For the sake of Pet Carnaby and of themselves, the ladies of the house were disquieted now, in the first summer weather of a wet cold year, the year of our Lord 1801. And their trouble arose as follows:
There had long been a question between the sisters and Sir Walter Carnaby, brother of the late colonel, about an exchange of outlying land, which would have to be ratified by “Pet” hereafter. Terms being settled and agreement signed, the lawyers fell to at the linked sweetness of deducing title. The abstract of the Yordas title was nearly as big as the parish Bible, so in and out had their dealings been, and so intricate their pugnacity.
Among the many other of the Yordas freaks was a fatuous and generally fatal one. For the slightest miscarriage they discharged their lawyer, and leaped into the office of a new one. Has any man moved in the affairs of men, with a grain of common-sense or half a pennyweight of experience, without being taught that an old tenter-hook sits easier to him than a new one? And not only that, but in shifting his quarters he may leave some truly fundamental thing behind.
Old Mr. Jellicorse, of Middleton in Teesdale, had won golden opinions every where. He was an uncommonly honest lawyer, highly incapable of almost any trick, and lofty in his view of things, when his side of them was the legal one. He had a large collection of those interesting boxes which are to a lawyer and his family better than caskets of silver and gold; and especially were his shelves furnished with what might be called the library of the Scargate title-deeds. He had been proud to take charge of these nearly thirty years ago, and had married on the strength of them, though warned by the rival from whom they were wrested that he must not hope to keep them long. However, through the peaceful incumbency of ladies, they remained in his office all those years.
This was the gentleman who had drawn and legally sped to its purport the will of the lamented Squire Philip, who refused very clearly to leave it, and took horse to flourish it at his rebellious son. Mr. Jellicorse had done the utmost, as behooved him, against that rancorous testament; but meeting with silence more savage than words, and a bow to depart, he had yielded; and the squire stamped about the room until his job was finished.
A fact accomplished, whether good or bad, improves in character with every revolution of this little world around the sun, that heavenly example of subservience. And now Mr. Jellicorse was well convinced, as nothing had occurred to disturb that will, and the life of the testator had been sacrificed to it, and the devisees under it were his own good clients, and some of his finest turns of words were in it, and the preparation, execution, and attestation, in an hour and ten minutes of the office clock, had never been equalled in Yorkshire before, and perhaps never honestly in London — taking all these things into conscious or unconscious balance, Mr. Jellicorse grew into the clear conviction that “righteous and wise” were the words to be used whenever this will was spoken of.
With pleasant remembrance of the starveling fees wherewith he used to charge the public, ere ever his golden spurs were won, the prosperous lawyer now began to run his eye through a duplicate of an abstract furnished upon some little sale about forty years before. This would form the basis of the abstract now to be furnished to Sir Walter Carnaby, with little to be added but the will of Philip Yordas, and statement of facts to be verified. Mr. Jellicorse was fat, but very active still; he liked good living, but he liked to earn it, and could not sit down to his dinner without feeling that he had helped the Lord to provide these mercies. He carried a pencil on his chain, and liked to use it ere ever he began with knife and fork. For the young men in the office, as he always said, knew nothing.
The day was very bright and clear, and the sun shone through soft lilac leaves on more important folios, while Mr. Jellicorse, with happy sniffs — for his dinner was roasting in the distance — drew a single line here, or a double line there, or a gable on the margin of the paper, to show his head clerk what to cite, and in what letters, and what to omit, in the abstract to be rendered. For the good solicitor had spent some time in the chambers of a famous conveyancer in London, and prided himself upon deducing title, directly, exhaustively, and yet tersely, in one word, scientifically, and not as the mere quill-driver. The title to the hereditaments, now to be given in exchange, went back for many generations; but as the deeds were not to pass, Mr. Jellicorse, like an honest man, drew a line across, and made a star at one quite old enough to begin with, in which the little moorland farm in treaty now was specified. With hum and ha of satisfaction he came down the records, as far as the settlement made upon the marriage of Richard Yordas, of Scargate Hall, Esquire, and Eleanor, the daughter of Sir Fursan de Roos. This document created no entail, for strict settlements had never been the manner of the race; but the property assured in trust, to satisfy the jointure, was then declared subject to joint and surviving powers of appointment limited to the issue of the marriage, with remainder to the uses of the will of the aforesaid Richard Yordas, or, failing such will, to his right heirs forever.
All this was usual enough, and Mr. Jellicorse heeded it little, having never heard of any appointment, and knowing that Richard, the grandfather of his clients, had died, as became a true Yordas, in a fit of fury with a poor tenant, intestate, as well as unrepentant. The lawyer, being a slightly pious man, afforded a little sigh to this remembrance, and lifted his finger to turn the leaf, but the leaf stuck a moment, and the paper being raised at the very best angle to the sun, he saw, or seemed to see, a faint red line, just over against that appointment clause. And then the yellow margin showed some faint red marks.
“Well, I never,” Mr. Jellicorse exclaimed —“certainly never saw these marks before. Diana, where are my glasses?”
Mrs. Jellicorse had been to see the potatoes on (for the new cook simply made “kettlefuls of fish” of every thing put upon the fire), and now at her husband’s call she went to her work-box for his spectacles, which he was not allowed to wear except on Sundays, for fear of injuring his eyesight. Equipped with these, and drawing nearer to the window, the lawyer gradually made out this: first a broad faint line of red, as if some attorney, now a ghost, had cut his finger, and over against that in small round hand the letters “v. b. c.” Mr. Jellicorse could swear that they were “v. b. c.”
“Don’t ask me to eat any dinner today,” he exclaimed, when his wife came to fetch him. “Diana, I am occupied; go and eat it up without me.”
“Nonsense, James,” she answered, calmly; “you never get any clever thoughts by starving.”
Moved by this reasoning, he submitted, fed his wife and children and own good self, and then brought up a bottle of old Spanish wine to strengthen the founts of discovery. Whose writing was that upon the broad marge of verbosity? Why had it never been observed before? Above all, what was meant by “v. b. c.”?
Unaided, he might have gone on forever, to the bottom of a butt of Xeres wine; but finding the second glass better than the first, he called to Mrs. Jellicorse, who was in the garden gathering striped roses, to come and have a sip with him, and taste the yellow cherries. And when she came promptly, with the flowers in her hand, and their youngest little daughter making sly eyes at the fruit, bothered as he was, he could not help smiling and saying, “Oh, Diana, what is ‘v. b. c.’?”
“Very black currants, papa!” cried Emily, dancing a long bunch in the air.
“Hush, dear child, you are getting too forward,” said her mother, though proud of her quickness. “James, how should I know what ‘v. b. c.’ is? But I wish most heartily that you would rid me of my old enemy, box C. I want to put a hanging press in that corner, instead of which you turn the very passages into office.”
“Box C? I remember no box C.”
“You may not have noticed the letter C upon it, but the box you must know as well as I do. It belongs to those proud Yordas people, who hold their heads so high, forsooth, as if nobody but themselves belonged to a good old county family! That makes me hate the box the more.”
“I will take it out of your way at once. I may want it. It should be with the others. I know it as well as I know my snuff-box. It was Aberthaw who put it in that corner; but I had forgotten that it was lettered. The others are all numbered.”
Of course Mr. Jellicorse was not weak enough to make the partner of his bosom the partner of his business; and much as she longed to know why he had put an unusual question to her, she trusted to the future for discovery of that point. She left him, and he with no undue haste — for the business, after all, was not his own — began to follow out his train of thought, in manner much as follows:
“This is that old Duncombe’s writing —‘Dunder-headed Duncombe,’ as he used to be called in his lifetime, but ‘Long-headed Duncombe’ afterward. None but his wife knew whether he was a wise man, or a wiseacre. Perhaps either, according to the treatment he received. Richard Yordas treated him badly; that may have made him wiser. V. b. c. means ‘vide box C,’ unless I am greatly mistaken. He wrote those letters as plainly and clearly as he could against this power of appointment as recited here. But afterward, with knife and pounce, he scraped them out, as now becomes plain with this magnifying-glass; probably he did so when all these archives, as he used to call them, were rudely ordered over to my predecessor. A nice bit of revenge, if my suspicions are correct; and a pretty confusion will follow it.”
The lawyer’s suspicions proved too correct. He took that box to his private room, and with some trouble unlocked it. A damp and musty smell came forth, as when a man delves a potato-bury; and then appeared layers of parchment yellow and brown, in and out with one another, according to the curing of the sheep-skin, perhaps, or the age of the sheep when he began to die; skins much older than any man’s who handled them, and drier than the brains of any lawyer,
“Anno Jacobi tertio, and Quadragesimo Elisabethae! How nice it sounds!” Mr. Jellicorse exclaimed; “they ought all to go in, and be charged for. People to be satisfied with sixty years’ title! Why, bless the Lord, I am sixty-eight myself, and could buy and sell the grammar school at eight years old. It is no security, no security at all. What did the learned Bacupiston say —‘If a rogue only lives to be a hundred and eleven, he may have been for ninety years disseized, and nobody alive to know it!’”
Older and older grew the documents as the lawyer’s hand travelled downward; any flaw or failure must have been healed by lapse of time long and long ago; dust and grime and mildew thickened, ink became paler, and contractions more contorted; it was rather an antiquary’s business now than a lawyer’s to decipher them.
“What a fool I am!” the solicitor thought. “My cuffs will never wash white again, and all I have found is a mare’s-nest. However, I’ll go to the bottom now. There may be a gold seal — they used to put them in with the deeds three hundred years ago. A charter of Edward the Fourth, I declare! Ah, the Yordases were Yorkists — halloa! what is here? By the Touchstone of Shepherd, I was right after all! Well done, Long-headed Duncombe!”
From the very bottom of the box he took a parchment comparatively fresh and new, indorsed “Appointment by Richard Yordas, Esquire, and Eleanor his wife, of lands and heredits at Scargate and elsewhere in the county of York, dated Nov. 15th, A.D. 1751.” Having glanced at the signatures and seals, Mr. Jellicorse spread the document, which was of moderate compass, and soon convinced himself that his work of the morning had been wholly thrown away. No title could be shown to Whitestone Farm, nor even to Scargate Hall itself, on the part of the present owners.
The appointment was by deed-poll, and strictly in accordance with the powers of the settlement. Duly executed and attested, clearly though clumsily expressed, and beyond all question genuine, it simply nullified (as concerned the better half of the property) the will which had cost Philip Yordas his life. For under this limitation Philip held a mere life-interest, his father and mother giving all men to know by those presents that they did thereby from and after the decease of their said son Philip grant limit and appoint &c. all and singular the said lands &c. to the heirs of his body lawfully begotten &c. &c. in tail general, with remainder over, and final remainder to the right heirs of the said Richard Yordas forever. From all which it followed that while Duncan Yordas, or child, or other descendant of his, remained in the land of the living, or even without that if he having learned it had been enabled to bar the entail and then sell or devise the lands away, the ladies in possession could show no title, except a possessory one, as yet unhallowed by the lapse of time.
Mr. Jellicorse was a very pleasant-looking man, also one who took a pleasant view of other men and things; but he could not help pulling a long and sad face as he thought of the puzzle before him. Duncan Yordas had not been heard of among his own hills and valleys since 1778, when he embarked for India. None of the family ever had cared to write or read long letters, their correspondence (if any) was short, without being sweet by any means. It might be a subject for prayer and hope that Duncan should be gone to a better world, without leaving hostages to fortune here; but sad it is to say that neither prayer nor hope produces any faith in the counsel who prepares “requisitions upon title.”
On the other hand, inquiry as to Duncan’s history since he left his native land would be a delicate and expensive work, and perhaps even dangerous, if he should hear of it, and inquire about the inquirers. For the last thing to be done from a legal point of view — though the first of all from a just one — was to apprise the rightful owner of his unexpected position. Now Mr. Jellicorse was a just man; but his justice was due to his clients first.
After a long brown-study he reaped his crop of meditation thus: “It is a ticklish job; and I will sleep three nights upon it.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05