Can you forgive her?, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 53

The Last Will of the Old Squire

In the meantime Kate Vavasor was living down in Westmoreland, with no other society than that of her grandfather, and did not altogether have a very pleasant life of it. George had been apt to represent the old man to himself as being as strong as an old tower, which, though it be but a ruin, shows no sign of falling. To his eyes the Squire had always seemed to be full of life and power. He could be violent on occasions, and was hardly ever without violence in his eyes and voice. But George’s opinion was formed by his wish, or rather by the reverse of his wish. For years he had been longing that his grandfather should die — had been accusing Fate of gross injustice in that she did not snap the thread; and with such thoughts in his mind he had grudged every ounce which the Squire’s vigour had been able to sustain. He had almost taught himself to believe that it would be a good deed to squeeze what remained of life out of that violent old throat. But, indeed, the embers of life were burning low; and had George known all the truth, he would hardly have inclined his mind to thoughts of murder.

He was, indeed, very weak with age, and tottering with unsteady steps on the brink of his grave, though he would still come down early from his room, and would, if possible, creep out about the garden and into the farmyard. He would still sit down to dinner, and would drink his allotted portion of port wine, in the doctor’s teeth. The doctor by no means desired to rob him of this last luxury, or even to stint his quantity; but he recommended certain changes in the mode and time of taking it. Against this, however, the old Squire indignantly rebelled, and scolded Kate almost off her legs when she attempted to enforce the doctor’s orders. “What the mischief does it signify,” the old man said to her one evening — “what difference will it make whether I am dead or alive, unless it is that George would turn you out of the house directly he gets it?”

“I was not thinking of any one but yourself, sir,” said Kate, with a tear in her eye.

“You won’t be troubled to think of me much longer,” said the Squire; and then he gulped down the remaining half of his glass of wine.

Kate was, in truth, very good to him. Women always are good under such circumstances; and Kate Vavasor was one who would certainly stick to such duties as now fell to her lot. She was eminently true and loyal to her friends, though she could be as false on their behalf as most false people can be on their own. She was very good to the old man, tending all his wants, taking his violence with good humour rather than with submission, not opposing him with direct contradiction when he abused his grandson, but saying little words to mitigate his wrath, if it were possible. At such times the Squire would tell her that she also would learn to know her brother’s character some day. “You’ll live to be robbed by him, and turned out as naked as you were born,” he said to her one day. Then Kate fired up and declared that she fully trusted her brother’s love. Whatever faults he might have, he had been stanch to her. So she said, and the old man sneered at her for saying so.

One morning, soon after this, when she brought him up to his bedroom some mixture of thin porridge which he still endeavoured to swallow for his breakfast, he bade her sit down, and began to talk to her about the property. “I know you are a fool,” he said, “about all matters of business — more of a fool than even women generally are.” To this Kate acceded with a little smile — acknowledging that her understanding was limited. “I want to see Gogram,” he said. “Do you write him a line, telling him to come here today — he or one of his men, and send it at once by Peter.” Gogram was an attorney who lived at Penrith, and who was never summoned to Vavasor Hall unless the Squire had something to say about his will. “Don’t you think you’d better put it off till you are a little stronger?” said Kate. Whereupon the Squire fired at her such a volley of oaths that she sprang off the chair on which she was sitting, and darted across to a little table at which there was pen and ink, and wrote her note to Mr Gogram, before she had recovered from the shaking which the battery had given her. She wrote the note, and ran away with it to Peter, and saw Peter on the pony on his way to Penrith, before she dared to return to her grandfather’s bedside.

“What should you do with the estate if I left it you?” the Squire said to her the first moment she was again back with him.

This was a question she could not answer instantly. She stood by his bedside for a while thinking — holding her grandfather’s hand and looking down upon the bed. He, with his rough watery old eyes, was gazing up into her face, as though he were trying to read her thoughts. “I think I should give it to my brother,” she said.

“Then I’m d — if I’ll leave it to you,” said he. She did not jump now, though he had sworn at her. She still stood, holding his hand softly, and looking down upon the bed. “If I were you, grandfather,” she said almost in a whisper, “I would not trust myself to alter family arrangements whilst I was ill. I’m sure you would advise any one else against doing so.”

“And if I were to leave it to Alice, she’d give it him too,” he said, speaking his thoughts out loud. “What it is you see in him, I never could even guess. He’s as ugly as a baboon, with his scarred face. He has never done anything to show himself a clever fellow. Kate, give me some of that bottle the man sent.” Kate handed him his medicine, and then stood again by his bedside.

“Where did he get the money to pay for his election?” the Squire asked, as soon as he had swallowed the draught. “They wouldn’t give such a one as him credit a yard further than they could see him.”

“I don’t know where he got it,” said Kate, lying.

“He has not had yours; has he?”

“He would not take it, sir.”

“And you offered it to him?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And he has not had it?”

“Not a penny of it, sir.”

“And what made you offer it to him after what I said to you?”

“Because it was my own,” said Kate, stoutly.

“You’re the biggest idiot that ever I heard of, and you’ll know it yourself some day. Go away now, and let me know when Gogram comes.”

She went away, and for a time employed herself about her ordinary household work. Then she sat down alone in the dingy old dining-room, to think what had better be done in her present circumstances. The carpet of the room was worn out, as were also the covers of the old chairs and the horsehair sofa which was never moved from its accustomed place along the wall. It was not a comfortable Squire’s residence, this old house at Vavasor. In the last twenty years no money had been spent on furniture or embellishments, and for the last ten years there had been no painting, either inside or out. Twenty years ago the Squire had been an embarrassed man, and had taken a turn in his life and had lived sparingly. It could not be said that he had become a miser. His table was kept plentifully, and there had never been want in his house. In some respects, too, he had behaved liberally to Kate and to others, and he had kept up the timber and fences on the property. But the house had become wretched in its dull, sombre, dirty darkness, and the gardens round it were as bad.

What ought she now to do? She believed that her grandfather’s last days were coming, and she knew that others of the family should be with him besides herself. For their sakes, for his, and for her own, it would be proper that she should not be alone there when he died. But for whom should she send? Her brother was the natural heir, and would be the head of the family. Her duty to him was clear, and the more so as her grandfather was at this moment speaking of changes in his will. But it was a question to her whether George’s presence at Vavasor, even if he would come, would not at this moment do more harm than good to his own interests. It would make some prejudicial change in the old man’s will more probable instead of less so. George would not become soft and mild-spoken even by a death-bed side, and it would be likely enough that the Squire would curse his heir with his dying breath. She might send for her uncle John; but if she did so without telling George she would be treating George unfairly; and she knew that it was improbable that her uncle and her brother should act together in anything. Her aunt Greenow, she thought, would come to her, and her presence would not influence the Squire in any way with reference to the property. So she made up her mind at last that she would ask her aunt to come to Vavasor, and that she would tell her brother accurately all that she could tell — leaving him to come or stay, as he might think. Alice would, no doubt, learn all the facts from him, and her uncle John would hear them from Alice. Then they could do as they pleased. As soon as Mr Gogram had been there she would write her letters, and they should be sent over to Shap early on the following morning.

Mr Gogram came and was closeted with the Squire, and the doctor also came. The doctor saw Kate, and, shaking his head, told her that her grandfather was sinking lower and lower every hour. It would be infinitely better for him if he would take that port wine at four doses in the day, or even at two, instead of taking it all together. Kate promised to try again, but stated her conviction that the trial would be useless. The doctor, when pressed on the matter, said that his patient might probably live a week, not improbably a fortnight — perhaps a month, if he would be obedient — and so forth. Gogram went away without seeing Kate; and Kate, who looked upon a will as an awful and somewhat tedious ceremony, was in doubt whether her grandfather would live to complete any new operation. But, in truth, the will had been made and signed and witnessed — the parish clerk and one of the tenants having been had up into the room as witnesses. Kate knew that the men had been there, but still did not think that a new will had been perfected.

That evening when it was dusk the Squire came into the dining-room, having been shuffling about the grand sweep before the house for a quarter of an hour. The day was cold and the wind bleak, but still he would go out, and Kate had wrapped him up carefully in mufflers and great coats. Now he came in to what he called dinner, and Kate sat down with him. He had drunk no wine that day, although she had brought it to him twice during the morning. Now he attempted to swallow a little soup, but failed; and after that, while Kate was eating her bit of chicken, had the decanter put before him. “I can’t eat, and I suppose it won’t hurt you if I take my wine at once,” he said. It went against the grain with him, even yet, that he could not wait till the cloth was gone from the table, but his impatience for the only sustenance that he could take was too much for him.

“But you should eat something, sir; will you have a bit of toast to sop in your wine?”

The word “sop” was badly chosen, and made the old Squire angry. “Sopped toast! Why am I to spoil the only thing I can enjoy?”

“But the wine would do you more good if you would take something with it.”

“Good! Nothing will do me any good any more. As for eating, you know I can’t eat. What’s the use of bothering me?” Then he filled his second glass, and paused awhile before he put it to his lips. He never exceeded four glasses, but the four he was determined that he would have, as long as he could lift them to his mouth.

Kate finished, or pretended to finish, her dinner within five minutes, in order that the table might be made to look comfortable for him. Then she poked the fire, and brushed up the hearth, and closed the old curtains with her own hands, moving about silently. As she moved his eye followed her, and when she came behind his chair, and pushed the decanter a little more within his reach, he put out his rough, hairy hand, and laid it upon one of hers which she had rested on the table, with a tenderness that was unusual with him. “You are a good girl, Kate. I wish you had been a boy, that’s all.”

“If I had, I shouldn’t, perhaps, have been here to take care of you,” she said, smiling.

“No; you’d have been like your brother, no doubt. Not that I think there could have been two so bad as he is.”

“Oh, grandfather, if he has offended you, you should try to forgive him.”

“Try to forgive him! How often have I forgiven him without any trying? Why did he come down here the other day, and insult me for the last time? Why didn’t he keep away, as I had bidden him?”

“But you gave him leave to see you, sir.”

“I didn’t give him leave to treat me like that. Never mind; he will find that, old as I am, I can punish an insult.”

“You haven’t done anything, sir, to injure him?” said Kate.

“I have made another will, that’s all. Do you suppose I had that man here all the way from Penrith for nothing?”

“But it isn’t done yet?”

“I tell you it is done. If I left him the whole property it would be gone in two years’ time. What’s the use of doing it?”

“But for his life, sir! You had promised him that he should have it for his life.”

“How dare you tell me that? I never promised him. As my heir, he would have had it all, if he would have behaved himself with common decency. Even though I disliked him, as I always have done, he should have had it.”

“And you have taken it from him altogether?”

“I shall answer no questions about it, Kate.” Then a fit of coughing came upon him, his four glasses of wine having been all taken, and there was no further talk about business. During the evening Kate read a chapter of the Bible out loud. But the Squire was very impatient under the reading, and positively refused permission for a second. “There isn’t any good in so much of it, all at once,” he said, using almost exactly the same words which Kate had used to him about the port wine. There may have been good produced by the small quantity to which he listened as there is good from the physic which children take with wry faces, most unwillingly. Who can say?

For many weeks past Kate had begged her grandfather to allow the clergyman of Vavasor to come to him; but he hid positively declined. The vicar was a young man to whom the living had lately been given by the Chancellor, and he had commenced his career by giving instant offence to the Squire. This vicar’s predecessor had been an old man, almost as old as the Squire himself, and had held the living for forty years. He had been a Westmoreland man, had read the prayers and preached his one Sunday sermon in a Westmoreland dialect, getting through the whole operation rather within an hour and a quarter. He had troubled none of his parishioners by much advice and had been meek and obedient to the Squire. Knowing the country well, and being used to its habits, he had lived, and been charitable too, on the proceeds of his living, which had never reached two hundred a year. But the new comer was a close-fisted man, with higher ideas of personal comfort, who found it necessary to make every penny go as far as possible, who made up in preaching for what he could not give away in charity; who established an afternoon service, and who had rebuked the Squire for saying that the doing so was trash and nonsense. Since that the Squire had never been inside the church except on the occasion of Christmas Day. For this, indeed, the state of his health gave ample excuse; but he had positively refused to see the vicar, though that gentleman had assiduously called, and had at last desired the servant to tell the clergyman not to come again unless he were sent for. Kate’s task was, therefore, difficult, both as regarded the temporal and spiritual wants of her grandfather.

When the reading was finished, the old man dozed in his chair for half an hour. He would not go up to bed before the enjoyment of that luxury. He was daily implored to do so, because that sleep in the chair interfered so fatally with his chance of sleeping in bed. But sleep in his chair he would and did. Then he woke, and after a fit of coughing, was induced, with much ill-humour, to go up to his room. Kate had never seen him so weak. He was hardly able, even with her assistance and that of the old servant, to get up the broad stairs. But there was still some power left to him for violence of language after he got to his room, and he rated Kate and the old woman loudly, because his slippers were not in the proper place. “Grandfather,” said Kate, “would you like me to stay in the room with you tonight?” He rated her again for this proposition, and then, with assistance from the nurse, he was gotten into bed and was left alone.

After that Kate went to her own room and wrote her letters. The first she wrote was to her aunt Greenow. That was easily enough written. To Mrs Greenow it was not necessary that she should say anything about money. She simply stated her belief that her grandfather’s last day was near at hand, and begged her aunt to come and pay a last visit to the old man. “It will be a great comfort to me in my distress,” she said; “and it will be a satisfaction to you to have seen your father again.” She knew that her aunt would come, and that task was soon done.

But her letter to her brother was much more difficult. What should she tell him, and what should she not tell him? She began by describing her grandfather’s state, and by saying to him, as she had done to Mrs Greenow, that she believed the old man’s hours were well-nigh come to a close. She told him that she had asked her aunt to come to her; “not,” she said, “that I think her coming will be of material service, but I feel the loneliness of the house will be too much for me at such a time. I must leave it for you to decide,” she said, “whether you had better be here. If anything should happen” — people when writing such letters are always afraid to speak of death by its proper name — “I will send you a message, and no doubt you would come at once.” Then came the question of the will. Had it not occurred to her that her own interests were involved she would have said nothing on the subject; but she feared her brother — feared even his misconstruction of her motives, even though she was willing to sacrifice so much on his behalf — and therefore she resolved to tell him all that she knew. He might turn upon her hereafter if she did not do so and accuse her of a silence which had been prejudicial to him’.

So she told it all, and the letter became long in the telling “I write with a heavy heart,” she said, “because I know it will be a great blow to you. He gave me to understand that in this will he left everything away from you. I cannot declare that he said so directly. Indeed I cannot remember his words; but that was the impression he left on me. The day before he had asked me what I should do if he gave me the estate; but of course I treated that as a joke. I have no idea what he put into this will. I have not even attempted to guess. But now I have told you all that I know.” The letter was a very long one, and was not finished till late; but when it was completed she had the two taken out into the kitchen, as the boy was to start with them before daylight.

Early on the next morning she crept silently into her grandfather’s room, as was her habit; but he was apparently sleeping, and then she crept back again. The old servant told her that the Squire had been awake at four, and at five, and at six, and had called for her. Then he had seemed to go to sleep. Four or five times in the course of the morning Kate went into the room, but her grandfather did not notice her. At last she feared he might already have passed away, and she put her hand upon his shoulder, and down his arm. He then gently touched her hand with his, showing her plainly that he was not only alive, but conscious. She then offered him food — the thin porridge — which he was wont to take, and the medicine. She offered him some wine too, but he would take nothing.

At twelve o’clock a letter was brought to her, which had come by the post. She saw that it was from Alice, and opening it found that it was very long. At that moment she could not read it, but she saw words in it that made her wish to know its contents as quickly as possible. But she could not leave her grandfather then. At two o’clock the doctor came to him, and remained there till the dusk of the evening had commenced. At eight o-clock the old man was dead.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43