I had no sooner buried my wife, than I received a summons to the reading of her late Uncle’s will. Truth to tell, I was not a man brought low by grief. Numb and distant, perhaps. Three long years of watching death’s shadow hover had sucked compassion from my soul. Although I was not aware of any expectations that Arabella might have had; a trip to London, to the Inns of Court, seemed a pleasant diversion.
There was no particular that day, just the fine rain more insistent than any thundershower. The streets were as wet as I and the mud and pure smeared a noxious dubbin on my boots. Carriages slurped by, the street vendors cries were muted by the moisture in the air, dampened. I turned into Hawthorne Lane. Number 15 was not in the best of repair; only the stout, studded door seemed to have received maintenance, the timber being oiled, the handle and knocker gleaming in spite of the weather. A brass plate fixed below the knocker read simply,
“Bloat & Scrivener”
I was not even to meet with a partner, as the lawyers’ letter instructed me to ask for a Cartwright, sans titre. I gave the door a firm rap with the knocker. Scarce had I loosed my grip but the door opened.
It seemed neither question nor invitation, but the speaker drew the heavy wooden door aside and motioned with his eyes. I entered a dark, narrow hallway.. Sconces held unlit candles, I had not expected the newly fashionable gas lighting, but the gloom was dispiriting. The faint smell of damp decay lingered even after I brought my kerchief to my nose. I followed my less than garrulous guide down the corridor. Abruptly, he stopped and dealt a murderous blow to a door seemingly ill-prepared to receive it. Then he turned the knob with a delicate twist of his fingertips and melted away.
‘Come in, come in’ came the enthusiastic, if reedy cry. ‘Ye’ll be Moffat, then’.
I recognised the Scots accents of my native Edinburgh , though mine own were long away; a most peculiar voice; high-pitched, with unexpected modulations, as if a moderate student of the bagpipes were practising on his chanter. No less odd was the man himself. He might have been of middling height, had his lower limbs not revealed a childhood diet like that of the worst slum-dweller. His head was uncommon large, the forehead bulging forth made his hairline seem to recede though it plainly did not. I warrant looking directly down at his head from above would have revealed an elongated oval. His nose was hooked and his chin curled up, as like to meet it. Were it not for the striking blue innocent eyes, he would have been the very image of a singularly malevolent Mr Punch.
He introduced himself as Cartwright, though of course I had guessed as much. Wishing me good morning, he pushed a meagre pile of papers fastened with a grubby, once red ribbon.
‘Thaire ye are, it’ll aw be thaire’
‘But Mr Cartwright…’ I began
‘It’s Cartwright, naw but Cartwright’
‘Well. Let it be so, but I understood there was to be a reading of a will’
‘ And for why? When ye are the only fellow these papers concairn?’
‘And ye’ll no be reading them here!’ he added curtly.
With that he ushered me out: laying not a finger on me, he propelled me all the way into Hawthorne Lane as if by force of will from under his enormous brow.
To my chagrin, if not my surprise, the rain still hung mistily in the air. Two boys running toward the Wig and Feather careened into my person. It was all I could do to preserve my dignity and balance. I checked my pockets and my purse. Only my half-hunter was missing. I wished the thieves well on it. For the watch had told no time since my wife had become ill. Some may think me at once sentimental and callous, that I wound it not since the day she took to her bed, yet let it fall to thieves so carelessly a scant week after her death. Both charges I will not countenance. I had my reasons, though I do not care to share them. At least not yet.
I hailed a hansom cab and rued the inclemency of the weather once more as the near side wheel slurried my boots and trews.
‘Cheapside, The Chaste Maid Inn.’ I said as I settled in the seat. The driver’s grunt was eloquent and bespoke a premium on the fare. As much for the indesirability of my destination as the elegant cut of my clothes, no doubt.
‘A rare place, sir.’ The driver said gruffly as I paid in coin.
‘Rare enough.’ I allowed.
‘You’ll not find another such in Cheapside.’ The bark of his laugh was echoed by the crack of his whip and I leapt clear of the mud splashes.
Be assured that places like the Chaste Maid were in fact none too rare in many parts of London. Not a post-house nor coaching house, its custom comprised the rough butchers and slaughtermen of the Shambles and the more rakish of the commodity brokers from Goldsmith’s Row: young blowhards in search of women who made mock of the hostelry’s name. My room was cheap, as it needed to be: I had made nothing of more of my modest means in the years of my wife’s illness. Capital needs growth and I had tended mine but poorly.
Passing through the public bar, I noted Thackeray the landlord hugger mugger with two hulking brutes who appeared to know little of silverside of beef or silver trading. The staircase at the rear was dark and unwelcoming, but it led to my room and I took the stairs themselves at the gallop. The bed was little more than a cot and the remaining furnishings as ill-matched as the load on a totter’s van. I threw my topcoat and hat on the sad cot and rummaged in the coat for the red taped packet of papers.
Varied they were; several folded sheets of good vellum, two of the new-fangled lozenge-shaped ‘envelopes’ for the Penny Post and one curious parchment with a broken wax seal. The parchment was clearly the older document, though none appeared new. The Penny Post had delivered the envelopes to Bloat & Scrivener over a year ago. The vellum sheets were blank. I sat on the cot, pushing the soaking topcoat toward the bolster. I had no intention of remaining another night. Unaccountably, I trembled as I opened the parchment. It bore the palsied hand of the aged. The tremors marring the cursive beauty of the copperplate. I began to read.
‘It being the year of our Lord 1838 anno Domini, and I, Septimus Coble, of Gibbous House, Bamburgh, Northumbria, being of sound mind, do make this my last will and testament, voiding all and any extant or anterior wills and codicils.
I do leave all my possessions in sum and total to the husband, should there be any such person, of my great niece Arabella Coble, on condition that said party do move himself and all chattels to reside in Gibbous House without delay on being apprised of the contents of this my last will and testament.
Signed and sealed by Septimus Coble in the presence of
This 27th day of February 1838 anno Domini.’
I felt sick to my stomach. I could be rich, but at what price? The proximity of the border country to Edinburgh filled me with dread.
Remiss of me; perhaps I have been somewhat proprietorial with this room in an inn that was scarcely more than a brothel of the stews. But the room was mine. It had been at my disposal for almost three years, whenever I came up to town. Occasionally there had been the spoor of another occupant discernible, but I was shown to my lair the instant I crossed the portal. From time to time my suspicions were aroused that I had been overgenerous in my arrangements with Thackeray. No matter, the market decides the price, after all.
Coble’s will had dropped from my hand and lay like a discarded playbill on the rough planks of the floor. I picked it up, folded it carefully into a crisp square and hid it in the lining of my hat. The Penny Post-ed letters drew my eye: I recognised the hand on one. The rounded feminine curves and the idiosyncratic angles of the descenders and ascenders were indubitably those of my late wife, although I had not seen her pick up a pen in the last two years of her invalidity. I tore the letter from its cover. The handwriting was less sure, no doubt, than in her days of robust health; but the very fact of it was a facer indeed. I began to read.
‘Esteemed Mr Bloat
I write in connection with information received from a confidential source that you may be in possession of some information which could prove to be to my advantage in the fullness of time. Should it be within your power and not constitute any breach of faith, trust or confidentiality, would you apprise me of any expectations that I may have?
I regret, as I am an invalid, that I am unable to attend your chambers. Therefore I petition you most respectfully to reply at your convenience by hand or penny post.
Mrs Arabella Moffat, nee Coble.’
Laying it to one side, I picked up the other. A masculine hand, also recognisable, I had but moments ago read it’s owner’s last wishes concerning the disposition of his legacy. I drew the letter from its enveloping lozenge; if it had been read more than once, it had been so with extraordinary delicacy. The missive began abruptly: in medias re, without salutation or preamble. Which of Bloat, Scrivener or, God’s Grace, Cartwright, had actually read it was therefore unknown:
‘Be in no doubt, I hold yourselves responsible should my great-niece be so misguided as to believe I hold her in any kind of affection. Whence she knows of any legacy, I should be most gratified to be enlightened upon; as your lawyerly selves were left in no doubt by mine own instructions as to the extreme confidentiality of this matter. I urge you not to enter into any correspondence with Miss Arabella Cadwallader nee Coble, on pain of a suit on which I should have no hesitation in expending my yet not inconsiderable fortune.
The queasy feeling in my abdomen was no mere hunger pang. I thought only of the name Cadwallader, by which - to my knowledge - my late wife had never been known.