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The Assignment

No. 1

Legends of Law
for “A Girl’s Law-Book”

For Agnes

Major Brandon was a bachelor of sixty-six. He had lost the only lady of his love because, though he called on her three hundred and sixty-five times in one year, “his delicacy” as he said himself, would not allow him to ask questions. His next task was to build a country house which was almost finished before he discovered that he had forgotten any stairs in his plan. He never turned over the first leaf of a letter, and had one ten days in his pocket without knowing that it announced his appointment to the guardianship of two orphan nephews and their infant sister, the heroine of our story.

“Why do you not come in?” said Clare Franklin to the rosy little urchin whose face was half shewn through the opening of the drawing-room door.

“Because there is nobody to tie my frock!” answered his visitor; and after a few more peeps, she danced towards the splendid table, loaded with folios in morocco, cameos and rare trifles, while the untied frock shewed the dimpled shoulders and round white breast which Cupid’s sculptor might have envied. “Pretty new pictures! Pretty story-books!” the happy little intruder lisped as she rolled over the treasures of the show-room with the glee of infancy. “Will you tie my sash?”

The student looked from a statue of Hebe to its miniature model, and enquired why no one was at leisure to attend her toilet.

“Don’t you see the boat? O, everybody is going in the boat to Aunt Isabel’s cove. Make haste — I must run to the bow-window to see the white sails.”

“Are you not to be one of the sailors?”

“Ah, no! my brother Herbert is gone — nobody will take me to the boat!”

“But your brother Walter is at home and you know he made all the fireworks for your birthday.”

“Fireworks — yes - but I liked Herbert’s flowers better.”

“Better than skyrockets, Ellen!”

“Why, you know Walter’s rockets were very pretty while they were in the sky like showers of stars, but they were soon over and nobody remembered them except the old man whose windows were broke and the ragged boy who said his ass was frightened away — but Herbert’s flowers! — O they are all in my garden still; and the violet-roots he dropped out of his basket while he helped the old lame beggar, are growing up and spreading on the road-side — if you only knew how sweet they are when I am tired and sit down on the bank!”

Clare sighed at the moral, and laying aside his folio volume to study a newer and purer page in the fair open face which rested on his knee, was not greatly pleased to hear Walter’s loud voice as he rushed into the hall with Uncle Brandon and Aunt Isabel.

“All ready — all ready! Wind, tide, boat, and watermen! Clare, how d’ye like my jacket? Get out of my way, child — Who sent you out of the nursery?”

Clare disentangled himself from Ellen and her ribbon with the boyish pride which transforms churls and slovens into pragmatical coxcombs at the envied age of sixteen.

“O my new fairing! my prettiest sash, Aunt Isabel!” cried little Ellen clinging to her only friend’s lap with wiser instinct while her brother seized and threw her unfortunate finer out of the window.

“I am sorry, my dear Franklin,” said her uncle to Clare’s father, “that this boisterous boy’s boat-party interrupts our business — very sorry, unless you and your son will join us — but the papers are ready and when we return at night — we shall return to supper, you know, we could —”

“My son,” said the grave old banker, “says I am a methodist in the first sense of the word — I must keep the way — my own way, I mean; and every hour in my day has its business. The papers can wait till we meet again, unless —”

Another shout from the spoiled boy and a push nearly resembling a blow bestowed on his childish sister announced his impatience.

“You see,” whispered her uncle to his friend, “that poor child will need a friend — do not fail to remind me — and you, Clare, come and see us again.”

Clare saw tears in the eyes of the kind old man and returned his hands’ last pressure heartily. “The fireworks and flowerbasket” came into his mind as Walter disappeared with noisy triumph, leaving his sister in the innocent loveliness of her own pleasures. His, however brilliant, were as brief as his skyrockets. The boat was upset and all on board perished.

Little Ellen’s next birthday was spent in a large dull house inhabited by her Aunt Isabel and a servant almost as infirm. She had now no other relative in England and the companions, the hopes, and even the home of her infancy began to fade from her memory. She had sometimes a dream of the white house, the broad hall with its columned portico, the sunny bow-window and the brilliant sea which formed part of the last scene in which she remembered her eldest brother, her uncle, and his favorite guests. But it seemed little more than a dream, though the solitude of her present abode gave her time and inclination to cherish it. A volume from the fine old library, a well-used harpsichord, a nursery of rare geraniums, and a workroom stored with endless sets of apparel to give away, were the occupiers of every day, and one day might have been called the history of a life. Her feet and hands, it is true, appeared to be cased in purple leather when the bleak winds whistled round a room always more indebted to sunshine than to fire; but Ellen was healthy and contented. She had books in abundance, some excellent pictures, and Fresnoy and Sir Joshua Reynolds taught her to copy them. Other amusements were beyond the reach of her privileges or her pocket-money; yet Aunt Isabel was not more unkind than the fairy who required her subject to walk thirty years in the same level path and the same pace round one circle. Two or three neighbours, however, continued to remember Livingstone Grange. They were of a good class, both in talents and temper, and the rarity of their visits rendered them more deliciously like those wells which are called the diamonds of the desert.

At length a new prospect opened — a prospect as tempting as the sight of a hive floating among flowers would be to a solitary Arabian bee in the wilderness. Her only brother Herbert announced his return from the Indies, begging he to be his guest at least a few months. He was now a widower, with two charming daughters and an easy competence. What a felicitous journey! Herbert Brandon had not lost either in manner or countenance, the bland and cordial kindness which had been the grace of his youth; and Ellen’s long retirement had preserved all the freshness and even the simplicity of her first hopes. Till his own residence could be prepared he had hired the house once possessed by his uncle, and remembered by his sister with such faithful fondness. One happy day was spent in placing the sofa, the worktable and pianoforte, and even Caesar’s cushion in their customary places, and in gazing at the bright blue sea, and the white sails glancing in the sunshine. There was only one cloud in the prospect — rather felt than seen, and one of a kind so unmentionable that it admitted no remedy. All the property she could call her own was comprised in a single hundred pounds, partly the gift of Aunt Isabel, partly a bequest from an old friend; and when the indispensable additions had been made to her wardrobe and a few gifts, infinitely fewer than her heart desired for the old dependents or her family, the hundred pounds had shrunk to twenty. Her purse had none of the regenerating power ascribed to Aladdin’s lamp, and her brother, the author of his own fortune, might reasonably suppose the bounty of a relative with whom she had spent thirty-five years, a sufficient resource. His daughters entered while this icicle mingled with her full cup of happiness till it was ready to overflow if the aspect of these young women had not instantly and entirely repelled it. There was a leaden stillness in the eye of the eldest, an audacious cunning in the younger which shocked their father’s sister more forcibly because the contrast to his high open forehead and calm clear eye was as if darkness had begun in the east. Neither her courteous attentions nor his affectionate demand on theirs for his guest, caused the least change in their demeanour. Hard, cold, and dry indifference when he was present, stubborn, even scornful opposition in his absence, convinced Ellen that she was a stranger within their gates to whom no sabbath of rest would be allowed. Herbert preserved a graceful blindness to the sullen discontent of his daughters, redoubling his devices to amuse and soothe his sister. Three months were spent in excursions, visits, and projects which Ellen resolved to enjoy notwithstanding the spectres at home. A summons from a kind neighbour hastened their return to Livingstone Grange. They arrived too late — Aunt Isabel was dead.

Ellen had been too absolutely secluded to learn from practice what is called the business of the world. She believed her aunt had possessed a sufficient annuity derived from joint stock bequeathes by her benevolent uncle. What was meant by consols and new three per cents she had guessed only from historical facts concerning the national debt. Of the formalities by which shares in the public funds are acquired or transferred, the evidences to be given or retained by purchasers she was as ignorant and not more ignorant than women usually are or affect to be of common business. Herbert Brandon found the joint proprietor of their of their Aunt’s stock was Clare Franklin’s father, but she had not omitted a token of affection for her niece. She had bequeathed Ellen all her library and a thousand pounds — in trust for the poor.

Brandon gave the attendants of his relative’s deathbed all the antique furniture they would accept, and immediately returned to his own home. During the journey, he shewed all the richness of a noble heart in lavish attention to his sister, who forgot her destitution in his presence. But in his home there were no allies to sustain his kindness. The daughters of Brandon had their own avocations, associates and apartments in which their Aunt never entered. Mystery, frivolous and even ridiculous, but always chilling and base, might be seen in the most ordinary actions of their lives. Ellen felt all the inexpressible solitude of a home without companions. Civility, that virtue so much more worthily expressed by its French name, was utterly unknown to these young women at their father’s hearth. They had never learned that its truest name is honesty, because it is justice to the feelings of our fellow-creatures. There was a composure, a positiveness in Herbert’s manner to his daughters which announced and preserved his authority, but his sister could not help despising the hollow obedience it compelled. By slow, very slow degrees and as if by chance, his peremptory tone was continued when he addressed her. Perhaps the energy of his perseverance in public duties, or disgust and weariness in the frost he found at home, exhausted or embittered his temper. His sister whispered this excuse to herself whenever a harsh command or a taunting comment escaped him. She hoped he had discovered that his earnest deference to her wishes might have created jealousy, and that he exacted and displayed the regard due to them less constantly to render it unenvied. If this was Herbert’s purpose, he was mistaken in its grounds. Kindness is power only over generous spirits, and his daughters were neither soothed nor satisfied by his indulgence. It is true they smiled more frequently, for they could smile when their aunt’s cheek burned or was wet with tears in the presence of is guests and servants. His absences were now longer and more irregular; less regretted, perhaps, because he returned with no disposition to hear or tell some lively anecdote, or to open the volume of which the most brilliant page was marked for his amusement. Now his step was a signal for his poor sister to close the book or the instrument she had made a refuge from the frozen circle of her inmates. If she sought shelter in her own room, she was summoned with rude upbraiding for her neglect of those household cares which his high-minded heiresses disdained. If she hazarded interference, a churlish counter-order baffled it. Poverty, conscious poverty, embittered these affronts at home and prevented her from gaining abroad the importance due to her station. Herbert took frequent and public opportunities to ridicule the fashion or materials of her dress, and especially to rebuke her aptness in servile offices, as if he desired to intimate that necessity imposed neither. Probably he felt the dishonour inflicted on him by want of will or power to protect his sister, and anger seemed easier than shame.

One morning when the breakfast-table, as usual, waited for Ellen’s arrangement, she entered hastily yet feeble, and fell into the nearest chair. A servant, terrified at the paleness and the blood which covered her face, ran to seek the family physician, and a little time with his aid, restored her senses. She said the sudden recoil of a door had thrown her against the sharp angle of a table, and she could not recollect the length of the swoon from which she had risen to reach the breakfast-room. No one could give better information as Herbert was absent at his office and his daughters did not think the accident required their notice. The eldest came some hours afterwards to seek a music-book and mutter two or three words, with her usual stony and averted eyes.

Their father entered later, and his silence and convulse features betrayed extreme emotion. Ellen, gladdened by his sympathy, though almost speechless herself with the injury she had suffered from her fall, received him with gestures of cheerful welcome. He made no comment or enquiry, and his imperious abruptness returned the following day; but the ghastly change was still impressed on his features; and though feeble, Ellen left her bed to accompany his morning walk which his children never attended. It was a bleak day in January, and every step shook the crisped snow from the trees above their heads into the half-frozen lake which bordered their path. Herbert prolonged his walk two or three hours though his unsteady pace shewed extreme languor or fatigue. Then suddenly stopping, he said with the stern coolness to which he had accustomed his sister, “You must now be told, madam, that I am ruined.” With all his faults Ellen knew that truth in him was both principle and habit, and her surprise was too deep for words. He spoke no more for a time so long that she ventured to ask if no remedy could be found.

“None!”

“But you have lived so regularly! What can cause —”

“That insolvent outlaw’s bills have failed and I am answerable.”

“May not time be granted?”

“Not a day! Look at this for two hundred pounds – due three days ago.”

“Cannot a bill so trifling be renewed?”

Herbert Brandon paused and answered in a faltering voice. “If *you* will add your signature —”

“Mine, brother? Mine! Alas! What would it avail? Who would accept it as security?”

“You are a reputed heiress, and the holder of this note would accept another countersigned by you. In three months, and he cannot demand payment sooner, I shall collect means to redeem it.”

“Herbert Brandon,” said Ellen, “I will not wrong your creditor. My signature would be a fraud, for it would be a pledge to pay him which I could not retrieve. If he thinks me rich, undeceive him — if your credit needs fiction, let it fall; or rather, deserve it by resigning all to those who have claims.”

“Can I expect trust from a creditor,” said Herbert bitterly, “when you refuse it?”

His sister made no reply, startled by the fierceness which like a flash of lightning shewed the ruins of his high intellect. “You must sign this paper, madam; I have promised — I cannot compell —”

“You dare not, Herbert!” she replied, her brow and eyes expanding with indignation: “you know, and your violence proves that I ought not to believe you. We part here.”

Ellen withdrew her arm and was turning away into another path when the tremor of his whole frame arrested her. He made no attempt to reply, and she walked by his side in silence, doubting whether misery or disease, or both had produced his incoherent and almost inarticulate proposal. They reached home and entered the usual room together, for she durst not leave him in agonies so powerful yet so stifled. He sat down with a deep sigh, and she continued standing by his side. “Brother,” she said at length, “there is one relief — if this sum is absolutely needed, I will lend it to you — but I will not promise it to another.” — He wrong her hand in silence. — “But, Herbert, this is the residue of the money trusted to me — you must write and obligation to replace it — it will not be demanded in less than six years, and if you dare hope to pay it, promise — if not...”

She looked steadily and keenly on her brother — he was still speechless, but dipping a pen in ink, began an acknowledgement of the load — he continued the movements of writing, but the pen made no impression on the paper. She laid her hand on his — it was cold and damp as clay though a purple flush was on his brow. The arm he stretched out as if to cling to hers, fell by his side, and moved no more.

Before the week ended Herbert Brandon was in a grave, his children among strangers, and his sister alone. She was comforted by remembering that his moral courage had not failed till the noble intellect which enshrined it had fallen. Therefore she saw his death almost with gladness since it prevented his dishonour. Those who observed the wreck and dispersion of his family were content to wonder; and as usual, when the centre-bolt is loosened for ever, the hollowness of common friends and the selfishness of the most trusted were seen too late. Ellen who expected nothing, was not disappointed. She retired to a lodge near ——— and a room rather more than fourteen feet square served for her bed-chamber, boudoir, and banqueting-room. Her whole worldly wealth consisted of five antique gold pieces, and the interest of the trust-fund. In a very few years, this fund must be applied to purposes fully and absolutely fixed, therefore to-day was in fact a borrower from tomorrow. A sad certainty! — but it was impossible to live without borrowing the interest for one year, and frugal industry might replace it. This was less certain, and Ellen learned the bitter anxiety of a debtor — the dependence suffered by all who are exposed to fraud by inexperience.

But she was rich in the liberty of her own fireside, and in the enjoyment of bread and water without the cold glare or stupid vacancy of those eyes which had surrounded her brother’s table. The small house in which she lived belonged to the master of a trading vessel whose boat was always ready to bring fish; and the quiet haven her window overlooked resembled the covert she had found from daily storms. The tree which sheltered it had been planted by Herbert in his happy childhood, and the clusters of violets in the clefts of the shore probably owed their origin to those he had scattered. The fireworks and flower-basket of her two brothers came into her memory as a long stream of rockets ascended in honour of a new county-member, a powerful civilian from India. “Ay,” said the rough old captain as he walked with his mate on the shore, “right glad the Brandons would have been to see this day — but they are far enough out of sight and hearing too. One lies under this deep sea, after all his whizzing and sparkling, and t’other has nothing over his head, poor fellow, unless, mayhap, some of the flowers he was so fond of.”

“And I doubt all this business will be nothing but fuss and show, and end no better. There’s the postboy’s old pony running off like made. Bear a hand, skipper, don’t you see he’s losing his seat like the old parliament-man!” And the two tars seized the Gambado of the post-office who seemed to have the full enjoyment of making the six hundredth part of a king. He muttered something about a double letter — “double! why it’s treble if you weigh the mud!” said Captain Sharp. “Let’s see if it be for any of our bathing folk.” Ellen received it from the moist elector in exchange for her last shilling and smiled at the resemblance of his triumphant cockade to the colour of her favorite sash. Our readers shall read the letters with less trouble than they cost her.

“Dear Cousin Ellen,

I shall be in ——— sooner perhaps than this packet, but some explanations are best on paper. Why your uncle did not take care that the property of your father was divided equally among your brothers and yourself, is a question not easily answered after thirty years. A freehold, or as we formalists say, a real estate would have descended wholly to Walter, the eldest son, and after his decease to Herbert; but the leaseholds, money and other effects are distributed by law in equal portions to the children, reserving a moiety or half for the widow. Probably his desire to atone for this neglect induced him to place five thousand pounds in the Public Funds called 3 per Cents, in the names of your Aunt Isabel and my father, in trust for your use and benefit absolutely. The deed of trust in which his intents were declared was ready for his signature on the day of his untimely death. I found it among my father’s papers, preserved as an evidence of Major Brandon’s purpose; as your Aunt Isabel’s survivor, the stock held in their joint names became his, consequently mine at his decease. It is now transferred to your name with all the arrears accumulated; and I enclose another testimony of your Uncle’s intentions, that you may believe

Your cousin as you once called him
and faithful old friend

Clare Franklin”

Enclosed

“To Mr Consul Clare Franklin, in London, or Buck in Hampshire

“This comes, sir, to let you know I would not have writ to you but for a bit of spite which I can’t put up with no how. You sees there was once hereabouts a flashy fellow they called Walter Brandon, who was drowned thirty years agone, and good enough for him, too, for hanging and drowning’s only the botheration of a minute, as your honour may chance to know. And because I told his uncle how he had smashed our widows with his squibs and gimcracks, he would not let me row the boat they sailed in to old Tibby’s cove as they called it. All the better for I, you see — for they went from this here world to that there in Jem Sharp’s boat, and I must have gone too if I’d had as many lives as a tom-cat or that Blueturk our domine used to tell of. And all the better for other folk as you shall see. May be you keep in mind how you gave me a shilling to pick up the blue ribbon Miss Nelly dropped out of the window and how I run to the water-edge for it, and there was the old Major her uncle talking to your father hard and close — Says he, mind and keep the girl’s money safe, says he — Walter’s will go in skyrockets and Herbert’s in flowerpots. Mind you hold fast that paper I was going to sign — it’s as good as signed, says he, and the £5,000 are safe for poor little Nelly in the consuls. Then I made bold to say it would be ugly weather and the boat might be capsized — but Ben Sharp said as how his boat could not sink because ’twas insured. Howsomever down it went like a diving bell — and this is what I want to say. Miss Nelly has been living this thirty year with her Aunt Bell who went down at last too, but as folks say, nothing good came to her. And then her brother Herbert was laid up, and she’s in ill weather, I hear, with no rigging. So if you or your father knew anything of that £5,000 may be she might get it from them there consuls. The Mounseers said when I was in one of their prisons that Irish was very good French, and I had a mind to have axed their consul about it. But Ben the coxswain said they had consuls in Algiers and in ever so many places — and then our chaplain tould me as how you were a counsill or something of that sort in Ingee. So if you help Miss Nelly as an honest man should, my brother Tom shall vote for you at the Pole, and if not, why I’ll vote for Ould Nick, being as how he’s fittest for a parliament-man as he’s always in his place and ready to mind his business. And if you can’t be honest without being paid, I’ve got prize-money enow for a fee, if you was King’s Consul. Miss Neely shan’t think I hould my tongue because her brother broke our skylights, or because you gave me half a crown for that there sash instead of a shilling and said you did not want change. I wish you may live till I give it you. So no more at present from

Will: Shannon

Brig Swan, Park Gate, March 28th 1826”