Cousin Henry




An Action for Libel

When the man had asked him that question,—Is there any secret you can tell?—Cousin Henry did, for half a minute, make up his mind to tell the whole story, and reveal everything as it had occurred. Then he remembered the lie which he had told, the lie to which he had signed his name when he had been called upon to prove the will in Carmarthen. Had he not by the unconsidered act of that moment committed some crime for which he could be prosecuted and sent to gaol? Had it not been perjury? From the very beginning he had determined that he would support his possession of the property by no criminal deed. He had not hidden the will in the book. He had not interfered in the search. He had done nothing incompatible with innocence. So it had been with him till he had been called upon, without a moment having been allowed to him for thinking, to sign his name to that declaration. The remembrance of this came to him as he almost made up his mind to rise from his seat and pull the book down from the shelf. And then another thought occurred to him. Could he not tell Mr Griffith that he had discovered the document since he had made that declaration,—that he had discovered it only on that morning? But he had felt that a story such as that would receive no belief, and he had feared to estrange his only friend by a palpable lie. He had therefore said that there was no secret,—had said so after a pause which had assured Mr Griffith of the existence of a mystery,—had said so with a face which of itself had declared the truth.

When the farmer left him he knew well enough that the man doubted him,—nay, that the man was assured of his guilt. It had come to be so with all whom he had encountered since he had first reached Llanfeare. His uncle who had sent for him had turned from him; his cousin had scorned him; the tenants had refused to accept him when there certainly had been no cause for their rejection. Mr Apjohn from the first had looked at him with accusing eyes; his servants were spies upon his actions; this newspaper was rending his very vitals; and now this one last friend had deserted him. He thought that if only he could summon courage for the deed, it would be best for him to throw himself from the rocks.

But there was no such courage in him. The one idea remaining to him was to save himself from the horrors of a criminal prosecution. If he did not himself touch the document, or give any sign of his consciousness of its presence, they could not prove that he had known of its whereabouts. If they would only find it and let him go! But they did not find it, and he could not put them on its trace. As to these wicked libels, Mr Griffith had asked him why he did not have recourse to a court of law, and refute them by the courage of his presence. He understood the proposition in all its force. Why did he not show himself able to bear any questions which the ingenuity of a lawyer could put to him? Simply because he was unable to bear them. The truth would be extracted from him in the process. Though he should have fortified himself with strongest resolves, he would be unable to hide his guilty knowledge. He knew that of himself. He would be sure to give testimony against himself, on the strength of which he would be dragged from the witness-box to the dock.

He declared to himself that, let the newspaper say what it would, he would not of his own motion throw himself among the lion's teeth which were prepared for him. But in so resolving he did not know what further external force might be applied to him. When the old tenant had sternly told him that he should go like a man into the witness-box and tell his own story on his oath, that had been hard to bear. But there came worse than that,—a power more difficult to resist. On the following morning Mr Apjohn arrived at Llanfeare, having driven himself over from Carmarthen, and was at once shown into the book-room. The lawyer was a man who, by his friends and by his clients in general, was considered to be a pleasant fellow as well as a cautious man of business. He was good at a dinner-table, serviceable with a gun, and always happy on horseback. He could catch a fish, and was known to be partial to a rubber at whist. He certainly was not regarded as a hard or cruel man. But Cousin Henry, in looking at him, had always seen a sternness in his eye, some curve of a frown upon his brow, which had been uncomfortable to him. From the beginning of their intercourse he had been afraid of the lawyer. He had felt that he was looked into and scrutinised, and found to be wanting. Mr Apjohn had, of course, been on Isabel's side. All Carmarthenshire knew that he had done his best to induce the old squire to maintain Isabel as his heiress. Cousin Henry was well aware of that. But still why had this attorney always looked at him with accusing eyes? When he had signed that declaration at Carmarthen, the attorney had shown by his face that he believed the declaration to be false. And now this man was there, and there was nothing for him but to endure his questions.

"Mr Jones," said the lawyer, "I have thought it my duty to call upon you in respect to these articles in the Carmarthen Herald."

"I cannot help what the Carmarthen Herald may say."

"But you can, Mr Jones. That is just it. There are laws which enable a man to stop libels and to punish them if it be worth his while to do so." He paused a moment, but Cousin Henry was silent, and he continued, "For many years I was your uncle's lawyer, as was my father before me. I have never been commissioned by you to regard myself as your lawyer, but as circumstances are at present, I am obliged to occupy the place until you put your business into other hands. In such a position I feel it to be my duty to call upon you in reference to these articles. No doubt they are libellous."

"They are very cruel; I know that," said Cousin Henry, whining.

"All such accusations are cruel, if they be false."

"These are false; damnably false."

"I take that for granted; and therefore I have come to you to tell you that it is your duty to repudiate with all the strength of your own words the terrible charges which are brought against you."

"Must I go and be a witness about myself?"

"Yes; it is exactly that. You must go and be a witness about yourself. Who else can tell the truth as to all the matters in question as well as yourself? You should understand, Mr Jones, that you should not take this step with the view of punishing the newspaper."

"Why, then?"

"In order that you may show yourself willing to place yourself there to be questioned. 'Here I am,' you would say. 'If there be any point in which you wish me to be examined as to this property and this will, here I am to answer you.' It is that you may show that you are not afraid of investigation." But it was exactly this of which Cousin Henry was afraid. "You cannot but be aware of what is going on in Carmarthen."

"I know about the newspaper."

"It is my duty not to blink the matter. Every one, not only in the town but throughout the country, is expressing an opinion that right has not been done."

"What do they want? I cannot help it if my uncle did not make a will according to their liking."

"They think that he did make a will according to their liking, and that there has been foul play."

"Do they accuse me?"

"Practically they do. These articles in the paper are only an echo of the public voice. And that voice is becoming stronger and stronger every day because you take no steps to silence it. Have you seen yesterday's paper?"

"Yes; I saw it," said Cousin Henry, gasping for breath.

Then Mr Apjohn brought a copy of the newspaper out of his pocket, and began to read a list of questions which the editor was supposed to ask the public generally. Each question was an insult, and Cousin Henry, had he dared, would have bade the reader desist, and have turned him out of the room for his insolence in reading them.

"Has Mr Henry Jones expressed an opinion of his own as to what became of the will which the Messrs Cantor witnessed?"

"Has Mr Henry Jones consulted any friend, legal or otherwise, as to his tenure of the Llanfeare estate?"

"Has Mr Henry Jones any friend to whom he can speak in Carmarthenshire?"

"Has Mr Henry Jones inquired into the cause of his own isolation?"

"Has Mr Henry Jones any idea why we persecute him in every fresh issue of our newspaper?"

"Has Mr Henry Jones thought of what may possibly be the end of all this?"

"Has Mr Henry Jones any thought of prosecuting us for libel?"

"Has Mr Henry Jones heard of any other case in which an heir has been made so little welcome to his property?"

So the questions went on, an almost endless list, and the lawyer read them one after another, in a low, plain voice, slowly, but with clear accentuation, so that every point intended by the questioner might be understood. Such a martyrdom surely no man was ever doomed to bear before. In every line he was described as a thief. Yet he bore it; and when the lawyer came to an end of the abominable questions, he sat silent, trying to smile. What was he to say?

"Do you mean to put up with that?" asked Mr Apjohn, with the curve of his eyebrow of which Cousin Henry was so much afraid.

"What am I to do?"

"Do! Do anything rather than sit in silence and bear such injurious insult as that. Were there nothing else to do, I would tear the man's tongue from his mouth,—or at least his pen from his grasp."

"How am I to find him? I never did do anything of that rough kind."

"It is not necessary. I only say what a man would do if there were nothing else to be done. But the step to be taken is easy. Instruct me to go before the magistrates at Carmarthen, and indict the paper for libel. That is what you must do."

There was an imperiousness in the lawyer's tone which was almost irresistible. Nevertheless Cousin Henry made a faint effort at resisting. "I should be dragged into a lawsuit."

"A lawsuit! Of course you would. What lawsuit would not be preferable to that? You must do as I bid you, or you must consent to have it said and have it thought by all the country that you have been guilty of some felony, and have filched your cousin's property."

"I have committed nothing," said the poor wretch, as the tears ran down his face.

"Then go and say so before the world," said the attorney, dashing his fist down violently upon the table. "Go and say so, and let men hear you, instead of sitting here whining like a woman. Like a woman! What honest woman would ever bear such insult? If you do not, you will convince all the world, you will convince me and every neighbour you have, that you have done something to make away with that will. In that case we will not leave a stone unturned to discover the truth. The editor of that paper is laying himself open purposely to an action in order that he may force you to undergo the cross-questioning of a barrister, and everybody who hears of it says that he is right. You can prove that he is wrong only by accepting the challenge. If you refuse the challenge, as I put it to you now, you will acknowledge that—that you have done this deed of darkness!"

Was there any torment ever so cruel, ever so unjustifiable as this! He was asked to put himself, by his own act, into the thumbscrew, on the rack, in order that the executioner might twist his limbs and tear out his vitals! He was to walk into a court of his own accord that he might be torn by the practised skill of a professional tormentor, that he might be forced to give up the very secrets of his soul in his impotence;—or else to live amidst the obloquy of all men. He asked himself whether he had deserved it, and in that moment of time he assured himself that he had not deserved such punishment as this. If not altogether innocent, if not white as snow, he had done nothing worthy of such cruel usage.

"Well," said Mr Apjohn, as though demanding a final answer to his proposition.

"I will think of it," gasped Cousin Henry.

"There must be no more thinking. The time has gone by for thinking. If you will give me your instructions to commence proceedings against the Carmarthen Herald, I will act as your lawyer. If not, I shall make it known to the town that I have made this proposition to you; and I shall also make known the way in which it has been accepted. There has been more than delay enough."

He sobbed, and gasped, and struggled with himself as the lawyer sat and looked at him. The one thing on which he had been intent was the avoiding of a court of law. And to this he was now to bring himself by his own act.

"When would it have to be?" he asked.

"I should go before the magistrates to-morrow. Your presence would not be wanted then. No delay would be made by the other side. They would be ready enough to come to trial. The assizes begin here at Carmarthen on the 29th of next month. You might probably be examined on that day, which will be a Friday, or on the Saturday following. You will be called as a witness on your own side to prove the libel. But the questions asked by your own counsel would amount to nothing."

"Nothing!" exclaimed Cousin Henry.

"You would be there for another purpose," continued the lawyer. "When that nothing had been asked, you would be handed over to the other side, in order that the object of the proceedings might be attained."

"What object?"

"How the barrister employed might put it I cannot say, but he would examine you as to any knowledge you may have as to that missing will."

Mr Apjohn, as he said this, paused for a full minute, looking his client full in the face. It was as though he himself were carrying on a cross-examination. "He would ask you whether you have such knowledge." Then again he paused, but Cousin Henry said nothing. "If you have no such knowledge, if you have no sin in that matter on your conscience, nothing to make you grow pale before the eyes of a judge, nothing to make you fear the verdict of a jury, no fault heavy on your own soul,—then you may answer him with frank courage, then you may look him in the face, and tell him with a clear voice that as far as you are aware your property is your own by as fair a title as any in the country."

In every word of this there had been condemnation. It was as though Mr Apjohn were devoting him to infernal torture, telling him that his only escape would be by the exercise of some herculean power which was notoriously beyond his reach. It was evident to him that Mr Apjohn had come there under the guise of his advisor and friend, but was in fact leagued with all the others around him to drive him to his ruin. Of that he felt quite sure. The voice, the eyes, the face, every gesture of his unwelcome visitor had told him that it was so. And yet he could not rise in indignation and expel the visitor from his house. There was a cruelty, an inhumanity, in this which to his thinking was infinitely worse than any guilt of his own. "Well?" said Mr Apjohn.

"I suppose it must be so."

"I have your instructions, then?"

"Don't you hear me say that I suppose it must be so."

"Very well. The matter shall be brought in proper course before the magistrates to-morrow, and if, as I do not doubt, an injunction be granted, I will proceed with the matter at once. I will tell you whom we select as our counsel at the assizes, and, as soon as I have learnt, will let you know whom they employ. Let me only implore you not only to tell the truth as to what you know, but to tell all the truth. If you attempt to conceal anything, it will certainly be dragged out of you."

Having thus comforted his client, Mr Apjohn took his leave.

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