Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 6/The prodigal son - Part 3
THE PRODIGAL SON.
BY DUTTON COOK, AUTHOR OF “PAUL FOSTER’S DAUGHTER,” &c.
“A lytel misgoyng in the gynning causeth mykel errour in the end.”—Chaucer’s “Testament of Love.”
CHAPTER V. THE PASSING BELL.
“And his son? Mr. Wilford arrived in time? All was made up between them?” Violet asked, with anxiety.
The doctor shook his head mournfully.
“Poor Mr. Wilford!” she went on. “How sad this will make him. Surely he deserved to be forgiven. Surely his long absence from home was sufficient atonement for all his early faults and misdeeds. But perhaps he did not arrive in time?”
“They met,” said Mr. Fuller; “it may be that it would have been better if they had not. I never thought the old man would have been so hard with him. I really believed, in spite of all he said beforehand, that he would relent when he saw his son. I am sure the sight of him was enough to soften anyone. Poor Wilford!”
“Has he changed much since he went away? Is he ill?”
“I never saw any man so altered. You recollect how gay, and handsome, and frank he was seven years ago? You were quite a child, Vi, then, but still I think you must remember him. I know he was very good and kind to you children—very fond of you—always ready to romp with you; why he gave Madge almost her first doll, you remember. Poor fellow! what trouble he took about it, sending up to London expressly for it. Now, he looks years and years older, so thin and gaunt, all his old bright manner gone. Such a worn, white face, such wild-looking eyes, such long, tangled hair and beard. Poor Wilford! I never saw anyone so wrecked, and broken, and wretched.”
“He was always a favourite of yours, father.”
“He is so still, Vi. I can’t help it. I did all I could for him in that dreadful business years ago. I never understood it clearly, but I take for granted that the current story about his quarrel with his father was the true one. The old man was furious then, and he remained unforgiving to the last. Yet I am certain the poor boy must have had deep and cruel provocation. He was always violent and headstrong, and very passionate. Both father and mother spoilt him so when he was a child. Yet I am sure he is of a kind and affectionate nature—I am sure he had in his heart great sorrow, great love for his father.”
“Was the old man sensible when they met? Did he know his son?”
“Yes, they were a long time together, holding quite a long conversation; I was in hopes that all was going well between them. Then suddenly Wilford came out of the room, trembling very much, and said his father was taken seriously ill, and that I had better go in to him. I found him scarcely sensible. He had been over-exerting himself, evidently; he was gasping for breath, half-fainting, with a painful palsy upon every limb. God knows what had passed between them! I fear there must have been a terrible scene. I cannot conceive how the father could have hardened his heart against his son. I feel sure that, intentionally, Wilford could have said nothing to give new offence. Yet something must have made the father very angry. He had intended to relent it seemed; he had made a new will, much more favourable, I imagine, to his eldest son than the will he has left, and which must of course be acted upon. But he cancelled the new disposition of his property in Wilford's presence: tore it into shreds, and flung it about the room. All chance of reconciliation was then over for ever—indeed, I hardly thought the old man would have lived five minutes; but he has certainly a wonderful constitution. They are a fine family, the Hadfields. Poor old Colonel Hugh was just such another as this one. He rallied again, and then dozed for some time, but in a very feverish, restless way. I did not like his looks again at all when he woke; he was terribly changed. I was then sure that the worst must be very, very near. Yet he was sensible; with just a slight indication to the contrary when he said to me, in a low voice, 'Somehow I can't rouse my mind, doctor; do I wander when I talk? If I stop, repeat my last word to me, that I may remember what I want to say.' A grand old man! It seemed to me that he was holding his intellects together by mere force of will, as it were. And when he stopped, hesitating, I believe it was quite as much from difficulty of articulation as loss of memory. But he grew weaker; I could see that every minute told upon him. 'Has he gone?' he asked; 'has he gone?' And he seized my arm. 'Mr. Wilford?' I said. 'Hush! don't name him,' he whispered, frowning angrily. Once I thought he was relenting, he was muttering 'Poor boy! poor boy!' but he never mentioned his son's name, and seemed at last to dismiss all thought of him for ever from his mind. It was getting on for dawn now; his pulse was hardly perceptible. He turned to Stephen, and said, 'Steenie, my only son,' laying stress upon his words; 'bring them in—Gertrude and the children, it's time I said good-by to them.' Poor Stephen went out, crying dreadfully—he has been a good son to him, has Stephen—and he brought in his wife, and the children, little Agnes and Saxon. But the poor old man was past further speaking; his lips moved, but there was no sound audible. He kissed his daughter-in-law affectionately, and his grandchildren. Poor little things! They were lifted up to kiss the dying man, and were dreadfully scared and puzzled at the whole business; such looks of wonder in their pretty round eyes! A very sad leave-taking. Then Stephen brought Wilford again into the room. It was a last chance. He could scarcely stand, he was so weak and so painfully moved. Once I thought the old man, as his eyes wandered round the room, recognised his eldest son, but I couldn't be sure. I had my hand on his wrist all the while; the pulse grew faint, very faint, then ceased altogether. His other hand was round Stephen's neck. So he left us—a smile upon his lips, and a kind look in his eyes. Seventy-two years of age. It was more like going to sleep than dying. He looked so grand and handsome, it was difficult to believe that he died cruel, and relentless, and unforgiving."
"Poor Mr. Wilford!" Violet repeated, her beautiful eyes dim with tears.
"Poor fellow! It is indeed sad for him; and he's terribly shaken by it. He looks very ill, and he seems utterly careless of himself. I fear he has been living rather wildly and recklessly during his long absence. There is much to be said for him, however; he was very young when he went away. I never can bring myself to the belief that he was other than hardly treated. This has been a terrible trial for him. I hope it may be for his good. I hope that he may be able to bear it—at present, I have my fears. I don't like his looks at all, in fact."
"Do you think he is ill?—dangerously ill?"
"He's in a very bad state of health. I doubt if he has sufficient strength, either of mind or body, to support the shock this must be to him. He is, as it were, stunned by the blow. He moves about like a man in a dream. It is quite pitiful to see him. The great, strong, strapping fellow he was! Now he trembles as he walks; he is bent like an old man; his limbs yield under him; he stares when you address him as though he could not grasp your words; and the tears come into his eyes when he attempts to speak; he eats nothing—I am afraid he has been in the habit of supporting himself too much by recourse to stimulants; he sits shivering by the fire, so close as almost to burn his clothes. And it seems he fainted last night—once out in the garden, after his interview with his father; Stephen found him on the ground, half-covered with snow—and again this morning, when he became conscious that the old man was indeed dead. I don't like his looks at all."
"Poor Mr. Wilford!"
A quick footstep outside, and Madge hurries into the room.
"Oh, papa, here's your handkerchief; I quite forgot to give it you. I've been out in the garden; it's such fun. The snow is quite over one's boots, and there's an icicle, O, ever so long, hanging from the pump. Oh, and papa, I want you to come with me into the fowl-house; I do think that poor old speckled hen whom I always called the Lady Mayoress, because she was such a pompous, strutting old thing, you know, I do think she's—why, Vi, why what is the matter? Why, you've been crying—O, I'm sure you have. What is the matter? And papa, why, how solemn you look."
"Hush, my dear," said the doctor; "not so much noise. A very solemn thing has happened. Poor old Mr. Hadfield, of the Grange, is dead. Yes, it's very sad; and I think, Vi, you had better draw down all the blinds. It will only be a proper mark of respect to the bereaved family. I am sure all the shutters in Grilling Abbots will be closed when the sad news becomes known. The poor old man, whatever his faults, has been very kind to all about his estate, and many a poor fellow hereabouts has lost a good friend by his death. Was that some one ringing the surgery- bell? I'll go and see myself. Don't keep your boots on, Madge, if they're wet; and there'll be hardly any more going out to day."
"Don't cry, Vi, dear," and kind Madge kisses her sister. Not boisterously this time, but with much quiet tenderness. "How dreadful death is, isn't it, Vi?" And then poor Madge cannot help crying too.
The news had soon reached Grilling Abbots. The butcher, calling for orders early in the morning, had learnt of poor Mr. Hadfield's death from the housekeeper. He was the first to bring the mournful intelligence into the town. He beat William Ostler—who heard of it from Groom Frank—out with his horses for a morning exercise—he beat William Ostler by about ten minutes. Of course the butcher, hurrying back, yet found time to stop everyone he met, and jerk out of himself—he was not a conversationalist, and speech was always with him rather a matter of effort—the simple announcement, "Poor old gen'leman's gone." But the few words were sufficient for the occasion. So far as Grilling Abbots was concerned there was but one poor old gen'leman who could go. Everybody said that it was only to be expected, and that no one ought to be surprised; and yet somehow all looked as though they had not expected it, and were surprised. The old sexton—what a shrivelled mummy of a man he was, in his wide-rimmed hat and long-skirted rusty great coat! his granddaughters (it was thoughful of them, for the morning was bitterly cold) had wound a comforter of great length many times round his neck, so that little of his face was visible—the old sexton was seen wending his way to the church, swinging the keys in his hand. "I didn't think I should have to toll for him, and he a good six years older nor me; I thought the Colonel would have been the last of the Hadfields I should ever have tolled for. I suppose we'll have funeral sermon next Sunday; most likely; I warrant Parson won't leave a dry eye in town afore he's done with 'em. Poor old gen'leman! And only seventy-two—quite a young man one may say, little better nor in his prime."
Within an hour and a half it was known at Mowle. Old Mr. Bartlett—(firm of Parkinson, Bartlett, & Co.; but old Mr. Parkinson has been dead some years, and his son, who nominally represents the head of the firm, is not thought much of as a lawyer, though highly esteemed by all Mowle as a cricketer; indeed he is one of the Uplandshire eleven gentlemen-players),—Old Mr. Bartlett seemed quite startled by the news; he said, "God bless me!" three times over, as his manner was when much disturbed, and fell to pondering which of the two wills he had prepared for the late Mr. Hadfield would be carried into execution. The long will made some years before, twelve foolscap sheets, settled by Mr. Spinbury (Equity Draughtsman and Conveyancer, 34, Old Square, Lincoln's Inn, called to the bar in '19); or the short will of a very little while ago, when the testator had asked so many questions as to the effect of cancelling wills, &c. Somehow Mr. Bartlett seemed to desire that the long will should be the one to be carried out; it was an admirable will, beautifully drawn, quite a work of art in its way, and on twelve foolscap sides; what a pity to make waste paper of such a will as that! Well, yes, perhaps, as a will, it was hard upon the elder son; perhaps it was that, and Mr. Bartlett prepared himself for a summons to the Grange. At the undertaker's, too, Mr. Tressell's, there was some excitement. Mr. Tressell knew that his services would be required; he was the only undertaker for miles round, and already he commenced to busy himself amongst his sable properties and paraphernalia. Would it be a grand funeral? Perhaps very much on the plan of Colonel Hugh's. Simple, but substantial, merely the family at the Grange as mourners, with the addition, of course, of the doctor and the lawyer. Perhaps two mourning coaches would be sufficient, with four horses, of course; though he should have preferred three, if not four, coaches. The more the better. What funerals always wanted was length. Give them length, and the effect was certain; and soon, and involuntarily, he commenced rubbing up the brass tips of his baton. A highly respectable man, and a good and moral in his way. Yet, somehow, one has a sort of shrinking from a trade that makes all its money out of mortality, that lives by death: I don't think I should ever like a child of mine to be a coffin-maker. What is he to know of the awe of the grave, who cannot but identify it with such details as bronze nails, white satin lining, silver handles and plate, &c.? And the old rector, too, the Reverend Edward Mainstone, was he to feel nothing at the loss of his old parishioner—had he no duties to perform on the sad occasion? The dead man had been his very good friend for many long years; there had been one or two quarrels between them; both were a little hot, and obstinate, and proud; "high and mighty" was the Grilling Abbots description of the chronic state of mind of the two old gentlemen; but these disagreements had not been very lasting. If the rector could charge some faults to the debit of old Mr. Hadfield, he could bring many good qualities to his credit. How could he regard reproachfully for any long time, one who was so persistently kind to the poor on his estates, who rebuilt cottages, who distributed coals and blankets so liberally in the winter, who repaired the church, including the chancel, entirely at his own cost? The rector lamented the death of his old friend deeply. Indeed the old feel always the loss of their contemporaries very much. In youth, perhaps, we can afford to waste and lose both our friends and our money; in age we needs must be economical with regard to both. We are past making new friendships or earning more money. The Reverend Edward Mainstone, too, had a duty to perform.
"They will expect me to mention it on Sunday," he said. "I'd rather not. I feel my heart will hardly let me speak upon the subject. Yet, I suppose, I must. One thing," he added, with a sad smile, "any common-place will do. The poor souls will only be too ready with their tears. They loved, though they feared him, while he lived. They will only love him now. My dear old friend!"
And the rector's eyes were very dim just then.
"Let me see," he said. "What did I say when the poor Colonel was taken from us? Let me look out that sermon."
There was only one drawback to the general grief of the neighbourhood at the death of Mr. Hadfield of the Grange. It soon began to be bruited about that Mr. Wilford, the eldest son, was disinherited. It would be vain to ask how this fact became known, even before the funeral and the formal reading of the will by the family solicitor. But the world must be, by this time, pretty well aware that the occurrences of the drawing-room and parlour do not take place without the cognisance of the butler's pantry and the kitchen. When we begin to have servants we leave off possessing secrets. We live in glass houses; we throw ourselves open to public inspection, like so many picture galleries. You have only to get a ticket from Thomas or James, and you can walk round and examine us as though we belonged to you. It is a servant's privilege to have the most notable circumstances in his employer's biography at his fingers' ends, and to be able to comment upon them boldly and freely. Does the Oriental plan answer? Do the mute servitors refrain from revealing by gesticulations and the dumb alphabet the secrets of their employers? I doubt it. Certainly the occidental servants use their tongues enough, and if those organs were removed, I believe they would yet manage—perhaps with their toes—to narrate of their masters, and to canvass their conduct. Say that the servants of the Grange knew all about their late master's will, and then there will be no wonder that all the good folks of Grilling Abbots were well acquainted with it, too. And, be it told, they disapproved the testator's disposition of his property. Conservatism was very strong in Grilling Abbots. They had entirely orthodox views concerning the rights of primogeniture. They deemed it only right that estates should descend from father to son in one uninterrupted line. They could not understand this cutting off the lawful heir. And they sympathised with Mr. Wilford, and were very sorry for him. He might have been a bit wild, they admitted; but what then? A good many of the Hadfields had been a bit wild in their youth, and what harm had come of it, after all? Nothing to speak of. And he was much more like the old Hadfields—the living image of the picter in the long room at the Grange, of the Hadfield as went to Indy—they would call it Indy,—much more like the old Hadfields than Mr. Stephen, who was a nice civil-spoken gentleman to be sure, they all admitted; but not so much of a Hadfield as Mr. Wilford—no—and not the eldest son, neither.
Before a roaring fire in the library Mr. Wilford sat scorching his thin white face. Mr. Tressell was up-stairs. He was consulting with, and taking instructions from Stephen as to the funeral. Stephen had endeavoured to interest his elder brother in these proceedings; indeed, had appeared anxious to cede to him the chief place in the household. But Wilford had declined all intervention.
"Do what you think best, Steenie. I am sure what you do will be right. I cannot counsel you. Indeed I am useless here. But you are the master of the Grange. I cannot think or speak. My head is so heavy, and I cannot get warm. Would I were dead! Let them bring me some more wine."
He had not spoken so much since the death of the old man. Stephen led Gertrude to him.
"Say something to him, Gertrude," he whispered to her. "Try and rouse him from this torpor he has fallen into. Try and comfort him."
A calm, handsome, blonde woman, with long flowing skirts, Gertrude Hadfield, approached her brother-in-law. She was very elegant and refined. Perhaps these qualities necessitate a certain reticence, if not an absence of feeling. Yet in her impassive way she was deeply attached to her husband and her children, and she had been a favourite with the late Mr. Hadfield. She brought her children with her, and stooped before Wilford.
"Be comforted, brother," she said to him in a soft voice. He looked at her with a wan smile.
"Steenie's wife," he murmured, "and his children. How old this makes one seem!"
"Go, Saxon," she said to her baby son, "go and kiss your uncle."
"I don't like to," cried the boy. "I'm afraid."
"What? Why I am quite ashamed of you. What will be thought of you? Not kiss poor Uncle Wilford?"
"Don't," said Wilford, with a dark frown, "don't teach them that. Don't teach them what they'll have to unlearn in a week. They mustn't call me uncle. Never, never. I am no more a Hadfield!"
The poor lady, rather terrified, shrunk back with her children.
"What does he mean?" she asked herself. "Is he mad?"
"Mamma," said one of the children, "why is the room so dark?—why mayn't we open the shutters?—why mayn't we play at horses?"
"Hush, Agnes: don't ask such questions, or I must ring for nurse. Come away."
CHAPTER VI. CRAPE.
The passing bell ceased to toll. The family vault of the Hadfields in the old Norman church of Grilling Abbots was opened and closed again. The Rev. Edward Mainstone preached a funeral sermon—only half audible though—for every now and then his words were merged and lost in his genuine sobs and emotion; but still sufficient was heard to move his whole congregation to tears. Perhaps very little was needed to do that. A neat tablet was erected in the church—white marble bordered with black, like a sheet of deep mourning note-paper, with an inscription, "Sacred to the memory of George Richard Saxon Carew Hadfield, late of this parish, who departed this life," and so on. The old sexton would stand contemplating this tablet for hours. People now began to tap their foreheads, and raise their eyebrows, and nod mysteriously when they spoke of the sexton. Mr. Joyce of the George had even ventured to say that, in his opinion, the sexton "had gone downright cracked!" but this was in a free moment, late in the evening, after the rummers had been filled up rather frequently; and he was reproved, if not punished, by his wife for so strong and unwarrantable an assertion. "Aged seventy-two," the sexton would mumble over and over again. "A mere boy—a mere boy. To think that I should live to see his funeral—to see that put up here. I thought the old colonel had been the last. Late of this parish—don't it say? My eyesight ain't what it was. Yes, of this parish, and a deal of good he's done for it in his time, as I can bear witness. A good old gentleman. God bless him for it! God bless him!" And he turned away, the keys jingling in his trembling hand. Mr. Tressell had been quite satisfied with the funeral. "Very nice and gentlemanly," he said, as he rewrapped the baton, with the brass tips, in silver-paper. "Very nice indeed. But you may always trust the county families for that," he went on; "they understand burying. You may always tell a gentleman by his funeral. Well, perhaps it would have been better if the chief mourner had clean shaved. A beard at a burying was out of place, strictly speaking. It gave a furrin air to the thing. Still it was nice and gentlemanly on the whole." Others beside Mr. Tressell had commented upon the appearance of the late Mr. Hadfield's elder son. "That Mr. Wilford?" they said. "How old looking!—only eight-and-twenty? Why he looks forty, at least! And how white that dreadful crape makes his face look! Poor young man! He must be very ill—very much cut up—very disappointed perhaps,—ah! most likely that was it." So Grilling Abbots commented; and old Mr. Bartlett (of the firm of Parkinson, Bartlett, & Co.) was reassured. The short will had been destroyed—the long will was left in force. He was sorry for the elder son, of course. Still it would have been a thousand pities to have thrown away, to have made waste paper, absolutely waste paper, of a will so perfectly, so beautifully drawn as that had been, and settled by Mr. Spinbury, of Old Square. And Mr. Bartlett rubbed his plump white hands together until his mourning rings glittered like diamonds.
At the Grange the shutters were thrown open again, and the clear winter light once more poured in at the windows. Stephen's children, in deep mourning, were permitted to resume their games at horses; but with a proviso that they did not make too much noise, or in any way annoy their Uncle Wilford.
"Mamma, is he really our uncle?" lisped little Agnes.
"Yes, yes, of course he is," answers mamma, rather frightened lest the question should have been overheard.
"Then why doesn't he give us things like our other uncles? Why doesn't he kiss us more, and play with us, and tell us fairy stories?"
"Hush, Agnes,—because Uncle Wilford's not well, because he's very sad and sorry. By-and-by he'll be better, I daresay, and then he'll play with you as long as you like."
"Ah!" remarks the young lady with a premature wisdom, "if he's ill he oughtn't to drink so much wine, and nurse thinks so too."
"Be quiet, Agnes; you must never say such rude things."
"Oh, mamma, do look at Saxon—what a mess he's made his new crape in!"
The family had assembled in the large drawing-room after the funeral to hear the will read. The children, marvelling what could be the meaning of this unusual conclave, disturbed its peace by intermittent kicking at the door, greatly to Mrs. Stephen's displeasure, who inveighed loudly against the ceaseless negligence of modern nurses.
"Jeffries, do keep the children up-stairs and quiet for half an hour," she said, in tones, for her, almost peremptory.
"Saxon, you don't know where grandpapa's gone to—I do," Miss Agnes remarks, with an air of wisdom.
"Where then, miss? You don't know," answers little Saxon, offended at this assumption of superior information.
"Up there—in the skies, higher than ever I can throw my ball. See,"—and she suits the action to the word.
"Will he come down again?" asks the little boy, as he sees the ball fall.
The subject is too vast for his early intelligence to cover, and Miss Agnes can render him no assistance. She dismisses the topic, or moves, perhaps, the previous question with the words—
"Be my horse, Sax," and soon there is a sound of little feet tramping in the hall.
Mr. Bartlett reads the will, rather pompously, holding up his gold-rimmed double eye-glasses. It is a tiresome business. Mrs. Stephen quite loses her way in it before the first page has been turned. Stephen looks bewildered. Wilford leans his head on his hands, and crouches by the fire: he seems abstracted, and very cold. He shivers now and then, when his teeth quite chatter. Mrs. Stephen has soon given up the thing as hopeless. She passes the time in listening to the children, and endeavouring to guess at their proceedings. They are very quiet now. How she trusts that they are at no mischief! They are noisy again now—how noisy! She can barely hear Mr. Bartlett's voice. She grows quite hot and uncomfortable. What a noise! How fast they are running! Oh, if Agnes should hurt herself! Oh, if Saxon were to fall down! Is there to be no end to the will—and what does it all mean?
Mr. Bartlett glanced at Wilford when the reading was finished.
"He takes it very quietly," said the lawyer to himself. "Does he understand it? 'Cut off with a shilling;' that I suppose would be the popular description of the eldest son's position. It seems cruel, but of course a man has a right to do what he likes with his own, or else what would be the use of will-making? Still there's almost a case for him. He might try to upset the will—its provisions do seem to be a little unnatural. Was the testator sane when he executed it? The date some years back—sane? As sane as any man in the county—no evidence to go to the jury—eccentric perhaps—a little, now and then. But I don't think it would be possible to colour that into madness. Yet he might try. If I were in his shoes I should. The judges don't like upsetting wills, but we needn't go so far as that. We might settle the case out of court. If I were he, I should attempt a compromise, and commence legal proceedings—that of course. They have a wonderful effect sometimes, have legal proceedings, especially in families; all the women get up en masse. Oh, don't let it go into the newspapers! Divide the money—anything! Yes, if he were well advised he might get very good terms—very good indeed—an exceedingly nice slice of the Hadfield property. But, of course, it isn't for Parkinson, Bartlett & Co. to make any stir in the matter. They indeed would probably be engaged on the other side—on behalf of the family—in support of the will."
And Mr. Bartlett smilingly contemplated a long and charming vista of legal proceedings, paved with bills of costs, the Lord Chancellor in the extreme distance giving judgment on an appeal to the House of Lords in the suit of Hadfield and Hadfield. What a beautiful tree of litigation and entanglement he pictured to himself growing out of the long will settled by Mr. Spinbury of Old Square! But he had to snap off his day-dream quite short, for it was growing dark—a glass of sherry and a biscuit to refresh himself after his long labours, and then to be driven back to Mowle in his hired fly. Again he glanced at Wilford, but he made no sign.
"He'll think it over, and I dare say I shall hear something definite in a few days. When he wakes up to-morrow and finds himself a beggar, why he wont like it—and—and he'll act accordingly."
The remark was cautious, if vague. Mr. Bartlett muttered on his way homewards. He was meditating an item in his attendance-book.
"Let me see. 3rd January. To long attendance reading over the will of the late G. R. S. C. Hadfield to the family, and explaining the different points thereof, when we pointed out the immediate effect of the provisions of the will and the various contingencies arising therefrom, and long conference thereupon. Engaged 4½ hours, about, let us say, 5; 2 guineas? I think I might say 3. There's plenty of money in the case. Ah! and add—hire of fly to the Grange and back, what will that be? Eight and six, perhaps,—well, we'll say a guinea. No one can complain of that."
Mr. Bartlett gone, Mrs. Stephen with a thankful heart hurried to her children. She found Saxon with his face puckered up, from a strong inclination to cry, and his knees very red from a recent fall. But there was no material harm done.
Stephen advanced to his brother.
"You heard the will?" he asked. Wilford nodded.
"I regret the terms of it very much," said Stephen, "for I feel that an injustice has been done to you. But indeed this need make no difference, really. The Grange is yours, if you will have it. During our lives it shall be the home of both of us, as it was, years ago, in our boyhood. All that the will gives me shall be quite as much yours as mine, brother. There has been no difference between us—ever. Let there be none now."
"You are very generous, Stephen, but—"
"Had there been no will, brother, you would have welcomed me, I'm sure. You would have opened your doors to me—you would have bade me make your house my home. There is alteration in words, but there is little change in fact—only it is for me, now, to do what you would have done then. Come, Wilford, look up—be consoled—make the Grange your home—look upon the Hadfield lands as your own—they shall be as much yours as mine, and if there is need for form in the matter, why we'll have a lawyer in, and make the matter secure with parchment and sealing-wax."
"You are very kind, Stephen, but indeed this must not be. The estates are yours—honestly yours—"
"Then may I not do what I will with them," Stephen interrupted. "May I not share them with you, Wil?"
"No, Stephen. There's a duty to be considered in the matter. Are we not bound to obey our father's will? If he pleased to leave his property with the express view of my receiving no benefit from it, are we justified in seeking to evade his determination? No. I was disobedient enough while he lived, let me at least obey him now that he is dead."
"But it was a mere freak, Wilford—an impulse of passion against you which, had he lived, he would have sorely repented of, and made you amends for."
"I cannot think so, Steenie," the elder brother said sorrowfully. "The will was made deliberately enough, years ago. Had he no opportunity of altering its provisions, do you think, in all that time? Well, he had, and he did alter them. He made a new will, restoring me to my position as his eldest son. He saw me—Heaven knows what new wrong there was to him in my presence, or what he wished me to say or do more than I said and did. But he cast me off anew—he destroyed the new will before my face; he told me that not one halfpenny of his money should I ever touch; he forbade me to look upon myself as his son. Let it be so. Let me never receive a fraction of benefit from his property—let me no more be accounted his son or your brother."
Wilford spoke almost fiercely at last, and his manner rather alarmed Stephen.
"What will you do, Wilford?"
"Leave here at once—to-day—to-morrow—as soon as I feel a little better and stronger. I don't know how it is, but I am strangely shattered and broken of late. I am so weak that I can barely stand, and I tremble all over. My throat is so parched and burning, and such strange things dance before my eyes, that I feel at times quite giddy, as though my brain were going. But this will wear off. Then I quit this place for ever."
"Where will you go?"
"God knows. It will matter little. I will turn my back upon Grilling Abbots for ever. They shall never write up my name in the church—never hear more of me. Far away where I drop down there let them bury me—a stranger. Don't fear that I will bring further shame upon the name; for, indeed, I will cease to bear it any longer. Let it go with the estates. Why should I rob you and your children? What right have I to plunder them of their portions—honestly and lawfully theirs. It must not be. I will go from here very shortly, a stranger, never to return. Your children need never know that such a person has ever lived. They will soon forget me, and more need never be told them. Indeed, there will be nothing more to tell. I shall have gone away like that old ancestor of ours,—never to come back—never to be heard of more."
"But how will you live?"
"For that matter there will be money enough under our mother's will, Steenie, to keep body and soul together, and perhaps the sooner they part company the better. I shall not starve. How cold I am. Put another log on, Steenie. This dreadful thirst! Let them bring me something to drink—water—anything."
"What has he been saying?" asked Gertrude, anxiously, as she encountered her husband on his quitting Wilford.
"He talks in a strange way; insists upon leaving the Grange at once—for ever, he says."
Gertrude could hardly suppress an exclamation of the relief she felt. Indeed, she was fairly frightened at Wilford's gloomy manner and wild looks, both on the children's account and her own.
"Is he sane, Ste, do you think?" she inquired.
Stephen mused over this question.
"I have sometimes thought," he said, after a pause, "that his mind was rather affected with all that has passed. Certainly he has a strange look now and then. Yet there was nothing like insanity in what he said. It must be owned though," in a lower tone, "that he drinks much more than he should. He will kill himself if he goes on in this way, and I'm afraid the servants will get talking about him down in the village. Give orders for my horse to be brought round."
"Where are you going, Ste?"
"I'll have a talk with old Fuller about him."
"Take care how you go. The road is very slippery."
"I'll ride the bay; he's very sure-footed. Never fear, Gertrude."
And Stephen set off. His wife determining that, during his absence, she would be careful to prevent the children going too near their Uncle Wilford. For she had made up her mind that he was clearly out of his mind, and perhaps dangerous—people out of their minds often were.
Vi and Madge, at work in the snug front parlour of Mr. Fuller's pretty white cottage, perceived a horseman advancing along the road which led from the Grange. Of course they began to speculate, after the manner of dwellers in the country, as to who this could be coming along, and what he could possibly want.
"A man all in black on a bay horse; why, it must be one of the Hadfield people," said Madge. "How slowly he comes along. The road is like glass just there. Do you see, the poor horse can hardly keep his feet."
"It's Stephen Hadfield. Why, he's coming here."
"Don't you think he's very handsome, Vi?"
"Pretty well. They're a handsome family, the Hadfields, and Stephen is good and gentlemanly-looking; but yet, somehow, a little tame, I think. He has not the marked features of the others. I don't think he's so handsome as his father was; or, indeed, as his brother is."
"His brother? What, Vi, do you admire that strange, wild creature, with the long, straggling beard? What taste! What taste! Why, he quite frightens me. He looks like a Vampire, or something odd out of the Arabian Nights."
"Ah, Madge, you like smug people, don't you? with smoothly brushed hair and ribston pippin cheeks; let us say, like Tommy Eastwood."
"Be quiet Vi. You know I don't care a bit about Tommy Eastwood, but I do prefer apple cheeks to lanthorn jaws and hollow eyes. There now. You may make the most of that, and tease me about it, as papa does. I see what it is though. You're one of those sly, quiet girls, who love a bit of romance all the same. I do believe you'd like that awful creature, Wilford Hadfield, to come down to the cottage in chain mail, armed to the teeth, brandishing a battle axe, and carry you off on a coal black steed. Wouldn't you like it, Vi? I'm sure you would; nothing would please you better, for all you're sitting there so demure and mum, mending your stockings, than to be Mrs. Brian de Bois Gilbert, or some awful person of that sort. I know you, Miss Vi, better than you think."
"Be quiet, Madge," Vi interposes, laughing.
"Yes, you're romantic. I'm practical. You like novels with lots of sentiment in them, and that sort of stuff. I like funny stories that make one die of laughing. Hallo! Vi. Stephen Hadfield's coming here. Will he come into this room, do you think? Isn't my dress awfully untidy—and isn't this collar crumpled? And my hair feels as though it had all tumbled down at the back. Has it, Vi? I wish I could look so neat and trim as you always do; but I never shall, I know. Oh, it's all right. He's gone into the surgery."
"I hope there's no one ill at the Grange."
Stephen Hadfield consulted for some time with Mr. Fuller in his surgery. The doctor was informed of Wilford's plans for the future, so far as they had been unfolded. Something also was said of the symptoms of ill-health that Wilford had manifested.
"I didn't at all like his looks at the funeral," said Mr. Fuller, reflectively.
"Come up to the Grange, and see him and talk to him. He is very fond of you. I know no one who has more influence over him. Try and persuade him to abandon this project of quitting us. Doubtless he is much hurt and grieved at my father's will, which is unquestionably very cruel to him in its provisions; but it shall be my care to soften these so far as he is concerned. He shall never feel that any real difference has been made between us. He shall be master of the Grange if he will."
"That's right, Stephen," said the doctor, heartily, "I'm glad to hear you speak like that. The poor lad has been hardly dealt with. He'll be better by-and-by, mind and body. We'll take care of both. We'll bring him to think differently of all these matters. I'll come up to the Grange to-night and have a talk with him."
True to his word, the doctor visited the Grange in the evening, and had a long discussion with Wilford. He was always more open in his conversation with the doctor than with anyone else.
"This place sickens me—I cannot bear to look around me.—On every side I see something that reminds me of the day I went away—of the night I came back. I hear his voice in every room. The story of the Prodigal is always ringing in my ears. I perpetually see him tearing up the new will or pointing to the blotted lines in the Bible. Let me only get away from here."
"Where will you go?"
"To London, I will lose myself there," he said, grimly, "the place is big enough. I will change my name—my nature too, if I can. Let me live and die uncared for—unknown. I ask no more."
The doctor contemplated him for some moments as though weighing his words and identifying him with them.
"How like his father," muttered Mr. Fuller; "and obstinate, like all the Hadfields;" and the doctor took Wilford's hand abruptly, almost mechanically it seemed, gazing into his face the while. He let go his wrist with a start.
"What a pulse! do you know that you are very feverish—very ill?"
"I fear so. No matter. I must go. I'll get help in London."
"You'll drop down and die on the road before you've gone half a mile from the place."
His words seemed to carry conviction to the mind of Wilford.
"What shall I do?" he asked sadly, his eyes wandering and his limbs falling listlessly.
"I'll tell you," Mr. Fuller answered. "You shall leave here." Wilford brightened. "You shall come to my cottage. I'll watch you till you're quite yourself again. Then you shall leave us, not before. You shall live as quietly and retired as you please; shall see no one. No one shall know of your presence there. You shall be called by what name you choose. You shall have your own way in every thing. Will you come?"
He reflected for a few minutes.
"I may leave when I please?"
"If you are well, mind; not unless."
"You will not seek to change my plans?"
"I will never again allude to them, if you prefer that I should not do so."
"I'll come," said Wilford.
"To-morrow, mind; early. Let them drive you over in the covered carriage."
And the doctor sought out Stephen, and informed him of what had passed.
"We must humour him," said the doctor. "Be satisfied he shall come back here safe and well, in a few weeks; only, if we oppose him now, we drive these strange notions of his about the Grange into confirmed mania: already they grow upon him fearfully; they prey upon him in all sorts of ways. With returning health will come a happier frame of mind. He shall be a new creature soon."
"Let it be as you wish, doctor," said Stephen, and Mr. Fuller returned to his cottage.
He was muttering to himself all the way home.
"Chilliness and shivering," he said; it was almost as though he were quoting from medical notes, "succeeded by heat, restlessness, thirst, and fever. Very bad; very bad. That boy—I can't help calling him so—one thing—he'll always be a boy to me—that boy, mark my words" (he was forgetful apparently of the fact that there was no one present who could do anything of the kind), "that boy will be prostrate in a few days, and I shall have my work cut out for me to set him up again. It will be as much as they'll do to get him round to the cottage to-morrow—acute pains in the knees, wrists, shoulders; shifting pains, which you never know where to expect next, then absolute helplessness. A nice programme for a patient. Very bad, very bad! And then pleurisy, perhaps, or endocarditis, or pericarditis. Yes, and then another job for Mr. Tressell, of Mowle, and another tablet in Grilling Abbots church. And all that comes of improper diet, and disordered blood, and undue exposure to cold. Why won't people be more careful? But they won't, and so it's no use talking. Perhaps it would be worse for doctors if they were to be more careful. Blood-letting? No. I don't think we can afford blood-letting in this case. We'll try iodide of potassium, or perhaps the alkalies and alkaline carbonates with calomel and opium. I've great faith in the alkalies, myself. I remember in that important case at Mowle"—And the doctor wandered into medical reminiscences.
"Have the spare bedroom ready for to-morrow, Vi," he said, entering his cottage, "and everything well-aired. We're going to have a visitor."
"Who, papa dear?" asks Miss Madge; "do tell me!"
"I heard you this morning, Madge. You talk loud enough. Who? why The Vampire!"