seen a thing done himself he is prone to believe in it,—and the more so when he has had a hand in the doing. They had been selected for the important operation of witnessing the will, and did not in the least doubt that the will had been in existence when the old Squire died. It might have been destroyed since. They believed that it had been destroyed. But they could not be brought to understand that so great an injustice should be allowed to remain on the face of the earth without a remedy or without punishment. Would it not be enough for a judge to know that they, two respectable men, had witnessed a new will, and that this new will had certainly been in opposition to the one which had been so fraudulently proved? The younger Cantor especially was loud upon the subject, and got many ears in Carmarthen to listen to him.

The Carmarthen Herald, a newspaper bearing a high character through South Wales, took the matter up very strongly, so that it became a question whether the new Squire would not be driven to defend himself by an action for libel. It was not that the writer declared that Cousin Henry had destroyed the will, but that he published minute accounts of all that had been done at Llanfeare, putting forward in every paper as it came out the reason which existed for supposing that a wrong had been done. That theory that old Indefer Jones had himself destroyed his last will without saying a word of his purpose to any one was torn to tatters. The doctor had been with him from day to day, and must almost certainly have known it had such an intention been in his mind. The housekeeper would have known it. The nephew and professed heir had said not a word to any one of what had passed between himself and his uncle. Could they who had known old Indefer Jones for so many years, and were aware that he had been governed by the highest sense of honour through his entire life, could they bring themselves to believe that he should have altered the will made in his nephew's favour, and then realtered it, going back to his intentions in that nephew's favour, without saying a word to his nephew on the subject? But Henry Jones had been silent as to all that occurred during those last weeks. Henry Jones had not only been silent when the will was being read, when the search was being made, but had sat there still in continued silence. "We do not say," continued the writer in the paper, "that Henry Jones since he became owner of Llanfeare has been afraid to mingle with his brother men. We have no right to say so. But we consider it to be our duty to declare that such has been the fact. Circumstances will from time to time occur in which it becomes necessary on public grounds to inquire into the privacy of individuals, and we think that the circumstances now as to this property are of this nature." As will be the case in such matters, these expressions became gradually stronger, till it was conceived to be the object of those concerned in making them to drive Henry Jones to seek for legal redress,—so that he might be subjected to cross-examination as to the transactions and words of that last fortnight before his uncle's death. It was the opinion of many that if he could be forced into a witness-box, he would be made to confess if there were anything to confess. The cowardice of the man became known,—or was rather exaggerated in the minds of those around him. It was told of him how he lived in the one room, how rarely he left the house, how totally he was without occupation. More than the truth was repeated as to his habits, till all Carmarthenshire believed that he was so trammelled by some mysterious consciousness of crime as to be unable to perform any of the duties of life. When men spoke to him he trembled; when men looked at him he turned away.

All his habits were inquired into. It was said of him that the Carmarthen Herald was the only paper that he saw, and declared of him that he spent hour after hour in spelling the terrible accusations which, if not absolutely made against him, were insinuated. It became clear to lawyers, to Mr Apjohn himself, that the man, if honest, should, on behalf of the old family and long-respected name, vindicate himself by prosecuting the owner of the paper for libel. If he were honest in the matter, altogether honest, there could be no reason why he should fear to encounter a hostile lawyer. There were at last two letters from young Joseph Cantor printed in the paper which were undoubtedly libellous,—letters which young Cantor himself certainly could not have written,—letters which all Carmarthen knew to have been written by some one connected with the newspaper, though signed by the young farmer,—in which it was positively declared that the old Squire had left a later will behind him. When it was discussed whether or no he could get a verdict, it was clearly shown that the getting of a verdict should not be the main object of the prosecution. "He has to show," said Mr Apjohn, "that he is not afraid to face a court of justice."

But he was afraid. When we last parted with him after his visit to Coed he had not seen the beginning of these attacks. On the next day the first paper reached him, and they who were concerned in it did not spare to send him the copies as they were issued. Having read the first, he was not able to refuse to read what followed. In each issue they were carried on, and, as was told of him in Carmarthen, he lingered over every agonizing detail of the venom which was entering into his soul. It was in vain that he tried to hide the paper, or to pretend to be indifferent to its coming. Mrs Griffith knew very well where the paper was, and knew also that every word had been perused. The month's notice which had been accepted from her and the butler in lieu of the three months first offered had now expired. The man had gone, but she remained, as did the two other women. Nothing was said as to the cause of their remaining; but they remained. As for Cousin Henry himself, he was too weak, too frightened, too completely absorbed by the horrors of his situation to ask them why they stayed, or to have asked them why they went.

He understood every word that was written of him with sharp, minute intelligence. Though his spirit was cowed, his mind was still alive to all the dangers of his position. Things were being said of him, charges were insinuated, which he declared to himself to be false. He had not destroyed the will. He had not even hidden it. He had only put a book into its own place, carrying out as he did so his innocent intention when he had first lifted the book. When these searchers had come, doing their work so idly, with such incurious futility, he had not concealed the book. He had left it there on its shelf beneath their hands. Who could say that he had been guilty? If the will were found now, who could reasonably suggest that there had been guilt on his part? If all were known,—except that chance glance of his eye which never could be known,—no one could say that he was other than innocent! And yet he knew of himself that he would lack strength to stand up in court and endure the sharp questions and angry glances of a keen lawyer. His very knees would fail to carry him through the court. The words would stick in his jaws. He would shake and shiver and faint before the assembled eyes. It would be easier for him to throw himself from the rocks on which he had lain dreaming into the sea than to go into a court of law and there tell his own story as to the will. They could not force him to go. He thought he could perceive as much as that. The action, if action there were to be, must originate with him. There was no evidence on which they could bring a charge of felony or even of fraud against him. They could not drag him into the court. But he knew that all the world would say that if he were an honest man, he himself would appear there, denounce his defamers, and vindicate his own name. As day by day he failed to do so, he would be declaring his own guilt. Yet he knew that he could not do it.

Was there no escape? He was quite sure now that the price at which he held the property was infinitely above its value. Its value! It had no value in his eyes. It was simply a curse of which he would rid himself with the utmost alacrity if only he could rid himself of all that had befallen him in achieving it. But how should he escape? Were he now himself to disclose the document and carry it into Carmarthen, prepared to deliver up the property to his cousin, was there one who would not think that it had been in his possession from before his uncle's death, and that he had now been driven by his fears to surrender it? Was there one who would not believe that he had hidden it with his own hands? How now could he personate that magnanimity which would have been so easy had he brought forth the book and handed it with its enclosure to Mr Apjohn when the lawyer came to read the will?

He looked back with dismay at his folly at having missed an opportunity so glorious. But now there seemed to be no escape. Though he left the room daily, no one found the will. They were welcome to find it if they would, but they did not. That base newspaper lied of him,—as he told himself bitterly as he read it,—in saying that he did not leave his room. Daily did he roam about the place for an hour or two,—speaking, indeed, to no one, looking at no one. There the newspaper had been true enough. But that charge against him of self-imprisonment had been false as far as it referred to days subsequent to the rebuke which his housekeeper had given him. But no one laid a hand upon the book. He almost believed that, were the paper left open on the table, no eye would examine its contents. There it lay still hidden within the folds of the sermon, that weight upon his heart, that incubus on his bosom, that nightmare which robbed him of all his slumbers, and he could not rid himself of its presence. Property, indeed! Oh! if he were only back in London, and his cousin reigning at Llanfeare!

John Griffith, from Coed, had promised to call upon him; but when three weeks had passed by, he had not as yet made his appearance. Now, on one morning he came and found his landlord alone in the book-room. "This is kind of you, Mr Griffith," said Cousin Henry, struggling hard to assume the manner of a man with a light heart.

"I have come, Mr Jones," said the farmer very seriously, "to say a few words which I think ought to be said."

"What are they, Mr Griffith?"

"Now, Mr Jones, I am not a man as is given to interfering,—especially not with my betters."

"I am sure you are not."

"And, above all, not with my own landlord." Then he paused; but as Cousin Henry could not find an appropriate word either for rebuke or encouragement, he was driven to go on with his story. "I have been obliged to look at all those things in the Carmarthen Herald." Then Cousin Henry turned deadly pale. "We have all been driven to look at them. I have taken the paper these twenty years, but it is sent now to every tenant on the estate, whether they pay or whether they don't. Mrs Griffith, there, in the kitchen has it. I suppose they sent it to you, sir?"

"Yes; it does come," said Cousin Henry, with the faintest attempt at a smile.

"And you have read what they say?"

"Yes, the most of it."

"It has been very hard, sir." At this Cousin Henry could only affect a ghastly smile. "Very hard," continued the farmer. "It has made my flesh creep as I read it. Do you know what it all means, Mr Jones?"

"I suppose I know."

"It means—that you have stolen—the estates—from your cousin—Miss Brodrick!" This the man said very solemnly, bringing out each single word by itself. "I am not saying so, Mr Jones."

"No, no, no," gasped the miserable wretch.

"No, indeed. If I thought so, I should not be here to tell you what I thought. It is because I believe that you are injured that I am here."

"I am injured; I am injured!"

"I think so. I believe so. I cannot tell what the mystery is, if mystery there be; but I do not believe that you have robbed that young lady, your own cousin, by destroying such a deed as your uncle's will."

"No, no, no."

"Is there any secret that you can tell?"

Awed, appalled, stricken with utter dismay, Cousin Henry sat silent before his questioner.

"If there be, sir, had you not better confide it to some one? Your uncle knew me well for more than forty years, and trusted me thoroughly, and I would fain, if I could, do something for his nephew. If there be anything to tell, tell it like a man."

Still Cousin Henry sat silent. He was unable to summon courage at the instant sufficient to deny the existence of the secret, nor could he resolve to take down the book and show the document. He doubted, when the appearance of a doubt was in itself evidence of guilt in the eyes of the man who was watching him. "Oh, Mr Griffith," he exclaimed after a while, "will you be my friend?"

"I will indeed, Mr Jones, if I can—honestly."

"I have been cruelly used."

"It has been hard to bear," said Mr Griffith.

"Terrible, terrible! Cruel, cruel!" Then again he paused, trying to make up his mind, endeavouring to see by what means he could escape from this hell upon earth. If there were any means, he might perhaps achieve it by aid of this man. The man sat silent, watching him, but the way of escape did not appear to him.

"There is no mystery," he gasped at last.

"None?" said the farmer severely.

"No mystery. What mystery should there be? There was the will. I have destroyed nothing. I have hidden nothing. I have done nothing. Because the old man changed his mind so often, am I to be blamed?"

"Then, Mr Jones, why do you not say all that in a court of law,—on your oath?"

"How can I do that?"

"Go to Mr Apjohn, and speak to him like a man. Bid him bring an action in your name for libel against the newspaper. Then there will be an inquiry. Then you will be put into a witness-box, and be able to tell your own story on your oath."

Cousin Henry, groaning, pale and affrighted, murmured out something signifying that he would think of it. Then Mr Griffith left him. The farmer, when he entered the room, had believed his landlord to be innocent, but that belief had vanished when he took his leave.


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