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Produced by Al Haines










[Frontispiece: 'I HAVE SEALED THE DIRECTIONS IN THIS ENVELOPE.']






THE CARVED CUPBOARD


BY

AMY LE FEUVRE


AUTHOR OF

'PROBABLE SONS,' 'TEDDY'S BUTTON,' 'LEGEND LED,'
'ODD MADE EVEN,' 'HEATHER'S MISTRESS,' ETC.




R.T.S., 4 Bouverie Street, London, E.C. 4

1899




Contents


CHAPTER I
A SUPPLANTER

CHAPTER II
FOUR VERSES

CHAPTER III
A COUNTRY HOME

CHAPTER IV
BLUEBEARD'S CUPBOARD

CHAPTER V
A QUIET SUNDAY

CHAPTER VI
A DEPARTURE

CHAPTER VII
UNREST

CHAPTER VIII
ENTERTAINING A STRANGER

CHAPTER IX
GWEN'S RESOLVE

CHAPTER X
CLARE'S DISCOVERY

CHAPTER XI
AGATHA'S LEGACY

CHAPTER XII
OUT IN CALIFORNIA

CHAPTER XIII
HIS LAST MESSAGE

CHAPTER XIV
THE COUSINS' RETURN

CHAPTER XV
ALICK LESTER

CHAPTER XVI
BRINGING BAD TIDINGS

CHAPTER XVII
ELFIE'S CHOICE

CHAPTER XVIII
PATTY'S GRAVE

CHAPTER XIX
THE RIGHTFUL HEIR

CHAPTER XX
BROUGHT BACK




ILLUSTRATIONS


'I HAVE SEALED THE DIRECTIONS IN THIS ENVELOPE.' . . . . . .
_Frontispiece_

AND SAW A MAN ON HIS KNEES BY THE CUPBOARD




THE CARVED CUPBOARD


CHAPTER I

A Supplanter

'For troubles wrought of men,
Patience is hard.' - _J. Ingelow._


The firelight shone upon a comfortably-furnished drawing-room in one of
the quiet London squares, and upon four girlish figures grouped around
a small tea-table. Agatha Dane, the eldest, sat back in her chair with
a little wrinkle of perplexity upon her usually placid brow. Rather
plump and short of stature, with no pretensions to beauty, there was
yet something very attractive in her bright open countenance; and she
was one to whom many turned instinctively for comfort and help.

Gwendoline, who sat next her, and was doing most of the talking, was a
tall, slight, handsome girl, with dark eyes that flashed and sparkled
with animation as she spoke, and there was a certain stateliness of
carriage that made some of her acquaintances term her proud.

Clare was toying absently with her spoon and tea-cup; she was
listening, and occasionally put in a word, but her thoughts were
evidently elsewhere. She had not the determination in her face that
was Gwendoline's characteristic; and perhaps the varying expressions
passing over it, and so transparent to those who knew her, formed her
chief charm. There was a wistfulness in her dark blue eyes, and a look
of expectation that one longed to see fulfilled; and her dreamy
preoccupied manner often made her friends wonder if she spent all her
time in dreamland.

Elfrida sat on the hearth-rug with her sunny hair glistening in the
firelight. She was the youngest and prettiest of the four, and had
only just returned from Germany that same day. It was her eager
questioning that was making them all linger over their tea.

'But I don't understand,' she said, a little impatiently. 'How does
Cousin James happen to be here at all? Aunt Mildred never cared for
him. She said last year when I was home that he was a regular screw,
and that he only came on a visit to save his housekeeping bills. Now I
come back and find dear Aunt Mildred gone, and he in full possession of
our home, ready to turn us out to-morrow, you say! Aunt Mildred always
told us we should never want after her death.'

'We shall not actually do that,' said Agatha quietly, 'for she has left
us a legacy each, which will at any rate keep the wolf from the door.'

'But hasn't she left us Dane Hall? She always said she would.'

'No; a codicil to that will has been added since James has been here.'

'Yes; he has managed it beautifully,' put in Gwendoline, with scorn in
her tone. 'He came down here directly he heard she was ill, and
established himself in the dressing-room next to hers. Clare has been
away, but Agatha and I were virtually shut out of the sick-room from
the time he entered the house. He got a trained nurse; said Agatha was
worn out, and must rest; and told Nannie she was too old and too
near-sighted to be left alone with her mistress. The poor old soul has
been weeping her eyes out since! Then he took advantage of Aunt
Mildred's state of weakness, and worried and coaxed her into making
this unjust codicil. All in his favour, of course; I don't believe
poor aunt knew what she was doing. And we shall have to shift for
ourselves now. I hope he will enjoy his unrighteous possessions. I - I
hate him!'

'What are we going to do?'

'Well,' said Agatha, rousing herself, 'we have been talking over
matters together. You see, we can be independent of each other if we
choose, for we are all of age, and have each about 100 pounds a year,
besides what the sale of this house will bring us.'

'Oh, she left us this house, did she? Then why can't we go on living
here?'

'The lease terminates at the end of this year, and we have not the
income to keep it up. Why, Elfie, a town house like this is ruinous
for people of small means! I feel anxious for us to have a home
together somewhere, even if we have to go into the country for it; but,
of course, I would not influence any of you to side with me against
your inclinations.'

'It would be an establishment of old maids; single women, shall we say?
It doesn't sound very nice, buried away in the country.'

Elfie spoke dubiously; then Gwen broke in, 'Well, if Clare is wise, she
will marry soon. I'm sure two years' engagement ought to be long
enough in all conscience to satisfy her!'

Clare's soft cheeks flushed a little.

'Hugh is going out to Africa, you know, with a survey party. We could
not settle till after that. He is quite of the same mind as I am on
that point!'

'Do you like the country plan, Gwen?' asked Elfie.

'Yes, I think I do. I am personally sick of town. A suburban life
would be intolerable, and we have all resources enough to prevent us
from stagnating.'

Elfie gave a little sigh.

'You don't know how I was looking forward to a London season. I have
been in Germany ever since I left school, studying music. And now what
is the good of it? I shall be out of touch with it entirely.'

'Would you like to stay in town for a little?' asked Agatha
sympathetically. 'We could easily arrange for you to board with some
nice people somewhere.'

'No, I will come with you, and see how it works. I suppose we shall
not be banished from London for ever? We can sometimes come up for a
short stay?'

'Oh yes, I think so. We have not settled where to live yet, but we
have been looking through some house agents' lists, and Gwen is full of
plans, as usual.'

'You would be badly off without me to keep you all alive,' said Gwen
laughing. 'If I were by myself, I would like nothing better than a
caravan or a house-boat; but that wouldn't suit all of us.'

'Not me,' said Clare, with a little grimace of disgust.

'Oh, it is a shame!' exclaimed Elfie, springing up, and walking up and
down in her excitement; 'how dare Cousin James behave so treacherously!
Can't we dispute the will? Can't we go to law?'

'It is useless to think of such a thing. We can prove nothing. He is
a man, and has had a jealous feeling of us all our lives. Now fortune
has favoured him, and he is glorying in his prosperity. He is rightly
named James, or Jacob, for he is a base supplanter!'

'Will you give me a cup of tea?'

Gwen started at the voice following her hot outburst so quickly, and
Elfie stopped her hurried walk, and turned a little defiantly towards
the new-comer.

Mr. James Dane was a quiet-looking, sprucely-dressed man of over forty
years of age. He seated himself with the greatest equanimity in the
midst of the group, and Agatha in silence poured him out a cup of tea,
and handed it to him.

'I am afraid I have interrupted a very animated discussion,' he said
blandly. 'I suppose you are arranging future plans. Of course, you
cannot well remain here. Would you like me to take any steps about the
sale for you? I shall be a week longer in town.'

'Mr. Watkins will arrange all that for us, thank you,' replied Agatha
quietly.

'Oh, very well. Why, Elfrida, I never noticed you! Just come back
from Germany, have you? It seems to have suited your health. You are
looking quite bonny.'

'I don't feel so,' was the blunt reply; 'it is not a very happy
home-coming!'

'No, of course not. But, as my wife was saying this morning, you girls
can only have pleasant memories of your dear aunt, who did so much for
you all when she was alive. I remember when first you all arrived from
India, and she was in such an anxious state of bewilderment at the
thought of the charge of four orphan children, my mother said to her,
"Oh, well, Mildred, if you are good enough to educate them, they will
naturally do something later to relieve you of the burden of
maintaining them." And my wife and I have been so surprised at your
all continuing to look upon her house as your rightful home. I suppose
in the goodness of her heart she insisted upon it. Still, nowadays,
young ladies are so independent, and have such a wide scope for their
talents, that we quite expected to hear you were supporting yourselves,
after the liberal education that you have received.'

There was dead silence after this speech, which Gwen broke at last, and
her tone was haughtiness itself.

'As you have met with such success in your visit here, Cousin James,
you could at least afford to be generous towards us. You have one
mercy to be thankful for, and that is, that we never have, and never
shall, look to you to maintain us!'

And then she left the room, shutting the door behind her with a rather
ungentle hand. Mr. Dane smiled, passed his cup to be refilled, and
then turned to Clare.

'I suppose your marriage will be hastened now, will it not? When is
the happy day to be?'

'I will let you know when it is settled,' was the quiet reply.

'Come upstairs with me, Clare, and see Nannie,' said Elfie impetuously;
'I haven't been near her yet, dear old thing!'

The two girls quitted the room together, and with a little sigh Agatha
settled herself down to a _tête-à-tête_ with her cousin.

'You girls have all assumed such aggressive demeanours towards me, that
I really hardly know if you will take any advice from me. It is
exceedingly foolish to adopt such airs. No doubt you are disappointed
in not being the sole heiresses of our aunt, but you ought not to have
expected it for a moment. She had for a long time regretted making
that rash will, which was drawn up when her heart was full of pity for
your penniless condition. Only, being in such robust health, she
always put off doing it until this last sad illness of hers. Where do
you think of settling?'

'We have not made up our minds.'

'Have you heard from your brother lately? Is he doing better than he
was? It is such a mistake for a young fellow to think he will make his
fortune in the Colonies nowadays. I only hope you may not find him
thrown on your hands soon.'

'Walter is doing very well, thank you. There is no chance of his
coming back to England for a good long time.'

'I have been wondering whether you would like to settle somewhere near
London. I have some house property at Hampstead, and could let you
have a small villa there at a very reasonable rent. Of course,
understand, this is entirely because I should like to give you any help
that I can.'

At this Agatha could not help smiling.

'It is very kind of you, but we have decided to live in the country.'

'I am surprised. Have you ever tried a country life in the winter? I
am afraid you will find it a great failure. And, remember, unprotected
females, choosing an isolated position, run the risk of being robbed.
If you do go to the country, be sure and get a house near others.
Well, I must be going. Say good-bye to the others for me. I shall
look in again on you before long, and if you want me, you know my club.
Your cousin Helen has left town, and I shall be taking a trip to the
Continent with her very soon.'

He rose, shook hands politely, and directly the door closed upon him,
Agatha hastened to find her sisters.

She knew where to look for them. In a small room at the end of the
passage past the best bedrooms, Nannie would now be taking her
afternoon cup of tea. She had been with them all since they were quite
tiny children; had brought them over from India after their parents'
death, and had been kept in Miss Dane's service ever since - first as
their nurse, then as housekeeper, when they no longer needed her care.

She was an old woman now, crippled with rheumatism; but she was a
bright and happy Christian, and had a good influence upon all who came
in contact with her. It had been already arranged that she was to go
into an alms-house when the house was sold, and Miss Dane had left her
a small legacy, so that her future was provided for. Agatha's face as
she opened the door was a troubled one. She saw the old woman in her
easy chair by the fire; Gwen and the two younger ones making themselves
comfortable round her; and all were talking freely to her of what had
passed downstairs.

'Come along, Agatha; has he gone?'

'Yes,' was the reply; 'and I have come to Nannie to be soothed. All
the way upstairs I have been saying to myself, "Fret not thyself,
because of him who prospereth in his way." But it is hard to see his
self-complacency.'

'Poor old thing! When Agatha is disturbed, it must be something
indeed! Here is a seat. Nannie has been scolding us, and now she
shall scold you.'




CHAPTER II

Four Verses

'In preparing a guide to immortality, Infinite Wisdom gave not a
dictionary, nor a grammar, but a Bible - a book of heavenly doctrine,
but withal of earthly adaptation.' - _J. Hamilton._


The old woman looked through her glasses at her four nurslings with a
loving eye; then she said very quietly, 'I have been hearing all about
your plans, Miss Agatha, and I'm thinking you have shown your wisdom in
keeping a home together. Forgive my plain speaking. I know 'tis an
age for young ladies to make homes for themselves, anywhere and
everywhere, but unless a woman is married, 'tis a risky undertakin'!
I've been inclined to fret that my working days are over, for dearly
would I like to have gone with you, and done what I could to make you
comfortable; but 'tis the Lord's will, and my age and helplessness
doesn't prevent me from prayin' for you all! You have the same psalm
in your mind, Miss Agatha, that I have been readin' and studyin' this
afternoon. I would dearly like to give you each a verse out of it, if
you won't take offence.'

'We're in for one of Nannie's preaches!' said Gwen, laughing, as she
placed a large-print Bible before her old nurse; 'but we shan't have a
chance of many more, so we promise to be attentive!'

'Ay, dear Miss Gwen, it isn't a preach! How often you come up here to
have a cup o' tea to refresh your bodies! and 'tis a bit of refreshment
to your souls that I'm now makin' so bold as to offer.' Nannie turned
over the pages of her beloved Bible with a reverent hand, then she
looked across at Agatha.

'My dear Miss Agatha, there are four verses here, with a command and a
promise. I should like to give you each one to think of, through all
the troubles and trials that may come to you. Will you mark it in your
own Bibles, and live it out, remembering it was Nannie's verse for you,
so that when I'm dead and gone you may still have the comfort and
teachin' of it?'

Agatha was touched by the old woman's solemn earnestness.

'Yes, Nannie, give it to me, and I will try and put it "into practice."'

Nannie's voice rang out in the dusky firelit room, as she repeated,
more from memory than by sight, -

'Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and
verily thou shalt be fed!'

'Thank you, Nannie,' said Agatha after a pause, 'I will look it up and
remember it.'

'Now mine, please,' said Gwen, looking over the old woman's shoulder.
'Is it the next verse for me?'

'No, my dear, I think not. It seems to me that this must be the Lord's
word to you: "Commit thy way unto the Lord, trust also in Him, and He
shall bring it to pass."'

'You have given me that because you think I like choosing my own way
through life, now haven't you?'

'Maybe I have. Choosing our own ways and goin' in them always bring
trouble in the end. Now, Miss Clare, your verse is the beginning of
the one Miss Agatha was sayin': "Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently
for Him"; and, Miss Elfie, this is for you, "Delight thyself also in
the Lord, and He shall give thee the desires of thine heart."'

'And I am the only one that has got a command without a promise,' said
Clare reproachfully.

Nannie looked at Clare, then at her big Bible again.

'You have a promise further on, Miss Clare, "Those that wait upon the
Lord, they shalt inherit the earth."'

'Ah, Nannie, that is too big a promise to realize. If it was to
inherit Dane Hall now!'

'My dear, since you were a little wee child, you have always been
looking for something big. You will inherit more from God Almighty, if
you wait for Him, than ever you could inherit without Him!'

There was silence for a few minutes; then Gwen said, trying to speak
lightly, 'We shan't forget your verses, Nannie; and though I'm afraid
none of us will ever grow into such a saint as yourself, it won't be
for want of an example before us. Now may we turn to business? Jacob
has gone, and we must bestir ourselves. I have cut out an
advertisement from the _Morning Post_, which I think sounds tempting.
And as Agatha seems so slow in making up her mind, I think I shall take
the train to-morrow morning and go and inspect the place myself.
Doesn't it sound as if it ought to suit us? "To Let. An old-fashioned
cottage residence, four bedrooms, two attics, three reception-rooms,
well-stocked fruit and vegetable garden. Owner called abroad suddenly;
will let on reasonable terms!"'

'Where is it?' asked Elfie.

'Hampshire. I wrote to the agent who advertises, and he said the rent
would be about 40 pounds. It is close to some pine woods, and only
three miles from a town. It sounds nice, I think; at any rate, it is
worth seeing about.'

'Do you like old-fashioned cottage residences?' said Clare very
dubiously; 'they always remind me of rotten floors, rats and mice, and
damp musty rooms.'

I hate modern villas,' retorted Gwen, 'with gimcrack walls and smoky
chimneys and bad drainage! This has an old-world sound. Let us, if we
live out of town, choose an Arcadia, with nothing to remind us of the
overcrowded suburbs. Are you willing I should go, Agatha, and come
back and report the land?'

Yes,' said Agatha; 'better you should do it than I, for what suits you
will suit me, but what would suit me might not suit you. We will talk
it over when you come back.'

And so it was settled; and after an early breakfast next day, Gwen
started on her quest.

She did not come back till between seven and eight o'clock in the
evening, and seemed so tired that Agatha insisted upon her eating a
good dinner before she gave an account of herself. Then, rested and
refreshed, she came into the drawing-room and settled herself in a
comfortable chair by the fire to give her experiences.

'I really think it will do,' she began. 'I arrived at the station
about twelve o'clock, and walked out the three miles, to see what the
country was like. Brambleton is a clean, empty little town, with no
one in the streets but a few tottering old men and children, a few good
shops, and there is a market every Friday. I walked along the high
road for a couple of miles, then turned up a lane with a ragged piece
of common at the end of it, passed one or two nice houses standing back
in their own grounds, a little country church with parsonage adjoining
in the orthodox fashion, a cluster of thatched cottages, and finally
came to the "cottage residence."'

'Is it in a village street?' asked Agatha.

'No, not exactly. It is in a side road leading to a farm. It is a low
white house with a great box hedge hiding it from the road, and a
stone-flagged path leading up to the door. A blue trellis verandah
runs right round it, which I rather liked, and a row of straw bee-hives
in front delighted me. There was an old woman in charge, who showed me
all over, and talked unceasingly.'

'Now describe the rooms exactly,' said Elfie eagerly; 'and did the
house smell musty and damp?'

'No, I shouldn't say it was at all damp; of course rooms that have been
shut up always seem fusty and close. It is a little place; you must
not think the rooms are anything like this. On one side of the door is
a long low room, the width of the house, with a window at each end; the
other side of the passage there are two smaller rooms; the kitchens,
etcetera, lie out at the back; and the stairs go up in the middle of
the passage. Four fair-sized bedrooms are above, and the two attics
are quite habitable. The back of the house has the best view; it
overlooks a hill with a cluster of pines, and woods in the distance.
Fields are round it, but the back garden has a good high brick wall,
with plenty of fruit trees, and all laid out as a kitchen garden. The
front piece is in grass, with a dear old elm in the corner.'

I don't like the sound of the box hedge,' said Agatha thoughtfully; 'it
seems so shut in, and very lonely, I should say.'

'Of course we shall not have many passers-by, except the carters to and
from the farm; but if you are in the country, what can you expect? We
can cut down the hedge. I like the place myself, and it is in good
repair, for the owner has only just left it. I must tell you about
him, for there is quite a story about him. Old Mrs. Tucker was his
cook. He is an eccentric widower, and has a brother with a lot of
property in the neighbourhood. He spends his time in carving,
painting, and writing about old manuscripts. That is one thing you
will like, Clare; all the doors and cupboards in the house are carved
most beautifully, even the low window sills, and mantelpieces. About
four months ago he had a dreadful quarrel with his brother, and told
Mrs. Tucker that he was going abroad till his temper cooled. He stored
all his furniture, and said he would let the house, but only to a
yearly tenant, as he might wish to return again. That is the
disadvantage of the house; but I think he will not be in a hurry to
return. There is an old carved cupboard let into the wall in the room
which was his study, and this he has left locked, and wishes any tenant
to understand that it is not to be opened. They take the house under
this condition.'

'A Bluebeard's cupboard,' said Clare delightedly. 'Why, this is most
interesting. I am longing to take the house now.'

'That is indeed a woman's speech,' said a voice behind her, and a tall
broad-shouldered man laid his hand gently on her shoulder.

Clare turned round, with a pretty pink colour in her cheeks.

'Oh, Hugh, is it you? Come and sit down, and hear about the cottage we
meditate taking. Gwen is our business man, and seems to have found
just the place we wanted.'

Captain Knox took a seat by his betrothed, and was soon hearing about
it all. Then after it was discussed afresh, and he agreed that it
might prove suitable, the other girls slipped away to the inner
drawing-room, and left the young couple alone.

Clare's wistful dreaminess had vanished now, and she was bright and
animated.

'I believe you girls are rejoicing in your sudden downfall,' said
Captain Knox at length; 'I hear no moans now over your lost fortunes.
It is the outside world that is pitying you. "Those poor girls," I
hear on all sides, "after the very marked way in which old Miss Dane
told everybody they would be heiresses at her death. It is most
incomprehensible."'

It is no laughing matter, Hugh,' said Clare gravely. 'We are going to
try and make the best of it; but when we think of James, our blood
boils!'

'Well, darling, you will never know actual want, that is my comfort.
How I wish I could offer you a home now! but I have been advised so
strongly to go with this party that I feel I ought not to refuse. It
will only be a matter of six months, I hope, and then I shall take you
away from your country retreat altogether.'

'I sometimes wish - - ' Clare stopped.

'Well, what?'

'I was going to say I wish you were not in the army, but that is wrong.
I do so much prefer a settled home to the incessant change in the
service.'


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