Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 45

Mr. Whitelaw Makes His Will.

They had carried Stephen Whitelaw to the Grange; and he lay a helpless creature, beyond hope of recovery, in one of the roomy old-fashioned bed-chambers.

The humble Crosber surgeon had done his best, and had done it skilfully, being a man of large experience amongst a lowly class of sufferers; and to the aid of the Crosber surgeon had come a more prosperous practitioner from Malsham, who had driven over in his own phaeton; but between them both they could make nothing of Stephen Whitelaw. His race was run. He had been severely burnt; and if his actual injuries were not enough to kill him, there was little chance that he could survive the shock which his system had received. He might linger a little; might hold out longer than they expected; but his life was a question of hours.

The doomed man had seemed from the first to have a conviction of the truth, and appeared in no manner surprised when, in answer to his questions, the Malsham doctor admitted that his case was fatal, and suggested that, if he had anything to do in the adjustment of his affairs, he could scarcely do it too soon. At this Mr. Whitelaw groaned aloud. If he could in any manner have adjusted his affairs so as to take his money with him, the suggestion might have seemed sensible enough; but, that being impracticable, it was the merest futility. He had never made a will; it cost him too much anguish to give away his money even on paper. And now it was virtually necessary that he should do so, or else, perhaps, his wealth would, by some occult process, be seized upon by the crown — a power which he had been accustomed to regard in the abstract with an antagonistic feeling, as being the root of queen’s taxes. To leave all to his wife, with some slight pension to Mrs. Tadman, seemed the most obvious course. He had married for love, and the wife of his choice had been very dutiful and submissive. What more could he have demanded from her? and why should he grudge her the inheritance of his wealth? Well, he would not have grudged it to her, perhaps, since some one must have it, if it had not been for that aggravating conviction that she would marry again, and that the man she preferred to him would riot in the possession of his hardly-earned riches. She would marry Frank Randall; and between them they would mismanage, and ultimately ruin, the farm. He remembered the cost of the manure he had put upon his fields that year, and regretted that useless outlay. It was a hard thing to have enriched his land only that others might profit by the produce.

“And if I’ve laid down a yard of drain-pipes since last year, I’ve laid down a dozen mile. There’s not a bit of swampy ground or a patch of sour grass on the farm,” he thought bitterly.

He lay for some hours deliberating as to what he should do. Death was near, but not so very close to him just yet. He had time to think. No, come what might, he would not leave the bulk of his property to fall into the keeping of Frank Randall.

He remembered that there were charitable institutions, to which a man, not wishing to enrich an ungrateful race, might bequeath his money, and obtain some credit for himself thereby, which no man could expect from his own relations. There was an infirmary at Malsham, rather a juvenile institution as yet, in aid whereof Mr. Whitelaw had often been plagued for subscriptions, reluctantly doling out half-a-guinea now and then, more often refusing to contribute anything. He had never thought of this place in his life before; but the image of it came into his mind now, as he had seen it on market-days for the last four years — a bran new red-brick building in Malsham High-street. He thought how his name would look, cut in large letters on a stone tablet on the face of that edifice. It would be something to get for his money; a very poor and paltry something, compared with the delight of possession, but just a little better than nothing.

He lay for some time pondering upon this, with that image of the stone tablet before his eyes, setting forth that the new wing of this institution had been erected at the desire of the late Stephen Whitelaw, Esq., of Wyncomb Farm, who had bequeathed a sum of money to the infirmary for that purpose, whereby two new wards had, in memory of that respected benefactor, been entitled the Whitelaw wards — or something to the like effect. He composed a great many versions of the inscription as he lay there, tolerably easy as to his bodily feelings, and chiefly anxious concerning the disposal of the money; but, being unaccustomed to the task of composition, he found it more difficult than he could have supposed to set forth his own glory in a concise form of words. But the tablet would be there, of course, the very centre and keystone of the building, as it were; indeed, Mr. Whitelaw resolved to make his bequest contingent upon the fulfilment of this desire. Later in the evening he told William Carley that he had made up his mind about his will, and would be glad to see Mr. Pivott, of Malsham, rival solicitor to Mr. Randall, of the same town, as soon as that gentleman could be summoned to his bedside.

The bailiff seemed surprised at this request.

“Why, surely, Steph, you can’t want a lawyer mixed up in the business!” he said. “Those sort of chaps only live by making work for one another. You know how to make your will well enough, old fellow, without any attorney’s aforesaids and hereinafters. Half a sheet of paper and a couple of sentences would do it, I should think; the fewer words the better.”

“I’d rather have Pivott, and do it in a regular manner,” Mr. Whitelaw answered quietly. “I remember, in a forgery case that was in the papers the other day, how the judge said of the deceased testator, that, being a lawyer, he was too wise to make his own will. Yes, I’d rather see Pivott, if you’ll send for him, Carley. It’s always best to be on the safe side. I don’t want my money wasted in a chancery suit when I’m lying in my grave.”

William Carley tried to argue the matter with his son-in-law; but the attempt was quite useless. Mr. Whitelaw had always been the most obstinate of men — and lying on his bed, maimed and helpless, was no more to be moved from his resolve than if he had been a Roman gladiator who had just trained himself for an encounter with lions. So the bailiff was compelled to obey him, unwillingly enough, and dispatched one of the men to Malsham in quest of Mr. Pivott the attorney.

The practitioner came to the Grange as fast as his horse could carry him. Every one in Malsham knew by this time that Stephen Whitelaw was a doomed man; and Mr. Pivott felt that this was a matter of life and death. He was an eminently respectable man, plump and dapper, with a rosy smooth-shaven face, and an air of honesty that made the law seem quite a pleasant thing. He was speedily seated by Mr. Whitelaw’s bed, with a pair of candles and writing materials upon a little table before him, ready to obey his client’s behests, and with the self-possessed aspect of a man to whom a last will and testament involving the disposal of a million or so would have been only an every-day piece of practice.

William Carley had shown himself very civil and obliging in providing for the lawyer’s comfort, and having done so, now took up his stand by the fire-place, evidently intending to remain as a spectator of the business. But an uneasy glance which the patient cast from time to time in the direction of his father-in-law convinced Mr. Pivott that he wanted that gentleman to be got rid of before business began.

“I think, Mr. Carley, it would be as well for our poor friend and I to be alone,” he said in his most courteous accents.

“Fiddlesticks!” exclaimed the bailiff contemptuously. “It isn’t likely that Stephen can have any secrets from his wife’s father. I’m in nobody’s way, I’m sure, and I’m not going to put my spoke in the wheel, let him leave his money how he may.”

“Very likely not, my dear sir. Indeed, I am sure you would respect our poor friend’s wishes, even if they were to take a form unpleasing to yourself, which is far from likely. But still it may be as well for Mr. Whitelaw and myself to be alone. In cases of this kind the patient is apt to be nervous, and the business is done more expeditiously if there is no third party present. So, my dear Mr. Carley, if you have no objection ——”

“Steph,” said the bailiff abruptly, “do you want me out of the room? Say the word, if you do.”

The patient writhed, hesitated, and then replied with some confusion —

“If it’s all the same to you, William Carley, I think I’d sooner be alone with Mr. Pivott.”

And here the polite attorney, having opened the door with his own hands, bowed the bailiff out; and, to his extreme mortification, William Carley found himself on the outside of his son-in-law’s room, before he had time to make any farther remonstrance.

He went downstairs, and paced the wainscoted parlour in a very savage frame of mind.

“There’s some kind of devil’s work hatching up there,” he muttered to himself. “Why should he want me out of the room? He wouldn’t, if he was going to leave all his money to Ellen, as he ought to leave it. Who else is there to get it? Not that old mother Tadman, surely. She’s an artful old harridan; and if my girl had not been a fool, she’d have got rid of her out of hand when she married. Sure to goodness she can never stand between Stephen and his wife. And who else is there? No one that I know of; no one. Stephen wouldn’t have kept any secret all these years from the folks he’s lived amongst. It isn’t likely. He must leave it all to his wife, except a hundred or so, perhaps, to mother Tadman; and it was nothing but his natural closeness that made him want me out of the way.”

And at this stage of his reflections, Mr. Carley opened a cupboard near the fire-place and brought therefrom a case-bottle, from the contents of which he found farther solace. It was about half-an-hour after this that he was summoned by a call from the lawyer, who was standing on the broad landing-place at the top of the stairs with a candle in his hand, when the bailiff emerged from the parlour.

“If you’ll step up here, and bring one of your men with you, I shall be obliged, Mr. Carley,” the attorney said, looking over the banisters; “I want you to witness your son-in-law’s will.” Mr. Carley’s spirits rose a little at this. He was not much versed in the ways of lawyers, and had a notion that Mr. Pivott would read the will to him, perhaps, before he signed it. It flashed upon him presently that a legatee could not benefit by a will which he had witnessed. It was obvious, therefore, that Stephen did not mean him to have anything. Well, he had scarcely expected anything. If his daughter inherited all, it would be pretty much the same thing; she would act generously of course.

He went into the kitchen, where the head man, who had been retained on the premises to act as special messenger in this time of need, was sitting in the chimney-corner smoking a comfortable pipe after his walk to and from Malsham.

“You’re wanted upstairs a minute, Joe,” he said; and the two went clumping up the wide old oaken staircase.

The witnessing of the will was a very brief business. Mr. Pivott did not offer to throw any light upon its contents, nor was the bailiff, sharpsighted as he might be, able to seize upon so much as one paragraph or line of the document during the process of attaching his signature thereto.

When the ceremony was concluded, Stephen Whitelaw sank back upon his pillow with an air of satisfaction.

“I don’t think I could have done any better,” he murmured.

“It’s a hard thing for a man of my age to leave everything behind him; but I don’t see that I could have done better.”

“You have done that, my dear sir, which might afford comfort to any death-bed,” said the lawyer solemnly.

He folded the will, and put it into his pocket.

“Our friend desires me to take charge of this document,” he said to William Carley. “You will have no reason to complain, on your daughter’s account, when you become familiar with its contents. She has been fairly treated — I may say very fairly treated.”

The bailiff did not much relish the tone of this assurance. Fair treatment might mean very little.

“I hope she has been well treated,” he answered in a surly manner. “She’s been a good wife to Stephen Whitelaw, and would continue so to be if he was to live twenty years longer. When a pretty young woman marries a man twice her age, she’s a right to expect handsome treatment, Mr. Pivott. It can’t be too handsome for justice, in my opinion.”

The solicitor gave a little gentle sigh.

“As an interested party, Mr. Carley,” he said, “your opinion is not as valuable as it might be under other circumstances. However, I don’t think your daughter will complain, and I am sure the world will applaud what our poor friend has done — of his own accord, mind, Mr. Carley, wholly and solely of his own spontaneous desire. It is a thing that I should only have been too proud to suggest; but the responsibility of such a suggestion is one which I could never have taken upon myself. It would have been out of my province, indeed. You will be kind enough to remember this by-and-by, my dear sir.”

The bailiff was puzzled, and showed Mr. Pivott to the door with a moody countenance.

“I thought there was some devil’s work,” he muttered to himself, as he watched the lawyer mount his stiff brown cob and ride away into the night; “but what does it all mean? and what has Stephen Whitelaw done with his money? We shall know that pretty soon, anyhow. He can’t last long.”

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