Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 18

Jacob Nowell’s Will.

At his usual hour, upon the evening after his arrival in London, Gilbert Fenton called at the silversmith’s shop in Queen Anne’s Court. He found Jacob Nowell weaker than when, he had seen him last, and with a strange old look, as if extreme age had come upon him suddenly. He had been compelled to call in a medical man, very much against his will; and this gentleman had told him that his condition was a critical one, and that it would be well for him to arrange his affairs quickly, and to hold himself prepared for the worst.

He seemed to be slightly agitated when Gilbert told him that his granddaughter had been found.

“Will she come to me, do you think?” he asked.

“I have no doubt that she will do so, directly she hears how ill you have been. She was very much pleased at the idea of seeing you, and only waited for her husband’s permission to come. But I don’t suppose she will wait for that when she knows of your illness. I shall write to her immediately.”

“Do,” Jacob Nowell said eagerly; “I want to see her before I die. You did not meet the husband, then, I suppose?”

“No; Mr. Holbrook was not there.”

He told Jacob Nowell all that it was possible for him to tell about his interview with Marian; and the old man seemed warmly interested in the subject. Death was very near him, and the savings of the long dreary years during which his joyless life had been devoted to money-making must soon pass into other hands. He wanted to know something of the person who was to profit by his death; he wanted to be sure that when he was gone some creature of his own flesh and blood would remember him kindly; not for the sake of his money alone, but for something more than that.

“I shall make my will to-morrow,” he said, before Gilbert left him. “I don’t mind owning to you that I have something considerable to bequeath; for I think I can trust you. And if I should die before my grandchild comes to me, you will see that she has her rights, won’t you? You will take care that she is not cheated by her husband, or by any one else?”

“I shall hold it a sacred charge to protect her interests, so far as it is possible for me to do so.”

“That’s well. I shall make you one of the executors to my will, if you’ve no objection.”

“No. The executorship will bring me into collision with Mr. Holbrook, no doubt; but I have resolved upon my line of conduct with regard to him, and I am prepared for whatever may happen. My chief desire now is to be a real friend to your granddaughter; for I believe she has need of friends.”

The will was drawn up next day by an attorney of by no means spotless reputation, who had often done business for Mr. Nowell in the past, and who may have known a good deal about the origin of some of the silver which found its way to the old silversmith’s stores. He was a gentleman frequently employed in the defence of those injured innocents who appear at the bar of the Old Bailey; and was not at all particular as to the merits of the cases he conducted. This gentleman embodied Mr. Nowell’s desires with reference to the disposal of his worldly goods in a very simple and straightforward manner. All that Jacob Nowell had to leave was left to his granddaughter, Marian Holbrook, for her own separate use and maintenance, independent of any husband whatsoever.

This was clear enough. It was only when there came the question, which a lawyer puts with such deadly calmness, as to what was to be done with the money in the event of Marian Holbrook’s dying intestate, that any perplexity arose.

“Of course, if she has children, you’d like the money to go to them,” said Mr. Medler, the attorney; “that’s clear enough, and had better be set out in your will. But suppose she should have no children, you’d scarcely like all you leave to go to her husband, who is quite a stranger to you, and who may be a scoundrel for aught you know.”

“No; I certainly shouldn’t much care about enriching this Holbrook.”

“Of course not; to say nothing of the danger there would be in giving him so strong an interest in his wife’s death. Not but what I daresay he’ll contrive to squander the greater part of the money during her lifetime. Is it all in hard cash?”

“No; there is some house-property at Islington, which pays a high interest; and there are other freeholds.”

“Then we might tie those up, giving Mrs. Holbrook only the income. It is essential to provide against possible villany or extravagance on the part of the husband. Women are so weak and helpless in these matters. And in the event of your granddaughter dying without children, wouldn’t you rather let the estate go to your son?”

“To him!” exclaimed Jacob Nowell. “I have sworn that I would not leave him sixpence.”

“That’s a kind of oath which no man ever considers himself bound to keep,” said the lawyer in his most insinuating tone. “Remember, it’s only a remote contingency. The chances are that your granddaughter will have a family to inherit this property, and that she will survive her father. And then, if we give her power to make a will, of course it’s pretty certain that she’ll leave everything to this husband of hers. But I don’t think we ought to do that, Mr. Nowell. I think it would be a far wiser arrangement to give this young lady only a life interest in the real estate. That makes the husband a loser by her death, instead of a possible gainer to a large amount. And I consider that your son’s name has a right to come in here.”

“I cannot acknowledge that he has any such right. His extravagance almost ruined me when he was a young man; and his ingratitude would have broken my heart, if I had been weak enough to suffer myself to be crushed by it.”

“Time works changes amongst the worst of us, Mr. Nowell, I daresay your son has improved his habits in all these years and is heartily sorry for the errors of his youth.”

“Have you seen him, Medler?” the old man asked quickly.

“Seen your son lately? No; indeed, my dear sir, I had no notion that he was in England.”

The fact is, that Percival Nowell had called upon Mr. Medler more than once since his arrival in London; and had discussed with that gentleman the chances of his father’s having made, or not made, a will, and the possibility of the old man’s being so far reconciled to him as to make a will in his favour. Percival Nowell had gone farther than this, and had promised the attorney a handsome percentage upon anything that his father might be induced to leave him by Mr. Medler’s influence.

The discussion lasted for a long time; Mr. Medler pushing on, stage by stage, in the favour of his secret client, anxious to see whether Jacob Nowell might not be persuaded to allow his son’s name to take the place of his granddaughter, whom he had never seen, and who was really no more than a stranger to him, the attorney took care to remind him. But on this point the old man was immovable. He would leave his money to Marian, and to no one else. He had no desire that his son should ever profit by the labours and deprivations of all those joyless years in which his fortune had been scraped together. It was only as the choice of the lesser evil that he would consent to Percival’s inheriting the property from his daughter, rather than it should fall into the hands of Mr. Holbrook. The lawyer had hard work before he could bring his client to this point; but he did at last succeed in doing so, and Percival Nowell’s name was written in the will.

“I don’t suppose Nowell will thank me much for what I’ve done, though I’ve had difficulty enough in doing it,” Mr. Medler said to himself, as he walked slowly homewards after this prolonged conference in Queen Anne’s Court. “For of course the chances are ten to one against his surviving his daughter. Still these young women sometimes go off the hooks in an unexpected way, and he may come into the reversion.”

There was only one satisfaction for the attorney, and that lay in the fact that this long, laborious interview had been all in the way of business, and could be charged for accordingly: “To attending at your own house with relation to drawing up the rough draft of your will, and consultation of two hours and a half thereupon;” and so on. The will was to be executed next day; and Mr. Medler was to take his clerk with him to Queen Anne’s Court, to act as one of the witnesses. He had obtained one other triumph in the course of the discussion, which was the insertion of his own name as executor in place of Gilbert Fenton, against whom he raised so many specious arguments as to shake the old man’s faith in Marian’s jilted lover.

Percival Nowell dropped in upon his father that night, and smoked his cigar in the dingy little parlour, which was so crowded with divers kinds of merchandise as to be scarcely habitable. The old man’s son came here almost every evening, and behaved altogether in a very dutiful way. Jacob Nowell seemed to tolerate rather than to invite his visits, and the adventurer tried in vain to get at the real feelings underlying that emotionless manner.

“I think I might work round the governor if I had time,” this dutiful son said to himself, as he reflected upon the aspect of affairs in Queen Anne’s Court; “but I fancy the old chap has taken his ticket for the next world — booked through — per express train, and the chances are that he’ll keep his word and not leave me sixpence. Rather hard lines that, after my taking the trouble to come over here and hunt him up.”

There was one fact that Mr. Nowell the younger seemed inclined to ignore in the course of these reflections; and that was the fact that he had not left America until he had completely used up that country as a field for commercial enterprise, and had indeed made his name so far notorious in connection with numerous shady transactions as to leave no course open to him except a speedy departure. Since his coming to England he had lived entirely on credit; and, beyond the fine clothes he wore and the contents of his two portmanteaus, he possessed nothing in the world. It was quite true that he had done very well in New York; but his well-being had been secured at the cost of other people; and after having started some half-dozen speculations, and living extravagantly upon the funds of his victims, he was now as poor as he had been when he left Belgium for America, the commission-agent of a house in the iron trade. In this position he might have prospered in a moderate way, and might have profited by the expensive education which had given him nothing but showy agreeable manners, had he been capable of steadiness and industry. But of these virtues he was utterly deficient, possessing instead a genius for that kind of swindling which keeps just upon the safe side of felony. He had lived pleasantly enough, for many years, by the exercise of this agreeable talent; so pleasantly indeed that he had troubled himself very little about his chances of inheriting his father’s savings. It was only when he had exhausted all expedients for making money on “the other side” that he turned his thoughts in the direction of Queen Anne’s Court, and began to speculate upon the probability of Jacob Nowell’s good graces being worth the trouble of cultivation. The prospectuses which he had shown his father were mere waste paper, the useless surplus stationery remaining from a scheme that had failed to enlist the sympathies of a Transatlantic public. But he fancied that his only chance with the old man lay in an assumption of prosperity; so he carried matters with a high hand throughout the business, and swaggered in the little dusky parlour behind the shop just as he had swaggered on New–York Broadway or at Delmonico’s in the heyday of his commercial success.

He called at Mr. Medler’s office the day after Jacob Nowell’s will had been executed, having had no hint of the fact from his father. The solicitor told him what had been done, and how the most strenuous efforts on his part had only resulted in the insertion of Percival’s name after that of his daughter.

Whatever indignation Mr. Nowell may have felt at the fact that his daughter had been preferred before him, he contrived to keep hidden in his own mind. The lawyer was surprised at the quiet gravity with which he received the intelligence. He listened to Mr. Medler’s statement of the case with the calmest air of deliberation, seemed indeed to be thinking so deeply that it was as if his thoughts had wandered away from the subject in hand to some theme which allowed of more profound speculation.

“And if she should die childless, I should get all the free-hold property?” he said at last, waking up suddenly from that state of abstraction, and turning his thoughtful face upon the lawyer.

“Yes; all the real estate would be yours.”

“Have you any notion what the property is worth?”

“Not an exact notion. Your father gave me a list of investments. Altogether, I should fancy, the income will be something handsome — between two and three thousand a year, perhaps. Strange, isn’t it, for a man with all that money to have lived such a life as your father’s?”

“Strange indeed,” Percival Nowell cried with a sneer. “And my daughter will step into two or three thousand a year,” he went on: “very pleasant for her, and for her husband into the bargain. Of course I’m not going to say that I wouldn’t rather have had the income myself. You’d scarcely swallow that, as a man of the world, you see, Medler. But the girl is my only child, and though circumstances have divided us for the greater part of our lives, blood is thicker than water; and in short, since there was no getting the governor to do the right thing, and leave this money to me, it’s the next best thing that he should leave it to Marian.”

“To say nothing of the possibility of her dying without children, and your coming into the property after all,” said Mr. Medler, wondering a little at Mr. Nowell’s philosophical manner of looking at the question.

“Sir,” exclaimed Percival indignantly, “do you imagine me capable of speculating upon the untimely death of my only child?”

The lawyer shrugged his shoulders doubtfully. In the course of his varied experience he had found men and women capable of very queer things when their pecuniary interests were at stake; and he had not a most exalted opinion of Mr. Nowell’s virtue — he knew too many secrets connected with his early career.

“Remember, if ever by any strange chance you should come into this property, you have me to thank for getting your name into the will, and for giving your daughter only a life interest. She would have had every penny left to her without reserve, if I hadn’t fought for your interests as hard as ever I fought for anything in the whole course of my professional career.”

“You’re a good fellow, Medler; and if ever fortune should favour me, which hardly seems on the cards, I sha’n’t forget what I promised you the other day. I daresay you did the best you could for me, though it doesn’t amount to much when it’s done.”

Long after Percival Nowell had left him, Mr. Medler sat idle at his desk meditating upon his interview with that gentleman.

“I can’t half understand his coolness,” he said to himself; “I expected him to be as savage as a bear when he found that the old man had left him nothing. I thought I should hear nothing but execrations and blasphemies; for I think I know my gentleman pretty well of old, and that he’s not a person to take a disappointment of this kind very sweetly. There must be something under that quiet manner of his. Perhaps he knows more about his daughter than he cares to let out; knows that she is sickly, and that he stands a good chance of surviving her.”

There was indeed a lurking desperation under Percival Nowell’s airy manner, of which the people amongst whom he lived had no suspicion. Unless some sudden turn in the wheel of fortune should change the aspect of affairs for him very soon, ruin, most complete and utter, was inevitable. A man cannot go on very long without money; and in order to pay his hotel-bill Mr. Nowell had been obliged to raise the funds from an accommodating gentleman with whom he had done business in years gone by, and who was very familiar with his own and his father’s autograph. The bill upon which this gentleman advanced the money in question bore the name of Jacob Nowell, and was drawn at three months. Percival had persuaded himself that before the three months were out his father would be in his grave, and his executors would scarcely be in a position to dispute the genuineness of the signature. In the meantime the money thus obtained enabled him to float on. He paid his hotel-bill, and removed to lodgings in one of the narrow streets to the north-east of Tottenham Court Road; an obscure lodging enough, where he had a couple of comfortable rooms on the first floor, and where his going out and coming in attracted little notice. Here, as at the hotel, he chose to assume the name of Norton instead of his legitimate cognomen.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31