ONE thing old William Lane could never forget and that was the fact that Connie Danvers was Miss Danvers of Holsworthy Manor. She might be to-day the mere housekeeper of a tenant farmer in the shape of her brother Walter, and that the old place was let on a long lease to those odious Samley-Gedge people, but the basic fact remained. Lane might be a rich man now, as he undoubtedly was, but he had been born under the shadow of the Manor and moreover he was the foster brother of the last but one of the prosperous and mighty Danvers in those days nearly seventy years ago, when things were very different. And because of that and because he had neither kith nor kin he was intensely proud of the fact that Connie and her brother treated him as an equal.
Over half a century ago he had emigrated to Australia with his father, and had been left as a mere lad entirely without education to face the world alone. He had done well in one way and another being naturally shrewd, and in the course of time had made a fortune of no small dimensions, after which he had come home to settle down in the village of his birth, with his confidential secretary, Godfrey Curtis, whom he had originally found in some Australian bank and brought with him to England to look after his monetary affairs. The coterie was made up by one Sam Crichton, an old schoolfellow of Walter Danvers, who had joined him in the more or less vain hope of making a competence out of the one farm Danvers had retained when he let the old place on a long lease in the hope of clearing off the mortgages in time. It was a very fine let to those odious and vulgar Samley-Gedge, husband and wife, who had come into that part of the country more or less, so Gedge said, because he had known Lane out in Australia and had, indeed, once been a sort of partner of his. The Gedges seemed to be very wealthy and hospitable in their vulgar way, and made much of Lane who, however, was not too responsive as Connie Danvers did not fail to notice. Anyway, their coming was more or less due to William Lane and Connie was not ungrateful.
But dear old William Lane was a different proposition altogether. He was one of nature's gentlemen, and did more good in the neighbourhood in a month than the Danvers had done in generations. So that he was a welcome guest at the farm where he bought Connie's butter and eggs and poultry with a lavishness which made her blush to take his money. It was some consolation to know that most of her produce went in charity.
Both she and her brother were very fond of old William Lane. So was Sam Crichton, Walter Danvers' partner. But it never once crossed the mind of either of them that some of these early days they might benefit through this one-time employee on the family estates. His money, of course, would go to Godfrey Curtis, who was to all practical purposes the old man's adopted son. When Lane died Curtis would return to Australia and settle down there with his own relatives. And that would be that. They all liked Curtis, who was a fine chap, and persona grata at the farm. Honest Sam Crichton was a little jealous of him, though he would not have had Connie guess it for the world. But then Connie was something more than a lovely and well-born maid, and women have a natural instinct for that sort of thing. That fine individual Sam Crichton would have been amazed and dismayed had he realised that Con had discovered his secret long ago, though never by word or look had he betrayed his feelings. Dear old Sam! And when a girl begins to think of a man she respects and admires as 'dear old Sam' or anything else—. Moreover Godfrey Curtis was at present in Australia on business connected with his employer and would not be back for many months to come. And there was a girl on the other side. Which secret he had confided to Connie.
But it was weary uphill work at the farm. The fact was more or less forced from Walter Danvers one night shortly after Curtis's departure for Australia as he smoked his pipe in the dining-room.
"I feel like chucking it sometimes," he sighed. "The rent we are getting from those Gedge people pays the interest on the mortgages and small reductions of same, but it is a devil of a pull. Why don't you chuck it, Sammy, and leave me to carry on?"
Sam Crichton shook his honest, handsome head, and flushed. He was watching the lovely figure in the big armchair with a pile of darning on her knee. What would Connie be like in twenty years' time, he asked himself. All that work and drudgery.... He managed to voice his thoughts in a few discreet words.
"Don't you worry about me," Connie laughed. "According to all the precedents dear old Lane must leave me everything when he dies. Especially if Godfrey Curtis fails to come back. Don't frown, Walter, I am only jesting."
"Much more likely to leave it to that Samley-Gedge lot," Walter growled. "They are all over him these days."
With which Walter rose and drifted moodily out.
"It is a bit hard," Connie sighed.
"On you," Sam said. "If I wasn't here perhaps things would be easier. I haven't said a word—"
"No, you are always quite the grande seigneur, Sam," Connie said, demurely. "You are too proud, Sam. There is a certain pride that spells conceit. That's yours, Sam. Placing yourself on a pedestal and admiring the statue from a distance. So poor that you could never ask a girl to marry you. That would not be playing the game from the statue point of view. But if the girl cared for you, isn't there something to be said from her point of view? Do you realise, Sam, that you have been making love to me for the last two years and more?"
Sam reddened through his tan like a schoolboy.
"Me!" he cried. "M-m-making love to you! I wouldn't dare. I swear I have never said a single word—"
"Not one, Sam," Connie said, demurely. "But, then, you see, love recognises no language limits. In the Victorian novels the hero always spoke of a lifetime's devotion. But what was the use of that so long as it led to nothing. A girl might have all that and die an old maid all the same. And no true girl ever hankers after that. Oh, I know that you study me—"
"Who wouldn't?" Sam said, sotto voce.
"Thank you, Sam. That was very pretty and sincere. There is nothing that you will not do for me. You are always on the look-out to save me trouble. You have rather nice eyes, Sam, and they talk, if you don't. They were quite eloquent just now when I was gabbling all that nonsense about Mr. Lane's money. Sam, are you not ashamed to sit there as if I was not worth answering?"
Sam's honest soul was bathed in illuminating light.
"I couldn't ask you to marry me," he said, firmly.
"Purely as a matter of argument, why not?" Connie asked. "We are both poor and, I hope, very honourable. This, of course, is a great drawback in life's progress, but I think that it makes for happiness in the end. And if I am going to be a dairymaid all my life, why shouldn't I have somebody to look after me and, equally, why not somebody to look after you. Eh, Sam?"
Sam seemed to hear the words from a long way off. The afterglow of a gorgeous sunset filled the room and framed Connie like a picture. Then from the outer world the sound of hurried steps and Walter burst into the room.
"Lane," he cried, "poor old Lane. Dining at the Manor with the Gedge family. In the library afterwards transacting some business with his host. I met Harrison, the butler, running for a doctor. A most ghastly thing."
With a little cry Connie sprang to her feet.
"You don't mean to say?" she gasped, "that—"
"Dead," Walter whispered. "He just fell back and died."
* * * * *
It was something more than a nine days' wonder in the village. The poor old gentleman was dead and gone and scores of local poor would miss him terribly. Gossips standing at cottage doors asked one another what would become of his money. He hadn't a single relative in the world, for, had such been the case, he would have looked such relations up and they would have benefited. What was to become of the Hospice and all the wonders it contained?
Then, as is inevitable in country places, rumour began to get busy. Everything had gone to that there Samley-Gedge! They had been partners in business years ago in Australey. A crying shame, it was, and him making such a fuss of the poor young squire and his sister. 'Sides, them Gedges had money enough already. And not one penny for the poor of the parish as promised.
Not that Walter Danvers or Connie had expected anything. Such a thought had never occurred to either of them. Still the late William Lane had hinted at such great things that Walter took the first opportunity of speaking to his burly tenant on the subject. The big man with the heavy red face and small gimlet eyes smiled.
"Wonderful how these things get out in these villages," he said casually. "I have not mentioned the matter to a soul and I am sure my wife hasn't either. Still, the will has to be proved and it will be public property then so you might as well know now. You see, years ago Lane and myself did a lot of speculating together. We were both poor struggling men and for a time things were all against us. And when the luck turned and we both stood on firm ground we had a bit of a quarrel. I might have been wrong, but Lane was sailing a bit too near the wind for me. However, he is dead and gone now, poor chap, and I'll say no more. The very night he died, he came up to the Manor and showed me his will in which he left everything to me. He was going to alter it and make all sorts of provision for the poor here and so on when he just laid back and died as you heard at the inquest. All he intended to do but didn't put down in writing shall be done, Danvers, you can bet on that. I told my solicitors as much when I wrote to them enclosing the original will. I regard poor Lane's wishes as a sacred duty. I shall see that nobody suffers."
Danvers made no comment though he went his way by no means easy in his mind. Intimate as he had been with the late William Lane, the latter had never said much about his past in the way of business details. But more than once he had alluded to Gedge in a way that was not exactly extravagant in the way of appreciation. They exchanged visits and dined with one another, but—. And now apparently Lane had left his quondam partner everything. Well, the world would know all about that in good time. And, in any case it was no business of his, Walter decided.
Yet the proving of the will in the Probate Court dragged on in the inert, languid manner peculiar to legal processes and at the end of a year the estate was still in the hands of the Court. Some difficulty in getting in contact with the witnesses to the document, Walter understood. The will had been made years before in the back of the Australian beyond and these witnesses had more or less vanished into darkness. Nor had the will been made by a lawyer but was on a single sheet of foolscap paper in the handwriting of the testator himself. Still, Walter understood from Gedge that as the signature and handwriting was not in dispute it was only a question of time before the Court would presume the genuineness of the testament and pass it for probate.
There was only one man who could throw any light on this very dubious darkness and he was far enough away. Not one word had reached the home from from Godfrey Curtis since his departure over a year ago, and probably now he would never visit England again. He had not even left his address behind him, so that chapter was closed and the romance of William Lane ended.
And then, one fine morning in October following the old man's death—that is, October in the following year—Curtis walked into the home farm dining-room as if he had never left. They were just sitting down to luncheon, and welcomed him with open arms.
"Give an account of yourself," Walter cried.
"The short and simple annals of the poor," Curtis quoted. "Fifteen months hard work—no more. Then, when my mother came back completely restored to health after a long illness, I deemed it time to run over here, if only to visit the grave of that dear old man."
"Then you knew all about it?" Connie asked.
"'Why, of course. From the local paper which I had sent out to me regularly. Of course, I ought to have written to some of you, but you know how one forgets such things. And you hadn't my address, either. And so Gedge comes into all that money! Over Six Hundred Thousand Pounds! Rather rough on some of us, eh? But Gedge hasn't got it yet."
"No, but he will in a month or so," Walter pointed out grimly. "Did you happen to know anything about this will?"
"Not a word," Curtis confessed. "Though I can throw a lot of light on it if I am asked to. However—"
With which Curtis changed the conversation as if so far as he was concerned, the subject was finished. He was uncertain as to how long he would stay in England, but, as to that, he could be more definite the following night after he had seen a firm of solicitors in London on the morrow.
It was just after noon next morning as he entered the offices of Steel, Brights, and Steel, and asked to see one of the partners. It was a Bright he saw, and what he had to say deeply interested that gentleman. He was still more interested in a memorandum which Curtis placed on the table before him.
"Now, this is in my writing. Mr. Bright," he said. "It was taken down from dictation, and the date is 23rd July last year, as you can see. The signature at the foot is that of my late employer, Mr. William Lane, of The Hospice, Caveaham. It was dictated the morning following a heart attack. My employer suffered that way. Your legal experience will tell you that the memorandum was intended as the basis of a will the old gentleman intended to make. Sort of instructions to counsel. It was intended that I was to come up to town and see your firm with those instructions, but I didn't come, because I was suddenly called away to Australia. I was to come to you because of the high reputation of your firm, and the fact that you are solicitors to the Danvers estate. In ordinary circumstances that memorandum might be accepted by the Court as a real will. I seem to have read of such cases."
"Quite," the lawyer agreed. "But not in case of a properly signed and witnessed will which provides for a contingency the very opposite to the instructions in your memorandum."
"But the memorandum is witnessed by my late employer's butler and housekeeper," Curtis pointed out. "Highly respectable people, whereas no witnesses to what we may call the genuine will are to be found at all."
"Precisely. But considering that the will that Mr. Samley-Gedge seeks to prove is actually in the testator's own handwriting—"
"Even that mountain might be got over," Curtis interrupted, with a smile. "Listen to my prologue, or, rather, my epilogue."
Mr. Bright listened politely until at a pregnant sentence from Curtis he jumped from his seat and appeared to go in off the deep end with a vehemence the like of which that decorous office had never seen before.
"Does anybody else know this?" he demanded.
"Not a soul," Curtis replied.
"Then we must get to work at once. I'll lock that memorandum up in the office safe if you don't mind. Thank you. Now put on your hat, and come with me as far as Somerset House. I want to have a good look at that will of Mr. Lane's."
* * * * *
Nobody seemed to know anything definite, but it was common talk that there was something wrong in connection with the testimonial intentions of the late William Lane. Somebody had entered a caveat—whatever that might mean—against the will, and the case was coming on for hearing before Christmas. And if this meant that Gedge was going to lose all that money, then a hundred per cent. of his neighbours would be pleased.
But Mr. Samley-Gedge wasn't going to lose. Nor did he make any secret of the fact. Nor were the poor in the district going to suffer. Their care would be a sacred duty. The Hospice where Lane had lived would be turned into a cottage hospital properly endowed, as Mr. Lane had always promised, though the scheme was not mentioned in his will, which, however, had been made twenty years ago in Australia at a time when he and Gedge were more or less partners. He was not going to say much, but the neighbourhood would know all about it within a very short time now.
It was 'The Southern Daily Messenger' that afforded those interested in the progress of the case all the information they required. Through that paper they learnt for the first time of the memorandum that formed the base of the action which Godfrey Curtis and others were taking to annul the will. In brief, the memorandum, duly signed and witnessed in July the previous year, provided that the estate should be equally divided between Walter Danvers, his sister, Samuel Crichton, and Godfrey Curtis, in equal shares, subject to certain charities and that the estate should be administered by the public trustee.
This was exciting enough, but there was more to follow when, on the second day of the proceedings, Godfrey Curtis went into the witness box to give his evidence. 'The Southern Daily Messenger' gave the following almost verbatim account of the proceedings:—
Mr. Godfrey Curtis, an Australian, and late secretary to the testator, then entered the witness box and, under examination by Mr. Walbrook, K.C. (for the plaintiffs) testified that for some years he had acted as confidential adviser to Mr. Lane. He had resigned his post as cashier in the bank where Mr. Lane kept his account to take up the post. Mr. Lane was an entirely self-made man, with little education, and therefore, needed assistance as his wealth grew. Acting under witness's advice, the testator realised most of his assets, and on coming to England, invested practically all of his money in War Bonds. The dividends were collected through the dead man's bankers, so that he was saved the trouble and worry as to his investments. Witness had never heard of the will propounded by the defendant Gedge until he read about it in a paper which reached him in Australia, though he knew that many years ago the testator and Gedge were in some sort of speculative business together. The memorandum in which the action was founded was dictated to him (witness)a few days before he was suddenly called home to Australia in consequence of illness in the family, and was more or less inspired by a heart attack which the testator had had, and witness had ventured to expostulate with him on the fact that he has never made his will. On the strength of that the memorandum was dictated to witness by the dead man, and, as a precaution, signed and witnessed by Lane's butler and housekeeper, who, however, were not informed as to its contents.
A COURT DRAMA.
Cross-examined by Sir Charles Morley, K.C.: Kindly look at this document. You see what it is?
Witness: Yes; the original of the contested will.
Sir Charles: So you say. You are familiar with Mr. Lane's signature. Do you dispute the one to the will?
Witness: Had I seen it anywhere else I should have said without hesitation that it was my late employer's signature.
Sir Charles: I am greatly obliged to you, sir. Will you be so good as to examine the body of the document. Have you any doubt that it is in the handwriting of the late William Lane?
Witness: Every doubt. In fact, I know it is not.
Sir Charles: And why, pray?
Witness: For a very good and sufficient reason. An illiterate man can easily learn to scribble some sort of signature, but it does not follow that he can write.
Sir Charles: Do you mean to suggest—
Witness: I am not suggesting anything. The calligraphy in the body of this document is not Mr. Lane's, for the simple reason that he could neither read nor write.
* * * * *
The poor old man's secret had been well kept. The one thing in life of which he was ashamed. Not even Gedge had guessed it. But the evidence, taken on commission from certain bank officials in Australia, had been sufficient to establish the forgery, and the case collapsed as Curtis left the witness box. And when the nine-days wonder was over and Gedge in custody and his shaky financial position disclosed, Walter Danvers and Connie went back to the Manor, though the latter is not likely to remain there long.