The Talleyrand Maxim by J. S. Fletcher
Chapter II. In Trust
As quietly and composedly as if he were discharging the most ordinary of his daily duties, Pratt unfolded the document, and went close to the solitary gas jet above Eldrick's desk. What he held in his hand was a half-sheet of ruled foolscap paper, closely covered with writing, which he at once recognized as that of the late John Mallathorpe. He was familiar with that writing--he had often seen it. It was an old-fashioned writing--clear, distinct, with every letter well and fully formed.
"Made it himself!" muttered Pratt. "Um!--looks as if he wanted to keep the terms secret. Well----"
He read the will through--rapidly, but with care, murmuring the phraseology half aloud.
"This is the last will of me, John Mallathorpe, of Normandale Grange, in the parish of Normandale, in the West Riding of the County of York. I appoint Martin William Charlesworth, manufacturer, of Holly Lodge, Barford, and Arthur James Wyatt, chartered accountant, of 65, Beck Street, Barford, executors and trustees of this my will. I give and devise all my estate and effects real and personal of which I may die possessed or entitled to unto the said Martin William Charlesworth and Arthur James Wyatt upon trust for the following purposes to be carried out by them under the following instructions, namely:--As soon after my death as is conveniently possible they will sell all my real estate, either by private treaty or by public auction; they shall sell all my personal property of any nature whatsoever; they shall sell my business at Mallathorpe's mill in Barford as a going concern to any private purchaser or to any company already in existence or formed for the purpose of acquiring it; and they shall collect all debts and moneys due to me. And having sold and disposed of all my property, real and personal, and brought all the proceeds of such sales and of such collection of debts and moneys into one common fund they shall first pay all debts owing by me and all legal duties and expenses arising out of my death and this disposition of my property and shall then distribute my estate as follows, namely: to each of themselves, Martin William Charlesworth and Arthur James Wyatt, they shall pay the sum of five thousand pounds; to my sister-in-law, Ann Mallathorpe, they shall pay the sum of ten thousand pounds; to my nephew, Harper John Mallathorpe, they shall pay the sum of ten thousand pounds; to my niece, Nesta Mallathorpe, they shall pay the sum of ten thousand pounds. And as to the whole of the remaining residue they shall pay it in one sum to the Mayor and Corporation of the borough of Barford in the County of York to be applied by the said Mayor and Corporation at their own absolute discretion and in any manner which seems good to them to the establishment, furtherance and development of technical and commercial education in the said borough of Barford. Dated this sixteenth day of November, 1906.
As the last word left his lips Pratt carefully folded up the will, slipped it into an inner pocket of his coat, and firmly buttoned the coat across his chest. Then, without as much as a glance at the dead man, he left the room, and again visited the telephone box. He was engaged in it for a few minutes. When he came out he heard steps coming up the staircase, and looking over the banisters he saw the senior partner, Eldrick, a middle-aged man. Eldrick looked up, and saw Pratt.
"I hear you've been ringing me up at the club, Pratt," he said. "What is it?"
Pratt waited until Eldrick had come up to the landing. Then he pointed to the door of the private room, and shook his head.
"It's old Mr. Bartle, sir," he whispered. "He's in your room there--dead!"
"Dead?" exclaimed Eldrick. "Dead!"
Pratt shook his head again.
"He came up not so long after you'd gone, sir," he said. "Everybody had gone but me--I was just going. Wanted to see you about something I don't know what. He was very tottery when he came in--complained of the stairs and the fog. I took him into your room, to sit down in the easy chair. And--he died straight off. Just," concluded Pratt, "just as if he was going quietly to sleep!"
"You're sure he is dead?--not fainting?" asked Eldrick.
"He's dead, sir--quite dead," replied Pratt. "I've rung up Dr. Melrose--he'll be here in a minute or two--and the Town Hall--the police--as well. Will you look at him, sir?"
Eldrick silently motioned his clerk to open the door; together they walked into the room. And Eldrick looked at his quiet figure and wan face, and knew that Pratt was right.
"Poor old chap!" he murmured, touching one of the thin hands. "He was a fine man in his time, Pratt; clever man! And he was very, very old--one of the oldest men in Barford. Well, we must wire to his grandson, Mr. Bartle Collingwood. You'll find his address in the book. He's the only relation the old fellow had."
"Come in for everything, doesn't he, sir?" asked Pratt, as he took an address book from the desk, and picked up a sheaf of telegram forms.
"Every penny!" murmured Eldrick. "Nice little fortune, too--a fine thing for a young fellow who's just been called to the Bar. As a matter of fact, he'll be fairly well independent, even if he never sees a brief in his life."
"He has been called, has he, sir?" asked Pratt, laying a telegram form on Eldrick's writing pad and handing him a pen. "I wasn't aware of that."
"Called this term--quite recently--at Gray's Inn," replied Eldrick, as he sat down. "Very promising, clever young man. Look here!--we'd better send two wires, one to his private address, and one to his chambers. They're both in that book. It's six o'clock, isn't it?--he might be at his chambers yet, but he may have gone home. I'll write both messages--you put the addresses on, and get the wire off--we must have him down here as soon as possible."
"One address is 53x, Pump Court; the other's 96, Cloburn Square," remarked Pratt consulting the book. "There's an express from King's Cross at 8.15 which gets here midnight."
"Oh, it would do if he came down first thing in the morning--leave it to him," said Eldrick. "I say, Pratt, do you think an inquest will be necessary?"
Pratt had not thought of that--he began to think. And while he was thinking, the doctor whom he had summoned came in. He looked at the dead man, asked the clerk a few questions, and was apparently satisfied. "I don't think there's any need for an inquest," he said in reply to Eldrick. "I knew the old man very well--he was much feebler than he would admit. The exertion of coming up these stairs of yours, and the coughing brought on by the fog outside--that was quite enough. Of course, the death will have to be reported in the usual way, but I have no hesitation in giving a certificate. You've let the Town Hall people know? Well, the body had better be removed to his rooms--we must send over and tell his housekeeper. He'd no relations in the town, had he?"
"Only one in the world that he ever mentioned--his grandson--a young barrister in London," answered Eldrick. "We've just been wiring to him. Here, Pratt, you take these messages now, and get them off. Then we'll see about making all arrangements. By-the-by," he added, as Pratt moved towards the door, "you don't know what--what he came to see me about?"
"Haven't the remotest idea, sir," answered Pratt, readily and glibly. "He died--just as I've told you--before he could tell me anything."
He went downstairs, and out into the street, and away to the General Post Office, only conscious of one thing, only concerned about one thing--that he was now the sole possessor of a great secret. The opportunity which he had so often longed for had come. And as he hurried along through the gathering fog he repeated and repeated a fragment of the recent conversation between the man who was now dead, and himself--who remained very much alive.
"You haven't shown it to anybody else?" Pratt had asked.
"Neither shown it to anybody, nor mentioned it to a soul," Antony Bartle had answered. So, in all that great town of Barford, he, Linford Pratt, he, alone out of a quarter of a million people, knew--what? The magnitude of what he knew not only amazed but exhilarated him. There were such possibilities for himself in that knowledge. He wanted to be alone, to think out those possibilities; to reckon up what they came to. Of one thing he was already certain--they should be, must be, turned to his own advantage.
It was past eight o'clock before Pratt was able to go home to his lodgings. His landlady, meeting him in the hall, hoped that his dinner would not be spoiled: Pratt, who relied greatly on his dinner as his one great meal of the day, replied that he fervently hoped it wasn't, but that if it was it couldn't be helped, this time. For once he was thinking of something else than his dinner--as for his engagement for that evening, he had already thrown it over: he wanted to give all his energies and thoughts and time to his secret. Nevertheless, it was characteristic of him that he washed, changed his clothes, ate his dinner, and even glanced over the evening newspaper before he turned to the real business which was already deep in his brain. But at last, when the maid had cleared away the dinner things, and he was alone in his sitting-room, and had lighted his pipe, and mixed himself a drop of whisky-and-water--the only indulgence in such things that he allowed himself within the twenty-four hours--he drew John Mallathorpe's will from his pocket, and read it carefully three times. And then he began to think, closely and steadily.
First of all, the will was a good will. Nothing could upset it. It was absolutely valid. It was not couched in the terms which a solicitor would have employed, but it clearly and plainly expressed John Mallathorpe's intentions and meanings in respect to the disposal of his property. Nothing could be clearer. The properly appointed trustees were to realize his estate. They were to distribute it according to his specified instructions. It was all as plain as a pikestaff. Pratt, who was a good lawyer, knew what the Probate Court would say to that will if it were ever brought up before it, as he did, a quite satisfactory will. And it was validly executed. Hundreds of people, competent to do so, could swear to John Mallathorpe's signature; hundreds to Gaukrodger's; thousands to Marshall's--who as cashier was always sending his signature broadcast. No, there was nothing to do but to put that into the hands of the trustees named in it, and then....
Pratt thought next of the two trustees. They were well-known men in the town. They were comparatively young men--about forty. They were men of great energy. Their chief interests were in educational matters--that, no doubt, was why John Mallathorpe had appointed them trustees. Wyatt had been plaguing the town for two years to start commercial schools: Charlesworth was a devoted champion of technical schools. Pratt knew how the hearts of both would leap, if he suddenly told them that enormous funds were at their disposal for the furtherance of their schemes. And he also knew something else--that neither Charlesworth nor Wyatt had the faintest, remotest notion or suspicion that John Mallathorpe had ever made such a will, or they would have moved heaven and earth, pulled down Normandale Grange and Mallathorpe's Mill, in their efforts to find it.
But the effect--the effect of producing the will--now? Pratt, like everybody else, had been deeply interested in the Mallathorpe affair. There was so little doubt that John Mallathorpe had died intestate, such absolute certainty that his only living relations were his deceased brother's two children and their mother, that the necessary proceedings for putting Harper Mallathorpe and his sister Nesta in possession of the property, real and personal, had been comparatively simple and speedy. But--what was it worth? What would the two trustees have been able to hand over to the Mayor and Corporation of Barford, if the will had been found as soon as John Mallathorpe died? Pratt, from what he remembered of the bulk and calculations at the time, made a rapid estimate. As near as he could reckon, the Mayor and Corporation would have got about L300,000.
That, then--and this was what he wanted to get at--was what these young people would lose if he produced the will. Nay!--on second thoughts, it would be much more, very much more in some time; for the manufacturing business was being carried on by them, and was apparently doing as well as ever. It was really an enormous amount which they would lose--and they would get--what? Ten thousand apiece and their mother a like sum. Thirty thousand pounds in all--in comparison with hundreds of thousands. But they would have no choice in the matter. Nothing could upset that will.
He began to think of the three people whom the production of this will would disposses. He knew little of them beyond what common gossip had related at the time of John Mallathorpe's sudden death. They had lived in very quiet fashion, somewhere on the outskirts of the town, until this change in their fortunes. Once or twice Pratt had seen Mrs. Mallathorpe in her carriage in the Barford streets--somebody had pointed her out to him, and had observed sneeringly that folk can soon adapt themselves to circumstances, and that Mrs. Mallathorpe now gave herself all the airs of a duchess, though she had been no more than a hospital nurse before she married Richard Mallathorpe. And Pratt had also seen young Harper Mallathorpe now and then in the town--since the good fortune arrived--and had envied him: he had also thought what a strange thing it was that money went to young fellows who seemed to have no particular endowments of brain or energy. Harper was a very ordinary young man, not over intelligent in appearance, who, Pratt had heard, was often seen lounging about the one or two fashionable hotels of the place. As for the daughter, Pratt did not remember having ever set eyes on her--but he had heard that up to the time of John Mallathorpe's death she had earned her own living as a governess, or a nurse, or something of that sort.
He turned from thinking of these three people to thoughts about himself. Pratt often thought about himself, and always in one direction--the direction of self-advancement. He was always wanting to get on. He had nobody to help him. He had kept himself since he was seventeen. His father and mother were dead; he had no brothers or sisters--the only relations he had, uncles and aunts, lived--some in London, some in Canada. He was now twenty-eight, and earning four pounds a week. He had immense confidence in himself, but he had never seen much chance of escaping from drudgery. He had often thought of asking Eldrick & Pascoe to give him his articles--but he had a shrewd idea that his request would be refused. No--it was difficult to get out of a rut. And yet--he was a clever fellow, a good-looking fellow, a sharp, shrewd, able--and here was a chance, such a chance as scarcely ever comes to a man. He would be a fool if he did not take it, and use it to his own best and lasting advantage.
And so he locked up the will in a safe place, and went to bed, resolved to take a bold step towards fortune on the morrow.