Three weeks after Ralph's departure to join his regiment Mrs. Conway received a letter which gave her a great shook. It was from Mrs. Withers, and was as follows:
"MY DEAR MRS. CONWAY: I have very sad news to tell you. An event has happened which will, I know, be as afflicting to you as it has been to us. Our dear friend Mr. Penfold, who but three weeks ago was so bright and happy with us in London, has passed away suddenly. Up to the day before yesterday he seemed in his usual health; but yesterday morning he did not appear at breakfast, and the servant on going up to his room, found him sitting in a chair by his bedside dead. The bed had not been slept in, and it appears as if before commencing to undress he had been seized with a sudden faintness and had sunk into the chair and died without being able to summon assistance.
"His death is a terrible shock to us, as it will be to you. My husband and myself have long been aware that our dear friend suffered from disease of the heart, and that the doctor he consulted in London had told him that his death might take place at any moment. At the same time, he had been so bright and cheerful in London, as indeed with us he was at all times, that his death comes almost with as great a surprise to us as if we had not known that he was in danger. Mr. Tallboys, the solicitor of Weymouth who managed Mr. Penfold's affairs, called here last night. The funeral is to take place on Thursday, and had Ralph been in England he said that he should have written to him to come down to it, which he could have done in time had he started immediately he received the letter announcing the event; but as he is over in Ireland, of course nothing can be done.
"He said that had Ralph come he should have suggested that you also should be present at the reading of the will, but that as matters stand he did not think there was any occasion to trouble you. I should tell you that Mr. Tallboys appeared a good deal worried, and one of his reasons for calling was to ask my husband whether he knew where Mr. Penfold was in the habit of keeping his papers. It seems that upon the day after his return from London Mr. Penfold called upon him and took away his will, saying that he wanted to look over it, as he had two or three slight alterations that he wanted to make, and he would bring it back in the course of a day or two and get him to make the changes required. From that time Mr. Penfold had not been in Weymouth, and, indeed, had scarcely left the house except to come down here; for, as he said to my husband, he did not feel quite himself, and supposed it was a reaction after his late dissipations.
"Mr. Tallboys, who is one of the executors named in the will, had searched for it in the afternoon among Mr. Penfold's papers; but found that it and several other documents—leases and so on—of importance were all missing. He had asked Miss Penfold if she knew where her brother was in the habit of keeping important papers; but she replied shortly that she knew nothing whatever of her brother's business matters. He had, therefore, driven over to ask my husband, knowing how intimate he had been with poor Herbert. He knew, it seems, that Mr. Penfold had some secure place for such papers, because he had one day spoken to him upon the subject, saying it would be more prudent for him to leave the leases in the strong-box in his office at Weymouth. But Herbert replied that they were stowed away in a far safer place, and that he had not the least fear in the world of their being stolen.
"Now, this is just what my husband knew also. Once when they were chatting together Herbert mentioned that the house like many other old mansions contained a secret chamber. He said: 'I can't tell you where it is, Withers; for although it is never likely to be used again, the knowledge of this hiding-place has been passed down from generation to generation as a family secret. I gave a solemn promise never to reveal it when I was first informed of its existence; and although in these days there is no occasion to hide priests or conspirators, I do not consider myself released from the promise I gave. Possibly some day the hiding-place may prove of value again. There may be a price set on the head of a Penfold, who can tell? Anyhow it is likely to remain a secret as long as the old house stands; and in the meantime I find it a useful place for keeping things that I do not want lying about.' Mr. Tallboys appeared very vexed at hearing what my husband said.
"'It is very strange.' he said, 'that sensible men will do such foolish things. It is probable enough that Herbert Penfold has placed this will in the hiding-place you speak of, and in that case I foresee that we shall have no end of trouble. I know you are both aware of the nature of Mr. Penfold's will, and you may be sure that if those sisters of his also know of it—whether they do or not I can't say—they will bitterly resent it. I know enough of the family history to know that. It was evident by Miss Penfold's answer to me to-day that either she does not know the secret of this hiding-place—which is of course possible—or that if she does know she does not mean to say. I should imagine myself that she does know.
"'Had Herbert Penfold been of age when his father died it is likely enough that he only as head of the family would have been told by his father of its existence; but you see he was but a lad at that time, while the Miss Penfolds were women, and were therefore probably informed of the secret. It is very awkward, extremely awkward. Of course the will may turn up between this and the funeral; but if not I hardly know what steps had best be taken. If those Penfold women have made up their minds that this will shall not see the light they are likely to carry it through to the end. My husband quite agreed with Mr. Tallboys about that, and so do I. I have never been able to abide them, though, as my husband says, they are good women in many respects, and always ready to help in parish matters. Still I can't abide them, nor I am sure have you any reason to do so; for when I and my husband first came here we learned a good deal of the part they had played in a certain matter, and that of course set me altogether against them.
"Of course, my dear Mrs. Conway, I do not wish to alarm you about the will; still you ought to know how things stand, and my husband this morning asked me to tell you all there was to tell. I hope in a few days to be able to write and give you better news. Things may not be as they fear."
Mrs. Conway sat for a long time with this letter before her. She had not read it straight through, but after glancing at the first few lines that told of the death of Herbert Penfold she had laid it aside, and it was a long time before she took it up again. He had been the love of her youth; and although he had seemingly gone for so many years out of her life, she knew that when she had found how he had all this time watched over her and so delicately aided her, and that for her sake he was going to make Ralph his heir, her old feeling had been revived. Not that she had any thought that the past would ever return. His letters indeed had shown that he regarded his life as approaching its end; but since the receipt of that letter she had always thought of him with a tender affection as one who might have been her husband had not either evil fate or malice stepped in to prevent it.
The fortnight they had spent in London had brought them very close together. He had assumed the footing of a brother, but she had felt that pleasant and kind as he was to all the rest of the party it was for her sake alone that this festivity had been arranged. They had had but one talk together alone, and she had then said that she hoped the expressions he had used in his letter to her with reference to his health were not altogether justified, for he seemed so bright and well. He had shaken his head quietly and said:
"It is just as well that you should know, Mary. I have seen my physician since I came up to town, and I don't think it will last much longer. A little time ago I did not wish it to last, now I should be glad to go on until I can see my little scheme realized; but I am quite sure that it is not to be. Anyhow I am ready to go when I am summoned, and am happy in the thought that the few people I care for are all in a fair way to be happy. Don't cry, dear. I don't want a single cloud to hang over our memories of this time. I am happier than I have ever been in my life, and I want you and all of them to be very happy too. I have set my mind upon that, and if I see a cloud on your face it will spoil it all."
Still in spite of this she had hoped the doctor might have taken too gloomy a view of the case, and that Herbert Penfold's death might yet be a distant event.
And now it was all over. Herbert Penfold was dead. The heart that had beat so kindly for her was silenced forever. It was then a long time before Mrs. Conway recovered sufficiently from her emotion to take up the letter again. She did so with an air almost of indifference. She had learned the news, and doubtless all this long epistle contained many details of comparatively little interest. But as she read her air of languid grief gave way to an expression of keen interest, and she skimmed through the last page or two with anxious haste. Then she reread it more slowly and carefully, and then throwing it on the table stood up and walked up and down the little room.
So these women, who had as she believed ruined her life and Herbert's, were now going to attack her son and rob him of his rights. They should not do it if she could help it. Never! Mary Vernon had been a high-spirited girl, and, although those who had only known her through her widowhood would have taken her for a gentle and quiet woman, whose thoughts were entirely wrapped up in her boy, the old spirit was alive yet, as with head thrown back, and an angry flush on her cheeks, she declared to herself that she would defend Ralph's rights to the last. How or in what manner she did not ask; she only knew that those who would defraud him were her old enemies.
Had it been otherwise the fact that they were Herbert's sisters would have softened her toward them; now that fact only added to the hostility she bore them. They, his nearest relations of blood, had ruined his life; now they would defeat his dying wishes. It should not be if she could help it. She would fight against it to the last day of her life. There was of course nothing to be done yet. Nothing until she heard again. Nothing until she knew that the discovery of the will was given up as hopeless. Then it would be time for her to do something.
The thought barely occurred to her that the loss of this will might make material difference in her own circumstances, and that the allowance Herbert Penfold had made her, and which he had doubtless intended she should continue to receive, would cease. That was so secondary a consideration that it at present gave her no trouble. It was of Ralph she thought. Of Ralph and Herbert. Were the plans that the latter had made—the plans that had given happiness to the last year of the life of him who had known so little happiness—to be shattered? This to her mind was even more than the loss that Ralph would suffer.
"They may have destroyed the will," she said at last; "but if not I will find it, if it takes me all my life to do so."
A week later two letters arrived. The one was from Mrs. Withers. The will had not been found. Mr. Tallboys had searched in vain. Every cabinet and drawer in the house had been ransacked. No signs whatever had been found of the will.
"Mr. Tallboys is perfectly convinced that it must be hidden in some altogether exceptional place. The will was not a bulky document, and might have been stowed away in a comparatively small hiding-place, such as a secret drawer in a cabinet; but the leases that are also missing are bulky, and would take up so large a space that he is convinced that had a secret hiding-place sufficiently large to hold them existed in any of the articles of furniture he has searched he should have discovered it.
"Of course, my dear Mrs. Conway, we feel this matter personally, as our Mabel was as you know made joint-heiress with your Ralph of Herbert's property. We cannot but feel, however, that the loss is greater in your case than in ours. Mabel was never informed of Herbert's intentions toward her, and although we should of course have been glad to know that our child had such brilliant prospects, the loss of them will not we may hope in any way affect her happiness. In the case of your son it is different, and his prospects in life will of course be seriously affected by the loss, and my husband begs me to express to you his very deep regret at this.
"We have talked over your letter together, and while fully sharing your indignation at the conduct of the Misses Penfold, hardly see that anything can be done to discover the will. However, should you be able to point out any manner in which a search for it can be carried on, we shall be happy to do what we can to aid in the matter, as it is clearly our duty to endeavor to obtain for Mabel the fortune Herbert Penfold willed to her. Mr. Tallboys tells us that it is clear the Misses Penfold have quite determined upon their line of conduct. Whatever they may know they have declined altogether to aid him in his search for the will, Miss Penfold saying, in reply to his request that they would do so, that they had every reason to believe from what their brother had let fall that the will was an unjust and iniquitous one; that if Providence intended it should see the light it would see it; but they at least would do nothing in the matter.
"He asked them plainly if they were aware of the existence of any place in which it was likely that their brother had placed it. To this Miss Penfold, who is, as she has always been, the spokesman of the two sisters, said shortly, that she had never seen the will, that she didn't want to see it, and that she did not know where her brother had placed it; indeed, for aught she knew, he might have torn it up. As to hiding-places, she knew of no hiding-place whose existence she could, in accordance with the dictates of her conscience divulge. So that is where we are at present, Mrs. Conway. I believe that Mr. Tallboys is going to try and get a copy of the will that he has in his possession admitted under the circumstances as proof of Herbert Penfold's intentions. But he owned to us that he thought it was very doubtful whether he should be able to do so, especially as Herbert had stated to him that he intended to make alterations; and it would be quite possible that a court might take the view that in the first place the alterations might have been so extensive as to affect the whole purport of the will, and in the second place that he might have come to the conclusion that it would be easier to make the whole will afresh, and so had destroyed the one he had by him."
Mrs. Conway laid down the letter, and after thinking for a time opened the other, which was in a handwriting unknown to her. It began:
"DEAR MADAM.: Mrs. Withers tells me that she has informed you of the singular disappearance of the will of my late client, Mr. Herbert Penfold. I beg to inform you that we shall not let this matter rest, but shall apply to the court to allow the copy of the will to be put in for probate; if that is refused, for authorization to make a closer search of the Hall than we have hitherto been able to do, supporting our demand with affidavits made by the Rev. Mr. Withers and ourselves of our knowledge that, the late Mr. Penfold was accustomed to keep documents in some secret receptacle. In the second place, we are glad to inform you that the annual sum paid by us into the Kentish bank to your credit will not be affected by the loss of the will; for at the time when that payment first commenced, Mr. Penfold signed a deed making this payment a first charge on the rents of two of his farms during your lifetime. This assignment was of a binding character, and of course continues to hold good. We shall consider it our duty to acquaint you from time to time with the course of proceedings in the matter of the late Mr. Penfold's will."
Little as Mrs. Conway had thought of herself from the time when she first heard that the will was missing, the news that her income would remain unchanged delighted her. She had formed no plans for herself, but had vaguely contemplated the necessity of giving up her house as soon as it was decided that the will could not be found, selling her furniture, and for the present taking a small lodging. She was glad that there would be no occasion for this; but very much more glad that she should be able now to make Ralph an allowance of seventy or eighty pounds a year, which would make all the difference between his living comfortably and being obliged to pinch himself in every way to subsist upon his pay. It would also enable her to carry out without difficulty any plans she might determine upon.
Upon the receipt of the letter announcing Mr. Penfold's death, she had written to Ralph telling him of it, but saying nothing about Mr. Tallboys' visit to the Withers, or his report that he was unable to find the will. She now wrote to him relating the whole circumstances. He had not previously known Mr. Penfold's intention to make him his heir, being only told that he intended to push his way in life, and had considered that the promise was carried out by his obtaining him a commission and arranging some allowance. His mother was glad of this now.
"Of course the loss of Mr. Penfold's will, my boy, will make a difference to you, as there can be no doubt that he had made some provisions in it for the regular payment of the allowance he had so kindly promised you. This, unless the will is found, you will of course lose. Having been a soldier's daughter, I know that to live comfortably in the army it is necessary to have something beyond your pay; but fortunately I can assist you a little. I have now one less to feed and clothe, and no schooling expenses; and I have been calculating things up, and find that I can allow you seventy-five pounds a year without making any difference in the manner of my living. You will be able to see that for yourself. You need, therefore, feel no hesitation in accepting this allowance."
"It is not a large one; but I know it will make a very great difference in your comfort, and it will be a great pleasure to me to know that you will be able to enter into what amusements are going on and not to look at every penny. It makes all the difference in the world whether one has four and sixpence or nine shillings a day to live upon. You wrote and told me of the handsome present Mr. Penfold made you at parting. This, my boy, I should keep if I were you as a reserve, only to be touched in case of unexpected difficulties or needs. No one can ever say when such needs may occur. I hope you will not pain me by writing to say you don't want this allowance, because nothing you can say will alter my determination to pay that allowance regularly every quarter into your agent's hands; and it will be, of course, very much more pleasant to me to know that it is as much a pleasure to you to be helped by me as it is to me to help you, I have heard several times from Mrs. Withers; they are all well, and she asked me to send their remembrances to you when I write. I do not give up all hope that the will may be found one of these days, but it is just as well that we should not build in the slightest upon it."
Ralph's reply came in due time, that is in about a fortnight afterward; for Mrs. Conway's letter had first to go by coach to London, and then a two days' journey by the mail to Liverpool, then by the sailing packet across to Dublin, and then down to Cork by coach. He had already written expressing his regret at the news of Mr. Penfold's death.
"My dear mother," he began. "It is awfully good of you to talk about making an allowance to me. After what you say, of course I cannot think of refusing it, though I would do so if I thought the payment would in the slightest way inconvenience you. But as you say that now I am away it will make something like that sum difference in your expenses, I must of course let you do as you like, and can only thank you very heartily for it. But I could really have got on very well without it. I fancy that a good many men in the regiment have nothing but their pay, and as they manage very well there is no reason I could not manage too.
"Of course in war times things are not kept up so expensively as they were before, and lots of men get commissions who would not have done so when the army was only half its present size, and was considered as a gentlemanly profession instead of a real fighting machine. However, as you say, it is a great deal more pleasant having nine shilling a day to live on instead of four and sixpence.
"I am getting on capitally here. Of course there is a lot of drill, and it is as much as I can do not to laugh sometimes, the sergeant, who is a fierce little man, gets into such wild rages over our blunders.
"I say our blunders, for of course Stapleton and I are drilled with the recruits. However, I think that in another week I shall be over that, and shall then begin to learn my work as an officer. They are a jolly set of fellows here, always up to some fun or other. I always thought when fellows got to be men they were rather serious, but it seems to me that there is ever so much more fun here among them than there was at school. Of course newcomers get worried a little just as they do at school. I got off very well; because, you see, what with school and the privateer I have learned to take things good temperedly, and when fellows see that you are as ready for fun as they are they soon give up bothering you.
"Stapleton has had a lot more trouble; because, you see, he will look at things seriously. I think he is getting a little better now; but he used to get quite mad at first, and of course that made fellows ever so much worse. He would find his door screwed up when he went back after mess; and as soon as they found that he was awfully particular about his boots, they filled them all full of water one night. Then some one got a ladder and threw a lot of crackers into his bedroom in the middle of the night, and Stapleton came rushing down in his night-shirt with his sword drawn, swearing he would kill somebody.
"Of course I have done all I can to get them to leave him alone, for he is really a good fellow, and explained to them that he had never been to school, or had a chance of learning to keep his temper. But he is getting on now, and will, I think, soon be left alone. This has been an awfully long letter, and there is only just enough candle left for me to get into bed by. Anyhow mother, I am not a bit upset about losing Mr. Penfold's allowance; so don't you worry yourself at all about that."
Some weeks passed on. Mr. Tallboys wrote that he had failed to induce the court to accept the copy of the will, the admission he was forced to make that Mr. Penfold had intended to make an alteration in it being fatal. He had, however, obtained an order authorizing him thoroughly to search the house, and to take down any wainscotting, and to pull up any floors that might appear likely to conceal a hiding-place. A fortnight later he wrote again to announce his failure.
"The Miss Penfolds," he said, "were so indignant that they left the house altogether, and you may believe that we ransacked it from top to bottom. I had four carpenters and two masons with me, and I think we tapped every square foot of wall in the house, took down the wainscotting wherever there was the slightest hollow sound, lifted lots of the flooring, and even wrenched up several of the hearthstones, but could find nothing whatever, except that there was a staircase leading from behind the wainscotting in Mr. Penfold's room to a door covered with ivy, and concealed from view by bushes to the left of the house; but the ivy had evidently been undisturbed for fifty years or so, this passage, even if known to Mr. Penfold, had certainly not been used in his time.
"I truly regret, my dear madam, that the search should have been so unsuccessful, and can only say, that all that could be done has been done. That the will is concealed somewhere I have not a shadow of doubt, unless, of course, it has been torn up before this. As to that I give no opinion; and, indeed, as it is a matter in which women are concerned, your judgment as to the probabilities is much more likely to be correct than mine. As I expected, my business connection with the family has come to an end. The Miss Penfolds have appointed another agent, who has written to me requesting me to hand over all papers connected with the property. This, of course, I shall do. I need hardly say that in no case could I have consented to act for those whom I consider to be unlawful possessors of the property. In conclusion, I can only say that my services will at all times be at your disposal."
Mrs. Conway was scarcely disappointed at the receipt of this letter, for she had quite made up her mind that the will would not be found. These women had clearly made up their minds to deprive Ralph and Mabel of their rights, and unless they had felt perfectly satisfied that no search would discover the hiding-place of the will, they would not improbably have taken it, and either destroyed it or concealed it in some fresh place where the searchers would never be likely to look for it. She did not think it likely, therefore, that the hiding-place would be discovered, and she felt assured that were it discovered it would be found empty.
"Very well," she said, in a quiet, determined voice, as she laid down the letter. "Mr. Tallboys has failed. Now, I shall take up the matter. I dare say you think that you have won, Miss Penfold; that you are now mistress beyond dispute of Herbert's property. You will see the battle has only just begun. It will last, I can tell you, all your lives or mine."
A week later an altogether unexpected event took place. When Mr. and Mrs. Withers were at breakfast a letter arrived from Mr. Littleton, now solicitor to the Miss Penfolds. Upon opening it it was found to contain an offer upon the part of the Miss Penfolds to settle the sum of a hundred a year for life upon Mabel, upon the condition only that the allowance would be stopped upon her marriage, unless that marriage received the approval, in writing, of the Miss Penfolds. The letter was addressed to Mr. Withers, and after reading it through he passed it to his wife without a word. She was too surprised to say anything for a moment, especially as Mabel was in the room, and she laid the letter beside her until breakfast was over and Mabel had gone out.
"Well, James, what do you think of it?" she asked.
"What do you think of it yourself?" he replied.
Mrs. Withers hesitated, and then said: "Well, James, it is a sort of thing that requires so much thinking about that I have scarcely had time to turn it over in my mind yet, especially with Mabel there eating her breakfast opposite, and having no idea that this letter contained anything of such importance to her. I would really rather hear what you think about it." Mr. Withers remained silent, and she went on: "Of course it would be a very nice thing for Mabel to have such a provision for life."
A slight smile passed across Mr. Withers' face, and his wife saw that that was not at all the way in which he looked at it.
"That is just like you men, James," she said a little pettishly. "You ask us what we think about things when you have perfectly made up your minds what you mean to do, whether we agree with you or not."
"I don't think that's often the case with us. Still I did want to see whether the matter would have struck you at once in the same light in which I see it, and I perceive that it has not."
"Well, James, let me hear your view of the matter. I dare say I shall agree with you when you tell me what it is."
"Well, then, Amy," Mr. Withers said seriously, "it appears to me that we cannot accept this offer for Mabel."
Mrs. Withers looked a little blank. The living was not a rich one, and assured as they had been by Mr. Penfold that he intended to provide for Mabel, they had not endeavored to lay by anything for her, and had freely dispensed their surplus income among the sick and needy of the parish. The disappearance of the will had disappointed their hopes, and raised many anxious thoughts in Mrs. Withers' mind respecting Mabel's future, and the offer contained in the letter had therefore filled her with pleasure. But she greatly valued her husband's judgment, and therefore only replied:
"Well, you see, wife, we are both thoroughly agreed that these ladies are depriving Mabel of the fortune Herbert Penfold left her. They are concealing or have destroyed his will, and are at present in what we may call fraudulent possession of his property. Now, I do not think that under these circumstances we can accept a favor at their hands. To do so would be practically to acquiesce in what we consider the robbery of our child, and the acceptance would of course involve a renewal of friendly relations with them; a thing which, believing as we do that they are acting wickedly would be distasteful in the extreme, not to say impossible."
"Of course you are right, dear," Mrs. Withers said, rising from her seat and going over and kissing her husband tenderly. "I had not thought of it in that light at all. In fact I had hardly thought about it at all, except that it would be nice to see Mabel provided for."
"It would be nice, my dear. But we surely need not be anxious about her. We may hope that she will make a happy marriage. We may hope too that we may be spared long enough to make some provision for her, for, of course, we must now curtail our expenses and lay by as much as we can for her. Lastly, dear, we need not be anxious; because we trust that God will provide for her should we not be enabled to do so. But even were I sure that we should both be taken together, I would rather leave her in His hands than accept money wrongfully obtained and condone an abominable action. There is, too, another point from which the matter should be looked at. You see this curious condition that they propose, that the annuity shall be forfeited unless she marry with their sanction. Why should they propose such a condition?"
"I am sure I don't know, James; for of course, we should never give our sanction to her marriage unless we approved of her choice, and surely the Miss Penfolds would not disapprove of a choice that we approved of?"
"Well, they might, my dear. You know how bitterly they disliked Ralph Conway, and how they resented his being at the Hall. It is quite possible they may have had some idea of Herbert's views about him and Mabel, and are determined that he shall not benefit through Mabel by one penny of their brother's property; and this clause is specially designed so that in case the two young people ever should come together they may be able if not to stop it—at any rate to stop the annuity. That is the only interpretation I can give to this condition."
"Very likely that is so James. Really these women seem to get more detestable every day."
Mr. Withers smiled at his wife's vehemence. "There is still another reason why we cannot take the money. Ralph Conway has been as much defrauded as Mabel, and his mother, as you see by her letters, is determined not to sit down quietly under the wrong. What she means to do I have not the slightest idea, nor do I think that there is the most remote probability she will ever succeed in finding the will. Tallboys appears to have made a most thorough search of the house, and do what she will she cannot have any opportunity of searching as he has done. Still she clearly has something on her mind. She intends to make some attempt or other to discover the will, which, if found, will benefit Mabel equally with her son. Therefore we cannot but regard her as our friend and ally. Now, were we to accept the money for Mabel we should in fact be acquiescing, not only in the wrong done to her but in that done to Ralph. We should, in fact, be going over to the enemy. We could not take their money and even tacitly connive in her efforts to find the will."
"I agree with you entirely, James. It would be impossible; only I do wish you had said all this before letting me be so foolish as to say that I thought we ought to take it."
"You didn't say so, dear," Mr. Withers said smiling. "You only gave expression to the first natural thought of a mother that it would be a nice thing for Mabel. You had given the matter no further consideration than that, and I was quite sure that as soon as you thought the matter over you would see it in the same light that I do. But I think that before we send off our reply we should put the matter before Mabel herself. I have no doubt whatever what her answer will be, but at the same time she ought to know of the offer which has been made to her."