- part: [I.] A DEAD MAN'S STEP.
- CHAPTER XXX. A STRANGE WILL.
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A STRANGE WILL.
FIVE long days passed at Beechwood, during which the occupants came and went drearily, and the splendid house seemed under some gloomy spell. Then the great cavern doors were thrown open, the big bell of St. Mark's tolled, "solemn and slow and long," and down the long street and across the town went the plumed hearse, bearing the master of Beechwood out from the gates of his earthly home, to leave him at another and a narrower gate, which opens, notwithstanding, upon a grander dwelling and a better country; for Lysander Deering went over to the land of the blest with the mark upon his forehead by which the King knows His own.
Never had Pomfret witnessed a statelier or more decorous funeral, and never went mourners forth carrying heavier, stranger burdens; not alone of grief, and loss, and heartaches that might be uttered in the | | 187 light of day, and healed anon by time's beneficent healthful balm, but burdens of doubt, dread, horrors not to be spoken, embittering present grief and menacing darkly the days to come.
"I tell ye," said Tom Wells to his maiden sister, who cared for his interests, and was seldom seen beyond her own doorstone—"I tell ye, Rushy, you don't very often see four chief mourners as well matched in age and looks as them four; an' a sorrier group you never see. Of course no two takes trouble jest alike! For instance, them two cousins. Mr. Brook Deering's been purty sick they say, and he looks it; walked strong enough first off, but seemed as if he couldn't hold up to see it through, jest kind a drooped all the way, and kept his face out o' sight behind his hands and handkercher, an' kind a shiverin' now an' then. Now, there's Bruce Deering, one'd think he'd had enough to pull one man down, takin' things altogether; but there he was, head up, walkin' straight and firm; and settin' jest as straight; warn't ashamed to let the tears come into his eyes, either; I saw 'em more than once drop on his cheek; an' he'd wipe 'em off, quiet like. An' then the ladies—Miss Rodney she cried sort o' soft an' quiet, behind her veil, and kind o' leaned toward Mrs. Deering now an' then, as if she wanted to sort of comfort her; but law! they say that deepest grief is stillest; and I'm sure no statute never was stiller than Mrs. Deering was, from first to last, 'cordin' to all accounts. Wal! There won't be another man like Mr. Deering to the head of things in Pomfret, not in one while. He was a good man from the ground up! An' it was an awful sudden taking off, though he had been ailin' for a long time, more or less. Heart Failure, that's what the doctors called it."
"Humph!" ejaculated matter-of-fact Sister "Rushy." "Jest as if everybody didn't die of heart failure! Doctors ort to know better, anyhow! I reckon it's a good enough name though when they don't know any better one! But I guess if it wa'n't for our hearts failin', first and last, the angel poperlation wouldn't go on increasin' at sich a rate,—'cordin' to the gravestuns." Rushy, after her manner, was a philosopher.
Lysander Deering was the last of four brothers, and his parents were long since dead. Brenda had few near relatives within call, and the carriages, following that occupied by herself, Valentine, and the son and nephew of the dead, carried first two elderly men, cousins of the Deerings in the first and second degree, and with them, a sweet-faced lady, the aunt of Brenda and Valentine, and her husband. These were the only relatives present. Brenda's step-mother had been for two years living in Europe, where a young step-sister was studying hard to become a singer of renown; and the step-brothers and young cousins were at school.
There was little room in Brenda's heart for thoughts of hospitality, though she did not fail in any of its duties, and she could only sigh with relief when she learned that her husband's cousins, busy men of the world, had planned their going, as well as their coming, and in the same rapid fashion. They "had left their business at a moment's notice," and must return promptly, "unless their services were needed," in which case one of them, of course, would willingly leave his own affairs in the hands of the other; "she had only to command," and so | | 188 on; and in all sincerity. But Brenda assured them that all he, matters of business were in careful and accustomed hands, and in absolute order, and that her troubles were only such as she must bear alone. And so, little dreaming of the tragedy enveloping and over-hanging the splendid home of their cousin's beautiful widow, the two good and busy men bade a kindly good-bye to all at Beechwood, and, two hours after their return from the grave of Lysander Deering, stepped into the Deering carriage, and hastened to catch a through train cityward.
As for the dear gentle aunt, Brenda had no misgivings. At the first mention of a business meeting that same evening, she had said, with a gentle smile,
"I know, dear; at least, I suppose you must get the legal forms over and done with, and I think you are wise to have them over at once; and I'm so glad you don't need me, dear! Our long journey, and this sad day at the end of it, has wearied us both. Your uncle had but just returned from a week in Washington, and is really suffering from want of sleep. Of course, dear, if you need me, if I can make it easier for you—"
But Brenda assured her to the contrary, and added, frankly,
"In fact, auntie, the lawyers have thought it best, on account of some personal matters, concerning others, which will doubtless come up, that there be none present except those closely concerned, and so—"
"And so my mind is easy. You know, dear, I do dread these things a little; and I am an outsider."
So it was settled, and the household, after the sad and silent luncheon, and the departure of the two Deering cousins, fell under a strange sombre silence.
Bruce and his cousin were, as they had been for so much of the time since the death of Mr. Deering, together in Brook's apartment. There had come an unlooked-for change for the better in the appearance of Brook Deering. He had rallied after that first night of rambling and restlessness, and had made an evident effort to overcome his weakness. He had been docile in the hands of Doctor Ware, in the necessary absence of Doctor Liscom, but through it all he had clung to Bruce, keeping him at his side almost constantly while confined to his room, and when, during the last two days he had walked about the house, and through the grounds, it had been always in his cousin's company.
During these long days of waiting, the two young women, whom, it would seem, might, and should, have been comfort and stay each to the other, were strangely aloof and isolated. During the years of their girlhood together, and always since, up to the present time, they had been the warmest, the truest, and tenderest of friends, but there were no confidences now, and little companionship; they met regularly at table, where were also Doctor Ware-generally Bruce, and often Doctor Liscom, but the murmured excuses with which they began to delude each other and cheat their own consciences, gradually fell into disuse, and they separated, upon leaving the table, silently and by mutual consent.—and could either if questioned,have told the other why | | 189 Brenda Deering was standing at her dressing-table, listless and heavy of heart, while her maid arranged the dark, soft folds of her sombre gown with hasty fingers, for the dinner-hour had been set ahead of the usual time, because of the matter in hand for the early evening, and the sun was already low. Twice, the faithful and anxious maid had put some question about the labour of her hands, and twice it had been ignored or unheard, and when a light tap sounded upon the door, and she looked up quickly for the word of command, none came. She arose then, and moved around the table until she was face to face with her absorbed mistress.
"Madam, there is someone at the door.'
Brenda started. "Open it," she said, turning away from the table.
"It is a note," said the maid in a moment, "and there is an answer desired."
Brenda opened the sheet with listless fingers, and read the words, written in the strong, upright hand of John Redding.
"Less than twenty minutes ago, Mr. Ingram knocked at my door, brought back by the news of your husband's death. He is at your service, and I only wait your permission to tell him everything. We cannot, in my opinion. be too strong."Redding."
With sudden energy Brenda went to her desk and wrote with hasty pen:—
"By all means! This news comes like a message from HIM Tell Mr. Ingram every thing! It is what HE would have done. And bring him with you. Say to him that I ask him to help us, in the name and for the sake of his friend."B.D."
At half-past seven o'clock the library of Beechwood was aglow with light, which only served to heighten the sadness and gloom upon the faces of those who sat beneath its rays. Side by side sat Brenda and Valentine, drawn together by the mutual dread of something they feared, but could not guess at. Not far from them were the two physicians, and on the opposite side of the library table were the two cousins; and while the ladies had drawn together by mutual desire, these young men, who had been for days like shadows, each to each, sat now apart, and without exchange of glance or word.
They were waiting for the two lawyers, and when they were at last announced, Brook Deering and Brenda arose simultaneously, and each took a step toward the new-comers; then there was a pause, slight but perceptible, after which Mrs. Deering, with head erect and steady voice and hand, swept on and greeted her dead husband's old friend and adviser.
Their words were few and lowly spoken, and then, with a stately gesture, she pointed to the table upon which lay papers, pens, and ink.
"We are quite ready, gentlemen," she said, "but first, let me present Doctor Ware to Mr. Ingram; the others are known to you, I think."
She resumed her seat, and the new-comer greeted Doctor Ware and then turned to Brook, who, since his entrance, had stood with one hand resting upon the library table. The greetings were silent for the | | 190 most part, and then Mr. Ingram seated himself in a chair, placed for him by the young son of the house, at the head of the table. He was a little man, slightly stooping, and with a thin, clean-shaven face, and deep-set black eyes, which could be keen or kindly, just as the mouth could be cynical, quizzical, or stern at will.
At the moment when Mr. Ingram had seated himself at one end of the table, John Redding, after exchanging glances with his brother-lawyer, drew forward a second chair and, seating himself opposite, laid upon the table a packet of papers.
At the same moment Brook Deering, without observing Redding's movements, had drawn from his pocket one or two papers, glanced at something written upon the outer covering of one of them, and stepping forward, laid these upon the table before Mr. Ingram.
"I have been ill since my father's death," Brook said, in a low gentle tone, "too ill to think connectedly, or to remember small formalities, and it could hardly be expected that the ladies, in the absence of their legal adviser, would think of putting seals upon my father's effects. Finding that they remained as usual, and it seeming my duty, last evening, in company with my cousin, who acted simply as witness, I opened my father's desk and found, just as I expected to find, my father's will, drawn, I think, by yourself, Mr. Ingram, some five years ago or more."
He moved back a pace, glanced about him, and slowly resumed his seat; while upon the faces of all present, except the little man at the head of the table, there rested for a moment expressions of surprise.
Again the two lawyers exchanged significant glances. Then Mr. Ingram quietly took up the will just placed before him, and said, turning toward Brook:
"My young friend, your long absence, your illness, and the other things that have occurred in too swift succession since your return, will explain your lack of knowledge concerning recent events. To begin, I am no longer your father's executive. I gave up business of every sort almost a year ago, for reasons which we need not enter into here. And two months ago, or a little more, in the city of New York, and in presence of his wife, Brenda, and his ward, Miss Rodney, your father made and constituted John Redding, Esq., his attorney and man of business in general. At that time I placed in said John Redding's hands, together with other papers, the last will and testament of Lysander Deering, written by me and certified to under my eye nearly one year ago; consequently," here he arose and moved toward the lower end of the table, "the will which you are here to listen to is in Mr. Redding's possession; and as Mr. Redding is now the attorney for the estate of Lysander Deering, he will occupy this chair, and read at his pleasure the document he now holds in his hand."
As Redding moved to the other end of the table and seated himself in the lately vacated place, Brook Deering arose again. The surprise occasioned by the first words of the little lawyer had faded from his face, leaving it as quiet and gentle as at first.
"You will pardon me, Mr. Redding; anything done by my father must be right in the eyes of his son! I am acquainted with the con | | 191 tents of this will." He gently took up the will he had laid down before Mr. Ingram. "The other will be new to me, and I shall hear it and accept it as the last word from my father." He turned again and resumed his seat.
In the silence that followed, John Redding stood up with the unopened will in his hand.
"Before breaking the seal of this package," he said with quiet self-possession, "I wish to say that all herein contained was penned by Mr. Ingram; so I was assured by the late Mr. Deering, who read over each of these papers and sealed them with his own hand, in the presence of Mr. Ingram, myself, and Mrs. Deering. Understand me, Mr. Deering did not read them aloud, and he assured me that the only persons acquainted with their contents at that time were himself and Mr. Ingram. For this reason I am very glad to have Mr. Ingram present to-night."
He placed the packet before him upon the table, and took from his pocket a tiny knife.
"I am about to break the seal," he said; "and first, Mr. Ingram, Mrs. Deering, look at it, if you please."
The lawyer took the big envelope, looked at it, and gravely handed it to Mrs. Deering, who returned it to Redding after a single glance.
"Is it intact?" he asked.
"It is," replied Mr. Ingram. Brenda bowed her head.
With a quick movement of his knife Redding removed the seal, and two or three separate papers fell from his hand upon the table. He took up the largest and held it out to view, so that all could see that this in its turn was stoutly sealed.
"This," he said gravely, "is the last will and testament of Lysander E. Deering." He leaned across the table, placed the document before Mr. Ingram, and took up another, smoothly folded and with no writing visible, but unsealed.
"The will," he went on, "I consign to Mr. Ingram's care, until I shall have read what is herein contained." He opened the second paper, spread it smooth upon the table before him, and taking it up began to read slowly and distinctly.
The paper began with the usual formal declaration of name, date, residence, and clearness of intellect, and then followed this unusual statement:—
"Having, upon the above date and in said condition, executed, by the hand of my friend and legal adviser, James H. Ingram, my will, and caused it to be sealed in presence of my wife, Brenda Flood Deering, my attorney and former legal adviser, the said J. H. Ingram, and John Lyon Redding, attorney, whom I have this day constituted my legal adviser in the place of J. H. Ingram, who to-day retires from my service, with the promise, or proviso, that in case of emergency, or need, he will, if physically able, come to the assistance of said John L. Redding, or advise with him in such ways as seems best, and is to both satisfactory. And the said John L. Redding and J. H. Ingram, having bound themselves by a promise to carry out, in case of my death, and within a reasonable and proper time thereafter, certain other wishes | | 192 and arrangements made by me this day, all of this to be done before the opening of my will, which shall remain unopened in the hands of John L. Redding, or his appointed agent, until such time as will be hereinafter specified. And these are my wishes and commands.
"1st. After my death, and when I shall have been laid in my last earthly bed, I desire that my dear and faithful wife, Brenda, shall continue to remain at Beechwood as its mistress, the same as before, acting as if for me, in my absence, having sole and entire charge of all my properties and estates, managing and handling their revenues according to her will and best judgment, advised and assisted by John Lyon Redding, who agrees to continue in her service as in mine, as legal adviser and agent, at her desire.
"2nd. To my beloved ward, Valentine Rodney, I say, that all her business, moneys, and interests of every kind, await her pleasure in the vaults of my New York bankers. When she shall leave this, my guardianship, which has ever been a pleasant duty, as her presence under my roof has ever been a pleasure, by this writing I leave her free to choose for herself a guardian, or legal adviser, and I strongly recommend my old friend and partner, Ransom Baird. I also hope that she will remain for the year to come, as before, at Beechwood, as the companion and friend of my wife, Brenda. And that these two will continue to be, as heretofore, close companions and comfortable friends.
"3rd. To Brook Deering—I request that, for one year, he shall continue as before drawing his yearly allowance of five thousand dollars, and as much as is possible, to live, whether at Beechwood or elsewhere, as if I were still the master of Beechwood, as, in fact, though in spirit rather than the flesh, I shall, for a year to come, continue to be. To Bruce Deering, my nephew, I can only repeat the above, let him as usual make Beechwood his home. And when in need of friend or adviser turn, for my sake, to my best of friends, Baird and Ingram.
"All of this I have said to you each, because it is my wish and command that my complete will, now under seal,—in which all of my worldly goods are allotted according to my desire and best judgment,—shall remain with seal unbroken in the care of John L. Redding, to be opened here in my library—where I desire this also to be read—one year and one day after the date of this reading, and should anyone attempt to annul, or break, or change these, my desires and commands, I charge my wife and my solicitor to resist such attempt to the last day of the probationary year. Amen."
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