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FORTY THOUSAND POUNDS A YEAR
ALTHOUGH his rest had been disturbed, there was no trace of lassitude in the old lawyer's appearance when he entered the breakfast-room next morning.
Mrs. Warren was there to greet him with her stately courtesy, in which a certain assertion of her own important position in the household was blended with recognition of one who was not only Lord Arncliffe's legal adviser, but also trustee of the estate.
"I trust you are better this morning, Mrs. Warren," said Mr. Aingier, cheerfully. "You must not let his lordship's death depress you too greatly. He was an old man, you know, old enough to make you and me feel quite youthful."
"Death is always a terrible thing," she replied, "and its terror is added to if there is even a suggestion of foul play."
"Oh, that is the last thing you should think of. Our poor friend was slightly eccentric, eh? It is probable that all these disturbing rumors will be set at rest within the next twenty-four hours. By the way, has Miss Holt breakfasted yet?"
"I do not know, Mr. Aingier."
"Will you ask her to favor me with her company, in any case? And ---- er — I might mention that I am telegraphing to my wife to come here to-day and bear the young lady company during this trying time. In future, we three will take our meals together."
Mrs. Warren had the rare gift of not asking questions. She smiled pleasantly, and contented herself with saying that she hoped Mr. Aingier would tell her instantly if the servants failed to execute his commands. Many housekeepers might have wondered why Lord Arncliffe's representative should be so concerned about the welfare of a girl who was only an amanuensis. If Mrs. Warren indulged in any natural speculation on the point she uttered no word. She passed from the room with a quiet jingle of her inseparable keys.
Soon Edith appeared, pale but delightfully fresh-looking, wearing an unrelieved black dress which supplied a wonderful setting to the sunlit glory of her hair.
"I could almost condemn you to wear black for the remainder of your life, it becomes you so well, Miss Holt," said the lawyer, gallantly.
"I am beginning to wear it with a frequency that is saddening," was her quiet answer.
But Aingier was not to be deterred from his avowed object. Some part of the gloom which enshrouded Arncliffe Hall this bright morning must be banished.
"Of course you are greatly grieved by the suddenness of yesterday's event," he said. "Knowing your loneliness, I have asked Mrs. Aingier to come here for a few days."
"That is indeed kind and thoughtful of you. But why should my poor little troubles be allowed to interfere with Mrs. Aingier's arrangements? It will disturb her greatly to travel from Alnwick. And I suppose I must leave Arncliffe soon. May I remain until after the — the —" The blue eyes became a deeper shade. Her voice faltered. She must have yielded to the overwhelming sense of her own utter isolation had not the old man caught her by the shoulder.
"Now you are talking nonsense!" he cried. "You have known me some years. Surely you can trust me?"
"Yes, indeed. I have not forgotten your kind words last night."
"Yet you did not believe me, it seems. I told you not to bother your pretty head in the slightest degree as to the future, and now I find a disconsolate little maid to greet me, instead of the lively young party I expected to cheer my breakfast."
"Please forgive me. I am so sorry. I —"
"No excuses, and no more tears. I have ordered breakfast for two. You will oblige me by sitting down and showing that your early morning in the garden has not destroyed your appetite."
"You saw me, then?"
"Who could help it? Even if the rose-trees had hidden you, Mr. Warren's desperate anxiety to overtake you would have revealed your whereabouts."
A little smile brought a faint blush to her white cheeks. " At any rate I shall not lack friends," she murmured.
"No, indeed," was the gruff comment, and Edith was surprised by the lawyer's emphasis.
"What did Mr. Warren say to manifest his friendliness?" he went on.
She flushed still more deeply. "I ought to tell you, I think," she said, with a hesitancy that did not escape the keen old eyes. "Mr. Warren has asked me more than once of late to marry him. He renewed his proposal this morning."
"A highly appropriate time, indeed! And what was your answer? You are your own mistress, but I hope you will not refuse me your confidence."
"Why should I? I have very few friends. You are the only person I can speak to on such a matter. I cannot help feeling grateful to Mr. Warren, but I have told him that the present was no time for such considerations."
"In other words, you did not decline the proffered honor?"
The lawyer, from sheer force of habit, could scarce control the cross-examining ring of his voice.
Again Edith looked her surprise. "I found it hard to be as decided in my answer as would have been the case under different circumstances. Though it was not, perhaps, in the best of taste on his part to discuss the subject at such an hour, I cannot but appreciate the kindness which prompted a renewal of his offer. However, I do not think I shall ever marry Mr. Warren."
"I should think not, indeed! It is like his confounded impudence even to dream of it. He must be an idiot! "
Whatever her sentiments toward a declared admirer, it is not in feminine nature for a girl to regard as an idiot one who has given so convincing a proof of his intelligence as to be most anxious to wed her.
"I think you are rather unjust," said Edith, disconsolately. "After all, I am a poor, friendless girl, and although my feelings do not permit me to accept Mr. Warren's proposal, I should be none the less grateful. I am sure his only idea was to let me know that I need not be without a protector."
"Fiddlesticks! When you grow a little older, my dear, you will learn to regard all your fellow creatures with suspicion. Besides, how dare you say you are friendless? Doesn't a certain old fogy named Aingier count for anything?"
"You tell me to mistrust all my fellow-creatures," retorted Edith.
"Ah! That is more like your old self. Of course I am the exception that proves the rule. In any case, please do not listen to any proposals of marriage just at present. For all you can tell, our dear old friend may have left you a snug little fortune; and, though I know you too well to suppose that monetary questions would influence you in the slightest degree, yet experience has taught me that in the first flush of a bereavement women are apt to attach an altogether exaggerated value to any trivial act of kindness or expression of sympathy."
"I have the best of reasons for knowing that I have nothing to expect from Lord Arncliffe's estate," said Edith, with a wan little smile. "I owe that dear old man even more than you can guess, but it was thoroughly understood between us that whatever benefits I was to receive from him would be conferred during his lifetime."
"What do you mean?" demanded the lawyer, sharply. "Has Lord Arncliffe made any fresh will since I was here last?"
"Why, no, I do not think so. But —"
"Then don't talk nonsense, child. I find I must clear the air a little. Kindly send Mrs. Warren and her son, and Simpson, Lord Arncliffe's valet, here to me. And, of course, come back yourself."
Edith looked somewhat astonished, but rose obediently to execute his wishes.
Left to himself, Aingier indulged in something resembling a most un-lawyer-like chuckle. "As well now as later," he murmured. "And I think this will put a spoke in that bull-headed booby's wheel. He might have broken my neck, confound him!"
The old solicitor had never had an exalted opinion of Harry Warren, and the too-exhilarating drive of the previous night had put a seal to the instinctive dislike. "No," he continued, with a grim smile, "I don't think we shall hear any more of Master Harry's pretensions."
He took a document from his breast pocket and studied it with much satisfaction. He was still engaged in this seemingly pleasant task when the door opened and Mrs. Warren entered, impassive as ever, followed by Edith, and Simpson, the deceased peer's attendant.
"You wished to see me, I understand?" said Mrs. Warren. "I am sorry that my son is not in the house at the moment."
"Oh, never mind; his presence is not really necessary. Please take a chair. And you too, Simpson."
Mrs. Warren bowed and sat down, while Simpson poised himself perilously on the edge of a seat. He knew his place, even if the solicitor were pleased to treat him so civilly. One wonders what happens when a genuine English servant of the upper class meets his employers in the next world.
"I have requested your attendance," explained Mr. Aingier, looking at them severely over the edge of the manuscript, and speaking in dry, professional tones, "in order to communicate to you the terms of the late Lord Arncliffe's will. Under ordinary circumstances I should, as is usual, have deferred this melancholy duty until after my dear old friend had been laid to rest, but in view of certain directions left by his lordship I think it better that those interested should be acquainted with his testamentary dispositions at once."
He coughed authoritatively. The others sat in breathless surprise, and the lawyer went on: "I think I may say, without disrespect, that his lordship, like all the rest of us, indulged certain little amiable fads; and while I am proud to believe that my firm enjoyed his entire confidence, it was his lordship's pleasure to draw up his will without legal assistance. It is, therefore, a holograph will, but while it is not, perhaps, set out as I could wish" (that was to say, Lord Arncliffe had condensed into one page what might very well have been said in twenty), "it is, I think, sufficiently clear. The terms are as follows:
"This is the last will and testament of me, William Bradshaw, Baron Arncliffe, of Arncliffe Hall in the county of Northumberland. I give and devise to my legal adviser and esteemed friend, Thomas Aingier, (ahem! ahem!) solicitor, of Grey Street, Newcastle-on-Tyne, the sum of one thousand pounds and the entire contents of my wine-cellars. I give and bequeath to my housekeeper, Adelaide Warren, the sum of one thousand pounds and my house in Arncliffe village known as Briar Lodge, with the grounds appertaining thereto. And, in further recognition of her services, I direct my trustees and executors, their heirs and assigns, to pay to the said Adelaide Warren the sum of one hundred pounds per annum during her lifetime."
Aingier paused for a moment. Mrs. Warren put a tremulous hand to her eyes, but recovered herself immediately. She was exceedingly pale. Probably she had not expected such generosity from her late master. The lawyer continued:
"To my attached friend and faithful servant, David Simpson (a strangled sob came from the old valet), the sum of one hundred pounds, all my wearing apparel and a cottage on my estate to be selected by my trustees. I further direct that a sum of one pound weekly shall be paid to the said David Simpson during his lifetime. It is my wish that all the above-mentioned legacies be paid free of duty."
Then Mr. Aingier focused the paper in a clear light and read, very slowly:
"I leave the entire residue of my estate, real and personal to my secretary and amanuensis, Edith Holt, whom I have long regarded as a beloved daughter. I make this bequest in the firm conviction that she will make good use of my money, retain, as far as practicable, my present establishment, take loving care of the artistic treasures accumulated at Arncliffe, and carry out, by personal interest and endowment, the investigations which have occupied the concluding years of my life. My personal advice to her is not to marry. Should she, however, elect to enter the married state, I trust she will be guided in the choice of a husband by qualities of mind rather than body, by attainment rather than inherited rank. I appoint the aforesaid Thomas Aingier and Edith Holt sole trustees and executors of this my will, and I revoke all former wills and codicils."
The lawyer's crisp tones ceased. An awesome hush fell on the little gathering. Simpson, with bowed head, and tears trickling down his furrowed cheek, had probably heard little since the mention of his own name. Mrs. Warren, who exhibited marvelous self-control, had laid a motherly hand on Edith's shoulder, but the young girl who suddenly found herself the inheritor of wealth indeed "beyond the dreams of avarice" sat with blanched cheeks and startled eyes, her lips quivering with an emotion that tried vainly to find expression in words.
"Come, come, my dear Miss Holt," began the lawyer, soothingly, "you must not break down. After all —"
"You don't understand!" she gasped, as though the words restored her faculties. "It is all a terrible mistake! He did not mean me to have it."
"Oh, yes, indeed he did," retorted Aingier with decision. "But pray calm yourself. There is, I regret to say, a codicil, added by Lord Arncliffe a month ago, which I have yet to read."
"Ah!" exclaimed Edith. The truant color did not return to her cheek, but she smiled bravely at her old friend. He smiled back reassuringly.
"A moment and I shall have finished," he said. Then he bent over the paper again:
"This is a codicil to the will of me, William Bradshaw, Baron Arncliffe, of Arncliffe Hall in the County of Northumberland, the said will bearing date 23rd of July. 190— I have reason to believe that poison has been administered to me, and that I shall owe my death to that cause. I hereby direct my trustees and executors as aforesaid to pay the sum of ten thousand pounds to the person or persons who shall, in their opinion, be mainly instrumental in discovering the person by whom such poison may have been administered, and this without regard to the question whether such poison has been given to me wilfully or otherwise. And I further direct that as soon as shall be convenient after my death a post-mortem examination of my remains shall be made by some specialist of standing, preferably the expert employed in such cases by the Home Office."
During this recital the valet, Simpson, listened with rapt attention. Now he sprang to his feet with an exclamation that startled even Mrs. Warren out of her habitual calm.
"I knew it!" he cried. "By Heaven, I knew it! My poor old master was murdered!"
"Will you kindly be quiet, Simpson?" said Aingier, sternly.
The man hesitated, but the habit of subordination was strong, and he relapsed into silence, only glowering sullenly around him as though he expected to find the murderer within his reach.
"I need hardly say," continued the solicitor, "that I do not believe there is the smallest foundation for this unfortunate notion of Lord Arncliffe's. People who pursue gruesome studies such as toxicology are apt to harbor morbid ideas, just as those who are always dipping into medical works imagine themselves to be afflicted with all sorts of diseases. However, Lord Arncliffe's wishes must be carried out; and I have already communicated with Sir Henry Mathieson, the Home Office analyst, from whom, no doubt, I shall hear in the course of the day. Meanwhile, it is desirable that scandal should be avoided if possible, and I hope that no one — you hear me, Simpson?— no one, I say, will discuss anything that has passed between us."
"Very good, sir," replied the man, humbly. "But —" and there was a note of peasant obstinacy in his voice —"I know my master was poisoned. He told me so himself — told me almost to the day when he expected to die. And if it costs me every penny I owe to his goodness, I'll never rest until I've brought his murderer to the gallows!"