Perhaps the terror with which I anticipated the hour of one, and the disclosure of the unknown undertaking to which I had bound myself, was irrational and morbid. But, honestly, I doubt it; my tendency has always been that of many other weak characters, to act impetuously, and afterwards to reproach myself for consequences which I have, perhaps, in reality, had little or no share in producing.
It was Doctor Bryerly's countenance and manner in alluding to a particular provision in my father's will that instinctively awed me. I have seen faces in a nightmare that haunted me with an indescribable horror, and yet I could not say wherein lay the fascination. And so it was with his—an omen, a menace, lurked in its sallow and dismal glance.
'You must not be so frightened, darling,' said Cousin Monica. 'It is foolish; it is, really; they can't cut off your head, you know: they can't really harm you in any essential way. If it involved a risk of a little money, you would not mind it; but men are such odd creatures—they measure all sacrifices by money. Doctor Bryerly would look just as you describe, if you were doomed to lose 500l., and yet it would not kill you.'
A companion like Lady Knollys is reassuring; but I could not take her comfort altogether to heart, for I felt that she had no great confidence in it herself.
There was a little French clock over the mantelpiece in the school-room, which I consulted nearly every minute. It wanted now but ten minutes of one.
'Shall we go down to the drawing-room, dear?' said Cousin Knollys, who was growing restless like me.
So down-stairs we went, pausing by mutual consent at the great window at the stair-head, which looks out on the avenue. Mr. Danvers was riding his tall, grey horse at a walk, under the wide branches toward the house, and we waited to see him get off at the door. In his turn he loitered there, for the good Rector's gig, driven by the Curate, was approaching at a smart ecclesiastical trot.
Doctor Clay got down, and shook hands with Mr. Danvers; and after a word or two, away drove the Curate with that upward glance at the windows from which so few can refrain.
I watched the Rector and Mr. Danvers loitering on the steps as a patient might the gathering of surgeons who are to perform some unknown operation. They, too, glanced up at the window as they turned to enter the house, and I drew back. Cousin Monica looked at her watch.
'Four minutes only. Shall we go to the drawing-room?'
Waiting for a moment to let the gentlemen get by on the way to the study, we, accordingly, went down, and I heard the Rector talk of the dangerous state of Grindleston bridge, and wondered how he could think of such things at a time of sorrow. Everything about those few minutes of suspense remains fresh in my recollection. I remember how they loitered and came to a halt at the corner of the oak passage leading to the study, and how the Rector patted the marble head and smoothed the inflexible tresses of William Pitt, as he listened to Mr. Danvers' details about the presentment; and then, as they went on, I recollect the boisterous nose-blowing that suddenly resounded from the passage, and which I then referred, and still refer, intuitively to the Rector.
We had not been five minutes in the drawing-room when Branston entered, to say that the gentlemen I had mentioned were all assembled in the study.
'Come, dear,' said Cousin Monica; and leaning on her arm I reached the study door. I entered, followed by her. The gentlemen arrested their talk and stood up, those who were sitting, and the Rector came forward very gravely, and in low tones, and very kindly, greeted me. There was nothing emotional in this salutation, for though my father never quarrelled, yet an immense distance separated him from all his neighbours, and I do not think there lived a human being who knew him at more than perhaps a point or two of his character.
Considering how entirely he secluded himself, my father was, as many people living remember, wonderfully popular in his county. He was neighbourly in everything except in seeing company and mixing in society. He had magnificent shooting, of which he was extremely liberal. He kept a pack of hounds at Dollerton, with which all his side of the county hunted through the season. He never refused any claim upon his purse which had the slightest show of reason. He subscribed to every fund, social, charitable, sporting, agricultural, no matter what, provided the honest people of his county took an interest in it, and always with a princely hand; and although he shut himself up, no one could say that he was inaccessible, for he devoted hours daily to answering letters, and his checque-book contributed largely in those replies. He had taken his turn long ago as High Sheriff; so there was an end of that claim before his oddity and shyness had quite secluded him. He refused the Lord-Lieutenancy of his county; he declined every post of personal distinction connected with it. He could write an able as well as a genial letter when he pleased; and his appearances at public meetings, dinners, and so forth were made in this epistolary fashion, and, when occasion presented, by magnificent contributions from his purse.
If my father had been less goodnatured in the sporting relations of his vast estates, or less magnificent in dealing with his fortune, or even if he had failed to exhibit the intellectual force which always characterised his letters on public matters, I dare say that his oddities would have condemned him to ridicule, and possibly to dislike. But every one of the principal gentlemen of his county, whose judgment was valuable, has told me that he was a remarkably able man, and that his failure in public life was due to his eccentricities, and in no respect to deficiency in those peculiar mental qualities which make men feared and useful in Parliament.
I could not forbear placing on record this testimony to the high mental and the kindly qualities of my beloved father, who might have passed for a misanthrope or a fool. He was a man of generous nature and powerful intellect, but given up to the oddities of a shyness which grew with years and indulgence, and became inflexible with his disappointments and affliction.
There was something even in the Rector's kind and ceremonious greeting which oddly enough reflected the mixed feelings in which awe was not without a place, with which his neighbours had regarded my dear father.
Having done the honours—I am sure looking woefully pale—I had time to glance quietly at the only figure there with which I was not tolerably familiar. This was the junior partner in the firm of Archer and Sleigh who represented my uncle Silas—a fat and pallid man of six-and-thirty, with a sly and evil countenance, and it has always seemed to me, that ill dispositions show more repulsively in a pale fat face than in any other.
Doctor Bryerly, standing near the window, was talking in a low tone to Mr. Grimston, our attorney.
I heard good Dr. Clay whisper to Mr. Danvers—
'Is not that Doctor Bryerly—the person with the black—the black—it's a wig, I think—in the window, talking to Abel Grimston?'
'Yes; that's he.'
'Odd-looking person—one of the Swedenborg people, is not he?' continued the Rector.
'So I am told.'
'Yes,' said the Rector, quietly; and he crossed one gaitered leg over the other, and, with fingers interlaced, twiddled his thumbs, as he eyed the monstrous sectary under his orthodox old brows with a stern inquisitiveness. I thought he was meditating theologic battle.
But Dr. Bryerly and Mr. Grimston, still talking together, began to walk slowly from the window, and the former said in his peculiar grim tones—
'I beg pardon, Miss Ruthyn; perhaps you would be so good as to show us which of the cabinets in this room your late lamented father pointed out as that to which this key belongs.'
I indicated the oak cabinet.
'Very good, ma'am—very good,' said Doctor Bryerly, as he fumbled the key into the lock.
Cousin Monica could not forbear murmuring—
'Dear! what a brute!'
The junior partner, with his dumpy hands in his pocket, poked his fat face over Mr. Grimston's shoulder, and peered into the cabinet as the door opened.
The search was not long. A handsome white paper enclosure, neatly tied up in pink tape, and sealed with large red seals, was inscribed in my dear father's hand:—'Will of Austin R. Ruthyn, of Knowl.' Then, in smaller characters, the date, and in the corner a note—'This will was drawn from my instructions by Gaunt, Hogg, and Hatchett, Solicitors, Great Woburn Street, London, A.R.R.'
'Let me have a squint at that indorsement, please, gentlemen,' half whispered the unpleasant person who represented my uncle Silas.
''Tisn't an indorsement. There, look—a memorandum on an envelope,' said Abel Grimston, gruffly.
'Thanks—all right—that will do,' he responded, himself making a pencil-note of it, in a long clasp-book which he drew from his coat-pocket.
The tape was carefully cut, and the envelope removed without tearing the writing, and forth came the will, at sight of which my heart swelled and fluttered up to my lips, and then dropped down dead as it seemed into its place.
'Mr. Grimston, you will please to read it,' said Doctor Bryerly, who took the direction of the process. 'I will sit beside you, and as we go along you will be good enough to help us to understand technicalities, and give us a lift where we want it.'
'It's a short will,' said Mr. Grimston, turning over the sheets 'very—considering. Here's a codicil.'
'I did not see that,' said Doctor Bryerly.
'Dated only a month ago.'
'Oh!' said Doctor Bryerly, putting on his spectacles. Uncle Silas's ambassador, sitting close behind, had insinuated his face between Doctor Bryerly's and the reader's of the will.
'On behalf of the surviving brother of the testator,' interposed the delegate, just as Abel Grimston had cleared his voice to begin, 'I take leave to apply for a copy of this instrument. It will save a deal of trouble, if the young lady as represents the testator here has no objection.'
'You can have as many copies as you like when the will is proved,' said Mr. Grimston.
'I know that; but supposing as all's right, where's the objection?'
'Just the objection there always is to acting irregular,' replied Mr. Grimston.
'You don't object to act disobliging, it seems.'
'You can do as I told you,' replied Mr. Grimston.
'Thank you for nothing,' murmured Mr. Sleigh.
And the reading of the will proceeded, while he made elaborate notes of its contents in his capacious pocket-book.
'I, Austin Alymer Ruthyn Ruthyn, being, I thank God, of sound mind and perfect recollection,' &c, &c.; and then came a bequest of all his estates real, chattels real, copyrights, leases, chattels, money, rights, interests, reversions, powers, plate, pictures, and estates and possessions whatsoever, to four persons—Lord Ilbury, Mr. Penrose Creswell of Creswell, Sir William Aylmer, Bart., and Hans Emmanuel Bryerly, Doctor of Medicine, 'to have and to hold,' &c. &c. Whereupon my Cousin Monica ejaculated 'Eh?' and Doctor Bryerly interposed—
'Four trustees, ma'am. We take little but trouble—you'll see; go on.'
Then it came out that all this multifarious splendour was bequeathed in trust for me, subject to a bequest of 15,000l. to his only brother, Silas Aylmer Ruthyn, and 3,500l. each to the two children of his said brother; and lest any doubt should arise by reason of his, the testator's decease as to the continuance of the arrangement by way of lease under which he enjoyed his present habitation and farm, he left him the use of the mansion-house and lands of Bartram-Haugh, in the county of Derbyshire, and of the lands of so-and-so and so-and-so, adjoining thereto, in the said county, for the term of his natural life, on payment of a rent of 5s. per annum, and subject to the like conditions as to waste, &c., as are expressed in the said lease.
'By your leave, may I ask is them dispositions all the devises to my client, which is his only brother, as it seems to me you've seen the will before?' enquired Mr. Sleigh.
'Nothing more, unless there is something in the codicil,' answered Dr. Bryerly.
But there was no mention of him in the codicil.
Mr. Sleigh threw himself back in his chair, and sneered, with the end of his pencil between his teeth. I hope his disappointment was altogether for his client. Mr. Danvers fancied, he afterwards said, that he had probably expected legacies which might have involved litigation, or, at all events, law costs, and perhaps a stewardship; but this was very barren; and Mr. Danvers also remarked, that the man was a very low practitioner, and wondered how my uncle Silas could have commissioned such a person to represent him.
So far the will contained nothing of which my most partial friend could have complained. The codicil, too, devised only legacies to servants, and a sum of 1,000l., with a few kind words, to Monica, Lady Knollys, and a further sum of 3,000l. to Dr. Bryerly, stating that the legatee had prevailed upon him to erase from the draft of his will a bequest to him to that amount, but that, in consideration of all the trouble devolving upon him as trustee, he made that bequest by his codicil; and with these arrangements the permanent disposition of his property was completed.
But that direction to which he and Doctor Bryerly had darkly alluded, was now to come, and certainly it was a strange one. It appointed my uncle Silas my sole guardian, with full parental authority over me until I should have reached the age of twenty-one, up to which time I was to reside under his care at Bartram-Haugh, and it directed the trustees to pay over to him yearly a sum of 2,000l. during the continuance of the guardianship for my suitable maintenance, education, and expenses.
You have now a sufficient outline of my father's will. The only thing I painfully felt in this arrangement was, the break-up—the dismay that accompanies the disappearance of home. Otherwise, there was something rather pleasurable in the idea. As long as I could remember, I had always cherished the same mysterious curiosity about my uncle, and the same longing to behold him. This was about to be gratified. Then there was my cousin Milicent, about my own age. My life had been so lonely, that I had acquired none of those artificial habits that induce the fine-lady nature—a second, and not always a very amiable one. She had lived a solitary life, like me. What rambles and readings we should have together! what confidences and castle-buildings! and then there was a new country and a fine old place, and the sense of interest and adventure that always accompanies change in our early youth.
There were four letters all alike with large, red seals, addressed respectively to each of the trustees named in the will. There was also one addressed to Silas Alymer Ruthyn, Esq., Bartram-Haugh Manor, &c. &c., which Mr. Sleigh offered to deliver. But Doctor Bryerly thought the post-office was the more regular channel. Uncle Silas's representative was questioning Doctor Bryerly in an under-tone.
I turned my eyes on my cousin Monica—I felt so inexpressibly relieved—expecting to see a corresponding expression in her countenance. But I was startled. She looked ghastly and angry. I stared in her face, not knowing what to think. Could the will have personally disappointed her? Such doubts, though we fancy in after-life they belong to maturity and experience only, do sometimes cross our minds in youth. But the suggestion wronged Lady Knollys, who neither expected nor wanted anything, being rich, childless, generous, and frank. It was the unexpected character of her countenance that scared me, and for a moment the shock called up corresponding moral images.
Lady Knollys, starting up, raised her head, so as to see over Mr. Sleigh's shoulder, and biting her pale lip, she cleared her voice and demanded—
'Doctor Bryerly, pray, sir, is the reading concluded?'
'Concluded? Quite. Yes, nothing more,' he answered with a nod, and continued his talk with Mr. Danvers and Abel Grimston.
'And to whom,' said Lady Knollys, with an effort, 'will the property belong, in case—in case my little cousin here should die before she comes of age?'
'Eh? Well—wouldn't it go to the heir-at-law and next of kin?' said Doctor Bryerly, turning to Abel Grimston.
'Ay—to be sure,' said the attorney, thoughtfully.
'And who is that?' pursued my cousin.
'Well, her uncle, Mr. Silas Ruthyn. He's both heir-at-law and next of kin,' pursued Abel Grimston.
'Thank you,' said Lady Knollys.
Doctor Clay came forward, bowing very low, in his standing collar and single-breasted coat, and graciously folded my hand in his soft wrinkled grasp—
'Allow me, my dear Miss Ruthyn, while expressing my regret that we are to lose you from among our little flock—though I trust but for a short, a very short time—to say how I rejoice at the particular arrangement indicated by the will we have just heard read. My curate, William Fairfield, resided for some years in the same spiritual capacity in the neighbourhood of your, I will say, admirable uncle, with occasional intercourse with whom he was favoured—may I not say blessed?—a true Christian Churchman—a Christian gentleman. Can I say more? A most happy, happy choice.' A very low bow here, with eyes nearly closed, and a shake of the head. 'Mrs. Clay will do herself the honour of waiting upon you, to pay her respects, before you leave Knowl for your temporary sojourn in another sphere.'
So, with another deep bow—for I had become a great personage all at once—he let go my hand cautiously and delicately, as if he were setting down a curious china tea-cup. And I courtesied low to him, not knowing what to say, and then to the assembly generally, who all bowed. And Cousin Monica whispered, briskly, 'Come away,' and took my hand with a very cold and rather damp one, and led me from the room.