Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 6
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER XI. AN ALTERED WILL.
Just one fortnight from the very day that witnessed the sailing of Frederick Massingbird and his wife, Mr. Verner was taken alarmingly ill. Fred, in his soliloquy that afternoon, when you saw him upon the gate of the ploughed field—“Old step-father’s wiry yet, and may last an age,”—had certainly not been assisted with the gift of prevision, for there was no doubt that Mr. Verner’s time to die had now come.
Lionel had thrown his sorrow bravely from him, in outward appearance at any rate; what it might be doing for him inwardly, he alone could tell. These apparently calm, undemonstrative natures, that show a quiet exterior to the world, may have a fire consuming their heartstrings. He did not go near the wedding; but neither did he shut himself up indoors, as one indulging lamentation and grief. He pursued his occupations just as usual. He read to Mr. Verner, who allowed him to do so that day; he rode out; he saw people, friends, and others, whom it was necessary to see. He had the magnanimity to shake hands with the bride, and wish her joy.
It occurred in this way. Mrs. Verner declined to attend the ceremony. Since the news of John’s death she had been ailing both in body and mind. But she desired Frederick to take Verner’s Pride in his road, when driving away with his bride, that she might say her last farewell to him and Sibylla, neither of whom she felt sure she should ever see again. Oh, she’d see them again fast enough, was Fred’s response; they might not be away more than a year. But he complied with her request, and brought Sibylla. About three o’clock in the afternoon, the ceremony and the breakfast over, the carriage, with its four horses, clattered on to the terrace, and Fred handed Sibylla out of it. Lionel was crossing the hall at the moment of their entrance; his horse had just been brought round for him. To say he was surprised at seeing them there would not be saying enough; he had known nothing of the intended call. They met face to face. Sibylla wore a sweeping dress of silk; a fine Indian shawl, the gift of Mrs. Verner, was folded round her, and her golden hair fell beneath her bonnet. Her eyes fell, also, before the gaze of Lionel.
Never had she looked more beautiful, more attractive; and Lionel felt it. But, had she been one for whom he had never cared, he could not have shown more courtly indifference. A moment given to the choking down his throat’s emotion, to the stilling of his beating pulses, and he stood before her calmly self-possessed; holding out his hand; speaking in a low, clear tone.
“Allow me to offer you my good wishes for your welfare, Mrs. Massingbird.”
“Thank you; thank you very much,” replied Sibylla, dropping his hand, avoiding his eye, and going on to find Mrs. Verner.
“Good-bye, Lionel,” said Frederick Massingbird. “You are going out, I see.”
Lionel shook his hand cordially. Rival though he had proved to him, he did not blame Frederick Massingbird; he was too just to cast blame where it was not due.
“Fare you well, Frederick; I sincerely hope you will have a prosperous voyage, that you will come safely home again.”
All this was over, and they had sailed. Dr. West having exacted a solemn promise from his son-in-law that they should leave for home again the very instant that John’s property had been realised; and now, a fortnight after it, Mr. Verner was taken—as was believed—for death. He himself believed so. He knew what his own disorder was; he knew that the moment the water began to mount, and attained a certain height, his life would be gone.
“How many hours have I to live?” he inquired of Dr. West.
“Probably for some days,” was the answer.
What could it have been that was troubling the mind of Mr. Verner? That it was worldly trouble was certain. That other trouble, which has been known to distract the minds of the dying, to fill them with agony, was absent from his. On that score he was in perfect peace. But that some very great anxiety was racking him might be seen by the most casual observer. It had been racking him for a long time past, but it was growing worse now. And it appeared to be what he could not, or would not, speak of.
The news of the dangerous change in the master of Verner’s Pride circulated through the vicinity, and it brought forth, amidst other of his friends, Mr. Bitterworth. This was on the second day of the change. Tynn received Mr. Bitterworth in the hall.
“There’s no hope, sir, I’m afraid,” was Tynn’s answer to his inquiries. “He’s not in much pain of body, but he’s dreadfully anxious and uneasy.”
“What about?” asked Mr. Bitterworth: who was a little man with a pimpled face.
“Nobody knows, sir: he doesn’t say. For myself, I can only think it must be about something connected with the estate. What else can it be?”
“I suppose I can see him, Tynn?”
“I’ll ask, sir. He refuses visitors in his room, but I dare say he’ll admit you.”
Lionel came to Mr. Bitterworth in the drawing-room. “My uncle will see you,” he said, after greetings had passed.
“Tynn informs me that he appears to be uneasy in his mind,” observed Mr. Bitterworth.
“A man so changed, as he has been in the last two years, I have never seen,” replied Lionel. “None can have failed to remark it. From entire calmness of mind, he has exhibited anxious restlessness: I may say irritability. Mrs. Verner is ill,” Lionel added, as they were ascending the stairs. “She has not been out of bed for two days.”
Not in his study now; he had done with the lower part of the house for ever; but in his bedchamber, never to come out of it alive, was Mr. Verner. They had got him up, and he sat in an easy chair by the bed side, partially dressed, and wrapped in his dressing-gown. On his pale, worn face there were the unmistakeable signs of death. He and Mr. Bitterworth were left alone.
“So you have come to see the last of me, Bitterworth!” was the remark of Mr. Verner.
“Not the last yet, I hope,” heartily responded Mr. Bitterworth, who was an older man than Mr. Verner, but hale and active. “You may rally from this attack and get about again. Remember how many serious attacks you have had.”
“None like this. The end must come; and it has come now. Hush, Bitterworth! To speak of recovery to me is worse than child’s play. I know my time has come. And I am glad to meet it, for it releases me from a world of care.”
“Were there any in this world who might be supposed to be exempt from care, it is you,” said Mr. Bitterworth, leaning towards the invalid, his hale old face expressing the concern he felt. “I should have judged you to be perfectly free from earthly care. You have no children: what can be troubling you?”
“Would to heaven I had children!” exclaimed Mr. Verner: and the remark appeared to break from him involuntarily, in the bitterness of his heart.
“You have your brother’s son; your heir, Lionel.”
“He is no heir of mine,” returned Mr. Verner, with, if possible, double bitterness.
“No heir of yours!” repeated Mr. Bitterworth, gazing at his friend, and wondering whether he had lost his senses.
Mr. Verner, on his part, gazed on vacancy: his thoughts evidently cast inwards. He sat in his old favourite attitude: his hands clasped on the head of his stick, and his face bent down upon it. “Bitterworth,” said he, presently, “when I made my will years ago, after my father’s death, I appointed you one of the executors.”
“I know it,” replied Mr. Bitterworth. “I was associated—as you gave me to understand—with Sir Rufus Hautley.”
“Ay. After the boy came of age,”—and Mr. Bitterworth knew that he alluded to Lionel—“I added his name to that of yours and Sir Rufus. Legacies apart, the estate was all left to him.”
“Of course it was,” assented Mr. Bitterworth.
“Since then I have seen fit to make an alteration,” continued Mr. Verner. “I mention it to you, Bitterworth, that you may not be surprised when you hear the will read. Also I would tell you that I made the change of my own free act and judgment, unbiassed by any one, and that I did not make it without ample cause. The estate is not left to Lionel Verner, but to Frederick Massingbird.”
Mr. Bitterworth had small round eyes, but they opened now to their utmost width. “What did you say?” he repeated, after a pause; like a man out of breath.
“Strictly speaking, the estate is not bequeathed to Frederick Massingbird: he will inherit it in consequence of John’s death,” quietly went on Mr. Verner. “It is left to John Massingbird, and to Frederick after him, if he survives myself. Failing them both—.”
“And I am still executor?” interrupted Mr. Bitterworth, in a tone raised rather above the orthodox key for a sick room.
“You and Sir Rufus. That, so far, is not altered.”
“Then I will not act. No, Stephen Verner, long and close as our friendship has been, I will not countenance an act of injustice. I will not be your executor: unless Verner’s Pride goes, as it ought, to Lionel Verner.”
“Lionel has forfeited it.”
“Forfeited it!—how can he have forfeited it? Is this”—Mr. Bitterworth was given to speak in plain terms when excited—“is this the underhand work of Mrs. Verner?”
“Peace, Bitterworth! Mrs. Verner knows nothing of the change. Her surviving son knows nothing of it; John knew nothing of it. They have no idea but that Lionel is still the heir. You should not jump to unjust conclusions: not one of them has ever asked me how my property was left; or has attempted, by the smallest word, to influence me in its disposal.”
“Then, what has influenced you? Why have you done it?” demanded Mr. Bitterworth, his voice becoming more subdued.
To this question Mr. Verner did not immediately reply. He appeared not to have done with the defence of his wife and her sons.
“Mrs. Verner is not of a covetous nature; she is not unjust, and I believe that she would wish the estate willed to Lionel, rather than to her sons. She knows no good reason why it should not be willed to him. And for those sons—do you suppose either of them would have gone out to Australia, had he been cognisant that he was heir to Verner’s Pride?”
“Why have you willed it away from Lionel?”
“I cannot tell you,” replied Mr. Verner, in a tone of sharp pain. It betrayed to Mr. Bitterworth what sharper pain the step itself must have cost.
“Is it this which has been on your mind, Verner,—disturbing your closing years?”
“Ay, it is that; nothing else,” wailed Mr. Verner, “nothing else! nothing else! Has it not been enough to disturb me?” he added, putting the question in a loud, quick accent. “Setting aside my love for Lionel, which was great,—setting aside my finding him unworthy, it has been a bitter trial to me to leave Verner’s Pride to a Massingbird. I have never loved the Massingbirds,” he continued, dropping his voice to a whisper.
“If Lionel were unworthy,”—with a stress upon the “were,”—“you might have left it to Jan,” spoke Mr. Bitterworth.
“Lady Verner has thrown too much estrangement between Jan and me. No. I would rather even a Massingbird had it than Jan.”
“If Lionel were unworthy, I said,” resumed Mr. Bitterworth. “I cannot believe he is. How has he proved himself so? What has he done?”
Mr. Verner put up his hands as if to ward off some imaginary phantom, and his pale face turned of a leaden hue.
“Never ask me,” he whispered. “I cannot tell you. I have had to bear it about with me,” he continued, with an irrepressible burst of anguish; “to bear it here, within me, in silence; never breathing a word of my knowledge to him, or to any one.”
“Some folly must have come to your cognisance,” observed Mr. Bitterworth, “though I had deemed Lionel Verner to be more free from the sins of hot-blooded youth than are most men. I have believed him to be a true gentleman in the best sense of the word—a good and honourable man.”
“A silent stream runs deep,” remarked Mr. Verner.
Mr. Bitterworth drew his chair nearer to his friend, bending towards him, and speaking solemnly.
“Verner’s Pride of right (speaking according to our national notions) belonged to your brother, Sir Lionel, Stephen. It would have been his, as you know, had he lived but a month or two longer; your father would not have willed it away from him. After him it would have been Lionel’s. Sir Lionel died too soon, and it was left to you; but what injunction from your father was it that accompanied it? Forgive me asking you the question?”
“Do you think I have forgotten it?” wailed Mr. Verner. “It has cost me my peace—my happiness, to will it away from Lionel. To see Verner’s Pride in possession of any but a Verner will trouble me so—if, indeed, we are permitted in the next world still to mark what goes on in this—that I shall scarcely rest quiet in my grave.”
“You have no more—I must speak plainly, Stephen,—I believe that you have no more right in equity to will away the estate from Lionel, than you would have, were he the heir-at-law. Many have said—I am sure you must be aware that they have—that you have kept him out of it; that you have enjoyed what ought to have been his, ever since his grandfather’s death.”
“Have you said it?” angrily asked Mr. Verner.
“I have neither said it nor thought it. When your father informed me that he had willed the estate to you, Sir Lionel having died, I answered him that I thought he had done well and wisely; that you had far more right to it, for your life, than the boy Lionel. But, Stephen, I should never sanction your leaving it away from him after you. Had you possessed children of your own, they should never have been allowed to shut out Lionel. He is your elder brother’s son, remember.”
Mr. Verner sat like one in dire perplexity. It would appear that there was a struggle going on in his own mind.
“I know, I know,” he presently said, in answer. “The worry, the uncertainty, as to what I ought to do, has destroyed the peace of my later days. I altered my will when smarting under the discovery of his unworthiness; but, even then, a doubt as to whether I was doing right, caused me to name him as inheritor, should the Massingbirds die.”
“Why, that must have been a paradox!” exclaimed Mr. Bitterworth. “Lionel Verner should inherit before all, or not inherit at all. What your ground of complaint against him is, I know not; but whatever it may be, it can be no excuse for your willing away from him Verner’s Pride. Some folly of his came to your knowledge I conclude.”
“Not folly. Call it sin: call it crime,” vehemently replied Mr. Verner.
“As you please; you know its proper term better than I. For one solitary instance of—what you please to name it—you should not blight his whole prospects for life. Lionel’s general conduct is so irreproachable (unless he be the craftiest hypocrite under the sun), that you may well pardon one defalcation. Are you sure you were not mistaken?”
“I am sure. I hold proof positive.”
“Well, I leave that. I say that you might forgive him, whatever it may be, remembering how few his offences are. He would make a faithful master of Verner’s Pride. Compare him to Fred Massingbird! Pshaw!”
Mr. Verner did not answer. His face had an aching look upon it, as it leaned out from the top of his stick. Mr. Bitterworth laid his hand upon his knee persuasively.
“Do not go out of the world committing an act of injustice; an act, too, that is irreparable, and of which the injustice must last for ever. Stephen, I will not leave you until you consent to repair what you have done.”
“It has been upon my mind to do it since I was taken worse yesterday,” murmured Stephen Verner. “Our Saviour taught us to forgive. Had it been against me only that he sinned, I would have forgiven him long ago.”
“You will forgive him now?”
“Forgiveness does not lie with me. It was not against me, I say, that he sinned. Let him ask forgiveness of God and of his own conscience. But he shall have Verner’s Pride.”
“Better that you should see it in its proper light at the eleventh hour, than not at all, Stephen,” said Mr. Bitterworth. “By every law of right and justice, Verner’s Pride, after you, belongs to Lionel.”
“You speak well, Bitterworth, when you call it the eleventh hour,” observed Mr. Verner. “If I am to make this change, you must get Matiss here without an instant’s delay. See him yourself, and bring him back. Tell him what the necessity is. He will make more haste for you than he might for one of my servants.”
“Does he know of the bequest to the Massingbirds?”
“Of course he knows. He made the will. I have never employed anybody but Matiss, since I came into the estate.”
Mr. Bitterworth, feeling there was little time to be lost, quitted the room without more delay. He was anxious that Lionel should have his own. Not so much because he liked and esteemed Lionel, as that he possessed a strong sense of justice within himself. Lionel heard him leaving the sick-room, and came to him, but Mr. Bitterworth would not stop.
“I can’t wait,” he said. “I am bound on an errand for your uncle.”
He was bound to the house of the lawyer, Mr. Matiss, who lived and had his office in the new part of Deerham, down by Dr. West’s. People wondered in so small a place that he managed to make a living: but he evidently did make one. Most of the gentry in the vicinity employed him for trifling things, and he held one or two good agencies. He kept no clerk. He was at home when Mr. Bitterworth entered, writing at a desk in his small office, which had maps hung round it. A quick-speaking man with dark hair and a good-natured face.
“Are you busy, Matiss?” began Mr. Bitterworth, when he entered, and the lawyer looked at him through the railings of his desk.
“Not particularly, Mr. Bitterworth. Do you want me?”
“Mr. Verner wants you. He has sent me to bring you to him without delay. You have heard that there’s a change in him?”
“Oh, yes, I have heard it,” replied the lawyer. “I am at his service, Mr. Bitterworth.”
“He wants his last will altered. Remedied, I should say,” continued Mr. Bitterworth, looking the lawyer full in the face, and nodding confidentially.
“Altered to what it was before?” eagerly cried the lawyer.
Mr. Bitterworth nodded again. “I called in upon him this morning, and in the course of conversation it came out what he had done about Verner’s Pride. And now he wants it undone.”
“I am glad of it; I am glad of it, Mr. Bitterworth. Between ourselves—though I mean no disrespect to them—the young Massingbirds were not fit heirs for Verner’s Pride. Mr. Lionel Verner is.”
“He is the rightful heir as well as the fit one, Matiss,” added Mr. Bitterworth, leaning over the desk’s railings, while the lawyer was hastily putting his papers in order, preparatory to leaving them, placing some aside on the desk, and locking up others, “what was the cause of his willing it away from Lionel Verner?”
“It’s more than I can tell. He gave no clue whatever to his motive. Many and many a time have I thought it over since, but I never came near fathoming it. I told Mr. Verner that it was not a just thing, when I took his instructions for the fresh will. That is, I intimated as much; it was not my place, of course, to speak out my mind offensively to Mr. Verner. Dr. West said a great deal more to him than I did; but he could make no impression.”
“Was Dr. West consulted, then, by Mr. Verner?”
“Not at all. When I called at Verner’s Pride with the fresh will, for Mr. Verner to execute it, it happened that Tynn was out. He and one of the other servants were to have witnessed the signature. Dr. West came in at the time, and Mr. Verner said he would do for a witness in Tynn’s place. Dr. West remonstrated most strongly when he found what it was, for Mr. Verner told him in confidence what had been done. He, the doctor, at first refused to put his hand to anything so unjust. He protested that the public would cry shame, would say John Massingbird had no human right to Verner’s Pride, would suspect he had obtained it by fraud or by some sort of underhand work. Mr. Verner replied that I—Matiss—could contradict that. At last the doctor signed.”
“When was this?”
“It was the very week after John started for Australia. I wondered why Mr. Verner should have allowed him to go if he meant to make him his heir. Dr. West wondered also, and said so to Mr. Verner, but Mr. Verner made no reply.”
“Mr. Verner has just told me that neither the Massingbirds nor Mrs. Verner knew anything of the fresh will. I understood him to imply that no person whatever was cognisant of it but himself and you.”
“And Dr. West. Nobody else.”
“And he gave no reason for the alteration—either to you or to Dr. West?”
“None at all. Beyond the assertion that Lionel had displeased him. Dr. West would have pressed him upon the point, but Mr. Verner repulsed him with coldness. He insisted upon our secresy as to the new will; which we promised, and I dare say have never violated. I know I can answer for myself.”
They hastened back to Verner’s Pride, and the lawyer, in the presence of Mr. Bitterworth, received instructions for a codicil, revoking the bequest of the estate to the Massingbirds, and bestowing it absolutely upon Lionel Verner. The bequests to others, legacies, instructions in the former will, were all to stand. It was a somewhat elaborate will; hence Mr. Verner suggested that that will, so far, could still stand, and the necessary alteration be made by a codicil.
“You can have it ready by this evening?” Mr. Verner remarked to the lawyer.
“Before then, if you like, sir. It won’t take me long to draw that up. One’s pen goes glibly when one’s heart’s in the work. I am glad you are willing it back to Mr. Lionel.”
“Draw it up then, and bring it here as soon as it’s ready. You won’t find me gone out,” he added, with a faint attempt at jocularity.
The lawyer did as he was bid, and returned to Verner’s Pride about five o’clock in the afternoon. He found Dr. West there. It was somewhat singular that the doctor should again be present, like he had been at the previous signing—and yet not singular, for he was now in frequent attendance on the patient.
“How do you feel yourself this afternoon, sir?” asked Mr. Matiss when he entered, his great-coat buttoned up, his hat in his hand, his gloves on; showing no signs that he had any professional document about him, or that he had called in for any earthly reason, save to inquire out of politeness after the state of the chief of Verner’s Pride.
“Pretty well, Matiss. Are you ready?”
“We’ll do it at once, then. Dr. West,” Mr. Verner added, turning to the doctor, “I have been making an alteration in my will. You were one of the former witnesses; will you be so again?”
“With pleasure. An alteration consequent upon the death of John Massingbird, I presume?”
“No. I should have made it, I believe, had he been still alive. Verner’s Pride must go to Lionel. I cannot die easy unless it does.”
“But—I thought you said Lionel had done—had done something to forfeit it?” interrupted Dr. West, whom the words appeared to have taken by surprise.
“To forfeit my esteem and good opinion. Those he can never enjoy again. But I doubt whether I have a right to deprive him of Verner’s Pride. I begin to think I have not. I believe that the world generally will think I have not. It may be, that a Higher Power, to whom alone I am responsible, will judge I have not. There’s no denying that he will make a more fitting master of it than would Frederick Massingbird; and for myself I shall die the easier knowing that a Verner will succeed me. Mr. Matiss, be so kind as read over the deed.”
The lawyer produced a parchment from one of his ample pockets, unfolded, and proceeded to read it aloud. It was the codicil, drawn up with all due form, and bequeathing Verner’s Pride to Lionel Verner. It was short, and he read it in a clear, distinct voice.
“Will you like to sign it, sir?” he asked, as he laid it down.
“When I have read it for myself,” replied Mr. Verner.
The lawyer smiled as he handed it to him. All his clients were not so cautious. Some might have said, “so mistrustful.”
The codicil was all right, and the bell was rung for Tynn. Mrs. Tynn happened to come in at the same moment. She was retreating when she saw business agate, but her master spoke to her.
“You need not go, Mrs. Tynn. Bring a pen and ink here.”
So the housekeeper remained present while the deed was executed. Mr. Verner signed it, proclaiming it his last will and testament, and Dr. West and Tynn affixed their signatures. The lawyer and Mrs. Tynn stood looking on.
Mr. Verner folded it up with his own hands, and sealed it.
“Bring me my desk,” he said, looking at Mrs. Tynn.
The desk was kept in a closet in the room, and she brought it forth. Mr. Verner locked the parchment within it.
“You will remember where it is,” he said, touching the desk, and looking at the lawyer. “The will is also here.”
Mrs. Tynn carried the desk back again; and Dr. West and the lawyer left the house together.”
Later, when Mr. Verner was in bed, he spoke to Lionel, who was sitting with him.
“You will give heed to carry out my directions, Lionel, so far as I have left directions, after you come into power?”
“I will, sir,” replied Lionel, never having had the faintest suspicion that he had been near losing the inheritance.
“And be more active abroad than I have been. I have left too much to Roy and others. You are young and strong; don’t you leave it to them. Look into things with your own eyes.”
“Indeed I will. My dear uncle,” he added, bending over the bed, and speaking in an earnest tone, “I will endeavour to act in all things as though in your sight, accountable to God and my own conscience. Verner’s Pride shall have no unworthy master.”
“Try and live so as to redeem the past.”
“Yes,” said Lionel. He did not see what precise part of it he had to redeem, but he was earnestly anxious to defer to the words of a dying man. “Uncle, may I dare to say that I hope you will live yet?” he gently said.
“It is of no use, Lionel. The world is closing for me.”
It was closing for him even then, as he spoke, closing rapidly. Before another afternoon had come round, the master of Verner's Pride had quitted that, and all other pride, for ever.
CHAPTER XII. DISAPPEARED.
Sweeping down from Verner’s Pride towards the church at Deerham, came the long funeral train. Mutes with their plumes and batons, relays of bearers, the bier. It had been Mr. Verner’s express desire that he should be carried to the grave, that no hearse or coaches should be used.
“Bury me quietly; bury me without show,” had been his charge. And yet a show it was, that procession, if only from its length. Close to the coffin walked the heir, Lionel; Jan and Dr. West came next; Mr. Bitterworth and Sir Rufus Hautley. Other gentlemen were there, followers or else pall-bearers; the tenants followed; the servants came last. A long, long line, slow and black; and spectators gathered on the side of the road, underneath the hedges, and in the upper windows at Deerham, to see it pass. The under windows were closed.
A brave heir, a brave master of Verner’s Pride! was the universal thought, as eyes were turned on Lionel, on his tall, noble form, his pale face stilled to calmness, his dark hair. He chose to walk bare-headed, his hat, with its sweeping streamers, borne in his hand. When handed to him in the hall he had not put it on, but went out as he was, carrying it. The rest, those behind him, did not follow his example; they assumed their hats; but Lionel was probably unconscious of it, probably he never gave it a thought.
At the churchyard entrance they were met by the Vicar of Deerham, the Reverend James Bourne. All hats came off then, as his voice rose, commencing the service. Nearly one of the last walked old Matthew Frost. He had not gone to Verner’s Pride, the walk so far was beyond him now, but fell in at the churchyard gate. The fine, upright, hale man whom you saw at the commencement of this history had changed into a bowed, broken mourner. Rachel’s fate had done that. On the right, as they moved up the churchyard, was the mound which covered the remains of Rachel. Old Matthew did not look towards it; as he passed it he only bent his head the lower. But many others turned their heads; they remembered her that day.
In the middle of the church, open now, dark and staring, was the vault of the Verners. There lay already within it Stephen Verner’s father, his first wife, and the little child Rachel, Rachel Frost’s foster sister. A grand grave this, compared to that lowly mound outside; there was a grand descriptive tablet on the walls to the Verners, while the mound was nameless. By the side of the large tablet was a smaller one, placed there to the memory of the brave Sir Lionel Verner, who had fallen near Moultan. Lionel involuntarily glanced up at it, as he stood now over the vault, and a wish came over him that his father’s remains were here, amidst them, instead of in that far-off grave.
The service was soon over, and Stephen Verner was left in his resting-place. Then the procession, shorn of its chief and prominent feature, went back to Verner’s Pride. Lionel wore his hat this time.
In the large drawing-room of state, in her mourning robes and widow’s cap, sat Mrs. Verner. She had not been out of her chamber, until within the last ten minutes, since before Mr. Verner’s death; scarcely out of her bed. As they passed into the room—the lawyer, Dr. West, Jan, Mr. Bitterworth, and Sir Rufus Hautley—they thought how Mrs. Verner had changed, and how ill she looked. She had, indeed, changed since the news of John Massingbird’s death; and some of them believed that she would not be very long after Mr. Verner.
They had assembled there for the purpose of hearing the will read. The desk of Mr. Verner was brought forward and laid upon the table. Lionel, taking his late uncle’s keys from his pocket, unlocked it, and delivered a parchment, which it contained, to Mr. Matiss. The lawyer saw at a glance that it was the old will, not the codicil, and he waited for Lionel to hand him also the latter.
“Be so kind as read it, Mr. Matiss,” said Lionel, pointing to the will.
It had to be read: and it was of no consequence whether the codicil was taken from the desk before reading it, or afterwards, so Mr. Matiss unfolded it, and began.
It was a somewhat elaborate will—as has been previously hinted. Verner’s Pride, with its rich lands, its fine income, was left to John Massingbird; in the event of John’s death, childless, it went to Frederick; in the event of Frederick’s death, childless, it went to Lionel Verner. There the conditions ended: so that, if it did lapse to Lionel, it lapsed to him absolutely. But it would appear that the contingency of both the Massingbirds dying had been only barely glanced at by Mr. Verner. Five hundred pounds were left to Lionel; five hundred to Jan; five hundred to Decima: nothing to Lady Verner. Mrs. Verner was suitably provided for, and there were bequests to servants. Twenty-five pounds for “a mourning ring” were bequeathed to each of the two executors, Sir Rufus Hautley and Mr. Bitterworth; and old Matthew Frost had forty pounds a year for his life. Such were the chief features of the will; and the utter astonishment it produced on the minds and countenances of some of the listeners, was a sight to witness. Lionel, Mrs. Verner, Jan, and Sir Rufus Hautley were petrified.
Sir Rufus rose. He was a thin stately man, always dressed in hessian boots and the old-fashioned shirt frill. A proud, impassive countenance was his, but it darkened now. “I will not act,” he began. “I beg to state my opinion that the will is an unfair one—”
“I beg your pardon, Sir Rufus,” interrupted the lawyer. “Allow me a word. This is not the final will of Mr. Verner: much of it has been revoked by a recent codicil. Verner’s Pride comes to Mr. Lionel. You will find the codicil in the desk, sir,” he added, to Lionel.
Lionel, his pale face haughty and quite as impassive as that of Sir Rufus, for anything like injustice angered him, opened the desk again. “I was not aware,” he observed. “My uncle told me on the day of his death that the will would be found in his desk: I supposed that to be it.”
“It is the will,” said Mr. Matiss. “But he caused me to draw up a later codicil, which revoked the bequest of Verner’s Pride. It is left to you absolutely.”
Lionel was searching in the desk. The few papers in it appeared to be arranged with the most methodical neatness: but they were small, chiefly old letters. “I don’t see anything like a codicil,” he observed. “You had better look yourself, Mr. Matiss: you will probably recognise it.”
Mr. Matiss advanced to the desk and looked in it. “It is not here!” he exclaimed.
Not there! They gazed at him, at the desk, at Lionel, half puzzled. The lawyer with rapid fingers was taking out the papers one by one.
“No, it is not here, in either compartment. I saw it was not, the moment I looked in; but it was well to be sure. Where has it been put?”
“I really do not know anything about it,” answered Lionel, to whom he looked as he spoke. “My uncle told me the will would be found in his desk. And the desk has not been opened since his death.”
“Could Mr. Verner himself have changed its place to somewhere else?” went on the lawyer, speaking with more than usual quickness, and turning over the papers with great rapidity.
“Not after he told me where the will was. He did not touch the desk after that. It was but just before his death. So far as I know, he had not had his desk brought out of the closet for days.”
“Yes, he had,” said the lawyer. “After he had executed the codicil on the evening previous to his death, he called for his desk, and put the parchment into it. It lay on the top of the will—this one. I saw that much.”
“I can testify that the codicil was locked in the desk, and the desk was then returned to the closet, for I happened to be present,” spoke up Dr. West. “I was one of the witnesses to the codicil, like I had been to the will. Mr. Verner must have moved it himself to some safer place.”
“What place could be safer than the desk in his own bedroom?” cried the lawyer. “And why move the codicil and not the will?”
“True,” assented Dr. West. “But—I don’t see—it could not go out of the desk without being moved out. And who would presume to meddle with it but himself? Who took possession of his keys when he died?” added the doctor, looking round at Mrs. Verner.
“I did,” said Lionel. “And they have not been out of my possession since. Nothing whatever has been touched: desk, drawers, every place belonging to him are as they were left when he died.”
Of course the only thing to do was to look for the codicil. Great interest was excited; and it appeared to be altogether so mysterious an affair that one and all flocked upstairs to the room: the room where he had died! where the coffin had but just gone out of. Mrs. Tynn was summoned: and when she found what was amiss, she grew excited; fearing possibly that the blame might in some way fall upon her. Saving Lionel himself, she was the only one who had been alone with Mr. Verner: of course, the only one who could have had an opportunity of tampering with the desk. And that, only when the patient slept.
“I protest that the desk was never touched, after I returned it to the closet by my master’s desire, when the parchment was put into it!” she cried. “My master never asked for his desk again, and I never so much as opened the closet. It was only the afternoon before he died, gentlemen, that the deed was signed.”
“Where did he keep his keys?” asked Mr. Bitterworth.
“In the little table-drawer at his elbow, sir. The first day he took to his bed, he wanted his keys, and I got them out of his dressing-gown pocket for him. ‘You needn’t put ’em back,’ he says to me, ‘let ’em stop inside this little drawer.’ And there they stayed till he died, when I gave ’em up to Mr. Lionel.”
“You must have let somebody get into the room, Mrs. Tynn,” said Dr. West.
“I never was away from the room above two minutes at a time, sir,” was the woman’s reply. “And then, either Mr. Lionel or Tynn would be with him. But, if any of ’em did come in, it’s not possible they’d get picking at the master’s desk to take out a paper. What good would the paper do any of the servants?”
Mrs. Tynn’s question was a pertinent one. The servants were neither the better nor the worse for the codicil: whether it were forthcoming, or not, it made no difference to them. Sir Rufus Hautley inquired upon this point, and the lawyer satisfied him.
“The codicil was to this effect alone;” he explained. “It changed the positions of Mr. Lionel and Mr. Frederick Massingbird, the one for the other, as they had stood in the will. Mr. Lionel came into the inheritance, and Mr. Frederick Massingbird to five hundred pounds only.”
“They two were the only parties interested in the codicil, then?”
“The only two. John Massingbird’s name was mentioned, but only to revoke all former bequests to him, of any sort.”
“Then—were John Massingbird alive, he could not now succeed to the estate!” cried Sir Rufus.
“He could not, Sir Rufus,” replied the lawyer. “He would be debarred from all benefit under Mr. Verner’s will. That is, provided we can come across the codicil. Failing that, he would succeed, were he in life, to Verner’s Pride.”
“The codicil must be found,” cried Mr. Bitterworth, getting heated. “Don’t say, ‘if we can come across it,’ Matiss.”
“Very good, Mr. Bitterworth. I’m sure I should be glad to see it found. Where else are we to look?”
Where else, indeed? That Mr. Verner could not get out of the room, to hide the codicil, was an indisputable fact; and nobody else seemed to know anything whatever about it. The only one personally interested in the suppression of the codicil was Frederick Massingbird; and he, hundreds of miles away, could neither have secured it nor sent his ghost to secure it. In a less degree, Mrs. Verner and Dr. West were interested: the one in her son; the other in that son’s wife. But the doctor was not an inmate of Verner’s Pride; and Mrs. Tynn could have testified that she had been present in the room, and never left it during each of the doctor’s professional visits, subsequent to the drawing out of the codicil. As for Mrs. Verner, she had not been out of her bed. Mr. Verner, at the last, had gone off suddenly, without pain, and there had been no time to call his wife. Mrs. Tynn excused the negligence, by saying, she did not think her master had been quite so near his end: and it was a true excuse. But no one dreamt of attaching suspicion to Mrs. Verner, or to Dr. West. “I’d rather it had been Lionel to succeed, than Frederick,” spoke the former, honestly, some faint idea that people might think she was pleased, suggesting the avowal to her. “Lionel has more right than Fred to Verner’s Pride.”
“More right!” ejaculated Dr. West, warmly. “Frederick Massingbird has no right, by the side of Lionel Verner. Why Mr. Verner ever willed it away from Lionel we could not understand.”
“Fred needn’t take it—even if the codicil can’t be found—he can give it back to Lionel by deed of gift,” said practical Jan. “I should.”
“That my master meant Mr. Lionel to succeed, is certain,” interposed Tynn, the butler. “Nearly the last word he said to me, before the breath went out of his body, was an injunction to serve Mr. Lionel faithfully at Verner’s Pride, as I had served him. There can be no difficulty in Mr. Lionel’s succeeding, when his intentions were made so plain.”
“Be quiet, Tynn,” said Lionel. “I succeed by means of legal right to Verner’s Pride, or I will not succeed at all.”
“That’s true,” acquiesced the lawyer. “A will is a will, and must be acted upon. How on earth has that codicil got spirited away?”
How indeed! But for the plain fact, so positive and palpable before them, of the codicil’s absence, they would have declared the loss to be an impossibility. Up stairs and down, the house was vainly searched for it; and the conclusion was at length unwillingly come to, that Mr. Verner had repented of his bequest, had taken the codicil out of the desk, and burnt it. The suggestion came from Mr. Bitterworth: and Mrs. Tynn acknowledged that it was just possible Mr. Verner’s strength would allow him to accomplish so much, while her back was turned. And yet, how reconcile this with his dying charges to Lionel, touching the management of the estate?
The broad fact that there was the will, and that alone to act upon, untempered by a codicil, shone out all too clearly. Lionel Verner was displaced, and Frederick Massingbird was the heir.
Oh, if some impossible electric telegraph could but have carried the news over the waves of the sea, to the ship, ploughing along the mid-path of the ocean; if the two fugitives in her could but have been spirited back again, like the codicil seemed to have been spirited away, how triumphantly would they have entered upon their sway at Verner’s Pride!