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13: The Maker of Wills

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Author Topic: 13: The Maker of Wills  (Read 34 times)
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« on: April 11, 2023, 09:36:52 am »

GENERAL SIR JOHN STANDERTON was a man of hateful and irascible temper. The excuse was urged for him that he had spent the greater portion of his life in India, a country calculated to undermine the sweetest disposition. He was a bachelor and lived alone, save for a small army of servants. He had renamed the country mansion he had purchased twenty years before: it was now known from one end of the country to the other as The Residency, and here he maintained an almost feudal state.

His enemies said that he kept his battalion of servants at full strength so that he might always have somebody handy to swear at, but that was obviously spite. It was said, too, that every year a fresh firm of solicitors acted for him, and it is certain that he changed his banks with extraordinary rapidity.

Leslie Frankfort was breakfasting with his brother one morning in his little Mayfair house. Jack Frankfort was a rising young solicitor, and a member of that firm which at the moment was acting for Sir John Standerton.

“By the way,” said Jack Frankfort, “I am going to see an old friend of yours this afternoon.”

“Who is my old friend?”

“Old Standerton.”

“Gilbert?”

Jack Frankfort smiled.

“No, Gilbert’s terrible uncle; we are acting for him just now.”

“What is the object of the visit?”

“A will, my boy; we are going to make a will.”

“I wonder how many wills the old man has made?” mused Leslie. “Poor Gilbert!”

“Why poor Gilbert?” asked the other, helping himself to the marmalade.

“Why, he was his uncle’s heir for about ten minutes.”

Jack grinned.

“Everybody is old Standerton’s heir for ten minutes,” he said.

“I verily believe he has endowed every hospital, every dogs’ home, every cats’ home, every freakish institution that the world has ever heard of, in the course of the last twenty years, and he is making another will to-day.”

“Put in a good word for Gilbert,” said Leslie with a smile.

The other growled.

“There is not a chance of putting in a good word for anybody. Old Tomlins, who acted for him last, said that the greater difficulty in making a will for the old beggar is to finish one before the old man has thought out another. Anyway, he is keen on a will just now, and I am going down to see him. Come along?”

“You know the old gentleman?”

“Not on your life,” said the other hastily. “I know him indeed, and he knows me! He knows I am a pal of Gilbert’s. I stayed once with him for about two days. For the Lord’s sake do not confess that you are my brother, or he will find another firm of solicitors.”

“I do not usually boast of my relationship with you,” said Jack.

“You are an offensive devil,” said the other admiringly. “But I suppose you have to be, being a solicitor.”

Jack Frankfort journeyed down to Huntingdon that afternoon in the company of a pleasant man, with whom he found himself in conversation without any of that awkwardness of introductions which makes the average English passenger so impossible.

This gentleman had evidently been in all parts of the world, and knew a great many people whom Jack knew. He chatted interestingly for an hour on the strange places of the earth, and when the train drew up at the little station at which Mr. Frankfort was alighting, the other accompanied him.

“What an extraordinary coincidence,” said the stranger heartily. “I am getting out here too. This is a rum little town, isn’t it?”

It might be described as “rum,” but it was very pleasant, and it contained one of the most comfortable hostelries in England.

The fellow-passengers found themselves placed in adjoining rooms.

Jack Frankfort had hoped to conclude his business before the evening and return to London by a late train, but he knew that it would be unwise to depend upon the old man’s expedition.

As a matter of fact, he had hardly been in the hotel a quarter of an hour before he received an intimation from The Residency that Sir John could not be seen until ten o’clock that evening.

“That settles all idea of going back to London,” said Jack despairingly.

He met his fellow-passenger at dinner.

Though he was not particularly well acquainted with the habits of Sir John, he knew that one of his fads was to dine late, and since he had no desire to spend a hungry evening, he advanced the normal dinner hour of the little hotel by thirty minutes.

He explained this apologetically to the comfortable man who sat opposite him, as they discussed a perfectly roasted capon.

“It suits me very well,” said the other, “I have a lot of work to do in the neighbourhood. You see,” he explained, “I am the proprietor of the Safe Agency.”

“Safe Agency,” repeated the other wonderingly.

The man nodded.

“It seems a queer business, but it is a fairly extensive one,” he said. “We deal principally in safes and strong rooms, second-hand or new. We have a pretty large establishment in London; but I am not going to overstep the bounds of politeness”---he smiled---“and try to sell you some of my stock.”

Frankfort was amused.

“Safe Agency,” he said; “one never realises that there can be money in that sort of thing.”

“One cannot realise that there is money in any branch of commerce,” said the other. “The money-making concerns which appeal are those where one sees brains being turned into actual cash.”

“Such as----?”

“Such as a lawyer’s business,” smiled the other. “Oh, yes, I know you are a lawyer, you are the type, and I should have known your trade if I had not seen your dispatch case, and then your name.”

Jack Frankfort laughed.

“You are sharp enough to be a lawyer yourself,” he suggested.

“You are paying yourself a compliment,” said the other.

Later, in the High Street, when he was calling a fly to drive him to The Residency, Jack noticed a big covered motor lorry, bearing only the simple inscription on its side: “The St. Bride’s Safe Company.”

He saw also his pleasant companion speaking earnestly with the black-bearded chauffeur.

A little later the lorry moved on through the narrow streets of the town and took the London Road.

Jack Frankfort had no time to speculate upon the opportunities for safe selling which the little town offered, for five minutes later he was in Sir John Standerton’s study.

The old General was of the type which is frequently depicted in humorous papers. He was stout and red of face, and wore a close-cut strip of white whisker, which ended abruptly below his ear, and was continued in a wild streak of white moustache across his face. He was bald, save for a little fringe of white hair which ran from temple to temple via the occiput, and his conversation might be described as a succession of explosions.

He stared up from under his ferocious eyebrow, as the young man entered the study, and took stock of him.

He was used to lawyers. He had had every variety, and had divided them into two distinct classes---they were either rogues or fools. There was no intermediate stage with this old man, and he had no doubt in his mind that Jack Frankfort, a shrewd-looking young man, was to be classed in the former category. He bullied him into a seat.

“I want to see you about my will,” he said. “I have been seriously thinking lately of rearranging the distribution of my property.”

This was his invariable formula. It was intended to convey the impression that he had arrived at this present state of mind after very long and careful consideration, and that the making of wills was a serious and an important business to be undertaken, perhaps, once or twice in a man’s lifetime.

Jack nodded.

“Very good. General,” he said. “Have you a draft?”

“I have no draft,” snapped the other. “I have a will which has already been prepared, and here is a copy.”

He threw it across to his solicitor. “I do not know whether you have seen this?”

“I think I have one in my bag,” said Jack.

“What the devil do you mean by carrying my will about in your bag?” snarled the other.

“That is the only place I could think of,” said the young man, calmly. “You would not like me to carry it about in my trousers’ pocket, would you?”

The General stared.

“Do not be impertinent, young man,” he said ominously.

It was not a good beginning, but Jack knew that every method had been tried, from the sycophantic to the pompous, but none had succeeded, and the end of all endeavours, so far as the solicitors were concerned, had been the closing of their association with the General’s estate.

He was rather a valuable client if he could only be retained. No human solicitor had discovered a method of retaining him.

“Very well,” said the General at last. “Now please jot down exactly what my wishes are, and have the will drafted accordingly. In the first place, I revoke all former wills.”

Jack, with a sheet of paper and a pencil, nodded and noted the fact.

“In the second place I want you to make absolutely certain that not a penny of my money goes to Dr. Sundle’s Dogs’ Home. The man has been insolent to me, and I hate dogs, anyhow. Not a penny of my money is to go to any hospital or to any charitable institution whatever.”

The old sinner declaimed this with relish.

“I had intended leaving a very large sum of money to a hospital fund,” he explained, “but after the behaviour of this infernal Government----”

Jack might have asked in what way the old man expected to get even with the offending Government by denying support to all institutions designed to help the poor, but wisely kept the question in the background.

“No charitable institution whatever.”

The old man spoke slowly, emphatically, thumping the table with every other word.

“A hundred pounds to the Army Temperance Association, though I think it is a jackass of an institution. A hundred pounds to the Soldiers’ Home at Aldershot, and a thousand pounds if they make it non-sectarian.” He grinned and added: “It will be Church of England to everlasting doomsday, so that money’s safe! And,” he added, “no money to the Cottage Hospital here—do not let that bequest creep in. That stupid maniac of a doctor---I forget his beastly name---led the agitation for opening a right-o’-way across my estate. I will ‘right-o’-way’ him!” he said viciously.

He spent half an hour specifying the people who were not to benefit by his will, and the total amount of his reluctant bequests during that period did not exceed a thousand pounds.

When he had finished he stared hopelessly at the young lawyer, and a momentary glint of humour came in the hard old blue eyes.

“I think we have disposed of everybody,” he said, “without disposing of anything. Do you know my nephew?” he asked suddenly.

“I know a friend of your nephew.”

“Are you related to that grinning idiot Leslie Frankfort?” roared the old man.

“He is my brother,” said the other calmly.

“Humph,” said the General, “I thought I recognised the face. Have you met Gilbert Standerton?” he asked suddenly.

“I have met him once or twice,” said Jack Frankfort carelessly, “as you may have met people, just to say ‘how do you do?’ and that sort of thing.”

“I have never met people to say ‘how do you do?’ and that sort of thing,” protested the old man with a snort. “What sort of fellow do you think he is?” he asked after a pause.

The injunction of Leslie to “say a good word for Gilbert” came to the young man’s mind.

“I think he is a very decent sort of fellow,” he said, “though somewhat reserved and a little stand-offish.”

The old man glowered at him.

“My nephew stand-offish?” he snapped, “Of course he is stand-offish. Do you think a Standerton is everybody’s money? There is nothing Tommyish or Dickish or Harryish about our family, sir. We are all stand-offish, thank God! I am the most stand-offish man you ever met in your life.”

“That I can well believe,” thought Jack, but did not give utterance to his thought.

Instead he pursued the subject in his own cunning way.

“He is the sort of man,” he said innocently “whom I should think money would be rather wasted on.”

“Why?” asked the General with rising wrath.

Jack shrugged his shoulders.

“Well, he makes no great show, does not attempt to keep any particular place in London Society. In fact, he treats Society as though he were superior to it.”

“And so he is,” growled the General, “we are all superior to Society. Do you think, sir, that I care a damn about any of the people in this county? Do you think I am impressed by my Lord of High Towers and my Lady of the Grange, and the various upstart parvenu aristocrats that swarm over this country like---like---field mice? No sir! And I trust my nephew is in the same mind. Society as it is at present constituted is not worth that!” He snapped his fingers in Jack’s impassive face. “That settles it,” said the General with decision. He pointed his finger at the notes which the other was taking. “The residue of my property I leave to Gilbert Standerton. Make a note of that.”

Twice had he uttered the same words in his lifetime, and twice had he changed his mind. It might well be that he would change his mind again. If the reputation he bore was justified, the morning would find him in another frame of mind.

“Stay over to-morrow,” he said at parting. “Bring me the draft at breakfast time.”

“At what hour?” asked Jack politely.

“At breakfast time,” roared the old man.

“What is your breakfast hour?”

“The same hour as every other civilised human being,” snapped the General “at twenty-five minutes to one. What time do you breakfast, for Heaven’s sake?”

“At twenty to one,” said Jack sweetly, and was pleased with himself all the way back to the hotel.

He did not see his train companion that night, but met him at breakfast the next morning at the Christian hour of half-past eight.

Something had happened in the meantime to change the equable and cheery character of the other. He was sombre and silent, and he looked worried, almost ill, Jack thought. Possibly there was a bad time for safe selling, as there was a bad time for every other department of trade.

Thinking this, he kept off the subject of business, and scarcely half a dozen sentences were exchanged between the two during the meal.

Returning to The Residency, Jack Frankfort found with surprise that the old man had not changed his mind over night. He was still of the same opinion; seemed more emphatically so. Indeed, Jack had the greatest difficulty in preventing him from striking off a miserable hundred pounds bequest which he had made to a northern dispensary.

“The whole of the money should be kept in the family,” said the General shortly; “it is absurd to fritter away little hundreds like this, it handicaps a man. I do not suppose he will have the handling of the money for many years yet, but ‘forethought,’ sir, is the motto of our family.”

It was all to Gilbert’s advantage that the lawyer persisted in demanding the restoration of the dispensary bequest. In the end the General cut out every bequest in the will, and in the shortest document which he had ever signed bequeathed the whole of his property, movable and immovable, to “my dear nephew” absolutely.

“He is married isn’t he?” he asked.

“I believe he is,” said Jack Frankfort.

“You believe! Now what is the good of your believing?” protested the old man. “You are my lawyer, and your business is to know everything. Find out if he is married, who his wife is, where she came from, and ask them up to dinner.”

“When?” demanded the startled lawyer.

“To-night,” said the old man. “There is a man coming down from Yorkshire to see me, my doctor; we will make a jolly party. Is she pretty?”

“I believe she is.”

Jack hesitated, for he was honestly in doubt. He knew very little about Gilbert Standerton or his affairs.

“If she is pretty, and she is a lady,” said the old General slowly, “I will also make provision for her separately.”

Jack’s heart sank. Would this mean another will? For good or ill, the wires were dispatched.

Edith received hers and read it in wonder.

Gilbert’s remained on the hall table, for he had not been home the previous night nor during that day.

The tear-reddened eyes of the girl offered eloquent testimony to the interest she displayed in his movements.

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