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Joseph Hocking
The Birthright

CHAPTER I
TELLS HOW THE PENNINGTONS LOST PENNINGTON

I am writing this story at the wish of many friends, who tell me it is my duty so to do. Certain stories have been afloat, which are anything but true, and it has been urged upon me again and again to set down in plain terms the true history of events which have set people's tongues wagging. I must confess that, in spite of the pleasure I have in recalling the memories of past years, it is with great diffidence that I at last commence my work. Not because I have any difficulty in remembering what took place. My memory, thank God, is as good as ever, and the principal scenes in my history are as clear to me as if they happened yesterday. It is not that. The truth is I was never clever at putting things on paper, and somehow, while the facts are clear enough in my mind, I feel a great difficulty in relating those facts in a way that is clear and understandable. You see I have lived an open-air life, and have spent more hours with the bridle-reins in my hands than the pen, and although I had a fair amount of schooling I was never considered a quick learner.

Still, as John Major said to me only yesterday, it seems a duty to clear up certain matters which are altogether misunderstood, and what is more, to clear my name from scandal. Moreover, as he truly insisted, there are others besides myself upon whom clouds rest, and one especially about whom the truth ought to be told.

"People are saying," asserted John Major, "that the land you call yours is not yours by right, and that in order to get your will you were in league with the devil. It is also said that you broke the laws of God and man in your dealings with your relations, and that Parson Inch refuses to give you the right hand of fellowship until you can prove in a fair and straightforward way that you are not the man some take you to be."

Now I am quite aware that many things have happened to me which happen to but few men. I know, too, that I have had experiences which, to say the least of them, are strange, neither am I sure that I can explain certain matters to Parson Inch's satisfaction. At the same time I am not afraid of the light, and so I am determined to set down truthfully, to the best of my ability, the true account of those events in my life which are misunderstood, so that no stigma shall rest upon those who are as dear to me as my own heart's blood.

Let it be understood, however, that I make no pretence at fine writing, neither must it be expected that I, who never boasted great learning, can explain that which has puzzled Parson Grigg, who was in the parish before Mr. Inch came – aye, even puzzled the Bishop himself who came to visit the rectory some years since. All I undertake to do is to put down in plain, homely words the story of my life, in so far as it affects my good name and the good name of those who are associated with me. It may be that I shall have to touch upon matters peculiar to the part of the country in which I was born and reared, and to which I am proud to belong. As far as I can I will make them clear; but even concerning these I will make no great promises.

To begin at the beginning then, for I must do this to make everything clear, and I desire above everything to make matters plain. My father, Jasper Pennington, died when I was nineteen, leaving me as I thought Elmwater Barton, a farm of about three hundred acres. I am called Jasper too; indeed, for generations back there has always been a Jasper Pennington. Elmwater Barton is by no means a bad farm. Nearly all the land is under cultivation, and the house is roomy and substantial. You must not imagine, however, that the Barton is the principal place in the parish of St. Eve. Far from it. The parish contains twelve thousand acres, and is, on the whole, the richest parish in Cornwall, and so three hundred acres do not count much. Up to the time of my father living at Elmwater Barton the place had always been held by a family of yeomen by the name of Quethiock, respectable people, of course, but not regarded as gentry. No, the principal house in St. Eve is Pennington, which, when my father died, was owned by Richard Tresidder. My father was born at Pennington, and my grandfather and great-grandfather were born there; indeed, the estate, which is a very valuable one, has been owned by the Penningtons for many generations.

The question, therefore, naturally arises, How did a Tresidder get into the possession of the estate which has always belonged to the Penningtons? It is well to explain this because evil tongues have told lies concerning it.

My father's mother died soon after his birth, when my grandfather was a comparatively young man; and when my father was about five years old, his father called him into the library one day, and told him that it was his intention to give him a mother.

"A mother?" said my father, "you told me my mother was dead."

"Yes, she is," said my grandfather, "and is in heaven if ever it is possible for a woman to get there; that is why I want to give you another, Jasper, one who will take care of you better than I can."

"Will she be kind to me?" asked my father.

"That she will," was the reply; "but more than that, she will bring you a brother, who is about your own age, and he will be a playfellow for you."

My father was greatly pleased at this, and so he welcomed his new mother very eagerly, thinking all the time, of course, of his new playfellow.

The lady my grandfather married was a widow. Her husband, Richard Tresidder, had been a lawyer in Falmouth, but he had died of cholera about four years after my grandmother died. Her little boy, too, was called Richard, or Dick, as they named him for short, and in a little while the two boys became friends.

Now the widow of lawyer Tresidder brought my grandfather no property at all, not a pennypiece, but she brought a great deal of discord instead. She was always jealous for her son, and she hated my father. The very sight of him used to vex her, especially as after several years she did not bear my grandfather a son. There were three daughters born, but no son, which greatly disappointed my grandfather, and made his wife exceedingly bitter toward my father.

As years went by it seemed to be the great purpose of her life to cause quarrels between the father and son, and at the same time to show up the excellencies of her own son, Richard Tresidder. I suppose the wisest and best men are clay in the hands of women; at any rate, such has been my experience in life, especially if that woman is clever, and has a will of her own, which latter quality few women are short of. Anyhow, after many years, she succeeded in setting my grandfather against his only son Jasper. How she managed it I don't know, for my grandfather always had the name for being a just man, but then, as I said, what can a man do when a woman gets hold of him? Just before my father was twenty-one this widow of Tresidder got her husband to make a new will. She persuaded him to let her husband's brother be present when Mr. Trefry, the old family lawyer, was writing the document, and a good many hard words passed even then.

You see, Mr. Trefry couldn't bear to see my father defrauded, and yet he had no right to interfere. The upshot was that the will gave my father the sum of £500, while all the Pennington estates were to be held in trust for Richard Tresidder. This of course seems very strange, but it goes to show how a woman can twist a man around her finger when she sets out to do it. There was a clause in the will, however, which my grandfather, in spite of James Tresidder, who was also a lawyer, would have inserted. I think the old man's love for justice, and perhaps his love for his son, caused him to have a mind of his own in this case, for in the face of lawyer Tresidder's objections and his wife's entreaties he stood firm. The clause was to this effect – that if Jasper Pennington or his heirs were ever in a position so to do, they could demand to buy the Pennington estates, as they existed at the date of the will, at half the value of the said estates. And that in the case of such an emergency, five representatives of five county families be asked to make the valuation. My grandfather further stipulated that none of the Pennington lands should be sold at any time for any purpose whatever.

Now, the widow of Tresidder greatly objected to this, and even after it was duly signed did her utmost to get my grandfather to have this clause expunged. But the Pennington blood asserted itself, and although he had given way to his wife in such a degree that he had almost disinherited his son, he still held to this clause.

Not that it could be worth anything to my father. How could he, with only £500, expect to gain many thousands?

As I said, the will was made some few months before my father was twenty-one, and it was stipulated that he was to receive the £500 on his twenty-first birthday.

And now comes a stranger part of the business. About a week before my father came of age, my grandfather grew angry at what he had done. The thought of his only son being disinherited in favour of a stranger just because a woman had twisted him around her finger made him nearly mad. He saw now what his wife had been aiming at for years; he saw, too, that the quarrels he had had with my father were of his wife's making; and anxious to do justly, he wrote a letter to Mr. Trefry telling him that he desired his presence at Pennington, as he wanted to make a new will, which should be duly signed and sealed before his son Jasper's twenty-first birthday. This letter was given to a servant to take to Truro. Now this servant, like almost every one else she had in the house, had become a tool of the solicitor's widow, and there is every reason to believe she saw the letter. Be that as it may, before Lawyer Trefry reached Pennington, my grandfather, who the day previous had been a hale, strong man, was dead, and the doctor who was called said that he died of heart disease.

My father, however, believed that his father had been poisoned, or in some other way killed, because the woman he had married feared that he would make a new will in favour of his son Jasper.

And now I have told why Pennington, which had been in the possession of the Penningtons for many generations, passed out of our hands, and became the property of the Tresidders.

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