Extracts from a Lawyer’s Portfolio
At an early period of my life, I was requested by a respectable attorney to accompany him on his professional visit to a lady in very peculiar circumstances. Our journey brought us at the close of day to a ruined farmyard and forsaken church, which formed, to my great surprise, the entrance of an extensive park. A grove of limes and overgrown hawthorns brushed the sides of my postchaise, till a broad pond fed by a leaden Hercules compelled our postillion to make a detour over unshorn grass, which brought us circuitously to the wide and rudely-sculpted front of the mansion. Instead of ascending an enormous flight of steps to the hall, we passed underneath them to what might be called the sub-house or basement, where a grey porter received us sitting in his antique chair with two lean mastiffs chained near him, and a prim dame busied in polishing the vast brass dogs and brazen hearth, where a pile of yule-logs was hoarded. She led us through a saloon decorated with immense mirrors, tables inlaid with ivory, and gilded window-shutters, while the plaister hung crumbling from the walls, and a few bats and swallows fluttered in the corners, where rich Indian jars and cabinets stood uncovered. Among six or seven needless doors, she found one which opened into a long suite of rooms, whose pannels were of ebony carved in superb compartments, which the barbarous taste of former owners had painted white. Through the vista formed by these dreary chambers, we saw the naked arches and broken windows of a gothic ball-room, which, as our guide informed us, would be soon converted into a garden. A few shrubs and creeping flowers were already clustered among the pillars with picturesque and touching effect. At the farther end of this ruin we discerned the remains of a deserted chapel, contrasting the light architecture of the ball-room as mournfully as the dim desolation of the other apartments opposed their relics of splendour. But our walk did not end here:—an unexpected staircase led us to a gallery in which several doors opened, not into other chambers, but among the groined arches which sustained a vaulted roof, from whence we looked down into the arena of a vast kitchen, where only a few white cows were now feeding. The gallery where we stood afforded another cheerless prospect over the neglected park, from a balcony filled with lichens and coarse wall-flowers, creeping among a few roses, now almost as wild.
Only some mildewed volumes of Froissart’s Chronicle, and an ancient folio of heraldry, occupied the library-shelves; but a long series of family portraits, from the date of Magna Charta, remained in decayed frames on the walls. Some traces of gaudy splendor and aristocratic pomp still appeared in these portraits, which rendered the next scene more touching. Our attendant, making us a sign of silence, opened a pair of folding-doors, and discovered a room profoundly dark, except where a single candle in a massy silver candelabra stood on a table before the mistress of the mansion. She was wrapped in black velvet, with a mourning hood drawn over a face of singular length and ghastliness, rendered more fearful by the dim glare of eyes whose glassy fixture indicated their unconsciousness. Almost wholly deprived of sight, she was capable of no enjoyment, except the feeble light of one candle, and of feeling continually the splendid candlestick which supported it. At this sad spectacle of helpless misery, clinging to the relics of unavailing grandeur, it was impossible to remain unmoved. A sigh or a sudden motion reached her ear, which blindness made peculiarly watchful; and her tremulous shriek, her faint effort to grasp the silver candlestick, and the palsied motion of her shrivelled lips, expressed the agony of impotent avarice and suspicion too piteously to be borne. I was turning to leave the room, when the lean old man we had noticed in the hall emerged from a dark corner near his mistress, and uttering some sounds which she appeared to understand, beckoned the attorney and myself to advance. My friend addressed the miserable woman in a tone of courtesy; and perceiving that she listened without seeming displeased, reminded her of the purport of his coming. “To make my will!” she replied, in a tone which resembled the echo in a vault—“O yes! I remember—but there is nothing now to give but this!” And drawing the candlestick closer, with a laugh more melancholy than a groan, she covered her face, and spoke no more.
The old man approached, and whispered that these symptoms always preceded a long fit of obstinate silence. We followed him into another chamber, where refreshment was provided, and he left us. His absence allowed me to express my thoughts on the incompetence of any testament executed by this desolate and debilitated woman, and my abhorrence to the office of witness or dictator. My attorney interrupted me, by begging my remembrance of her history, which a few words will comprise.
Fifty years before the period I am describing, this mansion was inhabited by an ancient English baronet and his wife, whose domestic happiness required no addition except an heir. But the lady was childless, and filled up the vacant place in her affections by educating an orphan girl of good family, but no fortune. She was the reputed heiress of her foster-parents till sixteen years after her adoption, when her patroness gave birth to a son. The happy father died soon after, leaving his heir to the guardianship of his wife, whose estates were at her own disposal. Their spoiled and volatile boy was not qualified to guard against the slow, constant, and smooth craft of his competitor. The disparity between his age and prevented any union of interests, and his indifference, perhaps, increased envy to hatred. His mother died suddenly, bequeathing all to Melicent, her adopted daughter, and he quitted England in desperate poverty. Melicent became a wife, and the miserable mother of children who resembled herself. Her selfishness could not baffle their rapacity, and in her sixtieth year, in the wretchedness of unpitied imbecility, they left her to vegetate in this ruined mansion, the last remnant of her immense estate. The few acres comprised in the forlorn park which surrounds it, would have been insufficient to afford maintenance to a decent household, had not one of her female servants and an old man chosen to remain with her gratuitously. Eleven years had passed since she came to this retirement, and her situation was an object of wondering curiosity to the vulgar, but of solemn compassion to those who observed the progress of retributive justice.
My companion repeated the particulars of this family tradition with earnest expressions of his hope that the dying woman might be induced to sign some testamentary deed, restoring the wreck of the estate to the descendants of its lineal possessor, if any such survived. When he found me firm in asserting that the motive could not justify the means, even had the wreck been greater than a dilapidated house and barren park, he alleged the propriety of obtaining at least some legacy for the aged domestics who had been faithful to their trust.
Accustomed to look on the skeleton of human nature, I saw much to suspect, and little to admire, in these domestics. They had probably some hope of reversionary benefit, and her dotage permitted sufficient opportunities of plunder among the rich relics in the mansion. The old man, who appeared to act as porter, steward, and confidential valet, had some instinctive sense of my suspicion, and evidently requited it. He obtruded himself repeatedly during our conference, eying us with sullen attention, and often pausing to catch our words, under pretence of renewing the scanty fire and refreshment. All these circumstances confirmed my opposition to the views of the attorney in his favour, and even created some little doubt of the latter’s disinterestedness. We agreed, however, to the propriety of inquiring, whether the mistress of the mansion had recovered herself sufficiently to admit us. She was better, we were told, but deferred our visit till the next morning. My companion went to rest, and I, determining not to sleep in this mysterious house, found an old illuminated romance, and dozed over it on a couch beside him. Long after midnight, a light, but very distinguishable, footstep passed our chamber-door, as if descending from the lady’s. My vigilant suspicions fixed this circumstance in my mind; and when, at the appointed hour on the following morning, our admission was again postponed, I urged my companion to be peremptory. The female servant then confessed that her mistress could not be found. We instantly entered her apartment, and continued our search through all that adjoined it, followed by her woman and the old man, to whom I made no scruple in expressing my astonishment at a flight which her debility rendered almost incredible. At our entrance into her usual sitting-room, I inquired for the massy silver candelabra, which had also disappeared from its place there. Both professed ignorance, but at that instant the lean porter’s face contained the darkest symptoms of guilt. It was one of those faces which an honest man hardly dares peruse, and cannot venture to translate. A long chin resting on his breast, a nose resembling an eagle’s claw, and eyes which had the quickness but not the lustre of a viper’s, and now shrunk to the same size, composed his memorable countenance. “We have not looked yet,” said he, in a tremulous voice, “into the ball-room.” This part of the mansion, as I have already said, was fallen into ruins, and filled with shrubs and flowers which had been place there for his mistress’s amusement. The memory of this circumstance softened me in his favour, and we followed him to its farthest recess, where, near the broken door of the chapel which adjoined it, we found the unhappy lady lying on her face, already stiff and cold in death. There were no tokens of violence about her person, which was wrapped only in a slight night-dress, and the cold damps of midnight acting on an exposed and debilitated frame might have hastened her decease. The silence which prevailed among us till the remains were deposited in a fitter spot, arose less from surprise than from unwillingness to communicate our thoughts. When alone in the library, my attorney asked what remained to be done:—“Certainly to acquaint this woman’s relatives with her end, and to detain these people till their conduct can be examined. We are not justified in conversing here till seals are placed on every depositary in the house.” This suggestion was obeyed; and as some testamentary arrangement seemed to have been contemplated, we deemed ourselves authorized to search. Various useless papers and antique toys were hoarded in the drawers and cabinets, but neither plate nor jewels remained. This my companion attempted to explain, by stating, that the deceased lady had been stripped of nearly all by her thankless relatives, and had subsisted many years on the produce of the few acres which enclosed her mansion. Her man-servant, he added, was supposed to have received no salary, and professed to live in this ruin rather from attachment to the last than the present possessors.—“These last particulars,” I said, “would have more effect in the old illuminated romance which amused us last night than in a lawyer’s brief. Can you doubt the fate of the silver candlestick, or the meaning of those malignant glances which her porter cast upon us? If he had any personal attachment to his wretched mistress, his countenance tells me it must have arisen from past fellowship in guilt, or expectation of future recompense.”
To avoid farther debate on a point which created opposite opinions, my friend renewed his inquisition into closets and desks, while I pursued mine among the shelves of the library. We were both thus engaged, when the object of my suspicions presented himself. He had smoothed his grey hair, and it commanded my respect till they were justified.—“Sir,” he began, addressing himself to the attorney, “I have no claims here—nothing is owing to me, but before I leave this house, I could wish—I came to beg one book as a memorial of it”—and he fixed his eyes on a large mildewed volume, which my companion immediately took from its shelf, and was going to give; when reading the purport of my looks, he bade him wait until to-morrow. The man’s glance at me as he withdrew was a compound of anger, contempt, and chagrin, which induced me to examine the volume closely. It was a manuscript selection of literary anecdotes, partly written by a female, and partly by a bold masculine hand. In the later style were several citations on subjects connected with jurisprudence, in which the first possessor of this mansion had gained high rank. One leaf carefully doubled down contained Gesner’s pleasant story of a conscientious attorney perplexed by discovering a will which disinherited some poor relatives. “Gestner’s procurator was an Utopian,” said my legal friend, wrinkling up his nose—“Such fine sentiments are fit for the chintz and tassels, but not for the firm pillared posts of an honest man’s bed.” Then putting on his spectacles, he viewed three large chests of sarcophagus form, each very appropriately decorated with the family crest, a long-tailed demon, which in a dimmer and lonelier hour might have caused some superstitious terrors. “And I tell you plainly,” he added, “that if I found a forgotten will among these stores of ancient archives, alienating this superannuated woman’s wealth from her natural heirs, I should not scruple to leave it where I had found it.”—“By this rule,” said I, “if a Scotchman was required by the comical law which France has lent Scotland, to restore his wife’s dowry to her relatives at her death, how would you advise his to act?”—“I should say as others have said—it is too great a misfortune to lose a wife and her money too—let him keep it by the law of the land if he can, and if not, by the law of Nature.”—“Yet you live by the law of the land?” I replied, smiling.—“No matter, Counsellor!—Human feeling is older than the law, and ought in some cases to be preferred.”—“Well, I grant that man’s judgment was the law’s origin; but the law is the result of many judgments, and therefore should be more weighty than an individual’s. Honest Gesner said wisely, ‘I should like one or two neighbours of your liberal opinions, but I should not be safe in a town where every-body thought as you do.’”—“Why, what harm would have been done if I had guided this avaricious dotard’s hand to sign a retributed act of justice?—The law would not cancel an equitable act, though performed by a lunatic.”—“It rests neither with you nor me,” I replied, “to measure the equity or decide the means of retribution. Both may be procured without our interference. I see nothing here which could gratify this singular old man; and a few crown-pieces would be more useful to him thana collection of antiquated references.”—“If they are so useless,” said my companion, angrily, “I might have been pardoned for delivering them to a person who would value them as the hand-writing of the dead.”—“For that reason, and to find him a more valuable memorial,” I replied, “this book seems an inducement to renew our search. Some of the pages to which these notes refer have been torn out, and they may be worth finding.”—My friend understood the hint; and having secretly determined to secure the person of this mysterious old man, I followed through the long suite of rooms occupied, as has been already said, by chests of a sarcophagus form, filled with family-archives. A few were unlocked, and seemed to have been lately opened. Perceiving traces of a spade and mattock among the shrubs in the ruined ball-room, I searched every spot with useless diligence: but in the roofless and forsaken chapel, among heaps of broken timber and decayed velvet, stood a chest of the same singular sarcophagus-shape. It opened without difficulty, and underneath an enormous roll of faded parchment we perceived the silver candelabra,—“Are your prejudices abated now?” said my companion, triumphantly—“The miserable woman expired near this chest, and the cobwebs which adhered to her hands and garments assure me that the last effort of her life was an attempt to gratify the sole passion that governed it, by hiding her last treasure.”—“I have no thoughts of the candlestick now!”—I replied—“though it has proved as useless as an old dervise’s seven-branched one. These parchments are the title-deeds of the estate!—this folio is her will, devising it to the heir of her late benefactress—She has left ample hoards of money and jewels, all indicated here, and all reserved for him. Burn your blank parchments, brother Quitam, and let us look for the legatee.”—My honest attorney did not wait for the command—he vanished with a long laugh of delight, and returned leading the meagre old man.—“Now, Counsellor, congratulate the lineal representative of this family on his integrity and his indemnification. He quitted this roof, and refused any boon from his enemy while she seemed affluent, but returned to it when it was desolate, and gave bread to its miserable mistress, though poor and infirm himself when she seemed penniless. He only hoped to die under his father’s roof, but it has returned to its right owner.”—“What would have been his fate,” said I, smiling, “if you had fabricated a will?”
I have no comment to make on these facts. My prejudice and suspicion form the chief feature in my narrative. May those who peruse it find all their own dispersed by circumstances as felicitious!—And may those who doubt the advance of justice beware how they attempt to expedite it by iniquity.