Ince Hall, Ince-in-Makerfield
John Roby in his ‘Traditions of Lancashire’ (1872) relates the following tale which he entitled ‘The Haunted Manor House’, which he identifies as being Ince Hall in Wigan. As Roby acknowledges, there are a few buildings known as Ince Hall which leads to confusion when trying to identify the exactly where this tale is said to be based.
Ince-hall, the subject of our view, stands about a mile from Wigan, on the left hand of the high road to Bolton. It is a very conspicuous object, its ancient and well-preserved front generally attracting the notice and inquiry of travellers.
About a mile to the south-east stands another place of the same name once belonging to the Gerards of Bryn. The manor is now the property of Charles Walmsley, Esq., of Westwood, near Wigan.
The two mansions are sometimes confounded together in topographical inquiries; and the following story, though told of some former proprietor of the Ince to which our plate refers, yet, by its title of the “Manor-house,” would seem as though intended for the other and comparatively less known mansion, the old “Manor-house of Ince,” once inhabited by a family of that name. But the same traditions are often found connected with localities widely asunder, so that we need not be surprised at the mistake which gossips have made in this particular instance.
It is, after all, quite uncertain whether the event occurred here or not, story-tellers being very apt to fix upon any spot near at hand on which to fasten their marvellous narratives, and to give them a stronger hold on the listener’s imagination.
The story is supposed to be written or related by the chief actor in the occurrences arising out of the “Haunted House.” The author has thrown the narrative into this form, as he hopes it will vary the style of the traditions, and probably give more character and interest to the events here detailed than they would retain if told by a third person.
The coach set me down at the entrance to a long and unweeded avenue. A double row of beech-trees saluted me, as I passed, with a rich shower of wet leaves, and shook their bare arms, growling as the loud sough of the wind went through their decayed branches. The old house was before me. Its numerous and irregularly-contrived compartments in front were streaked in black and white zig-zags—vandyked, I think, the fairest jewels of the creation call this chaste and elegant ornament. It was near the close of a dark autumnal day, and a mass of gable-ends stood sharp and erect against the wild and lowering sky. Each of these pinnacles could once boast of its admired and appropriate ornament—a little weathercock; but they had cast off their gilded plumage for ever, and fallen from their high estate, like the once neatly-trimmed mansion which I was now visiting. A magpie was perched upon a huge stack of chimneys, his black and white plumage rivalling the mottled edifice at his feet. Perhaps he was the wraith, the departing vision of the decaying fabric; an apparition, insubstantial as the honours and dignities of the ancient and revered house of——!
I looked eagerly at the long, low casements: a faint glimmer was visible. It proceeded only from the wan reflection of a sickly sunbeam behind me, struggling through the cleft of a dark hail-cloud. It was the window where in my boyhood I had often peeped at the town-clock through my little telescope. There was the nursery chamber, and no wonder that it was regarded with feelings of the deepest interest. Here the first dawnings of reason broke in upon my soul; the first faint gleams of intelligence awakened me from a state of infantine unconsciousness. It was here that I first drank eagerly of the fresh rills of knowledge; here my imagination, ardent and unrepressed, first plumed its wings for flight, and I stepped forth over its threshold into a world long since tried, and found as unsatisfying and unreal as the false glimmer that now mocked me from the hall of my fathers.
A truce to sentiment!—I came hither, it may be, for a different purpose. A temporary gush will occasionally spring up from the first well-head of our affections. However homely and seemingly ill-adapted, in outward show and character, for giving birth to those feelings generally designated by the epithet romantic, the place where we first breathed, where our ideas were first moulded, formed and assimilated, as it were, to the condition of the surrounding atmosphere (their very shape and colour determined by the medium in which they first sprung) the casual recurrence of a scene like this,—forming part and parcel of our very existence, and incorporated with the very fabric of our thoughts,—must, in spite of all subsequent impressions, revive those feelings, however long they may have been dormant, with a force and vividness which the bare recollection can never excite.
The garden-gate stood open. The initials of my name, still legible, appeared rudely carved on the posts—a boyish propensity which most of us have indulged; and I well remember ministering to its gratification wherever I durst hazard the experiment, when first initiated into the mystery of hewing out these important letters with a rusty pen-knife.
Not a creature was stirring; and the nature of the present occupants, whether sylphs, gnomes, or genii, was a question not at all, as it yet appeared, in a train for solution. The front door was closed; but, as I knew every turn and corner about the house, I made no doubt of soon finding out its inmates, if any of them were in the neighbourhood. I worked my way through the garden, knee-deep and rank with weed, for the purpose of reconnoitring the back-offices. I steered pretty cautiously past what memory, that great dealer in hyperbole, had hitherto generally contrived to picture as a huge lake—now, to my astonishment, dwindled into a duck-pond—but not without danger from its slippery margin. It still reposed under the shadow of the old cherry-tree, once the harbinger of delight, as the returning season gave intimation of another bountiful supply of fruit. Its gnarled stump, now stunted and decaying, had scarcely one token of life upon its scattered branches. Following a narrow walk, nearly obliterated, I entered a paved court. The first tramp awoke a train of echoes that seemed as though they had slumbered since my departure, and now started from their sleep to greet or to admonish the returning truant. Grass in luxuriant tufts, capriciously disposed, grew about in large patches. The breeze passed heavily by, rustling the dark swathe, and murmuring fitfully as it departed. Desolation seemed to have marked the spot for her own—the grim abode of solitude and despair. During twenty years’ sojourn in a strange land memory had still, with untiring delight, painted the old mansion in all its primeval primness and simplicity—fresh as I had left it, full of buoyancy and delight, to take possession of the paradise which imagination had created. I had, indeed, been informed that at my father’s death it became the habitation of a stranger; but no intelligence as to its present condition had ever reached me. Being at L——, and only some twenty miles distant, I could not resist the temptation of once more gazing on the old Manor-house, and of comparing its present aspect with that but too faithfully engrafted on my recollections. To all appearance the house was tenantless. I tried the door of a side kitchen or scullery: it was fastened, but the rusty bolts yielded to no very forcible pressure; and I once more penetrated into the kitchen, that exhaustless magazine which had furnished ham and eggs, greens and bacon, with other sundry and necessary condiments, to the progenitors of our race for at least two centuries. A marvellous change!—to me it appeared as if wrought in a moment, so recently had memory reinstated the scenes of my youth in all their pristine splendour. Now no smoke rolled lazily away from the heavy billet; no blaze greeted my sight; no savoury steam regaled the sense. Dark, cheerless, cold,—the long bars emitted no radiance; the hearth unswept, on which Growler once panted with heat and fatness.
Though night was fast approaching, I could not resist the temptation of once more exploring the deserted chambers, the scene of many a youthful frolic. I sprang with reckless facility up the vast staircase. The shallow steps were not sufficiently accommodating to my impatience, and I leapt rather than ran, with the intention of paying my first visit to that cockaigne of childhood, that paradise of little fools—the nursery. How small, dwindled almost into a span, appeared that once mighty and almost boundless apartment, every nook of which was a separate territory, every drawer and cupboard the boundary of another kingdom! three or four strides brought me to the window;—the broad church-tower was still visible, peacefully reposing in the dim and heavy twilight. The evening-bell was tolling: what a host of recollections were awakened at the sound! Days and hours long forgotten seemed to rise up at its voice, like the spirits of the departed sweeping by, awful and indistinct. These impressions soon became more vivid; they rushed on with greater rapidity: I turned from the window, and was startled at the sudden moving of a shadow. It was a faint long-drawn figure of myself on the floor and opposite wall. Ashamed of my fears, I was preparing to quit the apartment when my attention was arrested by a drawing which I had once scrawled, and stuck against the wall with all the ardour of a first achievement. It owed its preservation to an unlucky, but effectual, contrivance of mine for securing its perpetuity: a paste-brush, purloined from the kitchen, had made all fast; and the piece, alike impregnable to assaults or siege, withstood every effort for its removal. In fact, this could not be accomplished without at the same time tearing off a portion from the dingy papering of the room, and leaving a disagreeable void, instead of my sprawling performance. With the less evil it appeared each succeeding occupant had been contented; and the drawing had stood its ground in spite of dust and dilapidation. I felt wishful for the possession of so valuable a memorial of past exploits. I examined it again and again, but not a single corner betrayed symptoms of lesion: it stuck bolt upright; and the dun squat figures portrayed on it appeared to leer at me most provokingly. Not a slip or tear presented itself as vantage-ground for the projected attack; and I had no other resource left of gaining possession than what may be denominated the Cæsarean mode. I accordingly took out my knife, and commenced operations by cutting out at the same time a portion of the ornamental papering from the wall commensurate with the picture. I looked upon it with a sort of superstitious reverence; and I have always thought that the strong and eager impulse I felt for the possession of this hideous daub proceeded from a far different source than mere fondness for the memorials of childhood. Be that as it may, I am a firm believer in a special Providence; and that, too, as discovered in the most trivial as well as the most important concerns of life. It was whilst cutting down upon what seemed like wainscoting, over which the papering of the room had been laid, that my knife glanced on something much harder than the rest. Turning aside my spoils, I saw what through the dusk appeared very like the hinge of a concealed door. My curiosity was roused, and I made a hasty pull, which at once drew down a mighty fragment from the wall, consisting of plaster, paper, and rotten canvas; and some minutes elapsed ere the subsiding cloud of dust enabled me to discern the terra incognita I had just uncovered. Sure enough there was a door, and as surely did the spirit of enterprise prompt me to open it. With difficulty I accomplished my purpose; it yielded at length to my efforts; but the noise of the half-corroded hinges, grating and shrieking on their rusty pivots, may be conceived as sufficiently dismal and appalling. I know not if once at least I did not draw back, or let go my hold incontinently, as the din “grew long and loud.” I own, without hesitation, that I turned away my head from the opening, as it became wider and wider at every pull; and it required a considerable effort before I could summon the requisite courage to look into the gap. My head seemed as difficult to move as the door. I cannot say that I was absolutely afraid of ghosts, but I was afraid of a peep from behind the door—afraid of being frightened! At length, with desperate boldness, I thrust my head plump into the chasm!
But I was more startled at the noise I had thus produced than by anything that was visible. As far as the darkness would permit, I explored the interior, which, after all, was neither more nor less than a small closet. From what cause it had been shut out from the apartment to which it had belonged, it were vain to conjecture. All that was really cognisable to the senses presented itself in the shape of a shallow recess, some four feet by two, utterly unfurnished, save with some inches of accumulated dust and rubbish, that made it a work of great peril to grope out the fact of its otherwise absolute emptiness. This discovery like many other notable enterprises seemed to lead to nothing. I stepped out of my den, reeking with spoils which I would much rather have left undisturbed in their dark recesses.
Preparing for my departure, and a visit to my relation in the nearly adjoining town, who as yet had no other intimation of my arrival than a hasty note, to apprise him that I had once more set foot on English ground, and intended to visit him before my return, I stepped again to the window.
Darkness was fast gathering about me; a heavy scud was driven rapidly across the heavens, and the wind wailed in short and mournful gusts past the chamber. The avenue was just visible from the spot where I stood; and, looking down, I thought I could discern more than one dark object moving apparently towards the house. It may be readily conceived that I beheld their approach with an interest by no means free from apprehension; and it was not long ere two beings, in human habiliments, were distinctly seen at a short distance from the gate by which I had entered. Feeling myself an intruder, and not being very satisfactorily prepared to account for my forcible entry into the premises, and the injury I had committed on the property of a stranger, I drew hastily aside, determined to effect a retreat whenever and wherever it might be in my power. Door and window alternately presented themselves for the accomplishment of this unpleasant purpose, but before I could satisfy myself as to which was the more eligible offer, as doubters generally do contrive it, I lost all chance of availing myself of either. “Facilis descensus”—”Easier in than out”—&c., occurred to me; and many other classical allusions, much more appropriate than agreeable. I heard voices and footsteps in the hall. The stairs creaked, and it was but too evident they were coming, and that with a most unerring and provoking perseverance. Surely, thought I, these gentry have noses like the sleuth-hound; and I made no doubt but they would undeviatingly follow them into the very scene of my labours; and what excuse could I make for the havoc I had committed? I stood stupefied, and unable to move. The thoughts of being hauled neck and heels before the next justice, on a charge of housebreaking, or what not—committed to prison—tried, perhaps, and—the sequel was more than even imagination durst conceive. Recoiling in horror from the picture, it was with something like instinctive desperation that I flew to the little closet, and shut myself in, with all the speed and precision my fears would allow. Sure enough the brutes were making the best of their way into the chamber, and every moment I expected they would track their victim to his hiding-place. After a few moments of inconceivable agony, I was relieved at finding from their conversation that no notion was entertained, at present, of any witness to their proceedings.
“I tell thee, Gilbert, these rusty locks can keep nothing safe. It’s but some few months since we were here, and thou knowest the doors were all fast. The kitchen door-post is now as rotten as touchwood; no bolt will fasten it.”
“Nail it up,—nail ’em all up,” growled Gilbert; “nobody’ll live here now; or else set fire to ‘t. It’ll make a rare bonfire to burn that ugly old will in.”
A boisterous laugh here broke from the remorseless Gilbert. It fell upon my ear as something with which I had once been disagreeably familiar. The voice of the first speaker, too, seemed the echo of one that had been heard in childhood. A friendly chink permitted me to gain the information I sought; there stood my uncle and his trusty familiar. In my youth I had contracted a somewhat unaccountable aversion to the latter personage. I well remembered his downcast grey eye,deprived of its fellow; and the malignant pleasure he took in thwarting and disturbing my childish amusements. This prepossessing Cyclop held a tinder-box, and was preparing to light a match. My uncle’s figure I could not mistake: a score of winters had cast their shadows on his brow since we had separated; but he still stood as he was wont—tall, erect, and muscular, though age had slightly drooped his proud forehead; and I could discern his long-lapped waistcoat somewhat less conspicuous in front. He was my mother’s brother, and the only surviving relation on whom I had any claim. My fears were set at rest, but curiosity stole into their place. I felt an irrepressible inclination to watch their proceedings, though eaves-dropping was a subterfuge that I abhorred. I should, I am confident—at least I hope so—have immediately discovered myself, had not a single word which I had overheard prevented me. The “will” to which they alluded might to me, perhaps, be an object of no trivial importance.
“I wish with all my heart it were burnt!” said mine uncle.
“The will, or the house?” peevishly retorted Gilbert.
“Both!” cried the other, with an emphasis and expression that made me tremble.
“If we burn the house, the papers will not rise out of it, depend on ‘t, master,” continued Gilbert; “and that box in the next closet will not prove like Goody Blake’s salamander.”
I began to feel particularly uncomfortable.
“I wish they had all been burnt long ago,” said mine honest uncle. After a pause he went on: “This scapegrace nephew of mine will be here shortly. For fear of accidents—accidents, I say,—Gilbert—it were better to have all safe. Who knows what may be lurking in the old house, to rise up some day as a witness against us! I intend either to pull it down or set fire to it. But we’ll make sure of the will first.”
“A rambling jackanapes of a nephew!” said Gilbert; “I hoped the fishes had supped on him before now. We never thought, master, he could be alive, as he sent no word about his being either alive or dead. But I guess,” continued this amiable servant, “he might ha’ staid longer, and you wouldn’t ha’ fretted for his company.”
Listeners hear no good of themselves; but I determined to reward the old villain very shortly for his good wishes.
“Gilbert, when there’s work to do thou art always readier with thy tongue than with thy fingers. Look! the match has gone out twice,—leave off puffing and fetch the box; I’ll manage about the candle.”
I began to feel a strange sensation rambling about me. Gilbert left the room, however, and I applied myself with redoubled diligence to the crevice. My dishonest relation proceeded to revive the expiring sparks; the light shone full upon his hard features. It might be fancy, but guilt—broad, legible, remorseless guilt—seemed to mark every inflection of his visage: his brow contracted,—his eye turned cautiously and fearfully round the apartment, and more than once it rested upon the gap I had made. I saw him strike his hand upon his puckered brow, and a stifled groan escaped him; but as if ashamed of his better feelings, he clenched it in an attitude of defiance, and listened eagerly for the return of his servant. The slow footsteps of Gilbert soon announced his approach, and apparently with some heavy burden. He threw it on the floor, and I heard a key applied and the rusty wards answering to the touch. The business in which they were now engaged was out of my limited sphere of vision.
“I think, master, the damps will soon ding down the old house: look at the wall; the paper hangs for all the world like the clerk’s wig—ha, ha! If we should burn the house down we’d rid it o’ the ghosts. Would they stand fire, think you, or be off to cooler quarters?”
“Hush, Gilbert; thou art wicked enough to bring a whole legion about us, if any of them are within hearing. I always seemed to treat these stories with contempt, but I never could satisfy myself about the noises that old Gidlow and his wife heard. Thou knowest he was driven out of the house by them. People wondered that I did not come and live here, instead of letting it run to ruin. It’s pretty generally thought that I fear neither man nor devil; but—oh! here it is; here is the will. I care nothing for the rest, provided this be cancelled.”
“Ay, master, they said the ghost never left off scratching as long as anybody was in the room. Which room was it, I wonder?—I never thought on’t to inquire; but—- I don’t like this a bit. It runs in my head it is the very place; and behind that wall, too, where it took up its quarters like as it might be just a-back of the paper there. Think you, master, the old tyke has pull’d it down wi’ scratching?”
“Gilbert,” said my uncle solemnly, “I don’t like these jests of thine. Save them, I prithee, for fitter subjects. The will is what we came for. Let us dispose of that quietly, and I promise thee I’ll never set foot here again.”
As he spoke he approached the candle—it was just within my view—and opened the will that it might yield the more readily to the blaze. I watched him evidently preparing to consume a document with which I felt convinced my welfare and interests were intimately connected. There was not a moment to be lost; but how to get possession was no easy contrivance. If I sallied forth to its rescue they might murder me, or at least prevent its falling into my hands. This plan could only prolong its existence a few moments, and would to a certainty ensure its eventual destruction. Gilbert’s dissertation on the occupations and amusements of the ghosts came very opportunely to my aid, and immediately I put into execution what now appeared my only hope of its safety. Just as a corner of the paper was entering the flame I gave a pretty loud scratch, at the same time anxiously observing the effect it might produce. I was overjoyed to find the enemy intimidated at least by the first fire. Another volley, and another succeeded, until even the sceptical Gilbert was dismayed. My uncle seemed riveted to the spot, his hands widely disparted, so that the flame and its destined prey were now pretty far asunder. Neither of the culprits spoke; and I hoped that little more would be necessary to rout them fairly from the field. As yet they did not seem disposed to move; and I was afraid of a rally, should reason get the better of their fears.
“Rats! rats!” shouted Gilbert. “We’ll singe their tails for them.” The scratching ceased. Again the paper was approaching to its dreaded catastrophe.
“Beware!” I cried, in a deep and sepulchral tone, that startled even the utterer. What effect it had produced on my auditory I was left alone to conjecture. The candle dropped from the incendiary’s grasp, and the spoil was left a prey to the bugbear that possessed their imaginations. With feelings of unmixed delight, I heard them clear the stairs at a few leaps, run through the hall, and soon afterwards a terrific bellow from Gilbert announced their descent into the avenue.
Luckily the light was not extinct, and I lost no time in taking possession of the document, which I considered of the most importance. A number of loose papers, the contents of a huge trunk, were scattered about; but my attention was more particularly directed to the paper which had been the object of my uncle’s visit to the Manor-house. To my great joy, this was neither less nor more than my father’s will, witnessed and sealed in due form, wherein the possessions of my ancestors were conveyed, absolutely and unconditionally, without entail, unencumbered and unembarrassed, to me and to my assigns. I thought it most likely that the papers in and about the trunk might be of use, either as corroborative evidence, in case my uncle should choose to litigate the point and brand the original document as a forgery, or as a direct testimony to the validity of my claim. I was rather puzzled in what manner to convey them from the place, so as not to excite suspicion, should the two worthies return. I was pretty certain they would not leave matters as they now stood when their fears were allayed, and daylight would probably impart sufficient courage to induce them to repeat their visit. On finding the papers removed, the nature of this night’s ghostly admonition would immediately be guessed, and measures taken to thwart any proceedings which it might be in my power to adopt. To prevent discovery, I hit upon the following expedient:—I sorted out the waste paper, a considerable quantity of which served as envelopes to the rest, setting fire to it in such a manner that the contents of the trunk might appear to have been destroyed by the falling of the candle. I succeeded very much to my own satisfaction. Disturbed and agonised as my feelings had been during the discovery, the idea of having defeated the plan of my iniquitous relative gave a zest to my acquisitions almost as great as if I had already taken possession of my paternal inheritance.
Before I left the apartment, I poured out my heart in thanksgivings to that unseen Power whose hand, I am firmly convinced, brought me thither at so critical a moment, to frustrate the schemes and machinations of the enemy.
Bundling up the papers, my knowledge of the vicinity enabled me to reach a small tavern in the neighbourhood without the risk of being recognised. Here I continued two or three days, examining the documents, with the assistance of an honest limb of the law from W——. He entertained considerable doubts as to the issue of a trial, feeling convinced that a forged will would be prepared, if not already in existence, and that my relative would not relinquish his fraudulent claim should the law be openly appealed to. He strongly recommended that proceedings of a different nature should be first tried, in hopes of enclosing the villain in his own toils; and these, if successful, would save the uncertain and expensive process of a suit. I felt unwilling to adopt any mode of attack but that of open warfare, and urged that possession of the real will would be sufficient to reinstate me as the lawful heir. The man of law smiled. He inquired how I should be able to prove that the forgery which my uncle would in all probability produce was not the genuine testament; and as the date would inevitably be subsequent to the one I held, it would annul any former bequest. As to my tale about burning the will, that might or might not be treated as a story trumped up for the occasion. I had no witnesses to prove the fact; and though appearances were certainly in my favour, yet the case could only be decided according to evidence. With great reluctance I consented to take a part in the scheme he chalked out for my guidance; and, on the third day from my arrival, I walked a few miles and returned to the town, that it might appear as if I had only just arrived. On being set down at my uncle’s I had the satisfaction to find, as far as could be gathered from his manner, that he had no idea of my recent sojourn in the neighbourhood. Of course the conversation turned on the death of my revered parents, and the way in which their property had been disposed of.
“I can only repeat,” continued he, “what I, as the only executor under your father’s will, was commissioned to inform you at his decease. The property was heavily mortgaged before your departure; and its continued depression in value, arising from causes that could not have been foreseen, left the executor no other alternative but that of giving the creditors possession. The will is here,” said he, taking out a paper, neatly folded and mounted with red tape, from a bureau. “It is necessarily brief, and merely enumerates the names of the mortgagees and amounts owing. I was unfortunately the principal creditor, having been a considerable loser from my wish to preserve the property inviolate. For the credit of the family I paid off the remaining incumbrances, and the estate has lapsed to me as the lawful possessor.”
He placed the document in my hands. I read in it a very technical tribute of testamentary gratitude to M—— S——, Esq., styled therein “beloved brother;” and a slight mention of my name, but no bequest, save that of recommending me to the kindness of my relative, in case it should please Heaven to send me once more to my native shores. I was aware he would be on the watch; guarding, therefore, against any expression of my feelings, I eagerly perused the deed, and with a sigh, which he would naturally attribute to any cause but the real one, I returned it into his hands.
“I find,” said he, “from your letter received on the 23d current, that you are not making a long stay in this neighbourhood. It is better, perhaps, that you should not. The old house is sadly out of repair. Three years ago next May, David Gidlow, the tenant under lease from me, left it, and I have not yet been able to meet with another occupant fully to my satisfaction; indeed, I have some intention of pulling down the house and disposing of the materials.”
“Pulling it down!” I exclaimed, with indignation.
“Yes; that is, it is so untenantable—so—what shall I call it?—that nobody cares to live there.”
“I hope it is not haunted?”
“Haunted!” exclaimed he, surveying me with a severe and scrutinising glance. “What should have put that into your head?”
I was afraid I had said too much; and anxious to allay the suspicion I saw gathering in his countenance—”Nay, uncle,” I quickly rejoined; “but you seemed so afraid of speaking out upon the matter that I thought there must needs be a ghost at the bottom of it.”
“As for that,” said he, carelessly; “the foolish farmer and his wife did hint something of the sort; but it is well known that I pay no attention to such tales. The long and the short of it, I fancy, was, that they were tired of their bargain, and wanted me to take it off their hands.”
Here honest Gilbert entered, to say that Mr L——, the attorney, would be glad to have a word with his master.
“Tell Mr L—— to walk in. We have no secrets here. Excuse me, nephew; this man is one of our lawyers. He has nothing to communicate but what you may hear, I dare say. If he should have any private business, you can step into the next room.”
The attorney entering, I was introduced as nephew to Mr S——, just arrived from the Indies, and so forth. Standing, Mr L—— made due obeisance.
“Sit down; sit down, Mr L——,” cried my uncle. “You need not be bowing there for a job. Poor fellow, he has not much left to grease the paws of a lawyer. Well, sir, your errand?”
I came, Mr S——, respecting the Manor-house. Perhaps you would not have any objections to a tenant!”
“I cannot say just now. I have had some thoughts of pulling it down.”
“Sir! you would not demolish a building, the growth of centuries—a family mansion—been in the descent since James’s time. It would be barbarous. The antiques would be about your ears.”
“I care nothing for the antiquities; and, moreover, I do not choose to let the house. Any further business with me this morning, sir?”
“Nothing of consequence—I only came about the house.”
“Pray, Mr L——,” said I, “what sort of a tenant have you in view;—one you could recommend? I think my uncle has more regard for the old mansion-house than comports with the outrage he threatens. The will says, if I read aright, that the house and property may be sold, should the executor see fit; but, as to pulling it down, I am sure my father never meant anything so deplorable. Allow me another glance at that paper.”
“Please to observe, nephew, that the will makes it mine, and as such I have a right to dispose of the whole in such manner as I may deem best. If you have any doubts, I refer you to Mr L——, who sits smiling at your unlawyer-like opinions.”
“Pray allow me one moment,” said the curious attorney. He looked at the signature and those of the parties witnessing.
“Martha S——; your late sister, I presume?”
My uncle nodded assent.
“Gilbert Hodgon—your servant?”
“The same. To what purpose, sir, are these questions?” angrily inquired my uncle.
“Merely matters of form—a habit we lawyers cannot easily throw aside whenever we get a sight of musty parchments. I hope you will pardon my freedom?”
“Oh! as for that you are welcome to ask as many questions as you think proper; they will be easily answered, I take it.”
“Doubtless,” said the persevering man of words. “Whenever I take up a deed, for instance,—it is just the habit of the thing, Mr S——,—I always look at it as a banker looks at a note. He could not for the life of him gather one up without first ascertaining that it was genuine.”
“Genuine!” exclaimed my uncle, thrown off his guard. “You do not suspect that I have forged it?”
“Forged it! why, how could that enter your head, Mr S——? I should as soon suspect you of forging a bank-note or coining a guinea. Ringing a guinea, sir, does not at all imply that the payee suspects the payer to be an adept in that ingenious and much-abused art. We should be prodigously surprised if the payer were to start up in a tantrum, and say, ‘Do you suspect me, sir, of having coined it?'”
“Sir, if you came hither for the purpose of insulting me”——
“I came upon no such business, Mr S——; but, as you seem disposed to be captious, I will make free to say, and it would be the opinion of ninety-nine hundredths of the profession, that it might possibly have been a little more satisfactory to the heir-apparent had the witnesses to this, the most solemn and important act of a man’s life, been any other than, firstly, a defunct sister to the party claiming the whole residue: and secondly, Mr Gilbert Hodgon, his servant. Nay, sir,” said the pertinacious lawyer, rising, “I do not wish to use more circumlocution than is necessary; I have stated my suspicions, and if you are an honest man, you can have no objections, at least, to satisfy your nephew on the subject, who seems, to say the truth, much astonished at our accidental parley.”
“And pray who made you a ruler and a judge between us?”
“I have no business with it, I own; but as you seemed rather angry, I made bold to give an opinion on the little technicalities aforesaid. If you choose, sir,” addressing himself to me, “the matter is now at rest.”
“Of course,” I replied, “Mr S—— will be ready to give every satisfaction that may be required as regards the validity of the witnesses. I request, uncle, that you will not lose one moment in rebutting these insinuations. For your own sake and mine, it is not proper that your conduct should go forth to the world in the shape in which this gentleman may think fit to represent it.”
“If he dare speak one word”——
“Nay, uncle, that is not the way to stop folks’ mouth now-a-days. Nothing but the actual gag, or a line of conduct that courts no favour and requires no concealment, will pass current with the world. I request, sir,” addressing myself to the attorney, “that you will not leave this house until you have given Mr S—— the opportunity of clearing himself from any blame in this transaction.”
“As matters have assumed this posture,” said Mr L——, “I should be deficient in respect to the profession of which I have the honour to be a member, did I not justify my conduct in the best manner I am able. Have I liberty to proceed?”
“Proceed as you like, you will not prove the testament to be a forgery. The signing and witnessing were done in my presence,” said my uncle. He rose from his chair, instinctively locked up his bureau; and, if such stern features could assume an aspect of still greater asperity, it was when the interrogator thus continued:—”You were, as you observe, Mr S——, an eye-witness to the due subscription of this deed. If I am to clear myself from the imputation of unjustifiable curiosity, I must beg leave to examine yourself and the surviving witness apart, merely as to the minutiæ of the circumstances under which it was finally completed: for instance, was the late Mr—— in bed, or was he sick or well, when the deed was executed?”
A cadaverous hue stole over the dark features of the culprit; their aspect varying and distorted, in which fear and deadly anger painfully strove for pre-eminence.
“And wherefore apart?” said he, with a hideous grin. He stamped suddenly on the floor.
“If that summons be for your servant, you might have saved yourself the trouble, sir,” said his tormentor, with great coolness and intrepidity. “Gilbert is at my office, whither I sent him on an errand, thinking he would be best out of the way for a while. I find, however, that we shall have need of him. It is as well, nevertheless, that he is out of the way of signals.”
“A base conspiracy!” roared the infuriated villain. “Nephew, how is this? And in my own house,—bullied—baited! But I will be revenged—I will.”
Here he became exhausted with rage, and sat down. On Mr L—— attempting to speak, he cried out—”I will answer no questions, and I defy you. Gilbert may say what he likes; but he cannot contradict my words. I’ll speak none.”
“These would be strange words, indeed, Mr S———, from an innocent man. Know you that WILL?” said the lawyer, in a voice of thunder, and at the same time exhibiting the real instrument so miraculously preserved from destruction. I shall never forget his first look of horror and astonishment. Had a spectre risen up, arrayed in all the terrors of the prison-house, he could not have exhibited more appalling symptoms of unmitigated despair. He shuddered audibly. It was the very crisis of his agony. A portentous silence ensued. Some minutes elapsed before it was interrupted. Mr L—— was the first to break so disagreeable a pause.
“Mr S——, it is useless to carry on this scene of duplicity: neither party would be benefited by it. You have forged that deed! We have sufficient evidence of your attempt to destroy this document I now hold, in the very mansion which your unhallowed hands would, but for the direct interposition of Providence, have levelled with the dust. On one condition, and on one only, your conduct shall be concealed from the knowledge of your fellow-men. The eye of Providence alone has hitherto tracked the tortuous course of your villany. On one condition, I say, the past is for ever concealed from the eye of the world.” Another pause. My uncle groaned in the agony of his spirit. Had his heart’s blood been at stake, he could not have evinced a greater reluctance than he now showed at the thoughts of relinquishing his ill-gotten wealth.
“What is it?”
“Destroy with your own hands that forged testimony of your guilt. Your nephew does not wish to bring an old man’s grey hairs to an ignominious grave.”
He took the deed, and, turning aside his head, committed it to the flames. He appeared to breathe more freely when it was consumed; but the struggle had been too severe even for his unyielding frame, iron-bound though it seemed. As he turned trembling from the hearth, he sank into his chair, threw his hands over his face, and groaned deeply. The next moment he fixed his eyes steadily on me. A glassy brightness suddenly shot over them; a dimness followed like the shadows of death. He held out his hand; his head bowed; and he bade adieu to the world and its interests for ever!