Tales of To-day
The Reading of the Will
“Turn over the oak bridge, and through the lane, and down the hill, and ye’ll see the smoke.”—Such were the words repeated for the thousandth time by the meagre beldame who inhabited a hut in a valley as bleak and desolate as Gordale. The person to whom this direction was addressed seemed a stranger of pleasant aspect, and his informer was a subject of much curiosity. She had strange and mysterious tales to tell of a woman drowned in the lake; and when asked on whom the blame rested, only answered, “Turn down the hill, and ye’ll see the smoke.” Nothing indeed but smoke could be seen ascending from this desolate glen; and the house which stood secluded in it presented its corner, not its door, to the eye of a traveller. It belonged to my wealthiest friend and only patron, a nobleman very seldom seen, and commonly called the hermit of Craigmoor. He had walked far beyond his usual route, and was returning through a labyrinth of rocks, when he addressed the woman of the hut with a civil entreaty to direct him by the nearest path to the Mountain-House. “See for the smoke,” repeated the hag, cowering over her wheel—“he who lives there keeps a cold hearth; and he and his house will be gone in smoke.”
Lord Archibald was affected by this singular speech. He was a bachelor, and following a certain prelate’s example, made a vow every morning that he would not marry, that day. It would have been well if he had taken the same vow against ill-humour; but fortunately for his domestics, he accustomed himself to wear a red night-cap whenever he felt a splenetic fit approaching. He had such an aversion to every military matter, that the beating of a drum made him place his cap ou his head as regularly as if he had been president of the famous Jellybag society, which the sound of that instrument always assembled. On this remarkable morning he had been induced to wear it by the sight of his favourite elêve in regimentals, which he abhorred, and determined to testify his abhorrence of them by disinheriting the wearer. Madge’s prophecy that his house would perish in smoke, by which he understood that his race would become extinct, gave a farther point to his ideas; and he decreed in his own mind an immediate disposition of his worldly goods. Lord Archibald seated himself in his solitary parlour, with his cat upon his knee, to which he addressed the very words used by the Duke of N. on a similar occasion. “What!—you want to be a witness of my will—but you can’t, for you will be a party concerned”—and exchanging his red cap for a hat, he sallied forth, threw himself into the first mail coach, and after an absence of twenty years, arrived in London.
In a dark apartment crowded with writing-tables and bundled papers, sat the confidential solicitor to whom his family’s affairs had been entrusted since his childhood. Forgetting how the lapse of years had shrivelled both his face and person, Lord Archibald entered with an assured and familiar air, while the lawyer bowing profoundly, and applying his silver trumpet to his ear, welcomed Lord Charles M’Greggor from Switzerland. “Your lordship,” added he, “must have travelled with great speed, for I have only just received the express announcing Lord Archibald’s death.”—My patron fell back with an air of consternation which added marvellously to the solemn arrangement of the lawyer’s features—“Ah! this is just what I expected from your brotherly feelings—especially considering the circumstances.”—“Pray, how did he die?” interrupted Lord Archibald, with unaffected curiosity.—“Beg pardon for the allusion—Your lordship’s eldest brother ended a little abruptly it seems: but as somebody said, when a man thinks all things oblique, it is no wonder he should try to be perpendicular at last.”—“Perpendicular, at last!” again interposed Lord A. in great surprise and dismay—“how do you mean”—“Why, my lord, I thought the manner was known to you, or I would not have mentioned what ought to be cautiously spoken of in most families—Lord Archibald hanged himself.”—“I never knew that before!” was the natural answer.—“O! O!” said Nosconce, putting aside his ear-trumpet—“I agree with you, it is very unopportune to talk of his death—it was a kind thing, however, if he chose to do it himself. The manner, as you hint, concerns nobody else: and as it was felo de se, his executors and administrators need not give him an expensive funeral.”—“I should like to know who they are:” replied Lord Archibald, collecting the whole strength of his lungs, and grinning with such extraordinary expression, that the solicitor’s steady decorum of face gave way to a long and outrageous fit of laughter. And unrolling a stupendous parchment—“Here,” said Nosconce, “is the will which has been duly sent to my care, and is, as your lordship intimates, the only thing by which the defunct has done any service to his survivors.”—Lord A. snatched the paper with the eager curiosity allowable in a man who, after being told that he is defunct, sees the copy of a will he never executed. Without waiting to comment on the questionable shape of the deed, he broke the seal, and after the usual preamble, found this remarkable clause:
“I give, devise, and bequeath, all my estates, real and personal, to my nephew Fitzwilliam D’Alembert, provided he never affects to remember an uncle who has always seemed to forget him; and provided that he wears for one whole year, and once in every following year, the red velvet night-cap which his said uncle wore when he was out of humour, that is to say, all his life; and I hereby require and direct that he shall assume no other badge of mourning.”
Nosconce bent his ear-trumpet very attentively while the supposed defunct folded up his surprising will, and said, with another smile which resembled a spasm, “Well, this is more astonishing than that I hung myself!—I never knew that I had a nephew before.”—“Nor I either, my lord!” said the complaisant solicitor, seeming to have heard only the last half of the speech:—“I always understood this Fitzwilliam D’Alembert was what the law calls a non-entity—a sort of foundling, like the celebrated philosopher whose name has been given to him, probably for that reason and no other; because it is not probable that he should inherit any of D’Alembert’s wit or philosophy from his father, who had none.”—“Sir, have the goodness to understand, that I have enough of both to bear this insolence patiently, and my son—”—“O! if he is your son, Lord Charles, that settles the matter; and there is no misnomer in the will; and you have yourself such a remarkable resemblance to the illustrious D’Alembert, as fully justifies the cognomine or necnomine you have chosen to bestow on your reputed son:—for all men who have such an expanse of os frontis as your lordship’s, have mathematical genius and—”—“I know.” said Lord Archibald, “that a man with such an os frontis has a great propensity to try the strength of ".” The solicitor, without seeming to regard the exact parallel between his client’s clenched hand and his own forehead, answered drily, “As you please, my dear lord; make yourself quite at ease. Nothing is more exasperating than this casting away of your brother’s worldly goods on a non-descript off-spring of a non-descript marriage, a sort of Caledonian Gretnagreenism between him and an attorney’s heiress—”—“Heiress, sir!” interrupted Lord Archibald—“she brought me nothing but a Brussels lace veil unpaid for—and I paid for the wearer with my title.”—“True, true!” replied the impenetrable solicitor—“we men of law ought to give some title to our female relatives, as a Yorkshire dame suggested when she enquired after my Lady Judgess and the Miss Judgesses. But, my lord, we can enter a caveat against Lord Archibald’s will, because he was notoriously non compos mentis; or we may annul and make void the clause on which the devise depends; for the description fails both in quality, name, and place. First, the cap is not a red cap; for whatever it may have been, it is now brown; secondly, it is not a night cap, for he wore it all day, and every day: lastly, he did not wear it in an ill-humour; for though his humour, abstractedly, was an ill-humour which tormented himself, yet relatively it was good, as it made sport for others.” Lord Archibald answered only by an odd distortion of face, and his legal friend went on—“But, my lord, we have another will, dated a few months earlier, and sent to us from the Gallery of Grondo, when he was travelling there.” A shrewd smile and an expressive application of one finger to the lawyer’s nose changed all Lord Archibald’s anger into curiosity. “Another will!” he exclaimed—“let us read it by all means.”—Nosconce drew a sealed paper from the most secret aperture of his cabinet, while the supposed testator, astonished at this ample provision of testaments for a man who had always intended to die intestate, viewed it with a grimace which Bunbury would have given half his life to copy. But the second document contained only these concise bequests.
“I bequeath my title to my brother, or, failing him, to oblivion, as a trifle I never knew how to use: my reputation to Gresham College, as a non-descript, or the strangest thing of its kind; and my estate to the first person who opens this paper, provided he is as great an oddity as myself.”
Lord Archibald paused upon this whimsical paper, and laughed as he remembered that he was probably the first person (except the celebrated Irish testator) who had entitled himself to a legacy in his own will. But his attention was called to a codicil still more mysterious.
“I expressly enjoin my residuary legatee, whoever he may be, to spell the word Etymologikomusticos, and eat a brace of partridges, before he chooses a wife or an Executor.”
“Thereby hangs a tale, my lord,” interrupted the attorney, “which strangely pleased the late lord’s fancy, and was the cause, they say, of this fantastical codicil. A certain Romish priest once visited a celebrated necromancer to beg aid from his art, for which he promised the most zealous gratitude. The sorcerer, opening his door, said in a loud voice, “Etymologikomusticos!—Jacintha! roast two partridges, for my friend Hildebrand sups with me to night!”—The priest received his expected aid, and during their conference a messenger announced that a cardinal’s hat had been bestowed on him. Soon afterwards he rose to the papal chair, his obliging necromancer waited on him to request a convenient office in the church, and was told that the new Pope’s mother had promised it to her confessor. Presently he returned to mention another vacant sinecure, and to remind his patron of former benefits and oaths of gratitude. The pontiff commanded him to quit his dominions, or expect the vengeance of the secular power; but the necromancer, coldly opening the door, repeated his tremendous word, adding, “Jacintha! roast only one partridge, for my friend Hildebrand will not sup with me to-night.” The new Pope, in great consternation, saw his papal palace vanish, and found himself sitting in his ordinary cowl in the magician’s garret, from whence he hastened down stairs to the gate, where his lean mule was still grazing, and had waited for him only twenty minutes. He went home to ruminate on his dream of greatness, and devise a penance for his own ingratitude.”
“May every man spell that cabalistic word,” said Lord Archibald, “before he signs his last will, or his marriage-settlement!—I have read that it has 500 magic properties; and if it brings human hearts to a touchstone so decisive, I will try it.” So saying, he seized the pretended copies of his wills, strode out of the lawyer’s house, and locked himself in the chamber of his hotel. There, laughing again at thus being his own executor, he sealed each copy in an envelope he thought fit, and departed.
Fitzwilliam D’Alembert, the young man whose name was mentioned in one of these mysterious testaments, was known to himself and the world only as a poor dependent on the slow chances of military promotion. He considered Lord Archibald his patron, and thought his character resembled one of the new islands composed of coral, but covered with weeds. Therefore he came to wait upon him at his hotel with great respect and affection; but when a large sealed packet was put into his hands, his astonishment at its extraordinary contents cannot be expressed. It contained a bequest of his patron’s whole estate, burthened only with the red cap, absolutely to himself, sealed by Lord Archibald, and addressed to him in an envelope visibly superscribed by his own hand. Such a proof of deliberate and confirmed intentions in his favour was enough to overflow a deeper mind with joy. Yet he stopped, read the parchment several times with doubting eyes, and ended by tossing it into the air with the rapture of two and twenty. As he darted along the streets to deposit this precious document with his patron’s solicitor, his speed was interrupted by a decrepit man half stretched on the pavement, in what appeared the last agonies of life. Fitzwilliam assisted this poor wretch into a little shop, and returned in a few moments with a loaf in one hand and a full glass of cordial in the other. His transit through a public and fashionable street with such articles, and the politeness of heart which dictated it, seemed not unnoticed. “Sir,” said his aged patient, whose dress announced the most abject penury, “you have shewn more courage than a field day requires—There is a commander-in-chief above us who will not forget it.”—The youth blushed, and placing a paper filled with silver in the stranger’s hand, said, “There is the change of your guinea,” and disappeared. When he entered the dark office of his patron’s man of law, he was surprised to see the miserable invalid in the same threadbare coat and bruised hat standing by his side. “I am come,” he said, in an imposing tone, and with a supercilious glance ill-suited to his squalid attire, “to speak with Lord A.’s solicitor—I am his first cousin, and this parchment which he sent me this morning intimates that he remembers our relationship, and will do me justice. Sir, I charge you to preserve this document.” Mr. Nosconce laid down his ear-trumpet, and said, with a smile, “The testator requires his legatee to be as singular as himself, and that condition seems fulfilled.”—The miser felt the sarcasm on his uncouth apparel, and returned it by a glance of scorn. Then slowly turning his eyes on Fitzwilliam, he drew a brace of lean birds from his pockets, muttering. “You gave me ten shillings—these will sell for half-a-guinea.” And coldly accepting the additional sixpence thrown towards him, he folded his rough coat, and walked out.
“Take his birds,” said the lawyer, shutting the door after him—“two partridges and a cabalistical word are all that Lord Archibald’s will requires to qualify his heir—We will sup on these to-night.”—“I accept your invitation,” added Lord Archibald, suddenly entering and catching up the meagre offering—“but remember your story, and roast only one partridge—my avaricious cousin will not sup with me to-night. The merry rogue who devised my two wills has given me an opportunity to try two hearts. One, I find, is not hardened, and the other cannot be softened by good fortune. There, sir, is the will executed in favour of my reputed son; and if he can forget the duty of benevolence and the beauty of gratitude, he deserves no other legacy than your cabalistical word—Etymologikomusticos.”
The lawyer, with an invincible decorum of face, ordered his Jacintha to prepare supper, and seated himself with his two visitors. Before the first course was served, the lean and ill-clad stranger presented himself, and taking a vacant chair, sat down amongst theim. Lord Archibald fixed his eyes silently on the intruder, who filled his glass with perfect composure, and exclaimed—“Etymologikomusticos!—I give you your own talisman as a toast, but I have found one more certain of success, and I supply you with it. This threadbare and torn coat has been the test of all my friend’s sincerity and my family’s kindness. That you forgot me, poor and desolate as I have seemed, is no wonder—that you looked upon your son, and forgot to act as his father, was one even to the world. If you cannot forgive your lawyer for believing the report of your death, I challenge all the penalty. The pretended wills were my devices to shew you the extent of your folly, and the justice expected from you to your son. Give him your fortune and your favour; and let him who judges of my heart by my rough coat, remember my partridges, and try to spell Etymologiku musticos.”