"What do you think of the new housemaid, Charlotte?"
"As she has only been here twenty-four hours," Miss Penfold replied, "I don't think I can say anything about it, Eleanor. All servants behave decently for the first week or two, then their faults begin to come out. However, she seems quiet in her way of going about, and that is something. My room was carefully dusted this morning. These are the only two points on which I can at present say anything."
"I met her in the passage this morning," Eleanor Penfold said, "and it seemed to me that her face reminded me of some one. Did that strike you?"
"Not at all," the elder sister replied decidedly. "I am not given to fancies about such things. I saw no likeness to any one, and if I had done so I should not have given it a second thought. The one point with us is whether the woman is clean, quiet, steady, and thoroughly up to her work. Her reference said she was all these things, and I hope she will prove so. She is older than I like servants to be, that is, when they first come to us. A young girl is teachable, but when a servant has once got into certain ways there is never any altering them. However, if she knows her work it does not matter; and there's one comfort, at her age she is less likely to be coming to us one day or other soon and saying that she wants to leave us to get married."
The new servant, Anna, as she was called in the house soon settled down to her duty. Miss Penfold allowed that she knew her work and did it carefully. The servants did not quite understand the newcomer. She was pleasant and friendly, but somehow "she was not," as one of them said, "of their sort." This they put down partly to the fact that she had been in service in London, and was not accustomed to country ways. However, she was evidently obliging and quiet, and smoothed away any slight feeling of hostility with which the under housemaid was at first disposed to feel against her for coming in as a stranger over her head, by saying that as she had no acquaintances in the village she had no desire to go out, and that whenever her turn came to do so the other might take her place. As Jane was keeping company with the blacksmith's son, this concession greatly pleased her; and although at first she had been disappointed that she had not on Martha's leaving succeeded to her place, the fact that she was but twenty-one, while the newcomer was a good many years her senior, went far to reconcile her to being passed over.
Mrs. Conway had not been twenty-four hours in the house before she discovered there was an obstacle in the way of her search that she had not foreseen. She had dusted the drawing-room and dining-room, and then went to the door of the room which she supposed to be the library. She found it locked. At dinner she asked the other housemaid what the room opposite the dining-room was, and where was the key.
"That was master's library," the girl said. "Miss Penfold always keeps it locked, and no one is allowed to go in. It's just as he left it; at least Martha said so, for I have never been inside since. On the first day of each month it is opened and dusted. Miss Penfold always used to go in with Martha and stay there while she did the work. She said it was to see that nothing was moved, but Martha used to think there was another reason."
"What is that?" Mrs. Conway asked.
Jane shook her head and glanced at the butler, as much as to say she did not care about speaking before him; but presently when she had an opportunity of talking alone with the newcomer she said: "I didn't want to say anything before James, he holds with the Miss Penfolds. He only came a month or two before master's death and did not know much about him, and he will have it they have been ill treated, and that the lawyer and all of them ought to be punished for going on as if the Miss Penfolds had done something wrong about the will. Cook, she doesn't give no opinion; but Martha and me both thought they knew something about it, and were keeping Miss Withers and young Conway out of their rights. But I forgot that you were a stranger, and didn't know nothing about the will."
Then she told Mrs. Conway all about the will being missing, and how Mr. Tallboys, who had made it for Mr. Penfold, said that all the property had been left to Mabel Withers, who was the daughter of the clergyman and a great pet of the master's, and to a boy who had been staying there some months before, and whose name was Conway.
"Well, Martha and me believed that they," and she nodded toward the drawing-room, "must know something about it; for Mr. Tallboys would have it that it was stowed away in some secret hiding place, and has been looking for it here and pulling down the wainscotting and all sorts. And, of course, if there was a secret hiding-place the Miss Penfolds would know of it as well as their brother. Martha used to think that the reason why the Miss Penfolds had the room shut up, and would never let her go into it without one of them being there to look after her, was that the hiding-place was somewhere in the library, and that they were afraid that when she was dusting and doing up she might come upon the will."
The same conclusion had flashed across Mrs. Conway's mind as soon as she heard that the room was kept locked.
"If the will is really hidden away," she said, "it's likely enough to be as you say; but I shouldn't think two ladies would do such a thing as that."
"Oh, you don't know them," Jane said sharply. "They are two regular old cats they are, and hunt one about all over the house as if they thought one was going to steal something. They was fond of their brother in their way, but, bless you, they treated him like a child, and he das'ent call his soul his own; and you may be sure they didn't like the thought that he had left his money away from them, and that some one else would become master and missis of the Hall while they were living. Martha and me was both of one mind that the old women were likely enough to do it if they had a chance. I would give a good deal if I could find the will myself just to see their faces; interfering old things. It was only two Sundays ago they told me after I came out of church that they didn't approve of the ribbons in my bonnet; just as if a girl was to go about as if she was a convict."
"But you say there were men searching here, Jane. How was it they didn't find it if it's in the library, and how was it the Miss Penfolds allowed them to search?"
"They couldn't help it," Jane replied. "There was an order from the court in London, or a judge or some one, and they couldn't stop it. They went away when the men came and didn't come back till it was all over. I don't know how it was that they didn't find it in the library, for they searched it regular. I was in there two or three times while they were at work, and they took out all the books from the shelves and pulled down a lot of the wood-work and turned it all upside down, but they couldn't find anything. Still, you see, it ain't a likely tale of theirs as they keeps the door locked because they want it to be just as he left it, when it's all been turned topsy-turvy and everything put out of its place.
"That's what Martha and me couldn't get over, though Martha told me they done their best to have it put just as it was; and there's paper and pens on the table, just to pretend it is exactly as it used to be and that no one hadn't been in. As if they cared so much about him. I call it sickening, that's what I calls it. The Withers don't come here now. They used to be often here in the master's time, but they are not friends with them now. Last Sunday the parson he made it hot for them, and preached a sermon about secrets being known and undiscovered things coming to light. Of course he didn't say nothing special about wills, but they felt it, I could see. Our pew's on the opposite side of the church, and I could see their faces. Miss Penfold she got white, and pinched up her lips, and if she could have given a piece of her mind to the parson she would have done so; and Eleanor she got red and looked as if she was going to cry.
"She is a lot better than her sister, she is; and if any wrong's been done it's the old one that's done it, I am sure, and Martha always said so too. I could put up with the younger one very well, but I can't abide Miss Penfold."
"I am quite anxious to see the room, Jane, after what you have been telling me about it."
"Well, you will see it in about a week. It's always on the first of the month that it is done up; and you will see the old woman will go in with you, and watch you all the time like a cat watches a mouse. Martha used to say so, But there—as you are not from this part of the country, and she won't think as you know nothing about the will or care nothing about it, she won't keep such a sharp lookout after you as she did with Martha."
Upon the following Sunday Mrs. Withers, on the way home from church, asked her husband with some anxiety whether he was not well. "I noticed you were quite pale in church, James, and you lost your place once or twice, and seemed as if you really weren't attending to what you were doing?"
"Then I am afraid, my dear, I seemed what I was, for I was tremendously surprised; and though I tried hard to keep my thoughts from wandering I am afraid I succeeded very badly."
"Surprised, James! What was it?"
"I will tell you, my dear. You know that letter we had a fortnight ago from Mrs. Conway, and that we puzzled over it a good deal. After talking as usual about her being determined to find the will and set matters straight, she said that we might possibly see her before long, and begged us not to show any surprise or to seem to recognize her. Well, you know, we talked it over, and could make nothing of it. Now I know what she means."
"What! Did you see her in church to-day, James?"
"I did, Amy; and where do you think she was?"
"I can't guess, James. Why, where could she be, and where can she be staying if not with us? I didn't see her. Are you sure you are not mistaken?"
"She was sitting behind you, Amy, which will account for your not seeing her. She was sitting in the Penfolds servants' pew, in a plain straw bonnet and quiet clothes like the others."
"Among the Penfolds' servants, James! Are you dreaming?"
"Not at all, my dear; there she was, sure enough. I could not possibly be mistaken."
Mrs. Withers was silent for some time with surprise.
"But what can she be doing there, James? Do you mean to say that you think that she has really gone to service at the Hall?"
"That is what I do think," the clergyman replied. "You know how she said over and over again that she was determined somehow to find the will. Well, I believe that she has in some way in pursuance of that purpose gone as a servant to the Penfolds. Now, my dear, you will not be surprised that I found it somewhat difficult to keep my thoughts from wandering."
"No, indeed, James. I am sure if I had been in your place I should have stopped altogether. Well, if that is so, it explains what she said in her letter about our not recognizing her; but how could she do such a thing, and what will come of it?"
"I have no idea how she managed to get there, Amy; but certainly she must have managed very cleverly somehow. What she is there to do is clear enough. She is going to search herself for the will. Whether she will ever find it or not is another matter; but I can hardly believe she can succeed after the thorough search Tallboys said he made of the house. Still that is what she means, I have not a shadow of doubt about it."
"I should never have thought for a moment she was the sort of woman to undertake such a thing," Mrs. Withers said. "Why, she will have to do servant's work, and to run all sorts of risks of being found out, and then I don't know what they mightn't do to her!"
"I don't see that they could do much, my dear, unless perhaps they prosecuted her for obtaining the place with a false character, which I suppose she must have done. Still it required no ordinary pluck for a woman to undertake such a scheme, and it will require patience and nerve to carry it through; but I don't know that I agree with you that she is not the sort of woman I should have thought capable of undertaking such a business. She was quiet enough when we met her in the town; but I believe from what I have heard that she was a high-spirited girl, and when we saw her, you know, she was on the eve of parting with her son. As she was evidently wrapped up in him, that would of course make her more quiet and silent than usual. I thought she bore up remarkably well, and admired the effort she made to prevent any display of her feeling marring the pleasant time we were having in London."
"But how about Mabel, James? Had we better tell her about this? You see, if she happens to meet Mrs. Conway she might betray her secret—might run up and address her by her name."
"That is certainly a difficulty, my dear; and I don't quite know what to do about it. What do you think yourself?"
"I think we had better postpone the matter, James, by sending Mabel away for a bit. You know my sister has asked her several times to go and stay with her on a visit at Bath. We have never cared to let her go away from us; but I do think now that it will be a good thing for me to write to Harriet, and tell her that if it will be convenient for her to take Mabel, we shall be glad to send her to her for a few months in order that she may take lessons in French and music. There are, of course, plenty of good masters there. In that way we shall get rid of the necessity for speaking to Mabel about it at all, and I should think it likely that Mrs. Conway would have left the Hall long before she returns."
"Perhaps she will, my dear, though I would not count upon that too much. I imagine that as Mrs. Conway has had nerve and courage enough to propose and so far carry out this singular plan of hers, she will have resolution enough to continue to play her part till she either finds the will, or becomes thoroughly convinced that it is absolutely not to be found."
And so Mrs. Withers wrote to her sister, and ten days later Mr. Withers started with Mabel for Bath.
Mrs. Conway had some difficulty in restraining all show of excitement, and in assuming a passive and indifferent air as upon the first of the month Miss Penfold unlocked the door of the library and led the way into the room.
"This was my brother's library. You will understand, Anna, that I wish everything to remain exactly as it is. You will therefore be careful to place everything as you find it—each article of furniture, and the books and papers on the table. You will just sweep the floor and dust everything. Beyond that we wish nothing done to the room."
Mrs. Conway began her work quietly. Miss Penfold watched her for some little time, and then said:
"You will leave the door open, Anna; it is better to let the air circulate as much as possible. When the weather gets warmer you will also leave the windows open while you are at work; but the air is too damp at present."
"Would you like me to light a fire to air the room, Miss Penfold?"
"Certainly not," Miss Penfold said decidedly, "there is no occasion whatever for it. If I have not returned by the time you have finished the room, come and tell me when you have done. I always make a point of locking the door myself."
So saying Miss Penfold went out, leaving the door wide open behind her.
"Have you left her alone there?" Eleanor asked her sister as she entered the sitting-room.
"Certainly I have," Miss Penfold said coldly. "I do wish you would not be so nervous, Eleanor. The woman can have no interest in this matter. She may have heard of it from the other servants, but it can be nothing to her. You know as well as I do that there is no chance of her stumbling upon it by accident. It was different with the last girl. Of course they were always talking about the will, and she might have tried, as a matter of curiosity, to find it, or she might have been bribed by those Withers or by that man Tallboys; but it is different now. This woman can have no interest in it, and will only want to get her work done as soon as possible. My being always in the room with her as I was with Martha might excite comment. I should never have done it in Martha's case if you had not been so absurdly nervous; for you know very well there was no real danger of her ever finding the place however closely she looked for it. But now there's a change it is quite time to drop it, or a rumor will be getting about that we are afraid of any of our servants remaining for a moment alone in the library."
"I wish we had never done it. I do wish we had never done it," Eleanor murmured pitifully.
"I am ashamed of you, Eleanor," Miss Penfold said coldly. "You are worse than a child with your laments and complainings. What have we done? Nothing. We have no certainty that there is a will in existence; and if we had, it's not our business to assist to carry out a monstrous wrong against ourselves, and to put that woman's son as master here. How many times have we talked this over, and it's always the same. You keep on trembling at shadows."
"I should not care if it was not for the night, Charlotte. I am always dreaming that Herbert is coming to my bedside and looking so stern and angry, and saying, 'Let justice be done.'"
"Bah!" Miss Penfold said contemptuously. "You must eat less supper, Eleanor. If you were not such a coward you would not dream such things. I have no patience with your folly."
"I know it is foolish, Charlotte, but I can't help it; my nerves were never as strong as yours. I quite agreed with you from the first about it. I think it was infamous that Herbert should have passed us over, and that it is not to be expected we should aid in the discovery of such a wicked will. Still I can't help being unhappy about it, and lying awake at night and dreaming. No one can help their dreams."
"Your dreams are a mere repetition of your thoughts," Miss Penfold said scornfully. "If you worry while you are awake, you will worry while you are asleep. We have done nothing criminal. We have meddled with no will, nor hidden one. We simply refuse to aid in the discovery of an unjust document, and by so doing prevent a great wrong being done to ourselves. To my mind the thing is perfectly simple, and my conscience wholly acquits me of any wrong-doing."
Left to herself, Mrs. Conway took an earnest look round the room. Somewhere no doubt within its limits lay the key of the secret that would give wealth to Ralph. Where was it? The walls were completely covered by bookshelves. These were handsomely carved, and dark with age. One of the Penfolds had evidently been a bookworm, and had spared no pains and expense in carrying out his hobby. The housemaid had said that all the books had been removed, and that nothing had been found behind them. Still there might well be some spring that had escaped their notice. At any rate the ground must be gone over again.
Then the spring might lie among the carved work of the bookcases themselves. This must be gone over inch by inch. That was evidently the first work to be done. The mantel and its supports were of richly carved woodwork. These, too, must be searched. In the first place, however, she had to carry out her work; and laying aside determinately all thought of the missing will, she began to dust and sweep. At the end of an hour, when she happened to turn round, she saw Miss Penfold standing in the doorway. She had not heard her footstep, and at once decided in her mind that it would be necessary to be extremely careful in her search, as at any moment Miss Penfold might look in upon her without warning.
"Have you nearly finished, Anna?" Miss Penfold asked.
"It will take me another hour at least to dust the woodwork properly, Miss Penfold. I have done the carpet and furniture."
Miss Penfold made no remark but went away again.
"She is not likely to come back for a few minutes," Mrs. Conway said to herself. "I think I can safely carry out one of my plans."
She took from her pocket a ball of thin string, one end of which was attached to a tiny brad awl. Going into one corner of the room she fixed the brad awl into the woodwork; then, unwinding the ball, proceeded to the other end of the room, straining the string tightly, and tied a knot to mark the length. Then she went back and crossed the room, and again make a knot to mark the width. Then she hastily gathered up the string, pulled the brad awl from the woodwork, and put them in her pocket. While she had been carrying this out she retained a duster in one hand, and dusted the wood work as she moved along, trusting that if Miss Penfold should look in, the string, which was of a dark color, would be unnoticed by her. However she gave a sigh of relief when the operation was complete, and the string and brad awl hidden away. She then continued her work until in about three-quarters of an hour Miss Penfold again appeared.
"I think that will do very well, Anna; it is quite impossible to get all the dust out of the carving. It would take you all day to go over it, and you would need steps for the upper part. That need only be done occasionally." She gave an approving glance round as she noticed that the new housemaid had carefully placed every article in the exact place in which she had found it. Mrs. Conway gathered up the brooms and dusters and left the room, Miss Penfold carefully locking the door after her.
"That is something done," Mrs. Conway said to herself; "and will, I think, save me an immense deal of trouble. To-morrow I will measure the rooms next to it. The passage runs along the side and it is hardly possible that there can be any receptacle there; the wall is not thick enough for a place of any size. It must be at one end or the other, or else under the floor."
The following morning she measured the dining-room, and what was now known as the housekeeper's room, but which in years gone by had been called the still room; and the following day slipped out of doors as soon as she came downstairs and took the outside measurement of the side of the house, marking on the string the position and width of each window. She had only now to make a plan and compare the figures. She found that between the back of the bookcase—for she had taken out a few books to ascertain its depth—and the panel of the dining-room there was a thickness of two feet; but between the library and the housekeeper's room there were fully five feet unaccounted for.
In both were deep old-fashioned fireplaces back to back; and even allowing but six inches between these, the depth there would be accounted for, but on either side of the fireplaces there would be a wide space. There were certainly no cupboards visible in the library, for the bookcases extended from the fireplace to the wall on each side. In the housekeeper's room there were cupboards on each side of the chimney-piece, but these were shallow, not being above nine inches in depth; therefore behind these there was a considerable space unaccounted for. It was evident to Mrs. Conway that her first search must lie in this direction. Here might lie two chambers each three feet wide by eight feet long.
Mrs. Conway's spirits rose at this discovery, and she sighed impatiently at the thought that another month must elapse before she could even commence the search. Brooding over the matter continually, there was one point that did not escape her. These old hiding-places were made either to conceal proscribed priests or hunted fugitives, and were constructed with the greatest care. As she had so easily discovered the spot where a hidden room might be situated, it would be discovered with the same ease by those who were on the search for fugitives, and who would naturally be well acquainted with the positions where hiding-places would be likely to be situated. The moment they looked into the cupboard, its shallowness would suggest to them that there must be a wide empty space behind it, and by setting to work with axes, picks, and crowbars, they would soon discover by force the secret she was trying to penetrate by stratagem.
This reflection considerably damped her hopes; but she thought that possibly from this easily-discoverable hiding-place there might be some access, much more difficult to trace, to another lying below. At any rate she determined that if she did find the secret entrance to these little rooms, and found that they were empty she would not be disheartened, but would search further until she found either some secret closet where the will might be placed, or an entrance to some perhaps larger hiding-place below. Her subsequent search outside showed her that there existed several small iron gratings about six inches long and three deep, close down to the soil of the border. No doubt these were intended to give ventilation underneath the floors, which were some two feet above the outside level, but one of them might also afford ventilation to an underground chamber.
Three months passed, and on the occasion of each of her visits to the room she devoted some time to the examination of the carved woodwork round the fireplace and that of the bookcases, but without making any discovery whatever; and it became evident to her that a far closer search would be needed than the short and hasty examination that was all she dared to make, with the possibility that at any moment Miss Penfold might appear at the door. Accordingly she wrote to Mr. Tallboys, and told him that it would be necessary for her to obtain a cake of very soft wax, four inches long and two inches wide, and asked him to procure it for her, and to send it in a wooden box to her by the carrier's cart that once a week journeyed from Weymouth to the villages in the neighborhood of the Hall.
Ten days later she received the wax, and the next time the day for cleaning the library arrived she quietly withdrew the key from the door as soon as Miss Penfold had left her, laid it on the wax, and pressed it steadily until a deep impression was made upon its surface. Then she carefully examined the key to see that no particle of wax had stuck between the wards, replaced it in the door, closed the lid of the little box in which the wax lay, and put it in her pocket, and then set to at her work of cleaning.
Upon this occasion she spent no time in trying to find the spring. There was danger now as always of Miss Penfold's coming, and as she would soon have the means of entering the room at her will she would run no risk. A few days later she asked for a day to go to Weymouth to purchase some things of which she had need, and when there she called upon Mr. Tallboys.
"How are you, Mrs. Conway?" the lawyer said when the door had closed behind her. "Have you come to tell me that you give up the search as hopeless?"
"Not at all," she replied with decision. "I told you in my letter that I had discovered the probable position of the hiding-place, and told you of the difficulties there were in making a thorough search for it owing to the room being always kept locked. I have come now to ask you to get a key made from this," and she produced the wax. "It would be suspicious if I were to go to a locksmith here and ask for such a thing; he would think at once that I was a servant who wanted to rob my mistress. But of course it will be different with you. Beside, I thought that if you did not like to get it done here, you might send the wax up to London and get the key made there."
"This is becoming more and more serious, Mrs. Conway," Mr. Tallboys said gravely. "Nothing very terrible could happen to you beyond being turned out of the house even were it discovered who you really are; but if you were found at night, and I suppose your intention is to work at night, in the library, with a false key in your possession, you might be arrested for an attempt at theft, and could only clear yourself by explaining before the magistrates who you were, and with what motive you were acting, which would give rise to much unpleasant talk, would render any pursuance of your plan impossible, and might not improbably induce these women to destroy the will, if they have not already done so."
"I am quite convinced they have not done that, Mr. Tallboys. The anxiety they have about any one entering the room, and the manner in which Miss Penfold pops in occasionally to see what I am doing, is quite proof in my mind that the will is still in existence; for if they had destroyed it, they would have no further anxiety on the subject. No, I have thought it all over, and must run the risk. There is no other way of making a complete search; and in one night there by myself I could do far more than in a twelvemonths' visits as at present. There are two or three more things I wish you would procure for me. I want a man's coat and cap, rough ones, such as a burglar might wear. You see, if by any chance I am met by those women going downstairs, or returning to my room, I must give them a start. Dressed up like that, and with a piece of crape over my face, I should be taken for a burglar. I don't think Miss Penfold is very easily frightened; but at the same time I fancy I might alarm her into returning to her room, and should be able to get back to mine before the house was roused. I shall always unfasten a window on the ground floor and lift it a little, so that it would be supposed that the intruder entered and escaped that way."
Mr. Tallboys smiled a little, but said, "It is a very risky business, Mrs. Conway. Miss Penfold is just the sort of woman to keep pistols in her bedroom."
"One must risk something when one is fighting for a fortune," Mrs. Conway said quietly. "I hope that I shall not be heard. There are always creakings and noises in an old house like that. The doors are thick and well fitting, and there is little chance of my footsteps being heard. It is only by an accident, such as one of them being unable to sleep and getting up and walking over the house, that they are likely to run against me, and it is not probable she would have a pistol in her hand then. No, I do not think there is the least fear of anything of that sort. The only fear I have is of being detected in some other way before I have done what I have to do, and the risk of that grows less and less every day.
"I have been there over four months now, and am perfectly at home. I was at first afraid of a sudden meeting with Mr. Withers, or his wife, or Mabel; but that has passed away now. I saw he recognized me the first Sunday in church, and I wrote to him; of course sending the letter to Dover to be sent back from there. He answered me praying me to give up what he called my mad-brained attempt, and saying it made him and his wife quite unhappy to think of my being at the Hall. He told me that at present they had not told Mabel that I was there, but had sent her away to school at Bath. She is with an aunt, and will not be home again for some months; so I am safe from her. No, I am not in the least anxious about myself. I cannot say as much about Ralph. His regiment has just gone out to Belgium, and I suppose there will be fighting presently. I think of that more now than I do of this will, Mr. Tallboys. If I had known what was coming, I would not have begun this search until it was all over. What use would it be for me to find the will if anything happened to him."
"It is clearly of no use my trying to dissuade you from carrying out your plans, Mrs. Conway; and although I cannot altogether approve of them, I will do my best to help you as far as lies in my power, and you shall have the key down very shortly. How shall I send it over?"
"I have ordered a dress and some other things at Wilson's in the High Street. The dress has to be made up, and will not be ready for a week. I have told them there will be three or four other parcels, which they are to put in the box and send it on by the carrier. I have ordered a pair of boots to be made for me and one or two other things, and told them not to close the box until this day fortnight, by which time all the other things I have ordered will be sent in to them. I hope you will have got the key before that."
"Oh, yes, I should think it would be done in a week at latest. You certainly deserve success, Mrs. Conway, for you seem to provide for every contingency."