Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 7
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER XIII. THE REVELATlON TO LADY VERNER.
It was a terrible blow; there was no doubt of that: very terrible to Lionel Verner, so proud and sensitive. Do not take the word, proud, in its wrong meaning. He did not set himself up for being better than others, or think everybody else dirt beneath his feet: but he was proud of his independence, of his unstained name—he was proud to own that fine place, Verner’s Pride. And now Verner’s Pride was dashed from him, and his independence seemed to have gone out with the blow, and a slight seemed to have fallen upon him, if not upon his name.
He had surely counted upon Verner’s Pride. He had believed himself as indisputably its heir, as though he had been Stephen Verner’s eldest son, and the estate entailed. Never for a moment had a doubt that he would succeed entered his own mind, or been imparted to it from any quarter. In the week that intervened between Mr. Verner’s death and burial, he had acted as entire master. It was he who issued orders—from himself now, not from any other—it was he who was appealed to. People, of their own accord, began to call him Mr. Verner. Very peremptory indeed had been a certain interview of his with Roy the bailiff. Not, as formerly, had he said, “Roy, my uncle desires me to say so and so;” or “Roy, you must not act in that way, it would displease Mr. Verner;” but he issued his own clear and unmistakable orders, as the sole master of Verner’s Pride. He and Roy all but came to loggerheads that day; and they would have come quite to it, but that Roy remembered in time that he, before whom he stood, was his head and master—his master to keep him on, or to discharge him at pleasure, and who would brook no more insubordination to his will. So Roy bowed, and eat humble pie, and hated Lionel all the while. Lionel had seen this; he had seen how the man longed to rebel, had he dared: and a flush of pain rose to his brow as he remembered that in that interview he had not been the master; that he was less master now than he had ever been. Roy would likewise remember it.
Mr. Bitterworth took Lionel aside. Sir Rufus Hautley had gone out after the blow had fallen, when the codicil had been searched for in vain—had gone out in anger, shaking the dust from his feet, declining to act as executor, to accept the mourning-ring, to have to do with anything so palpably unjust. The rest lingered yet: it seemed that they could not talk enough of it, could not tire of bringing forth new conjectures, could not give vent to all the phases of their astonishment.
“What could have been your offence, that your uncle should alter his will, two years ago, and leave the estate from you?” Mr. Bitterworth inquired of Lionel, drawing him aside.
“I am unable to conjecture,” replied Lionel. “I find by the date of this will that it was made the week subsequently to my departure for Paris, when Jan met with the accident. He was not displeased with me then, so far as I knew—”
“Did you go to Paris in opposition to his wish?” interrupted Mr. Bitterworth.
“On the contrary, he hurried me off. When the news of Jan’s accident arrived, and I went to my uncle with the message, he said to me,—I remember his very words,—‘Go off at once, don’t lose an instant,’ and he handed me money for the journey and for my stay; for Jan, also, should any great expense be needed for him; and in an hour I was away on my route. I stayed six months in Paris, as you may remember—the latter portion of the time for my own pleasure. When I did return home, I was perfectly thunderstruck at the change in my uncle’s appearance, and at the change in his manners to me. He was a bowed, broken man, with—as it seemed to me—something on his mind; and that I had offended him in some very unfortunate way, and to a great extent, was palpable. I never could get any solution to it, though I asked him repeatedly. I do not know, to this hour, what I had done. Sometimes I would think he was angry at my remaining so long away: but, if so, he might have given me a hint to return, or have suffered some one else to give it, for he never wrote to me.”
“Never wrote to you?” repeated Mr. Bitterworth.
“Not once, the whole of the time I was away. I wrote to him often; but if he had occasion to send me a message, Mrs. Verner or Fred Massingbird would write it. Of course, this will, disinheriting me, proves that my staying away could not have been the cause of displeasure—it is dated only the week after I went.”
“Whatever may be the cause, it is a grievous wrong inflicted on you. He was my dear friend, and we have but now returned from laying him in his grave, but still I must speak out my sentiments—that he had no right to deprive you of Verner’s Pride.”
Lionel knit his brow. That he thought the same; that he was feeling the injustice as a crying and unmerited wrong, was but too evident. Mr. Bitterworth had bent his head in a reverie, stealing a glance at Lionel, now and then.
“Is there nothing that you can charge your conscience with; no sin, which may have come to the knowledge of your uncle, and been deemed by him a just cause for disinheritance?” questioned Mr. Bitterworth, in a meaning tone.
“There is nothing, so help me, heaven!” replied Lionel, with emotion. “No sin, no shame; nothing that could be a cause, or the shade of a cause—I will not say for depriving me of Verner’s Pride, but even for my uncle’s displeasure.”
“It struck me—you will not be offended with me, Lionel, if I mention something that struck me a week back,” resumed Mr. Bitterworth. “I am a foolish old man, given to ponder much over cause and effect—to put two and two together, as we call it; and the day I first heard from your uncle that he had had good cause—this was what he said—for depriving you of Verner’s Pride, I went home, and set to work, thinking. The will had been made just after John Massingbird’s departure for Australia. I brought before me all the events which had occurred about that same time, and there rose up naturally, towering above every other reminiscence, the unhappy business touching Rachel Frost. Lionel,”—laying his hand on the young man’s shoulder, and dropping his voice to a whisper—“did you lead the girl astray?”
Lionel drew himself up to his full height, his lip curling with displeasure.
“To suspect you never would have occurred to me. I do not suspect you now. Were you to tell me that you were guilty of it, I should have difficulty in believing you. But it did occur to me that possibly your uncle may have cast that blame on you. I saw no other solution of the riddle. It could have been no light cause to induce Mr. Verner to deprive you of Verner’s Pride. He was not a capricious man.”
“It is impossible that my uncle could have cast a shade of suspicion on me, in regard to that affair,” said Lionel. “He knew me better. At the moment of its occurrence, when nobody could tell whom to suspect, I remember a word or two were dropped which caused me to assure him I was not the guilty party, and he stopped me. He would not allow me even to speak of defence; he said he cast no suspicion on me.”
“Well, it is a great mystery,” said Mr. Bitterworth. “You must excuse me, Lionel. I thought Mr. Verner might in some way have taken up the notion. Evil tales, which have no human foundation, are sometimes palmed upon credulous ears for fact, and do their work.”
“Were it as you suggest, my uncle would have spoken to me, had it been only to reproach,” said Lionel. “It is a mystery, certainly, as you observe; but that’s nothing to this mystery of the disappearance of the codicil—.”
“I am going, Lionel,” interrupted Jan, putting his head round the room-door.
“I must go, too,” said Lionel, starting from the sideboard against which he had been leaning. “My mother must hear of this business from no one but me.”
Verner’s Pride emptied itself of its mourners, who betook themselves their respective ways. Lionel, taking the long crape from his hat, and leaving on its deep mourning band alone, walked with a quick step through the village. He would not have chosen to be abroad that day, walking the very route where he had just figured, chief in the procession, but, to go without delay to Lady Verner was a duty; and, a duty Lionel would never willingly forego.
In the drawing-room at Deerham Court, in their new black dresses, sat Lady Verner and Decima: Lucy Tempest with them. Lady Verner held out her hand to Lionel when he entered, and lifted her face, a strange eagerness visible in its refinement.
“I thought you would come to me, Lionel!” she uttered. “I want to know a hundred things.—Decima, have the goodness to direct your reproachful looks elsewhere; not to me. Why should I be a hypocrite, and feign a sorrow for Stephen Verner which I do not feel? I know it is his burial day as well as you know it; but I will not make that a reason for abstaining from questions on family topics, although they do relate to money and means that were once his. I say it would be hypocritical affectation to do so. Lionel, has Jan an interest in Verner’s Pride after you, or is it left to you unconditionally? And what residence is appointed for Mrs. Verner?”
Lionel leaned over the table, apparently to reach something that was lying on it, contriving to bring his lips close to Decima. “Go out of the room, and take Lucy,” he whispered.
Decima received the hint promptly. She rose as of her own accord. “Lucy, let us leave mamma and Lionel alone. We will come back when your secrets are over,” she added, turning round with a smile as she left the room, Lucy with her.
“You don’t speak, Lionel,” impatiently cried Lady Verner. In truth he did not: he did not know how to begin. He rose, and approached her.
“Mother, can you bear disappointment?” he asked, taking her hand and speaking gently, in spite of his agitation.
“Hush!” interrupted Lady Verner. “If you speak of ‘disappointment’ to me, you are no true son of mine. You are going to tell me that Stephen Verner has left nothing to me: let me tell you, Lionel, that I would not have accepted it—and this I made known to him. Accept money from him! No. But I will accept it from my dear son”—looking at him with a smile—“now that he enjoys the revenues of Verner’s Pride.”
“It was not of money left, or not left, to you, that I was connecting disappointment,” answered Lionel. “There’s a worse disappointment in store for us than that, mother.”
“A worse disappointment!” repeated Lady Verner, looking puzzled. “You are never to be saddled with the presence of Mrs. Verner at Verner’s Pride, until her death!” she hastily added. A great disappointment, that would have been; a grievous wrong, in the estimation of Lady Verner.”
“Mother, dear, Verner’s Pride is not mine.”
“Not yours!” she slowly said. “He surely has not done as his father did before him?—left it to the younger brother, over the head of the elder? He has never left it to Jan!”
“Neither to Jan nor to me. It is left to Frederick Massingbird. John would have had it, had he been alive.”
Lady Verner’s delicate features became crimson: before she could speak, they had assumed a leaden colour. “Don’t play with me, Lionel,” she gasped, an awful fear thumping at her heart that he was not playing with her. “It cannot be left to the Massingbirds!”
He sat down by her side, and gave her the history of the matter in detail. Lady Verner caught at the codicil, like a drowning man catches at a straw.
“How could you terrify me?” she asked. “Verner’s Pride is yours, Lionel. The codicil must be found.”
“The conviction upon my mind is, that it never will be found,” he resolutely answered. “Whoever took that codicil from the desk where it was placed, could have had but one motive in doing it—the depriving me of Verner’s Pride. Rely upon it, it is effectually removed ere this, by burning, or otherwise. No. I already look upon the codicil as a thing that never existed. Verner’s Pride is gone from us.”
“But, Lionel, whom do you suspect? Who can have taken it? It is pretty nearly a hanging matter to steal a will!”
“I do not suspect any one,” he emphatically answered. “Mrs. Tynn protests that no one could have approached the desk unseen by her. It is very unlikely that any one would attempt it. They must, first of all, have chosen a moment when my uncle was asleep; they must have got Mrs. Tynn from the room; they must have searched for and found the keys; they must have unlocked the desk, taken the codicil, relocked the desk, and replaced the keys. All this could not be done without time, and familiarity with facts. Not a servant in the house—save the Tynns—knew the codicil was there, and they did not know its purport. But the Tynns are thoroughly trustworthy.”
“It must have been Mrs. Verner—”
“Hush, mother! I cannot listen to that, even from you. Mrs. Verner was in her bed—never out of it: she knew nothing whatever of the codicil. And, if she had, you will, I hope, do her the justice to believe that she would be incapable of meddling with it.”
“She benefits by its loss, at any rate,” bitterly rejoined Lady Verner.
“Her son does. But, that he does, was entirely unknown to her. She never knew that Mr. Verner had willed the estate away from me; she never dreamt but that I, and no other, would be his successor. The accession of Frederick Massingbird is unwelcome to her, rather than the contrary: he has no right to it, and she feels that he has not. In the impulse of the surprise, she said aloud that she wished it had been left to me; and I am sure they were her true sentiments.”
Lady Verner sat in silence, her white hands crossed on her black dress, her head bent down. Presently she lifted it:
“I do not fully understand you, Lionel. You appear to imply that—according to your belief—no one has touched the codicil. How, then, can it have got out of the desk?”
“There is only one solution. It was suggested by Mr. Bitterworth; and, though I refused credence to it when he spoke, it has since been gaining upon my mind. He thinks my uncle must have repented of the codicil after it was made, and, himself, destroyed it. I should give full belief to this, were it not that at the very last he spoke to me as the successor to Verner’s Pride.”
“Why did he will it from you at all?” asked Lady Verner.
“I know not. I have told you how estranged his manner has been to me for the last year or two; but wherefore, or what I had done to displease him, I cannot think or imagine.”
“He had no right to will away the estate from you,” vehemently uttered Lady Verner. “Was it not enough that he usurped your father’s birthright, as Jacob usurped Esau’s, keeping you out of it for years and years, but he must now deprive you of it for ever? Had you been dead—had there been any urgent reason why you should not succeed—Jan should have come in. Jan is the lawful heir, failing you. Mark me, Lionel, it will bring no good to Frederick Massingbird. Rights, violently diverted out of their course, can bring only wrong and confusion.”
“It would be scarcely fair were it to bring him wrong,” spoke Lionel in his strict justice. “Frederick has had nothing to do with the bequeathing it to himself.”
“Nonsense, Lionel! you cannot make me believe that no cajolery has been at work from some quarter or other,” peevishly answered Lady Verner. “Tell the facts to an impartial person—a stranger. They were always about him—his wife and those Massingbirds—and at the last moment it is discovered that he has left all to them and disinherited you.”
“Mother, you are mistaken. What my uncle has done, he has done of his own will alone, unbiassed by others; nay, unknown to others. He distinctly stated this to Matiss, when the change was made. No, although I am a sufferer, and they benefit, I cannot throw a shade of the wrong upon Mrs. Verner and the Massingbirds.”
“I will tell you what I cannot do—and that is, accept your view of the disappearance of the codicil,” said Lady Verner. “It does not stand to reason that your uncle would cause a codicil to be made, with all the haste and parade you speak of, only to destroy it afterwards. Depend upon it you are wrong. He never took it.”
“It does appear unlikely,” acquiesced Lionel. “It was not likely, either, that he would destroy it in secret; he would have done it openly. And, still less likely, that he would have addressed me as his successor in dying, and given me charges as to the management of the estate, had he left it away from me.”
“No, no; no, no;” significantly returned Lady Verner. “That codicil has been stolen, Lionel.”
“But, by whom?” he debated. “There’s not a servant in the house would do it; and there was no other inmate of it, save myself. This is my chief difficulty. Were it not for the total absence of all other suspicion, I should not for a moment entertain the thought that it could have been my uncle. Let us leave the subject, mother. It seems to be an unprofitable one, and my head is weary.”
“Are you going to give the codicil tamely up, for a bad job, without further search?” asked Lady Verner. “That I should live—that I should live to see Sibylla West’s children inherit Verner’s Pride!” she passionately added.
Sibylla West’s children! Lionel had enough pain at his heart, just then, without that shaft. A piercing shaft truly, and it dyed his brow fiery red.
“We have searched already in every likely or possible place that we can think of; to-morrow morning places unlikely and impossible will be searched,” he said, in answer to his mother’s question. “I shall be aided by the police: our searching is nothing, compared with what they can do. They go about it artistically, perfected by practice.”
“And—if the result should be a failure?”
“It will be a failure,” spoke Lionel, in his firm conviction. “In which case I bid adieu to Verner’s Pride.”
“And come home here; will you not, Lionel?”
“For the present. And now, mother, that I have told you the ill news, and spoiled your rest, I must go back again.”
Spoiled her rest! Ay, for many a day and night to come. Lionel disinherited! Verner’s Pride gone from them for ever! A cry went forth from Lady Verner’s heart. It had been the moment of hope which she had looked forward to for years; and, now that it was come, what had it brought?
“My own troubles make me selfish,” said Lionel, turning back when he was half out at the door. “I forgot to tell you that Jan and Decima inherit five hundred pounds each.”
“Five hundred pounds!” slightingly returned Lady Verner. “It is but of a piece with the rest.”
He did not add that he had five hundred also, failing the estate. It would have seemed worse mockery still.
Looking out at the door, opposite to the ante-room, on the other side of the hall, was Decima. She had heard his step, and came to beckon him in. It was the dining-parlour, but a pretty room still; for Lady Verner would have nothing about her inelegant or ugly, if she could help it. Lucy Tempest, in her favourite school attitude, was half-kneeling, half-sitting on the rug before the fire: but she rose when Lionel came in.
Decima entwined her arm within his, and led him up to the fire-place. “Did you bring mamma bad news?” she asked. “I thought I read it in your countenance.”
“Very bad, Decima. Or I should not have sent you away while I told it.”
“I suppose there’s nothing left for mamma, or for Jan?”
“Mamma did not expect anything left for her, Decima. Don’t go away, Lucy,” he added, arresting Lucy Tempest, who, with good taste, was leaving them alone. “Stay and hear how poor I am: all Deerham knows it by this time.”
Lucy remained. Decima, her beautiful features a shade paler than usual, turned her serene eyes on Lionel. She little thought what was coming.
“Verner’s Pride is left away from me, Decima.”
“Left away from you! From you?”
“Frederick Massingbird inherits. I am passed over.”
“Oh, Lionel!” The words were not uttered angrily, passionately, as Lady Verner’s had been; but in a low, quiet voice, wrung from her, seemingly by intense inward pain.
“And so there will be some additional trouble for you in the housekeeping line,” went on Lionel, speaking gaily, and ignoring all the pain at his heart. “Turned out of Verner’s Pride, I must come to you here—at least, for a time. What shall you say to that, Miss Lucy?”
Lucy was looking up at him gravely, not smiling in the least. “Is it true that you have lost Verner’s Pride?”
“But I thought it was yours—after Mr. Verner.”
“I thought so, too, until to-day,” replied Lionel. “It ought to have been.”
“What shall you do without it?”
“What, indeed!” he answered. “From being a landed country gentleman—as people have imagined me—I go down to a poor fellow who must work for his bread and cheese before he eats it. Your eyes are laughing, Miss Lucy, but it is true.”
“Bread and cheese costs nothing,” said she.
“No? And the plate you put it on, and the knife you eat it with, and the glass of beer to help it go down, and the coat you wear during the repast, and the room it’s served in?—they cost something, Miss Lucy.”
Lucy laughed. “I think you will always have enough bread and cheese,” said she. “You look as though you would.”
Decima turned to them: she had stood buried in a reverie, until the light tone of Lionel aroused her from it. “Which is real, Lionel? this joking, or that you have lost Verner’s Pride?”
“Both,” he answered. “I am disinherited from Verner’s Pride: better perhaps that I should joke over it, than cry.”
“What will mamma do? What will mamma do?” breathed Decima. “She has so counted upon it. And what will you do, Lionel?”
“Decima!” came forth at this moment from the opposite room, in the imperative voice of Lady Verner.
Decima turned in obedience to it, her step less light than usual. Lucy addressed Lionel.
“One day at the rectory there came a gipsy woman, wanting to tell our fortunes: she accosted us in the garden. Mr. Cust sent her away, and she was angry, and told him his star was not in the ascendant. I think it must be the case at present with your star, Mr. Verner.”
Lionel smiled. “Yes, indeed.”
“It is not only one thing that you are losing; it is more. First, that pretty girl whom you loved; then, Mr. Verner; and now, Verner’s Pride. I wish I knew how to comfort you.”
Lucy Tempest spoke with the most open simplicity, exactly as a sister might have done. But the one allusion grated on Lionel’s heart.
“You are very kind, Lucy. Good bye. Tell Decima I shall see her sometime to-morrow.”
Lucy Tempest looked after him from the window as he paced the enclosed court-yard. “I cannot think how people can be unjust!” was her thought. “If Verner’s Pride was rightly his, why have they taken it from him?”
CHAPTER XIV.—A WHISPERED SUSPICION.
Certainly Lionel Verner’s star was not in the ascendant—though Lucy Tempest had used the words in jest. His love gone from him; his fortune and position wrested from him; all become the adjuncts of one man, Frederick Massingbird. Serenely, to outward appearance, as Lionel had met the one blow, so did he now meet the other: and none, looking on his calm bearing, could suspect what the loss was to him. But it is the silent sorrow that eats into the heart; the loud grief does not tell upon it.
An official search had been made; but no trace could be found of the missing codicil. Lionel had not expected that it would be found. He regarded it as a deed which had never had existence, and took up his abode with his mother. The village could not believe it; the neighbourhood resented it. People stood in groups to talk it over. It did certainly appear to be a most singular and almost incredible thing: that, in the enlightened days of the latter half of the nineteenth century, an official deed should disappear out of a gentleman’s desk, in his own well-guarded residence, in his habited chamber. Conjectures and thoughts were freely bandied about; while Dr. West and Jan grew nearly tired of the particulars demanded of them in their professional visits, for their patients would talk of nothing else.
The first visible effect that the disappointment had, was to stretch Lady Verner on a sick bed. She fell into a low, nervous state of prostration, and her irritability—it must be confessed—was great. But for this illness, Lionel would have been away. Thrown now upon his own resources, he looked steadily into the future, and strove to chalk out a career for himself; one by which—as he had said to Lucy Tempest—he might get bread and cheese. Of course, at Lionel Verner’s age, and reared to no profession, unfamiliar with habits of business, that was easier thought of than done. He had no particular talent for literature; he believed that, if he tried his hand at that, the bread might come, but the cheese would be doubtful—although he saw men with even less aptitude for it than he, turning to it and embracing it with all the confidence in the world, as if it were an ever-open resource for all, when other trades failed. There were the three professions: but they were not available. Lionel felt no inclination to become a working drudge like poor Jan; and the Church, for which he had not any liking, he was by far too conscientious to embrace only as a means of living. There remained the Bar; and to that he turned his attention, and resolved to qualify himself for it. That there would be grinding, and drudgery, and hard work, and no pay for years, he knew; but, so there might be, go to what he would. The Bar did hold out a chance of success, and there was nothing in it derogatory to the notions in which he had been reared—those of a gentleman.
Jan came to him one day about the time of the decision, and Lionel told him that he should soon be away; that he intended to enter himself at the Middle Temple, and take chambers.
“Law!” said Jan. “Why, you’ll be forty, may be, before you ever get a brief. You should have entered earlier.”
“Yes. But how was I to know that things would turn out like this?”
“Look here,” said Jan, tilting himself in a very uncomfortable fashion on the high back of an arm-chair, “there’s that five hundred pounds. You can have that.”
“What five hundred pounds?” asked Lionel.
“The five hundred that Uncle Stephen left me. I don’t want it. Old West gives me as much as keeps me in clothes and that, which is all I care about. You take the money and use it.”
“No, Jan. Thank you warmly, old boy, all the same; but I’d not take your poor little bit of money if I were starving.”
“What’s the good of it to me?” asked Jan, swaying his legs about. “I can’t use it: I have got nothing to use it in. I have put it in the bank at Heartburg, but the bank may go smash, you know, and then who’d be the better for the money? Better take it and make sure of it, Lionel.”
Lionel smiled at him. Jan was as simple and single-hearted in his way as Lucy Tempest was in hers. But he must want money very grievously indeed, before he would have consented to take honest Jan’s.
“I have five hundred of my own, you know, Jan,” he said. “More than I can use yet awhile.”
So he fixed upon the Bar, and would have hastened to London, but for Lady Verner’s illness. In the weak, low state to which disappointment and irritability had reduced her, she could not bear to lose sight of Lionel, or permit him to depart. “It will be time enough when I am dead, and that won’t be long first,” was the constant burden of her song to him.
He believed his mother to be little more likely to die than he was, but he was too dutiful a son to cross her in her present state. He gathered certain ponderous tomes about him, and began studying law on his own account, shutting himself up in his room all day to do it. Awfully dry work he found it; not in the least congenial; and many a time did he long to pitch the whole lot into the pleasant rippling stream, running through the grounds of Sir Rufus Hautley, which danced and glittered in the sun in view of Lionel’s window.
He could not remain at this daily study without interruptions. They were pretty frequent. People,—tenants, workmen, and others,—would persist in coming, for orders, to Mr. Lionel. In vain Lionel told them that he could not give orders, could not interfere; that he had no longer anything to do with Verner’s Pride. They could not be brought to understand why he was not their master as usual—at any rate, why he could not act as one, and interpose between them and the tyrant, Roy. In point of fact, Mr. Roy was head and master of the estate just now, and a nice head and master he made! Mrs. Verner, shut up in Verner’s Pride with her ill health, had no conception what games were being played. “Let be, let be,” the people would say. “When Mr. Fred Massingbird comes home, Roy ’ll get called to account, and receive his deserts.” A fond belief in which all did not join: many entertained a shrewd suspicion that Mr. Fred Massingbird was too much inclined to be a tyrant on his own account, to disprove the acts of Roy. Lionel’s blood often boiled at what he saw and heard, and he wished he could put miles between himself and Deerham.
“How long will my mother remain in this state?” he inquired of Dr. West, waylaying the physician one morning as he was leaving the house, and accompanying him across the courtyard.
Dr. West lifted his arched eyebrows.
“It is impossible to say, Mr. Lionel. These cases of low nervous fever are sometimes very much protracted.”
“Lady Verner’s is not nervous fever,” dissented Lionel.
“It approaches near to it.”
“The fact is, I want to be away,” said Lionel.
“There is no reason why you should not be away if you wish it. Lady Verner is not in any danger, she is sure to recover eventually.”
“I know that. At least, I hope it is sure,” returned Lionel. “But in the state she is I cannot reason with her, or talk to her of the necessity of my being away. Any approach to the topic irritates her.”
“I should go, and say nothing to her beforehand,” observed Dr. West. “When she found you were really off, and that there was no remedy for it, she must perforce reconcile herself to it.”
Every fond feeling within Lionel revolted at the suggestion. “We are speaking of my mother, doctor,” was his courteously-uttered rebuke.
“Well, if you don’t like that, there’s nothing for it but patience,” was the doctor’s rejoinder, as he drew open one of the iron gates. Lady Verner may be no better than she is now for weeks to come. Good day, Mr. Lionel.”
Lionel paced into the house with a slow step, and went up to his mother’s chamber. She was lying on a couch by the fire, her eyes closed, her pale features contracted as if with pain. Her maid Thérèse appeared to be busy with her, and Lionel called out Decima.
“There’s no improvement, I hear, Decima.”
“No. But, on the other hand, there’s no danger. There’s nothing even very serious, if Dr. West may be believed. Do you know, Lionel, what I fancy he thinks?”
“What?” asked Lionel.
“That if mamma were obliged to exert and rouse herself; were like any poor person, for instance, who cannot lie by and be nursed, she would be well directly. And—unkind, unlike a daughter as it may seem in me to acknowledge it—I do very much incline to the same opinion.”
Lionel made no reply.
“Only Dr. West has not the candour to say so,” went on Decima. “So long as he can keep her lying here, he will do it; she is a good patient for him. Poor mamma gives way, and he helps her to do it. I wish she would discard him, and trust to Jan.”
“You don’t like Dr. West, Decima?”
“I never did,” said Decima. “And I believe that, in skill, Jan is quite equal to him. There’s this much to be said of Jan, that he is sincere and open as if he were made of glass. Jan will never keep a patient in bed unnecessarily, or give the smallest dose more than is absolutely requisite. Did you hear of Sir Rufus Hautley sending for Jan?”
“He is ill, it seems. And when he sent to Dr. West’s, he expressly desired that it might be Mr. Jan Verner to answer the summons. Dr. West will not forgive that in a hurry.”
“That comes of prejudice,” said Lionel; “prejudice not really deserved by Dr. West. Since the reading of the will, Sir Rufus has been bitter against the Massingbirds; and Dr. West, as connected with them, comes in for his share of the feeling.”
“I hope he may not deserve it in any worse way than as connected with them,” returned Decima, with more acrimony than she, in her calm gentleness, was accustomed to speak.
The significant tone struck Lionel. “What do you mean, Decima?”
Decima glanced round. They were standing at the far end of the corridor at the window which overlooked the domains of Sir Rufus Hautley. The doors of the several rooms were closed, and no one was about. Decima spoke in a whisper.
“Lionel, I cannot divest myself of the opinion that—that—”
“That what?” he asked, looking at her in wonder, for she was hesitating strangely, her manner shrinking, her voice awestruck.
“That it was Dr. West who took the codicil.”
Lionel’s face flushed—partially with pain; he did not like to hear it said, even by Decima.
“You have never suspected so much yourself?” she asked.
“Never, never. I hope I never shall suspect it. Decima, you perhaps cannot help the thought, but you can help speaking of it.”
“I did not mean to vex you. Somehow, Lionel, it is for your sake that I seem to have taken a dislike to the Wests—”
“To take a dislike to people is no just cause for accusing them of crime,” he interrupted. “Decima, you are not like yourself to-day.”
“Do you suppose that it is my dislike which caused me to suspect him? No, Lionel. I seem to see people and their motives very clearly: and I do honestly believe”—she dropped her voice still lower—“that Dr. West is a man capable of almost anything. At the time when the codicil was being searched for, I used to think and think it over, how it could be—how it could have disappeared. All its points, all its bearings, I deliberated upon again and again. One certain thing was, the codicil could not have disappeared from the desk without its having been taken out. Another point, almost equally certain to my mind, was that my Uncle Stephen did not take it out, but died in the belief that it was in, and that it would give you your inheritance. A third point was, that whoever took it must have had some strong motive for the act. Who (with possible access to the desk) could have had this motive, even in a remote degree? There were but two—Dr. West and Mrs. Verner. Mrs. Verner I judge to be incapable of anything so wrong; Dr. West I believe to be capable of even worse than that. Hence I drew my deductions.”
“Deductions which I shall never accept, and which I would advise you to get rid of, Decima,” was his answer. “My dear, never let such an accusation cross your lips again.”
“I never shall. I have told you; and that is enough. I have longed to tell you for some time past. I did not think you would believe me.”
“Believe it, say, Decima. Dr. West take the codicil! Were I to bring myself to that belief, I think all my faith in man would go out. You are sadly prejudiced against the Wests.”
“And you in their favour,” she could not help saying. “But I shall ever be thankful for one thing—that you have escaped Sibylla.”
Was he thankful for it? Scarcely. While that pained heart of his, those coursing pulses, could beat on in this tumultuous manner at the bare sound of her name.
In the silence that ensued—for neither felt inclined to break it—they heard a voice in the hall below, inquiring whether Mr. Verner was within. Lionel recognised it as Tynn’s.
“For all I know he is,” answered old Catherine. “I saw him a few minutes agone in the court out there, a talking to the doctor.”
“Will you please ask if I can speak to him.”
Lionel did not wait further, but descended to the hall. The butler, in his deep mourning, had taken his seat on the bench. He rose as Lionel approached.
“Well, Tynn, how are you? What is it?”
“My mistress has sent me to ask if you’d be so kind as come to Verner’s Pride, sir?” said Tynn, standing with his hat in his hand. “She bade me say that she did not feel well enough, or she’d have written you a note with the request, but she wishes particular to see you.”
“Does she wish to see me to-day?”
“As soon as ever you could get there, sir, I fancy. I am sure she meant to-day.”
“Very well, Tynn. I’ll come over. How is Mrs. Verner?”
“She’s very well, sir, now; but she gets worried on all sides about things out-of-doors.”
“Who worries her with those tales?” asked Lionel.
“Everybody almost does, sir, as comes a-nigh her. First it’s one complaint that’s brought to the house, of things going wrong, and then it’s another complaint—and the women servants, they have not the sense to keep it from her. My wife can’t keep her tongue still upon it, and can’t see that the rest do. Might I ask how her ladyship is to-day, sir?”
“Not any better, Tynn. Tell Mrs. Verner I will be with her almost immediately.”
Lionel lost little time in going to Verner’s Pride. Turned from it as he had been, smarting under the injustice and the pain, many a one would have haughtily refused to re-enter it, whatever may have been the emergency. Not so, Lionel. He had chosen to quit Verner’s Pride as his residence, but he had remained entirely good friends with Mrs. Verner, calling on her at times. Not upon her would Lionel visit his displeasure.
It was somewhat curious that she had taken to sit in the old study of Stephen Verner; a room which she had rarely entered during his lifetime. Perhaps some vague impression that she was now a woman of business, or ought to be one, that she herself was in sole charge for the absent heir, had induced her to take up her daily sitting amidst the drawers, bureaux, and other places which had contained Mr. Verner’s papers—which contained them still. She had, however, never yet looked at one. If anything came up to the house, leases, deeds, other papers, she would say: “Tynn, see to it,” or “Tynn, take it over to Mr. Lionel Verner, and ask what’s to be done.” Lionel never refused to say.
She was sitting back in Mr. Verner’s old chair now, filling it a great deal better than he used to do. Lionel took her hand cordially. Every time he saw her he thought her looking bigger and bigger. However much she may have grieved at the time for her son John’s death, it had not taken away either her flesh or her high colour. Nothing would have troubled Mrs. Verner permanently, unless it had been the depriving her of her meals. Now John was gone, she cared for nothing else in life.
“It’s kind of you to come, Lionel,” said she. “I want to talk to you. What will you have? some wine?”
“Not anything,” replied Lionel. “Tynn said you wished to see me for something particular.”
“And so I do. You must take the management of the estate until Fred’s at home.”
The words grated on his ear, and his brow knit itself into lines. But he answered calmly.
“I cannot do that, Mrs. Verner.”
“Then what can I do?” she asked. “Here’s all this great estate, nobody to see after it, nobody to take it in charge! I’m sure I have no more right to be teased over it than you have, Lionel.”
“It is your son’s.”
“I asked you not to leave Verner’s Pride. I asked you to take the management of out-door things! You did so, between your uncle’s death and his burial.”
“Believing that I was taking the management of what was mine,” replied Lionel.
“Why do you visit upon me the blame of all that has happened?” pursued Mrs. Verner. “I declare that I knew nothing of what was done; I could not believe my own ears when I heard Matiss read out the will. You should not blame me.”
“I never have blamed you for it, Mrs. Verner. I believe you to be as innocent of blame in the matter as I am.”
“Then you ought not to turn haughty and cold, and refuse to help me. They are going to have me up before the justice courts at Heartburg!”
“Have you up before the justice courts at Heartburg!” repeated Lionel, in great astonishment.
“It’s all through Roy; I know it is. There’s some stupid dispute about a lease, and I am to be had up in evidence. Did you hear of the threat?”
“What threat?” asked he.
“Some of the men are saying they’ll burn down Verner’s Pride. Roy turned them off the brickyard, and they threaten they’ll do it out of revenge. If you would just look to things and keep Roy quiet, nothing of this would happen.”
Lionel knew that.
“Mrs. Verner,” he said, “were you the owner of Verner’s Pride, I would spare no pains to help you. But I cannot act for Frederick Massingbird.”
“What has Fred done to you?” she asked quickly.
“That is not the question—he has done nothing,” answered Lionel, speaking more rapidly still. “My management would—if I know anything of him—be essentially different from your son’s; different from what he would approve. Neither would I take authority upon myself only to have it displaced upon his return. Have Roy before you, Mrs. Verner, and caution him.”
“It does no good. I have already had him. He smoothes things over to me, so that black looks white. Lionel, I must say that you are unkind and obstinate.”
“I do not think I am naturally either one or the other,” he answered, smiling. “Perhaps it might answer your purpose to put things into the hands of Matiss, until your son’s return.”
“He won’t take it,” she answered. “I sent for him—what with this court business and the threat of incendiarism, I am like one upon thorns—and he said he would not undertake it; he seemed to fear contact with Roy.”
“Were I to take the management, Mrs. Verner, my first act would be to discharge Roy.”
Mrs. Verner tried again to shake his resolution. But he was quite firm. And, wishing her good day, he left Verner’s Pride, and bent his steps towards the village.