Cousin Henry





"I know nothing about it," Cousin Henry had gasped out when asked by Mr Apjohn, when Ricketts, the clerk, had left the room, whether he knew where the will was hidden. Then, when he had declared he had nothing further to say, he was allowed to go away.

As he was carried back in the fly he felt certain that Mr Apjohn knew that there had been a will, knew that the will was still in existence, knew that it had been hidden by some accident, and knew also that he, Henry Jones, was aware of the place of concealment. That the man should have been so expert in reading the secret of his bosom was terrible to him. Had the man suspected him of destroying the will,—a deed the doing of which might have been so naturally suspected,—that would have been less terrible. He had done nothing, had committed no crime, was simply conscious of the existence of a paper which it was a duty, not of him, but of others to find, and this man, by his fearful ingenuity, had discovered it all! Now it was simply necessary that the place should be indicated, and in order that he himself might be forced to indicate it, Mr Cheekey was to be let loose upon him!

How impossible,—how almost impossible had he found it to produce a word in answer to that one little question from Mr Apjohn! "Nor know where it is hidden?" He had so answered it as to make it manifest that he did know. He was conscious that he had been thus weak, though there had been nothing in Mr Apjohn's manner to appal him. How would it be with him when, hour after hour, question after question should be demanded of him, when that cruel tormentor should stand there glaring at him in presence of all the court? There would be no need of such hour,—no need of that prolonged questioning. All that was wanted of him would be revealed at once. The whole secret would be screwed out of him by the first turn of the tormentor's engine.

There was but one thing quite fixed in his mind. Nothing should induce him to face Mr Cheekey, unless he should have made himself comparatively safe by destroying the will. In that way he almost thought he might be safe. The suffering would be great. The rack and the thumbscrew, the boots and the wheel, would, to the delight of all those present, be allowed to do their work upon him for hours. It would be a day to him terrible to anticipate, terrible to endure, terrible afterwards in his memory; but he thought that not even Mr Cheekey himself would be able to extract from him the admission of such a deed as that.

And then by the deed he would undoubtedly acquire Llanfeare. The place itself was not dear to him, but there was rising in his heart so strong a feeling of hatred against those who were oppressing him that it seemed to him almost a duty to punish them by continued possession of the property. In this way he could triumph over them all. If once he could come down from Mr Cheekey's grasp alive, if he could survive those fearful hours, he would walk forth from the court the undoubted owner of Llanfeare. It would be as though a man should endure some excruciating operation under the hands of a surgeon, with the assured hope that he might enjoy perfect health afterwards for the remainder of his life.

To destroy the will was his only chance of escape. There was nothing else left to him, knowing, as he did, that it was impossible for him to put an end to his own life with his own hands. These little plots of his, which he had planned for the revelation of his secret without the acknowledgment of guilt, had all fallen to pieces as he attempted to execute them. He began to be aware of himself that anything that required skill in the execution was impossible to him. But to burn the will he was capable. He could surely take the paper from its hiding-place and hold it down with the poker when he had thrust it between the bars. Or, as there was no fire provided in these summer months, he could consume it by the light of his candle when the dead hours of the night had come upon him. He had already resolved that, when he had done so, he would swallow the tell-tale ashes. He believed of himself that all that would be within his power, if only he could determine upon the doing of it.

And he thought that the deed when done would give him a new courage. The very danger to which he would have exposed himself would make him brave to avoid it. Having destroyed the will, and certain that no eye had seen him, conscious that his safety depended on his own reticence, he was sure that he would keep his secret even before Mr Cheekey.

"I know nothing of the will," he would say; "I have neither seen it, nor hidden it, nor found it, nor destroyed it."

Knowing what would be the consequences were he to depart from the assertion, he would assuredly cling to it. He would be safer then, much safer than in his present vacillating, half-innocent position.

As he was carried home in the fly, his mind was so intent upon this, he was so anxious to resolve to bring himself to do the deed, that he hardly knew where he was when the fly stopped at his hall door. As he entered his house, he stared about him as though doubtful of his whereabouts, and then, without speaking a word, made his way into the book-room, and seated himself on his accustomed chair. The woman came to him and asked him whether money should not be given to the driver.

"What driver?" said he. "Let him go to Mr Apjohn. It is Mr Apjohn's business, not mine." Then he got up and shut the door violently as the woman retreated.

Yes; it was Mr Apjohn's business; and he thought that he could put a spoke into the wheel of Mr Apjohn's business. Mr Apjohn was not only anxious to criminate him now, but had been anxious when such anxiety on his part had been intrusive and impertinent. Mr Apjohn had, from first to last, been his enemy, and by his enmity had created that fatal dislike which his uncle had felt for him. Mr Apjohn was now determined to ruin him. Mr Apjohn had come out to him at Llanfeare, pretending to be his lawyer, his friend, his advisor, and had recommended this treacherous indictment merely that he might be able to subject him to the torments of Mr Cheekey's persecution. Cousin Henry could see it all now! So, at least, Cousin Henry told himself.

"He is a clever fellow, and he thinks that I am a fool. Perhaps he is right, but he will find that the fool has been too many for him."

It was thus that he communed with himself.

He had his dinner and sat by himself during the whole evening, as had been his practice every day since his uncle's death. But yet this peculiar night seemed to him to be eventful. He felt himself to be lifted into some unwonted eagerness of life, something approaching to activity. There was a deed to be done, and though he was not as yet doing it, though he did not think that he intended to do it that very night, yet the fact that he had made up his mind made him in some sort aware that the dumb spirit which would not speak had been exorcised, and that the crushing dullness of the latter days had passed away from him. No; he could not do it that night; but he was sure that he would do it. He had looked about for a way of escape, and had been as though a dead man while he could not find it. He had lived in terror of Mrs Griffith the housekeeper, of Farmer Griffith, of the two Cantors, of Mr Apjohn, of that tyrant Cheekey, of his own shadow,—while he and that will were existing together in the same room. But it should be so no longer. There was one way of escape, and he would take it!

Then he went on thinking of what good things might be in store for him. His spirit had hitherto been so quenched by the vicinity of the will that he had never dared to soar into thoughts of the enjoyment of money. There had been so black a pall over everything that he had not as yet realised what it was that Llanfeare might do for him. Of course he could not live there. Though he should have to leave the house untenanted altogether, it would matter but little. There was no law to make a man live on his own estate. He calculated that he would be able to draw £1500 a year from the property;—£1500 a year! That would be clearly his own; on which no one could lay a finger; and what enjoyment could he not buy with £1500 a year?

With a great resolve to destroy the will he went to bed, and slept through the night as best he could. In the dark of his chamber, when the candle was out, and he was not yet protected by his bed, there came a qualm upon him. But the deed was not yet done, and the qualm was kept under, and he slept. He even repeated the Lord's Prayer to himself when he was under the clothes, struggling, however, as he did so, not to bring home to himself that petition as to the leading into temptation and the deliverance from evil.

The next day, the Friday, and the Saturday were passed in the same way. The resolution was still there, but the qualms came every night. And the salve to the qualm was always the same remembrance that the deed had not been done yet. And the prayer was always said, morning and night, with the same persistent rejection of those words which, in his present condition, were so damning to him,—rejection from the intelligence though with the whispering voice the words were spoken. But still there was the resolve the same as ever. There was no other way of escape. A stag, when brought to bay, will trample upon the hounds. He would trample upon them. Llanfeare should all be his own. He would not return to his clerk's desk to be the scorn of all men,—to have it known that he had fraudulently kept the will hidden, and then revealed it, not of grace, but because he was afraid of Mr Cheekey. His mind was quite made up. But the deed need not be yet done. The fewer nights that he would have to pass in that house, after the doing of the deed, the better.

The trial was to be on the Friday. He would not postpone the deed till the last day, as it might be then that emissaries might come to him, watching him to see that he did not escape. And yet it would be well for him to keep his hands clean from the doing of it up to the last moment. He was quite resolved. There was no other escape. And yet—yet—yet, who would say what might not happen? Till the deed should have been done, there would yet be a path open to the sweet easiness of innocence. When it should have been done, there would be a final adieu to innocence. There would be no return to the white way, no possibility of repentance! How could a man repent while he was still holding the guilty prize which he had won? Or how could he give up the prize without delivering himself as a criminal to the law? But, nevertheless, he was resolved, and he determined that the deed should be done on the Tuesday night.

During the whole Tuesday he was thinking of it. Could he bring himself to believe that all that story of a soul tormented for its wickedness in everlasting fire was but an old woman's tale? If he could but bring himself to believe that! If he could do that, then could he master his qualms. And why not? Religious thoughts had hitherto but little troubled his life. The Church and her services had been nothing to him. He had lived neither with the fear nor with the love of God at his heart. He knew that, and was but little disposed to think that a line of conduct which had never been hitherto adopted by him would be embraced in his later life. He could not think of himself as being even desirous to be religious. Why, then, should qualms afflict him?

That prayer which he was accustomed to repeat to himself as he went to rest was but a trick of his youth. It had come down to him from old, innocent days; and though it was seldom omitted, without a shiver, nevertheless it was repeated with contempt. In broad daylight, or when boon companions had been with him round the candles, blasphemy had never frightened him. But now,—now in his troubles, he remembered that there was a hell. He could not shake from himself the idea. For unrepented sin there was an eternity of torment which would last for ever! Such sin as this which he premeditated must remain unrepented, and there would be torment for him for ever. Nevertheless, he must do it. And, after all, did not many of the wise ones of the earth justify him in thinking that that threat was but an old woman's tale?

Tuesday night came,—the late hours of Tuesday night,—the midnight hour at which he was sure that the women were in bed, and the will was taken out from its hiding-place. He had already trimmed the wick and placed the candle on an outspread newspaper, so that no fragment of the ash should fall where it might not be collected. He had walked round the room to make himself sure that no aperture might possibly be open. He put out the candle so as to see that no gleam of light from any source was making its way into the room, and then relighted it. The moment had come for the destruction of the document.

He read it all through yet again;—why he knew not, but in truth craving some excuse for further delay. With what care the dying old man had written every word and completed every letter! He sat there contemplating the old man's work, telling himself that it was for him to destroy it utterly by just a motion of his wrist. He turned round and trimmed the candle again, and still sat there with the paper in his hand. Could it be that so great a result could come from so short an act? The damning of his own soul! Would it in truth be the giving up of his own soul to eternal punishment? God would know that he had not meant to steal the property! God would know that he did not wish to steal it now! God would know that he was doing this as the only means of escape from misery which others were plotting for him! God would know how cruelly he had been used! God would know the injustice with which the old man had treated him! Then came moments in which he almost taught himself to believe that in destroying the will he would be doing no more than an act of rough justice, and that God would certainly condemn no one to eternal punishment for a just act. But still, whenever he would turn round to the candle, his hand would refuse to raise the paper to the flame. When done, it could not be undone! And whether those eternal flames should or should not get possession of him, there would be before him a life agonised by the dread of them. What could Mr Cheekey do worse for him than that?

The Wednesday would at any rate do as well. Why rob himself of the comfort of one day during which his soul would not be irretrievably condemned? Now he might sleep. For this night, at any rate, he might sleep. He doubted whether he would ever sleep again after the doing of the deed. To be commonly wicked was nothing to him,—nothing to break through all those ordinary rules of life which parents teach their children and pastors their flocks, but as to which the world is so careless. To covet other men's goods, to speak evil of his neighbours, to run after his neighbour's wife if she came in his path, to steal a little in the ordinary way,—such as selling a lame horse or looking over an adversary's hand at whist, to swear to a lie, or to ridicule the memory of his parents,—these peccadillos had never oppressed his soul. That not telling of the will had been burdensome to him only because of the danger of discovery. But to burn a will, and thereby clearly to steal £1500 a year from his cousin! To commit felony! To do that for which he might be confined at Dartmoor all his life, with his hair cut, and dirty prison clothes, and hard food, and work to do! He thought it would be well to have another day of life in which he had not done the deed. He therefore put the will back into the book and went to his bed.

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