Legends of Law — Tales for the Young
“Have I not told you?” said Serjeant Vyvian as his brother laid a roll of papers on his table. “Must I tell you again that I will neither hear, nor think of law after dinner?”
“Very right, brother Serjeant, as concerns the law, and wrong as to yourself. Your health would profit if you always kept your head clear enough to consider your clients. But this is not a client’s case — this is mine, at least, a friend’s — and I only ask you to tell me whether there are sufficient grounds for a legal question.”
“Do you take me for an ass, Berkley? There are always grounds enough in any case for a question. The answer is another affair.”
“Well, Vyvian, listen to an abstract. This is a will, written by the testator’s own hand on two sheets of stamped paper, and every page signed with his name. He assigns all his estate and effects to his wife and other persons for purposes fully mentioned, but the concluding sentence seems — I mean — it is broken off abruptly without date or witnesses — the page which probably contained both has either been cancelled or abstracted.”
“Ay — more waste paper! No seal — no final signature — no date or witnesses. Are you such a novice, Berkely, as to suppose this imperfect deed would convey land?”
“But this misfortune or defect ought not to defeat the testator’s intent, or his widow’s right to a third portion of his land and goods.”
“Are there children or creditors?”
“Both. The children are not hers — therefore may be heedless of her interest — the creditors are men — ordinary men of the world, and will look keenly to their own.”
“She has no child then!” said the elder Vyvian, thrusting aside the third bottle which had assisted his meditations.
“Neither child nor near relative. The little she possessed has mingled with his, and he seems to have intended a most equitable distribution.”
“Is this Lambert — Lambert of Glenalmond’s will?”
“It is — I am, as you see, named among the trustees he invests — or meant to invest with power to sell his estate and all his property for his creditors and his children. If this deed is useless, the heir takes all, for except Glenalmond there is nothing.”
“Nevil Lambert of Glenalmond!” the Serjeant repeated these words without seeming to know that he spoke, and his pencil began to make hieroglyphics.
“Shall I read this abstract of the debts and title-deeds?”
“No, tell me first where the imperfect will was found?”
“In an ordinary drawer of his office-desk without seal or envelope, after a search of many weeks.”
“Who were the searchers?”
“His heir and confidential clerk” — the lawyer’s pencil resumed its cabalism — “Tell me now, as a lawyer or as a friend, or as both, if equity could establish the testator’s purpose?”
“Let me question you, a clerk in divinity. One of my French civilians states this case. A man of rank bequeathed a large sum to his only nephew and a small one to an old friend. Soon after, discovering the nephew’s profligacy, he reversed this arrangement and gave the bountiful legacy to his friend, and a trifle to the relative. He placed his new will in his friend’s custody, but when the testator died, the former will was exhibited and not opposed. The prodigal squandered his portion and alleged a defect in point of form to excuse himself from paying the small legacy His uncle’s friend then produced the second will, and compelled his opponent to content himself with the mite his avarice had grudged. What think you of this friend?”
“That he caused the folly he punished. He was trusted with the will and ought to have produced it. The duty of a trustee is to obey, not to chase. In my judgment, at least, the mischiefs caused by rigorous fidelity are less than those which would result if executors or trustees assumed a right to act according to their own notions.”
“Then you estimate moral duty by the good it produces? Well, perhaps you are right. Now hear this case. A rich old yeoman lived in his cottage with a coarse, bold, saving shrew fit to be a miser’s mistress. Her son was the drudge of his little farm and their only servant. In his last illness he sent for an attorney and dictated a will in favor of these inmates. Old Penmaul, as he told me, brought the testament carefully written and his clerk to witness
it — the old man lay speechless in paralysis. He left the paper, promising to return in a few hours, and advising the woman and her boy to procure his signature before fit persons if his faculties were restored. The attorney did return after a tedious journey among some distant clients. The cottage stood at a small distance from the road — the lane was dark and narrow. Penmaul alighted from his horse, fastened it gently to the gate, and fearing to disturb the dying, tapped at the casement. He was not heard, but — Berkley, do you listen?”
His brother listened in profound silence.
“The attorney’s signal was unheard and he looked through a chink in the old shutters. He saw the woman leaning over the bed, a lamp in one hand, a parchment in the other, while her son’s guided the dead man’s. He opened the outer door and knocked — twice, thrice before he was admitted. Their wild, ghastly looks would have told the fact if he had not seen it. ‘Fools!’ he said, ‘my oath might have confirmed the intent of the dead, and given you the benefit of the deed he dictated. You have cancelled it by a fraud.’”
“What am I to infer from this?” said Berkely Vyvian.
“That you should leave this imperfect will as it is and try no finesse of law to sustain it. If fraud has been busy, it will unfold itself — if not, you are justified. Truth cannot sleep, and justice has more than one foot, though French sculptors choose to give her only a goose’s.”
Berkley fixed his eyes on a view of the French church which contains this whimsical emblem, while his learned brother unfolded another roll of the Lambert papers.
“Special debts — promissory notes — but here is a letter — a lady’s letter — am I to read this?” Berkley, still looking earnestly at architectural drawings, assented by a silent nod. “She declines her right to act as administratrix — right — I like this frank conciseness — she leaves her husband’s house and refuses any item of its contents — this courage has been taught by experience — desires only bread and peace. This womanish handwriting vexes my sight. Well, we must all have our amusements. Montaigne had his cat, and Hobbes his twelve pipes, and yours is to toil among knavish crows for women and children.”
Berkley Vyvian smiled and pointed to a blotted fragment of verse among the drawings.
Sweet Garonelle! thy quiet plain
Long-banished Bertram treads again,
And half forgets what pangs are past
Since young in hope he trod it last!
Not all forget him — from the mead
His voice recalls the time-worn steed;
The feeble greyhound, old and blind,
Starts at his step and snuffs the wind —
To man — unthankful man alone
The weary wanderer comes unknown.
And see, the pastor’s cottage still
Peeps from its grove beneath the hill —
The gem of all his hopes is there,
His lost one’s babe — her beauty’s heir.
There, wreathed with guardian blessings round
One precious bud shall yet be found.
It is not! Death has smote the rose
He sought to deck life’s wintry close!
Fond vassals! With deluded eyes
Ye gaze and wonder at his sighs —
Why with luxurious pageants trim
The desolated dome for him?
Ah! rather leave his image there
A mouldering ruin — cold and bare!
Ye know not with how weak a voice
Pomp bids the ruin’d heart rejoice
Of him who withering to the core
Can hope and trust and love no more!
The detected rhymer smiled too as if he scorned himself, and pushed away the folios of Lambert’s will.
“Professional — professional — he loved his brethren and left them a legacy of all his worldly goods, for they may easily devour the whole. Only two sheets of paper, did you say? — I expected twenty when a lawyer wrote for himself. And it avails nothing — with all his absolute integrity and his vigilant circumspection!”
Berkley Vyvian did not understand or enjoy the bitter irony of his brother’s tone, or the “laughing devil” in his eye. He took the papers hastily from the table.
“Ay, take them to another counsel, and hark ye, Brother Berkley, employ another attorney — an attorney without partners. I give no opinion, for I shall be Vice-Chancellor tomorrow — only discriminate — take care how you discriminate among the creditors — it is a safe word and a sufficient answer at all times.”
* * *
When Vyvian found himself alone, he rose and measured the room with strides which made its walls tremble. “It was here —” he said to himself — “even in this room he told me I was a beggar — a paltry pedagogue’s son, and unworthy to be the lackey of —” he stopped and gnashed his teeth. “Fool that I am! What is it now to me? What will it soon be to any of us? Why did he show me the papers? He knows, if he knows anything, the tempter is the sinner, and the penalty should be his. It must — it shall be — She has no child, then!” He repeated these words aloud and with such intense earnestness that the tone of his voice shocked his own ear, and he hid his forehead on the mass of papers piled before him. There it was still resting when his chief clerk ushered in Mr Boreham.
“Pray don’t disturb yourself, my dear friend. Very late — very late — consultations very desultory. No chance of the Glenalmond case coming into chancery. Let me detain you nine minutes longer — This opinion is Knowit’s —”
“Knowit’s! I wrote it myself, sir, not two hours ago.”
“Beg pardon, my dear Serjeant. I mean this is the handwriting nobody can read except your clerk Knowit. Now, if you wrote it only two hours ago, perhaps you can read it yourself.”
“No!” said the Serjeant resuming his third bottle. “Silas Mucklequack my Scotch clerk reads one of my styles, Knowit reads another, and the third — I can’t read myself.”
Boreham knew this dry evasion was final. “But this Glenalmond case, my good sir. You see I am retained for the children against the widow. She is penniless — absolutely penniless, and it cannot be worth your brother Berkley’s while to make an effort as one of the trustees. First, the will is manifestly null and void — secondly, if it was effectual, the estate would not repay his trouble.”
“He is a dull trustee, however, if he cannot manage it himself,” said Vyvian with a comic glance which the claret seemed to have enlivened.
Rather surprised at this jest from the stern brother of the coif, yet not sorry that he had gained a loophole into the mystery of his temper, Mr Boreham proceeded to read all the provisions, declaration, uses and intents set forth in the testamentary deed: but perceiving Vyvian was or seemed to be fast asleep, he recited them with convenient speed and monotony.
“Well!” cried the Serjeant yawning enormously, “have you arrived at the last clause yet?”
“Sir, the last clause cannot be found.”
“Why, I thought there seemed to be no end. And pray, if the estate will pay nobody, what business have we with it?”
“None, certainly none, in common-sense — but the lady may find friends, and the creditors may leave a residue, and then she might ask a widow’s portion. Now if your brother Berkley, instead of meddling with this unfixed trusteeship or striving to establish an imperfect deed, would act as one of the creditors . . . .”
“One of them, Boreham! Are there not fifty?”
“No, Serjeant, no such multitude. A morgagee who must have precedence, you know, a bond-debt — next in order, of course — and two or three holders of promissory notes. We could have these or any of them assigned to Mr Berkley Vyvian, and he could appear against the estate with claims which the heir would admit, if an engagement — an obligation or sufficient security was given that he . . . that . . .”
“I understand!” said Vyvian after waiting during a long pause for a more complete proposal. “The estate is to be surrendered or sold to Berkley Vyvian for a nominal consideration — the dwelling, furniture, equipage and all other effects of course included in the bargain. Where is the woman now?”
“Not included in the household stock, ha! ha! She is gone to her mother’s birthplace, the village near your brother’s curacy perhaps in hopes of a compromise. But he need not add such encumbrances to his bargain, or he may look at the heir’s five sisters. Ha, ha! Serjeant, Coke thanked heaven for his wife, but we are not of his opinion. Good-night to the Vice-Chancellor of tomorrow.”
The evening chime of the sabbath-bells had begun in an old village church under the screen of a few trees and a long range of heathy hills, when a lady in plain but very deep mourning was seen leaning on the churchyard gate. The curate came from his lodging in a rude farm-house to accost the stranger. “Mr Berkley Vyvian will pardon a trespasser on his sabbath leisure!” she said in a tone rather cheerful and encouraging than suppliant. “There are ancient tablets and relics in his church which an old parishioner desires to see again.”
Berkley was silently buy deeply agitated — the place — the memory of the past, the circumstances of the present, and the probable future came upon his soul, and he shuddered as he heard the echo of their footsteps on the hollow graves under the pavement of his church. “There is a blank space,” said Lambert’s widow, looking towards the altar, “opposite my mother’s tomb-stone, and I should wish to fill it with one in memory of my husband. But the tribute he would have desired most is justice to the living. He was your friend, Berkley Vyvian, therefore I ask you if there is sufficient for his debts?”
The curate’s voice failed him. They stood before the altar of which he was a minister, in the presence of the dead and of the most awful witness. “You are unwilling,” she added with calm simplicity, “to say his widow can hope nothing. But will any residue be left for his children?”
If I had been their guardian — if I had been competent to act — if — if —”
“You mean if your appointment had been formal and complete. But is not their father’s trust sufficient?”
Berkley was conscious that his duty as a man, a friend, and especially as a priest and teacher of truth rendered all appointments needless to command his justice in behalf of Lambert’s family. He was silent, and the widow led the way to the churchyard.
“Yonder,” she said, “is the tower of your old Barons, and here is the large green mound where the Doe used to wait while the last of their race sat near your pulpit. Why have you no effigy or record of this faithful follower? Bevis and Gelert have their monuments — is this province less friendly to honest service?”
The clear steady eye, the quiet smile which accompanied this question made reply impossible. They were now near the threshold of the little shop where the widow had found a lodging. “I will not ask you to be my guest to-day,” she continued. “When you have good intelligence or kind counsel to give you will not need an invitation. Lambert’s son and daughters are young and want guides. I have, as you see, one comfortable home and another not far off.”
Berkley turned back twice to follow her. “Why am I a poor man?” he repeated to himself. “Why is she so poor? Good God! if these things are permitted in thy sight, they are not evil and I am not their author.”
He walked on musing deeply but not deep enough, or he would have seen that the strength of the temptation which subdued him was created by the vain desires he had allowed to occupy his heart. He arrived at his own humble dwelling, thought of the groves he would plant and the rich views he would open round the manor-house of Glenalmond when consigned to him. He imagined himself the pastor of its extensive domain, regulating schools, exciting industry, and rendering power venerable. He forgot the Black Dwarf at his own fireside.
“Is it done?” said the elder Vyvian alighting at the curate’s door as he returned from this evening walk. Berkley led the way to his little study and placed in his brother’s hand a roll of papers.
“These are the assignments of Lambert’s debts to me, and a copy of the conveyance of his effects. Be a witness while I renounce the whole — the agonies of the last two hours were more than a price for his estate. Our father changed his name that his poverty might not disgrace us. How much more reason would our children have to conceal their name if we connived at this injustice to the widow?”
“Our father died alone!” interrupted Vyvian, “his sons were in another land struggling for bread — he wanted it and died alone. Whose fault was that? Who caused the years we spent in cold, hunger, misery of every kind? Lambert’s family!”
“Lambert’s father, perhaps;” said Berkley mildly. “He was proud and unfortunate, and chose rather to possess an estate eaten to the very edge by debts than a fair name and a quiet conscience. My dear Latimer,” he added, taking up a volume near him, “the subject of this wild romance is an apt text for me. We have all — each of us a black dwarf lurking in our hearts — our passions are enchanters able to raise the evil spirit into a giant.”
“They shall not!” exclaimed the elder brother, actual fire flashing from his eyes. “You shall demand no unjust or nominal surrender of this man’s land. There is no need of these paltry assignments — I am a creditor, the principal — perhaps the only real one. Look at this Bond — this absolute obligation to pay the sum which ruined out father. Give me the pen — I will sign a transfer of the debt to you.”
“Not to-day, Latimer Vyvian — give your mind the rest it should enjoy at least to-day.”
“Do you think,” he answered with a sneer made frightful by his flushed brow and burning eyes — “that I design to practise a fraud on you as you meditated to deceive others? Do you suspect I meant to offer a conveyance rendered null by the day of its date?”
“I wish to prevent you from profaning it — now or tomorrow — Such a transfer signed with such feelings would be a martyrdom of your honour and mine. Why can you not resist the fire of these resentful thoughts as our ancestor despised the stake?”
Latimer paused a few moments and his smile formed a ghastly contrast again to his dark brow. “You cannot marry, Berkley, in this miserable hut — you have wished and you ought to shew the world how the son of a poor forsaken man may become master of his oppressor’s house. I am childress and care nothing for this money — can you resist such temptation?”
“I can!” said Berkley resting his head on the book near him. His brother gave him his, and a long delicious thrill went to the hearts of both as they parted.
“No, sir, it is too late, I tell you!” said a bluff, sour-faced man in rusty black as he thrust himself through the turnstile of the village lane. “Our curate keeps the keys his-self and is main angry if idle people come sabbath-breaking to see the church and hear nothing!”
“Then he must be angry with half his congregation,” replied the traveller, wrapping his grey cloak contentedly over a suit of black not much brighter. “And my good friend, if I hear without seeing, I shall keep half a crown in my pocket.”
“O your honour would hear enough from my dame, for she’s more sexton than I, you see, and knows all the folk in all the pews; and I wish she knew as much of my trade.”
“Why, man, it is the only office she can lawfully hold in England. A woman may be a sexton because her business is to plague a man and bury him.”
“Ah, sir, but I am a dry-salter and cure tongues! But my wife stays at home to-day because she has a new lodger — a widow, sir, and she used to live here and she has been looking at the graves — many a one I have made for her kin! Ay, just there —”
“There was an old oak tree hereabouts?” said the traveller clearing his voice and stepping back from the mound which some wild flowers covered.
“The Oak of the Three Brothers? A famous tree it was — wide as a tent and taller than the old steeple — but the grew hollow and then the branches dropped off one by one — so we laid axe to the root, sir, and made a coffin of the last sound timber, for the lady’s little one, sir -- the widow lady’s -- she that’s lodging with my dame.”
“She has no children, then?” and his hollow voice started even the old deaf sexton.
“Never had but one, sir, and a sweet-faced baby thing it was -- but what’s the matter? There, lean on this stone -- these fits are ugly things -- it was just so they say her poor husband died.”
The stranger rose in haste from the grave-stone which bore the name of Agnes Lambert, and walked with long steps towards the gate. “But you are not well yet — you look white than the new stone — come to my house, sir, here close by in the village. My dame has special good coffee and cherry brandy too.” And he led the man in grey, nothing loth, to the warm hearth of his kitchen-parlour. A shrewd neat little woman had just swept it and put aside her best tea-tray. “Bring it out again, mistress,” said the absolute husband whose kindness had all the rough coat of an English oak. “The gentleman has stood too long among graves. Bring your best hyson and a glass of cognac.”
“Sweet kindness and free spirit!” returned their new guest, “your wife and you are true comforters.”
“We could not keep you here in the shop, like,” said the sexton’s wife curtsying at a compliment not less relished for being too fine, “but my lady has our parlour and my lady’s father was the rector, sir, in old times, and he was good, very good to every body.”
The grim sexton wiped his eyes and his visitor turned his face from the light. “Now while my dame makes the kettle boil, I’ll tell you one thing of him. When he was a little boy he came home from school and there was nobody to meet him at his father’s gate — and he rang and rang -- then old Betty, my dame’s mother, opened it but she could not say a word. ‘O where is papa?’ he said, and he ran upstairs to his mother’s room — there she was sitting with the windows shut and all her brothers around her. ‘O where is my father?’ he said again, and she shewed him the coffin. ‘We are all that is left,’ she said, ‘love each other.”
The historian’s wife sobbed an the listener was silent.
“So they kissed each other, poor boys! and went away. After the funeral their mother said to the eldest, ‘Richard, your brother is gone to sea — what will you do?’ He said he could soon learn music well enough to get his bread for the old blind fiddler had taught him a little. Then she sent him to a good musician and the new rector gave him half a crown every week for taking care of the tulips.”
The traveller looked at a superb tulip in the old latticed window and sighed.
“One day the rector said, ‘Richard, what do you spend your money on?’ ‘Sir,’ says he, ‘I give half to my mother and half to my first music master, the old blind man who has nobody to help him.’ — ‘Then,’ says the rector, ‘you shall take him every Saturday as many potatoes as will last him all the week, and your mother a basket of my best fruit and a bunch of your flowers.’ Do you see that basket, sir? My wife made it for him, and many a time did he carry it.”
The wife had looked keenly for an opportunity to take up the story.
“‘And mind,’ says the good rector, ‘that you dine with me on Midsummer’s day -- I always give my gardeners a treat.’ And Richard went, you may be sure, in his best clothes. Then the rector took him down a lane into the prettiest cottage he had ever seen, all wreathed with jessamine and woodbines, and there sat the old blind fiddler. ‘He shall play the organ in my church,’ says the rector, ‘while he lives, and you shall take care of his garden instead of mine.’ Then Richard leaped into his arms and that was the happiest day of his life.”
There was a long pause. The traveller opened the casement and looked towards the lane where the blind man’s cottage had stood.
“It is not there, now, sir -- it fell last year -- but you may see the garden-bower yet. Well, sir, Richard was told one day to be in readiness for a great funeral, and the coffin was all gold and crimson -- well I remember it! but he thought of his father’s and sang his part of the psalm so sweetly that every body left the church in tears. Then
the rector came out and said to him, ‘Richard, I have news for you. He who was buried to-day was a very rich man, and when I prayed by his death bed, he asked me what good he could do. I told him of you and your blind friend, and he gave me a thousand pounds for your education that you might preach in this church as I did after your father.’ So Richard went to school and to college, and when he had finished his first sermon here, we heard a few sounds — O such sounds! from the organ. He ran to the loft — his old blind friend was dead — his head laid on the psalm he had begun. Lord! now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.”
“Friend Ozias,” the stranger said after filling another glass to the brim, “I drink your health and your wife’s, and I doubt whether your new curate ever preached such a sermon as your story is. Now you shall shew me more kindness, for this is the sabbath-eve and fit for good deeds. Tell the widow-lady -- no, take this card -- my name is pencilled on it, and I say I beg to see her.”
“Sir,” interrupted the sexton’s dame rather surprised at his familiar use of her spouse’s christian name, and looking to very little purpose on the mystical scrawl on the card, “this is Sunday eve, as you say, and my lady —”
“Will show due courtesy to a friend,” said the traveller in a tone somewhat bitter and peremptory. Ozias was not displeased to see his dame silenced and the request accompanied by the mysterious card was immediately granted.
The small low room panelled with oak dark as ebony, and the position of the single lamp which lighted it, might have been chosen by an artist to give the most picturesque and powerful shadows. The widow’s visitor bowed with profound respect as he approached the antique chair which half screened her face.
“I am told, madam,” he began in a low hoarse voice, “that you intend to fill the vacant space near the altar of Norton church with a monumental stone. I came here designing to place there a tablet with my father’s name, but my pretensions must yield to yours.”
“There can be none on your part,” said the widow with the cool composure of a person accustomed to receive and even command respect: “No ungracious hindrance could be expected from a son with such regard for his father’s memory. But my plans must yield also to much stronger necessity. I speak, I believe, to Mr Latimer Vyvian, and he cannot be ignorant of the sacrifices due to justice.”
“Such sacrifices,” he replied, “render monuments needless. But my father’s poverty induced him to disguise his name, therefore his sons desire to redeem it by proving how proudly they remember that his poverty was honest. If without offence, we may ask. . . .”
“Sir,” rejoined the lady glancing hastily at a miniature and a larger portrait covered with crape, “I am alone and a stranger now in this place. Had my father lived, he might have claimed some right to be consulted, but your brother’s office in the church gives him sufficient privilege —”
“He has given my purpose his best aid. This is the plan of the memorial we wish to raise.”
“You are mistaken — these are documents — assignments and evidences of debts. . . .”
“They are all cancelled and your husband’s estate will yield and ample residue. The sons of the poor blind organist are still in debt to his benefactor. Your father was as a son to ours when we were absent and destitute — let his bounty and our gratitude be remembered together. We can desire no worthier monument.”