Chantry House by Charlotte M. Yonge
Chapter XLI--Wills Old and New
'And that to-night thou must watch with me To win the treasure of the tomb.' SCOTT.
Some seasons seem to be peculiarly marked, as if Death did indeed walk forth in them.
Old Mr. Frith died in the spring of 1841, and it proved that he had shown his gratitude to Clarence by a legacy of shares in the firm amounting to about 2000 pounds. The rest of his interest therein went to Lawrence Frith, and his funded property to his sister, Mrs. Stevens, a very fair and upright disposition of his wealth.
Only six weeks later, my father had a sudden seizure, and there was only time to summon Clarence from London and Martyn from Oxford, before a second attack closed his righteous and godly career upon earth.
My mother was very still and calm, hardly shedding a tear, but her whole demeanour was as if life were over for her, and she had nothing to do save to wait. She seemed to care very little for tendernesses or attentions on our part. No doubt she would have been more desolate without them, but we always had a baffled feeling, as though our affection were contrasted with her perfect union with her husband. Yet they had been a singularly undemonstrative couple; I never saw a kiss pass between them, except as greeting or farewell before or after a journey; and if my mother could not use the terms papa or your father, she always said, 'Mr. Winslow.' There was a large gathering at the funeral, including Mr. Fordyce, but he slept at Hillside, and we scarcely saw him--only for a few kind words and squeezes of the hand. Holy Week was begun, and he had to hurry back to Beachharbour that very night.
The will had been made on my father's coming into the inheritance. It provided a jointure of 800 pounds per annum for my mother, and gave each of the younger children 3000 pounds. A codicil had been added shortly after Griffith's death, written in my father's hand, and witnessed by Mr. Henderson and Amos Bell. This put Clarence in the position of heir; secured 500 pounds a year to Griffith's widow, charged on the estate, and likewise an additional 200 pounds a year to Emily and to me, hers till marriage, mine for life, 300 pounds a year to Martyn, until Earlscombe Rectory should be voided, when it was to be offered to him. The executors had originally been Mr. Castleford and my mother, but by this codicil, Clarence was substituted for the former.
The legacies did not come out of the Chantry House property, for my father had, of course, means of his own besides, and bequests had accrued to both him and my mother; but Clarence was inheriting the estate much more burthened than it had been in 1829, having 2000 pounds a year to raise out of its proceeds.
My mother was quite equal to business, with a sort of outside sense, which she applied to it when needful. Clarence made it at once evident to her that she was still mistress of Chantry House, and that it was still to be our home; and she immediately calculated what each ought to contribute to the housekeeping. She looked rather blank when she found that Clarence did not mean to give up business, nor even to become a sleeping partner; but when she examined into ways and means, she allowed that he was prudent, and that perhaps it was due to Mr. Castleford not to deprive him of an efficient helper under present circumstances. Meantime she was content to do her best for Earlscombe 'for the present,' by which she meant till her son brought home a wife; but we knew that to him the words bore a different meaning, though he was still in doubt and uncertainty how to act, and what might be the wrong to be undone.
He was anxious to persuade her to go from home for a short time, and prevailed on her at last to take Emily and me to Dawlish, while the repairs went on which had been deferred during my father's feebleness; at least that was the excuse. We two, going with great regret, knew that his real reason was to have an opportunity for a search among the ruins.
It was in June, just as Martyn came back from Oxford, eager to share in the quest. Those two brothers would trust no one to help them, but one by one, in the long summer evenings, they moved each of those stones; I believe the servants thought they were crazed, but they could explain with some truth that they wanted to clear up the disputed points as to the architecture, as indeed they succeeded in doing.
They had, however, nearly given up, having reached the original pavement and disinterred the piscina of the side altar, also a beautiful coffin lid with a floriated cross; when, in a kind of hollow, Martyn lit upon the rotten remains of something silken, knotted together. It seemed to have enclosed a bundle. There were some rags that might have been a change of clothing, also a Prayer- book, decayed completely except the leathern covering, inside which was the startling inscription, 'Margaret Winslow, her booke; Lord, have mercy on a miserable widow woman.' There was also a thick leathern roll, containing needles, pins, and scissors, entirely corroded, and within these a paper, carefully folded, but almost destroyed by the action of damp and the rust of the steel, so that only thus much was visible. 'I, Margaret Winslow, being of sound mind, do hereby give and bequeath--'
Then came stains that defaced every line, till the extreme end, where a seal remained; the date 1707 was legible, and there were some scrawls, probably the poor lady's signature, and perhaps that of witnesses. Clarence and Martyn said very little to one another, but they set out for Dawlish the next day.
'Found' was indicated to us, but no more, for they arrived late, and had to sleep at the hotel, after an evening when we were delighted to hear my mother ask so many questions about household and parish affairs. In the morning she was pleased to send all 'the children' out on the beach, then free from the railway. It was a beautiful day, with the intensely blue South Devon sea dancing in golden ripples, and breaking on the shore with the sound Clarence loved so well, as, in the shade of the dark crimson cliffs, Emily sat at my feet and my brothers unfolded their strange discoveries into her lap. There was a kind of solemnity in the thing; we scarcely spoke, except that Emily said, 'Oh, will she come again,' and, as the tears gathered at sight of the pathetic petition in the old book, 'Was that granted?'
We reconstructed our theory. The poor lady must have repented of the unjust will forced from her by her stepsons, and contrived to make another; but she must have been kept a captive until, during their absence at some Christmas convivialities, she tried to escape; but hearing sounds betokening their return, she had only time to hide the bundle in the ruin before she was detected, and in the scuffle received a fatal blow.
'But why,' I objected, 'did she not remain hidden till her enemies were safe in the house?'
'Terrified beyond the use of her senses,' said Clarence.
'By all accounts,' said Martyn, 'the poor creature must have been rather a silly woman.'
'For shame, Martyn,' cried Emily, 'how can you tell? They might have seen her go in, or she might have feared being missed.'
'Or if you watch next Christmas you may see it all explained.'
To which Emily replied with a shiver that nothing would induce her to go through it again, and indeed she hoped the spirit would rest since the discovery had been made.
'And then?'--one of us said, and there was a silence, and another futile attempt to read the will.
'I shall take it to London and see what an expert can do with it,' said Clarence. 'I have heard of wonderful decipherings in the Record Office; but you will remember that even if it can be made out, it will hardly invalidate our possession after a hundred and thirty years.'
'Clarence!' cried Emily in a horrified voice; and I asked if the date were not later than that by which we inherited.
'Three years,' Clarence said, 'yes; but as things stand, it is absolutely impossible for me to make restitution at present.'
'On account of the burthens on the estate?' I said.
'Oh, but we could give up,' said Emily.
'I dare say!' said Clarence, smiling; 'but to say nothing of poor Selina, my mother would hardly see it in the same light, nor should I deal rightly, even if I could make any alterations; I doubt whether my father would have held himself bound--certainly not while no one can read this document.'
'It would simply outrage his legal mind,' said Martyn.
'Then what is to be done? Is the injustice to be perpetual?' asked Emily.
'This is what I have thought of,' said Clarence. 'We must leave matters as they are till I can realise enough either to pay off all these bequests, or to offer Mr. Fordyce the value of the estate.'
'It is not the whole,' I said.
'Not the Wattlesea part. This means Chantry House and the three farms in the village. 10,000 pounds would cover it.'
'Is it possible?' asked Emily.
'Yes,' returned Clarence, 'God helping me. You know our concern is bringing in good returns, and Mr. Castleford will put me in the way of doing more with my available capital.'
'We will save so as to help you!' added Emily. At which he smiled.