Anna Jane Vardill

MEMOIRS OF A RECLUSE

FOURTH HISTORY

Continued

We prepared ourselves with becoming countenances for the narrative of our fourth Brother, who prefaced it by another smile at Sir Pertinax Townly. “You omitted,” said he, “to inform us that a sonnet to a tea-kettle, written with a rare combination of physical science and sentimental pathos, induced Lord Aircastle to elevate the sublime Rodelinda to his rank, and to prove the usual fallacy of collateral expectations. My knowledge of your family affairs will be soon explained.

It was the close of a wintry evening when a Yorkshire attorney’s sober game at chess was interrupted by his clerk’s entrance with his favourite phrase, “Business, sir, in the office.”—“At this hour!” returned Mr. Laroon, suspending his hand over a check-mate—“Let such unseasonable clients wait.” And he resumed his discussion of the game’s antiquity. The indefatigable clerk returned once more—“John Copeland begs your attention, sir:—he is almost dying, and has a little affair to settle.”—“I have no time now for poor rogues—and the parish which keeps him may settle his affairs.”—Mr. Laroon’s opponent at the chess-table interposed a hint that the settlement of this man's affairs might deserve attention, though he came in forma pauperis—“He is a wretch,” (replied the man of law) “whose poverty seems not a reproach but a vindication of Providence. His only wealth in former times was a beautiful daughter, whose blandishments induced a superannuated victim to consign all his family’s possessions to her children. She did not live to enjoy her expected share; and her father, despised and abandoned even by her offspring, is unwillingly maintained in the parish-poorhouse. He can have nothing to communicate to me except the ravings of a diseased imagination. If he has any thing to bequeath, it must be the fruit of iniquity, which I will not tarnish myself by conveying to others.”

The London Barrister made no comment except a frown, and quietly replaced his attention on the chess table. He allowed a check-mate sooner than was necessary; and refusing his old friend’s entreaty for another game after supper, turned his step to the parish-poorhouse. The porter’s protestations that strangers could not he admitted near midnight were silenced by a fee; and the barrister found himself in one of those crowded receptacles of wretchedness, the wards occupied by sick paupers. He had never seen the person for whom be inquired: but the eager gaze fixed upon him by an aged man, when Mr. Laroon’s name was mentioned, announced the rejected client. This man’s face, as he raised himself on his hard pallet, expressed that sullen fierceness which misery acquires from despair. “You have left your chess at last then!” said he, in a harsh voice—“It was not the first desperate game you have played!”—“My name is not Laroon,” replied the Visitor, “but I come from him to know your wishes.”—The pauper knit his black eye-brows with a hideous scowl—“He would not quit his game for me!—Ah! let him play on—he loves cunning and hazard”—He strove to add more, but his strength was unequal to the sudden effort of indignation, and he fell back muttering inarticulately. Wine was brought by the unknown lawyer’s command; and as he held it to the dying patient’s lips, something like a thankful smile passed over them. When the cup was emptied, Copeland still held the hand which had offered it; and by placing his own on his heart, and then on his mouth, he seemed to intimate some secret truth which he wished to communicate. “Speak to me without fear,” said the Barrister;—“but the first and best help in your case will be this purse.”—Its contents were trifling; yet the pauper gazed at them with stupid joy, which seemed half stifled by habitual suspicion: then hiding the purse in his breast, he looked fearfully towards the other inhabitants of the lodging. His new friend understood him, and caused a chair to be procured; by which, as the sick man would not release his hand for an instant, he walked till it was safely placed in the parlour of an inn where he was himself a temporary guest.—“Here,” said he, “you are free; and to-morrow, perhaps, will enable you to arrange the ideas you wished to be legally recorded.”—“They are all here now,” replied the pauper, pressing one hand to his brow with a glance of malice which made the lawyer start from his hold.—“We must have witnesses,” he said, and the landlord and his wife was summoned.—“Three!” exclaimed the pauper, and another witness entered. Then unbuttoning the waistcoat which covered his emaciated breast, he took from within its folds a small Chess-board of antique and singular shape. “Take it,”—said he to the Barrister—“you know how to use it!”—The spectators were silent in astonishment—“You left your sport for a friendless old man,” continued Copeland—“go and be a winner now and for ever!”—The last words were spoken with a loud and firm accent. They were his farewell benediction. He breathed no more. The bequest excited more derision than envy; and the chess-playing attorney disdained to congratulate his friend upon it; but on the day appointed for the pauper’s funeral, a woman of rude and squalid appearance presented herself, and, professing to be the sister of the deceased, claimed inheritance of his effects. “Where are the proofs of your identity?” asked the lawyer—“and what are your expectations?”—She shewed vouchers of her name, and said the wealth acquired by her brother’s daughter furnished a reasonable probability that his indigence was only pretended. “But by whom is her wealth enjoyed ostensibly at present?”—The woman, hesitating, replied, that the grand-daughters of the deceased Copeland had possessed themselves of their mother’s property without any legal right to claim affinity, or any deed of gift on her part. “You have a demand, then,” said the Barrister, “on much more than this man’s actual possessions, since the law recognizes him as the heir of his daughter, who died, it seems, unmarried and intestate. The right of inheritance devolves on you, if certain facts can be proved. I recommend a compromise with these reputed grand-daughters.” The claimant again hesitated, and hinted at her inability to contend with persons largely enriched by their supposed mother, and by an immense bequest from their powerful father.—“Dare you trust me,” replied the Lawyer, “with the management of your claim? I will represent it as it deserves, and my success shall determine the amount of my compensation.”—His new client paused, with a look which expressed the struggle between lurking craft and awakened avarice. He discerned without affecting to comprehend it; and coldly added, when she stammered a few word implying her wish to possess the relics found upon her brother’s person, “The chessboard shall be yours when I have enabled you to purchase it.”

Perhaps the lawyer’s eye informed her that her motive was suspected: or perhaps that cunning which is said to be instinct in woman prompted her to accept the advantageous aid he proffered. She might gain, it was easy to perceive, more from her reputed relatives by the interference of such an advocate, than they had ever deemed necessary to offer. The counsellor received farther information, and departed.

While these scenes passed in the parish of———, a man in black, whose broad and flat countenance announced, according to Lavater’s system, a vessel built for deep-lading, arrived suddenly at Skycliff Park, and desired admission to its owners. The heiresses received him with most courteous welcome, and he instructed them to prepare for a vexatious visit. “A busy advocate has discovered your grandfather’s claims, and instigates his representative to enforce them. All this might have been prevented by more bounty to your mother’s relatives, but the remedy must be bold and sudden.”

The eldest daughter, insolent in supposed security and ignorant of the law’s strong grasp, proposed to confront the indigent claimant with the force of superior wealth; but the younger, more tenacious of reputation and less callous in heart, recommended private compromise. Both uttered bitter complaints against the treachery of their grandfather’s sister, who had been deputed by them, they declared, to offer him due comforts on his death-bed. Their adviser urged the necessity of guarded measures against an adversary so deep in dangerous secrets; and inquired if they had no written document to justify their seizure of their reputed mother’s property.”—“Common law,” said he, “might bend, perhaps, in favour of your natural right, but an investigation would lead to other points.”—“There is one expedient!” exclaimed the eldest sister, “and but one, for we have no written document.”—The man in black gathered courage from an abettor so explicit, and reminded them, that as the gold and jewels found in their mother’s hoard had been undoubtedly purloined from their father, the surest title to their possession would be a deed of gift seemingly executed by him. The hint was welcomed—“Do you not remember,” said the eldest of these worthy heiresses, “that my father once consented to give us all when impertinent creditors molested him?”—“Yes, I remember,” replied the man in black, with a shrewd smile, “that you proposed it, and your mode of influence made your success probable.” No comment was hazarded: the peril seemed imminent, and the offered expedient promised unquestionable security. Before the following noon, another man of law presented himself in Skycliffe Park. The brilliant eyes and enchanting smile of the younger sister almost altered his purpose; and he unfolded the claims of the pauper’s relative more gently than he had first intended. “Mr. Laroon is fortunately here,” she replied, “and shall be authorized to shew you claim on mistaken grounds.”—The complaisant solicitor entered, and smiled on his professional friend with many gracious expressions of his hope that this affair would cause no litigation.—“Our game at chess,” said the Counsellor dryly, “is an emblem of the moves necessary in this.—The longest are sideways or circuitous, but those straight forward are short.” Then calmly unrolling the paper laid before him, he added—“By this it seems the property generally supposed to be your mother’s, was your other parent’s—and transferred to you by this deed?”—They assented eagerly.—“And you admit that you possess it by no other tenure?”—“By no other,” replied the eldest daughter, in a tone of exulting defiance. “This, exclusive of the ample legacy publicly bestowed on you, was a sumptous gift from which a grandfather might have claimed a mite!”—“He had no right, sir! my mother gave us nothing.”—“I am answered, madam,” retorted the intrusive Barrister—“but who shall answer for this signature and seal?”—“I!” returned Laroon; “and my oath, perhaps, will suffice in any court open to paupers and their advocates.”—“My doubt rests only on one circumstance,” answered the pauper’s Counsel—“the donor of this deed always used a certain seal which he had not at the period specified in the date, though there is an attempted imitation of it on the wax placed here.”—“An imitation!” echoed the three coadjutors—“it can be identified beyond dispute.”—“Wait,” said their Visitor, “till the original is produced” and, as he spoke, he held the chess-board before their eyes. It was an exquisite piece of workmanship, composed of red and white cornelians, each bearing an engraved device. Every one of the squares thus formed could be detached; and the red cornelian specially used as a family seal, was distinguished by an edge of gold.—“Bring wax!” said the youngest daughter, confident that the bread-seal she had contrived might defy comparison; “let us compare the impressions.”—The peculiar seal was taken from its place; but the pressure of the gold spring beneath it divided the mysterious chessboard, and discovered a folded parchment lodged within. It was a will, the genuine and attested will, of their late father, revoking every antecedent testament or deed in their favour. Mute and irresistable consternation seized the criminals. “You are punished,” said the prosperous Counsellor, “by your own machinations to escape justice; and your avarice has been defeated by its excess. Had humanity or decorum induced you to cherish your aged grandfather, this chess-board, which he secreted for a selfish purpose, would not have reached my hands. The wretch whom you deputed to regain it, lost the bribe she might have earned from you, by yielding to the hope I gave her of obtaining more. By proving that your mother possessed nothing, you have robbed her relatives of all claim; but you have also deprived yourselves of every resource, as the deed fabricated to invest you with her plunder must yield to one of later date and clearer authenticity. The triumph of justice is completed by this baffled forgery, and the whole fruit of her guilt must now return to those from whom it has been purloined.”

You will rightly conjecture, gentlemen, that no public exposure was provoked by the confederate usurpers. No less abject in detection, than arrogant in their supposed prosperity, they accepted a moderate provision, and withdrew to the retirement where their cruel neglect of indigent relatives is amply requited by the world. Their father’s wealth is consigned to his injured family, by whom Sir Pertinax Townly has been some time sought in vain. In the father of these unnatural daughters he has probably recognized his elder brother, whose bountiful legacy will be more welcome after the useful lesson he has gained from experience. I have obtained permission to preserve the chess-board; and have filled up the place of the family seal with another cornelian, bearing the motto sacred to my profession—“Justice is Nature’s law.

V.

(To be continued)

The European Magazine, Vol. 70, November 1816, pp. 397-400