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Meanwhile the increasing importunity of Reginald's creditors made it evident that urless he stopped their mouths at once by announcing his engagement to his cousin, he might say good bye to all hope of the marriage whereby he intended to retrieve his fortunes. All chance of such a thing would be at an end if he did not avert the crash which would involve an exposé of his affairs; for if that were to take place he would stand revealed as a profligate, reckless spendthrift whose substance had been squandered in an utterly ignoble and discreditable manner; who had been connected with transactions that were decidedly questionable; and who certainly might not aspire to the hand of Gladys Ivor. Circumstances, therefore, pressed upon him an immediate proposal, whether he thought her ready for it or not. Had he been able to choose he would have waited a little while longer to make the ground yet more sure before he spoke; for though he augured well from her graciousness to him, he still did not feel quite certain of her sentiments being as warm as he wished them to be. But he could not afford a delay which would wholly destroy the splendid chance now open to him. And accordingly he astonished Gladys one fine day, about six weeks after David's death, by presenting himself to her in the guise of a desperately enamoured suitor whose whole happiness depended upon her replying favourably to his suit.
He acted the part of lover excellently well, and she heard his protestations of passionate devotion without a moment's doubt of their sincerity, and with feelings of genuine compassion for the pain which she believed her answer would cause him. She said that she was very, very sorry this should have happened, and that she had never dreamt he was thinking of such a thing. If it were possible for her to grant his request, she would most gladly do so. But though she liked him ever so much, and though they were such capital friends, still that wasn't the same thing as being in love-and love was indispensable for marriage. So, however much she regretted having to vex him, he must see for himself that she had no option but to refuse.
No-he didn't see it at all. Only let her consent to marry him, and he had no fear of not eventually winning her love. There was nothing he would not do to compass that end, and he felt that he must succeed at last. Only let her have pity on his great love, and trust herself to him, and she should never repent of her goodness. As for saying that his one object in life would be to make her happy, why that was a mere matter of course; for how could it be otherwise when his own happiness depended entirely upon hers, because whatever troubled her necessarily made him miserable also? And he proceeded to talk of his weariness of London and its society; to expatiate upon the joys of domestic felicity in the country; and to draw a moving picture of the widely-useful and happy future that would be their lot as man and wife.
As she listened to the vehement ardour with which he pleaded his cause, her resolution wavered just a little bit, and she did make some attempt in her own mind to try and see the matter from a point of view different to that which she had at first taken. There was no denying that she felt a cordial liking and esteem for him; had found him an amusing, clever, agreeable, sympathetic companion; and believed he would make an excellent, conscientious husband to her and landlord to her people. The position in which he and she stood to one another made such a match as he proposed seem peculiarly suitable, and altogether it was most unfortunate that she did not feel towards this meritorious young man as she had done towards the deceitful Percy. But there it was. She did not feel the same unluckily, and such feelings were not to be called into existence at will. It was a great pity, no doubt; but still, things being as they were, she could not alter her first decision, and told her suitor so plainly. Reginald's perspicacity, however, having showed him her wavering, he redoubled the energy of his attack; and though he could not persuade her definitely to accept him, he, nevertheless, at last succeeded in extracting some modification of the refusal.
If he liked, she said, she would postpone giving her final answer for awhile, till she should have considered the matter more fully and tried if she could change her mind and feelings. so far as to accept him. He must go away and leave her for a bit so that she might think it over quietly, and when next he returned she would be prepared with her answer. She must tell him fairly that she was afraid it would be the same then as now; but still, she would make the attempt to change it if he liked.
He replied that he would like anything that did not rob him of all hope. But how long was he to be kept in suspense? It was now the middle of September, his holidays were just about to terminate, and he knew he had no chance of getting away from work at the office for another six weeks. Six weeks would be a terribly long time to wait- might he not hope for a letter before that?
Oh no, she returned; she did not think six weeks at all long for the consideration of so important a matter-hardly long enough, indeed! She was sure there was no chance whatever of bringing her sentiments to the desired condition all in a hurry. She very much feared the experiment would prove fruitless anyhow; but if there was to be any chance at all of success, she must have time.
So he had to content himself with this concession, and return to London with his fate still undecided. He had got something at any rate, even if not quite as much as he wished for. And he felt very little doubt that the rest was going to follow, for
after the evident favour which she had shown him he thought he could reckon pretty confidently on the final answer being in the affirmative. What he had to do now was to cheat the general public into the belief that that answer had been already received and his marriage with her definitely settled, so that those cursed creditors of his might allow him a little law and not spoil all by bringing matters prematurely to a crisis.
With this object in view he contrived at once to set going the report that he and Gladys were virtually engaged to each other, although their engagement was not yet given out in consequence of her having some foolish fancy against the announcement being made so soon after her brother's death. The report set various people to work making inquiries as to its truth in the immediate neighbourhood of Nant Olchfa, and the result of such inquiries was its confirmation. For the local gossips, fearing to be thought behind-hand in what was going on, and having seen the conspicuous attentions which he had paid to his cousin, and the manifestly good terms existing between them, were prepared to catch at the least hint of the two being engaged, and to declare volubly that they (the gossips) had seen what was going on all along, and that no one with eyes in their head could doubt that the mistress and next heir of Nant Olchfa meant to make a match of it. And thus Reginald's stratagem succeeded, and the impending catastrophe was staved off, at all events, for a little while longer-and probably for ever, he thought exultingly.
The prize for which he hungered-the prize which would extricate him from his difficulties, put him on firm ground, relieve him from fear of future disagreeables, and assure him ease and enjoyment seemed so nearly in his clutches that he began to consider it as already his, and to regard the actual entering into possession as a mere matter of time. Only let him be married and he would be all right, he thought. For then he meant certainly to be master and have as much money as he chose without any bother-he was not likely to have any trouble about that, as he did not anticipate much difficulty in turning the girl round his finger and making her consent to whatever he wished.
Yet what if he should be mistaken about this, and find her run rusty after all, and prove unexpectedly impracticable? Hum-why then, so much the worse for her! He had no intention of standing any nonsense from a wife, and if she made herself troublesome when he had a husband's authority over her, it would be odd if he did not find some means of suppressing her opposition. The mere fact of her disagreeing with him would show that her mental condition was wrong, and might not impossibly make it necessary for her to become an inmate of one of the numerous private lunatic asylums whose
doors are always gaping wide open towards the in-comer and closed fast towards the out-goer. Or she might chance to eat something unwholesome-so very unwholesome as to prove fatal. Or she might be unfortunate enough to have some bad accident; everyone was liable to accidents. Oh yes! there were many ways available for disposing of one's wife if she declined to be amenable. He only wished it were equally easy to get rid of an inconvenient foster-mother-like the horrible Leah Williams. But, who could say?— perhaps he might get a chance even at her some day. If so he would take precious good care not to let it slip, for as long as she lived she would be a bête noire to him of the worst description, and spoil all the pleasure he would have otherwise when he got Nant Olchfa. Onə would not perhaps have supposed that the study of the lunacy laws and toxicology was the thing of all others best adapted to soothe the impatient and anxious spirit of a fond lover, waiting for a final answer from his beloved. Yet Reginald Marshall seemed to find it so, judging by the zeal with which he applied himself to those two subjects after his return to London; and it was quite surprising to see what consolation he derived from them. during that period of suspense whilst Gladys was making up her mind whether to marry him or not.
He had not very much doubt that her decision would be in his favour, and did not feel greatly disquieted as far as that went. What lay chiefly between him and his rest was the thought of Leah. Constant hush-money would, of course, be needed to keep her silent, and a leech of that kind was not particularly pleasant to look forward to as a life-long companion. No-the more he reflected about it the more clearly did he perceive that she knew far too much for her existence to be compatible with his tranquillity; and, therefore, he detested her with a more fierce and active hatred than ever.
Whilst Gladys was deliberating on what answer to give her cousin, and he, confidently anticipating that it would be in the affirmative, was diligently improving his acquaintance with such branches of knowledge as he thought likely to come useful to him as a husband, Fate (in the guise of professional duty) recalled Percy Enville unexpectedly to the neighbourhood which he had quitted not long before. For at the beginning of October some unforeseen alterations in regimental arrangements necessitated his being quartered at the military
depôt at Cwm Eithin-a town eight miles off from Nant Olchfa. And as he was thus brought in reach of becoming an actor in rapidly-approaching events, this War Office arrangement deserves to be noted as a not-unimportant factor in the subsequent narrative.
About a fortnight later the autumn assize was held, whereat Leah Williams was tried for the wilful murder of her husband. The magnitude of the charge was all in her favour, and made it likely that she would be acquitted; for though the jury might unhesitatingly have found her guilty, had she been indicted only for manslaughter, it was sure to be a very different matter when murder was in question.
Could they take upon themselves the responsibility of depriving a fellow-creature of life without more evidence to justify the sentence than there was in this case? was the question that they asked themselves. The medical men asserted positively that the deceased could not have walked step after the blow on the head which had been dealt him; but, after all, that was merely matter of opinion, because they had no actual proof to bring forward in support of their assertion. Supposing that it was an erroneous one, there was really nothing to convict Leah upon. For if so, who could say that Richard had not received the injuries that killed him somewhere away from home, and been able to walk back to his cottage afterwards? He might have had a fall and come down on his head awkwardly. Or he might have happened to pass under an old tip just when some rubbish was slipping down and been struck by it before he could get out of the way. Or else he might in some other accidental manner have been injured fatally, and yet managed to make his way home to die. And a person ought on no account to be hung speculatively, as it were, and just on the chance of two doctors being as wise as they credited themselves with being.
These considerations had a great influence upon the verdict. For a wholesome horror of shedding human blood is a marked and honourable characteristic of the British juryman, who never convicts of wilful murder except upon the most indubitable proofs of guilt. And in making this observation it may be asked parenthetically whether the conscience which is so keenly alive to the iniquity of any injustice in a judgment whose effects are immediately visible, ought not by rights to bestir itself also to interfere when the consequences are more remote and out of sight? and whether it would not be desirable for John Bull's readiness to err on the side of mercy in the jury box to be carried into other affairs also? As yet this does not seem to have occurred to him; for in his private capacity he rarely scruples to repeat choice morsels of scandalous gossip without inquiring into their accuracy, even