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   Chapter 3 THE SCHEMING KINSMAN.

Fallen Fortunes By Evelyn Everett-Green Characters: 21980

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


They sat face to face in a room which Grey well remembered. It had been lined with folios in those days-great tomes in which he had dug with breathless delight, for the treasures of wood-cuts and the strange stories they possessed-and illuminated missals, where, amid a mass of gilding and wonderful colours, the story of saint or martyr could be traced. Other and more modern works had been also there, specimens of the art of printing as carried on through the days of the Stuarts. But where were all these tomes and scrolls and books now? Grey swept the empty shelves with quick, indignant glances. A motion of his hands seemed to ask the question his lips were too proud to speak.

A small and wizened man sat before him, his eyes furtively scanning the young man's face with an unwinking attention. He could not have been old, this parchment-faced kinsman-not more than five-and-forty at the most-and yet he wore the look of an old man, and was fond of speaking of himself as such. The unhealthy pallor of his face bespoke a life of inaction, and the lines and wrinkles on the puffy skin, and the emaciation of the frame and claw-like hands, seemed either to indicate some wasting disease, or else a miser-like habit of life which denied its owner the common necessaries of existence. Grey fancied that perhaps this latter surmise might be the right one; for he himself would have fared ill at breakfast that morning, had it not been for the fish which Dicon had caught and cooked for the pair, ere he presented himself at the meal to which his kinsman invited him on hearing of his advent to the old house. That meal had been so frugal that Grey almost disdained to partake of it. And now he and Mr. Dumaresq sat facing each other in the green light which fell through the big north window, against which the trees almost brushed, rather like combatants in a duel, each of which measures the strength and skill of the other before attempting to strike.

The wizened man made a deprecating gesture with his hand, and answered the unspoken question.

"Sold, sold-every one of them! I did my best to keep them in the family, but it was of no avail. Your father would have money-no matter at what cost. I was toiling all I knew for him, as it was. Everything that could be got out of the estate I squeezed out for him. Never man had so faithful a steward as I was to my poor cousin. But it was like pouring water through a sieve. Nay, you need not look so fiercely at me. I am not traducing the dead. Ask those with whom he consorted. Ask the boon companions he made in gay London town. Ask his very servants, an you will. You will hear the same tale from all. He spent money like water. Never did he trouble his head where it was to come from. I have papers; I can show them if you have knowledge of the law enough to understand. I advanced him sum after sum, on such poor security as this tumble-down house and impoverished estate has to offer. I beggared myself for his sake. He was the only kinsman left me. I could deny him nothing. And when my funds were gone, I must needs squeeze all that could be squeezed out of the house and land. The books went; the timber was felled; the pictures were taken away; the best of the furniture went to adorn the houses of merchants and parvenus. I argued and entreated in vain. When the wild fit was upon him, Hugh would listen to nothing. I had to content myself with serving him, by seeing that he was not cheated beyond bearing by the crew of harpies he had around him. At least I secured him equitable prices for family heirlooms; but it went to my heart to see them vanish one by one. And now, what is left save the shell of the old house, and an estate burdened and impoverished well-nigh beyond the power of redemption?"

He heaved a great sigh, looking cunningly at the young man out of the corners of his ferret-like eyes. Grey's glance was stern and direct. His words were quietly and coldly spoken.

"We will see about that. I am here to take up my burden. I will learn whether or not Hartsbourne be past redemption."

"You!" cried 'Mr. Dumaresq quickly; "and pray what can you do?"

"I can live here quietly, and see what can be done towards retrieving the past. Even if I toil with my own hands, I shall think it no shame, if it be for the home of my forefathers."

"You live here!" sneered the other, seeking to mask the sneer by a smile; "and by what right will you do that, pray?"

"I am the owner," answered Grey proudly. "I presume that I have the right to live in my own house, and to administer such revenues as may be left to the estate?"

"Oh yes, fair kinsman, so soon as the mortgages be paid. I will get them out for your high mightiness to examine. Pay them off, and house and manor are yours to do with as you will. But till that time come, I, and not you, am master here. The revenues are mine; the house I have the right to occupy, to the exclusion of any other. It is all writ fair to see-signed and sealed. Will you see the papers for yourself? They will make pleasant study for a summer morning."

"I will look at the papers anon," answered Grey quietly; "but first I would know from you what it all means. It is you, not I, to whom Hartsbourne belongs, then? You are the master, and I am the guest?"

"For the present, yes; but a welcome guest, none the less," spoke the older man with a repulsive leer. "The situation, my bold young cousin, is easily understood. Your father loved not the old family house. I did love it. Could he have sold it, it would have been mine long since; but he had not the power to alienate it from the title. But he did all else that was possible. He raised mortgage upon mortgage upon it-first on the house, then on the land. I came to live in the house, and paid him rent for it once. Then I supplied him with money and took up the mortgages. He and I had been boys together. The tie between us was strong. I verily believe he was glad to have me here, and when he was sick and smitten with mortal disease he came hither to die, and I was with him to the last. He was grateful for my devoted service. He was glad to think that I should live on here afterwards. 'It is no life for a young man,' he said almost at the last. 'Grey will carve out a career for himself. Here he could only rot and starve like a rat in a hole.' And I pointed out that you were my natural heir, and that you might not have very long to wait before coming a second time into your inheritance."

Grey sat silent and baffled. It was little he knew of the law; but he had heard before this of men who had left nothing save debts and troubles for those who came after them. Many a fair manor and estate passed into alien hands for years, or even for generations, when trouble fell upon the owners. He understood only too well how it had been here at Hartsbourne-everything squeezed out of the estate, nothing put in, till at last the house was falling into ruin, and the rights of the lord of the manor had passed away from the owner. It was no consolation to Grey that a Dumaresq had supplanted him. He was cut to the heart by the selfish extravagance of his father, and the way in which he had played into the hands of this schemer. He saw how impossible it would be to attempt to live here himself, even if he could establish a legal right to do so. He was not certain if his father could have done anything which should actually hinder him from claiming possession of the house which was his, but to find money to pay off the mortgages-he might as well have sought for money to buy the moon! And even then, how could he live in a house without money, without servants, without friends? No; he must seek to carve out a fortune for himself. His fair dream of a peaceful life in England as a country squire was shattered into a thousand pieces. Some day perhaps-some day in the dim and distant future, when fortune and fame were his-he might come back to take possession of his own. It should be his dream-the goal of his ambition-to dwell at Hartsbourne as its lord and master. But for the present he could call nothing his own save the good horse cropping the lush June grass in the paddock, and that casket so carefully hidden beneath the hearthstone of old Jock's living-room. He would look at the papers. He would make careful study of them. He would take notes as to the amount necessary to clear the estate and make him master in reality. And then he would go; he would not be beholden to this kinsman, whose shifty face he distrusted heart and soul, though his words were smooth and fair. He would ride forth into the fair world of an English midsummer, and would see what the future held there for him.

It was not an exhilarating hour which he spent over the parchments spread out before his eyes, which were eagerly explained to him by the lynx-eyed kinsman, who seemed half afraid to trust them out of his own claw-like clutches. But Grey perused them with attention, making notes the while; and after studying these at the close, whilst the deeds were being locked away, he said,-

"Then when I return with thirty thousand pounds in my pocket, I can take over Hartsbourne, house and lands and all, and be master of my own estate in deed as well as in word?"

"And how are you to come by this thirty thousand pounds, fair coz?" asked Mr. Dumaresq, with something slightly uneasy in his shifty glance. "Right gladly would I receive mine own, and make way for a gallant gentleman like you; but where are these riches of Aladdin to come from?"

"Perchance from the same source as yours did come, sir," answered Grey, looking full at his interlocutor. "The Dumaresqs have not ranked as a wealthy family since the days of the Civil War, when they lost so much. But you seem to have found fortune's golden key; and if you, why not I?"

Did he shrink and cower under these words, or was it only Grey's fancy that he did so? The young man could not be sure, though he had his suspicions. At any rate he spoke suavely enough.

"Thrift and care, my young friend, care and thrift-these qualities are better than any golden key of hazard. My father was a careful, saving man, and at his death bequeathed me greater wealth than I dreamed he did possess. I followed in his footsteps until, for your father's sake, I elected to prop the falling fortunes of the house rather than live in selfish affluence on my own revenues. Well, I did what seemed right; and my reward shall be the hope of seeing Hartsbourne one day restored to its former glories. But for the present I must needs live like a poor man, though that is no trouble to one who has ever made thrift the law of life."

Grey went forth from the presence of his kinsman with a cloud on his brow and a fire in his heart.

"Why doth he speak of himself as poor?" he asked of himself. "He takes to himself all the revenues of the estate; and when I was a boy, I always heard that the farms were prosperous, the l

and fertile, the timber fine, game and deer plentiful, and the tenants able to pay their dues. If all that comes in goes into his pocket, wherefore doth he live like a miser? wherefore doth he let the house fall into decay? he ruined himself for my father's sake? Tush! A man with that face sacrifice himself for another! Nay; but he is hoarding up gold for himself, or I greatly mistake me. Truly do I believe that he is playing some deep game of his own. Well, I can but wait and see what time will bring forth. It is a shame that the old house should be left to go to ruin like this, with its revenues falling regularly into the hands of a Dumaresq! Why doth he not spend them upon the fine old structure, to make it what it was before? Why, now I see. He thinks it would stimulate me to fresh desire to make myself master. He may haply think that I care not for a habitation given up to rats and ghosts and cobwebs. He little thinks that every fallen stone seems to cry out aloud to me, and that the lower falls the old house in ruin and neglect, the more urgent is the voice with which it urges me to come and save it."

The young man was walking up and down the grass-grown avenue as he thus mused. From thence he could see in perspective the long south front, with its many mullioned windows, its beautiful oriels, and the terrace up and down which he had raced in the days of his happy childhood. Straight in front was the eastern portion of the house, with its great entrance doors, led up to by a fine double stairway, beneath which a coach could stand, and its occupants in wet weather enter by a lower door. But the stone work was chipped and broken; the balustrade had lost many of its balls, which lay mouldering in the long grass that grew up to the very walls. Moss and lichen and stone-crop clothed all, and the creepers which clung about the house itself were wild and tangled, and in many cases had completely overgrown the very windows, so that scarce a trace of them could be seen.

Yet even in its decay the old house was strangely beautiful, and Grey's heart was stirred to its depths. He wandered through the tangled garden, and out towards the fish-ponds beyond and then by a winding pathway he made his way to the churchyard, and stood bare-headed at his mother's grave.

"I will win it back, mother; I will win it back!" He spoke the words aloud, in a low-toned, earnest voice. "You loved the place, and you taught me to love it. For that alone I would seek to call it one day mine own. I will win it back, and methinks your heart will rejoice when your son is ruling there at last."

Grey had meant to leave that very day; but there was much he longed to see, and his kinsman had given him an earnest invitation to pass the night beneath the old roof-tree. Repugnant as this man was to him, and bitterly as he resented his conduct and distrusted his motives, it was not in the young man's nature to be churlish. Every hour of daylight he spent wandering about the place, revisiting his boyish haunts, and chatting with old Jock, who, without being able to give any exact reason for it, distrusted and despised the present master as heartily as Grey himself.

"The old master did too, at the last. I am main sure of it," he said; "else for why should he have given me yon box, sir? And why should he have bidden me hide it and guard it, and let none see it till Sir Grey should claim it himself? For years he had thought him a friend; but I trow he knew him for a false one at the last. You'll best him yet, Sir Grey-see if you don't. A villain always outwits himself in the end. You'll be master here one day, please God, or my name's not Jock Jarvis!"

Grey had taken out the casket, and found that it contained three hundred golden guineas-the remnant of his father's fortune, and all that he had been able to preserve to his son of what had once been a fine estate. A few words cautioned Grey to be careful of the hoard, and let no one know of its existence-"no one" plainly meaning his kinsman. It also contained a few faintly traced words of farewell, and just a plea for forgiveness-evidently written when mortal weakness was upon the writer-which brought sudden tears to the eyes of the son, and blotted out the bitterness of heart which had been growing up as he mused upon his fallen fortunes and his lost inheritance.

That evening Grey supped with his kinsman in a corner of the despoiled library, which seemed the only room in the house now lived in. He had walked through some of the other state apartments, denuded of their pictures and the best of the furniture, and looking ghostlike with closed shutters and overgrown windows. He had not had heart to pursue his investigations far; and all that he carried away with him were saddened memories, and one little mouldering volume of poems, with his mother's name on the fly leaf, which he had found lying in a corner of the little room with the sunny oriel, where she had passed the greater part of her time. He thought he even remembered the book in her hands; and he slipped it into his breast as though it were some great treasure. The sneering smile of his kinsman as he bade him keep the volume, and saw where he placed it, did not endear him any the more. He wished he could get rid of his companionship, but that seemed impossible; and Grey soon gave up the tour of the house, and let himself be led back to the library.

"No, I have no plans," he said briefly, as they sat at their frugal supper, to which, in honour of the occasion, a small flagon of wine had been added. "I think I shall remain in England. I have been a wanderer something too long. A homely saying tells us that the rolling stone gathers no moss. I have youth and health and strength, and the world lies before me. Men have won success with more against them before this, and why not I?"

"I should have thought the battlefield would have tempted you. There is honour and renown to be won there, to say nothing of the spoils of a vanquished foe," spoke Mr. Dumaresq, looking at him in a peering, crafty fashion. "Surely a gallant young gentleman of your birth and training would not lack for opportunities of distinction amid the perils and glories of war!"

Suddenly Grey became aware that his kinsman was anxious for him to go and fight in the cause of the Allies. It could not be that he had heard of the happy chance which had made Marlborough his friend, for he had spoken of that to none; and even if Dicon had boasted to old Jock, neither cared to have aught to do with the deaf and cross-grained serving-man who waited upon the master within doors. A moment more and Grey had found the clue, and realized that his own death would make Bartholomew Dumaresq not only absolute master of Hartsbourne, but a baronet to boot; and in every battle thousands of brave soldiers were left dead upon the field, whilst many fell victim to wounds and the ravages of disease caught during the hard weeks of campaigning.

"I think I shall remain in England," he answered quietly. "I have seen something of war, but a career of peace has more attractions for me;" and he smiled to see the look of chagrin which played for a moment over the crafty face of his kinsman.

Grey did not find it easy to sleep when he had climbed up into the great canopied bed in the guest chamber allotted to him. He scarcely remembered this room. It was very large, and before he went to rest Grey drew aside all the mouldering draperies from the windows, and opened every casement wide to the summer night. Even so the place felt musty. There were strange creakings and groanings of the furniture, and the owls without hooted and hissed in the ivy wreaths. More than one bat flew in and out, circling over his head in uncanny flight; and had it not been that the previous night had been an almost sleepless one, Grey would scarce have closed an eye. As it was, he grew drowsy gradually, and felt a strange swimming in his head to which he was a stranger. He was just wondering whether the wine he had taken at supper, the taste of which seemed curious to him at the time, could have anything to do with this, when sleep suddenly fell upon him like a pall, and for a space he could not gauge he remained lapped in the unconsciousness of oblivion.

What was it roused him? Or was he indeed awake? The moonlight streamed into the room, and lay like bars upon the floor. Its radiance was sufficient to light every corner of the room, and Grey found himself lying still as a stone, yet sweeping every corner with his gaze, for surely he was not alone. He felt some presence close beside him, yet where could it be?

Suddenly his gaze travelled upwards, and for a few awful seconds he lay gazing as the bird before the gaze of the snake.

A shining poniard hung, as it were, over his head. He saw the gleaming silver of the blade. Its haft was grasped by a hand-a lean, claw-like hand. Its point was aimed at his own heart.

For a few endless seconds Grey lay staring up helplessly. Then the blade moved swiftly downwards. With a motion as swift, the young man threw himself sidewise out of bed and upon the floor, and turning, sprang to his feet to meet the murderous foe.

Behold there was nothing! He was alone in the great moonlit room. The curtains behind the bed's head were slightly shaken-nothing more.

Horrified and bewildered, Grey dashed them aside. Behind was a wall panelled like the rest of the room in black oak. Was it his fancy, or had he heard just as he sprang to his feet the click as of a closing spring? Grey passed his hand over and over the woodwork, but could find nothing to give a clue. Old memories of secret sliding panels, unknown passages to hiding-places, and ghostly visitants to sleeping guests, rose in succession before him. But this was something more than an ordinary ghostly visitor. Grey saw again the murderous gleam of cold steel over his head-saw the claw-like hand in its faded russet sleeve, the fierce downward sweep of the weapon.

"It was my kinsman, and he sought to do me to death-here in the haunted chamber, where perhaps some infernal machinery exists whereby the corpse could have been quickly and quietly removed and heard of no more. Who would care save Dicon, and what could a poor varlet like that do if the master of Hartsbourne were to assert that his kinsman had ridden off in the early hours of the morning, he knew not whither? Did he drug the wine? Was this in his head all the while? Or was the idea suggested only by my refusal to place my neck in peril at the wars? O Barty, Barty Dumaresq, a pretty villain art thou! Before this I might perhaps have been tempted to return to the Duke, and seek to win my spurs at his side; but now-no. I will take the safer, if the slower, path to fame and fortune, and I will live to make you rue the day you sought to rid yourself, by secret assassination, of the man in whose shoes you hope some day to stand."

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