The sun was well down and away behind the great fell at the back of the house, and the large and heavily furnished room was feebly lit by four wax candles, and the glow of the west reflected as a gleam into eastern windows. The lawyer was pleased to have it so, and to speak with a dimly lighted face. The ladies looked beautiful; that was all that Mr. Jellicorse could say, when cross-examined by his wife next day concerning their lace and velvet. Whether they wore lace or net was almost more than he could say, for he did not heed such trifles; but velvet was within his knowledge (though not the color or the shape), because he thought it hot for summer, until he remembered what the climate was. Really he could say nothing more, except that they looked beautiful; and when Mrs. Jellicorse jerked her head, he said that he only meant, of course, considering their time of life.
The ladies saw his admiration, and felt that it was but natural. Mrs. Carnaby came forward kindly, and offered him a nice warm hand; while the elder sister was content to bow, and thank him for coming, and hope that he was well. As yet it had not become proper for a gentleman, visiting ladies, to yawn, and throw himself into the nearest chair, and cross his legs, and dance one foot, and ask how much the toy-terrier cost. Mr. Jellicorse made a fine series of bows, not without a scrape or two, which showed his goodly calf; and after that he waited for the gracious invitation to sit down.
“If I understood your letter clearly,” Mistress Yordas began, when these little rites were duly accomplished, “you have something important to tell us concerning our poor property here. A small property, Mr. Jellicorse, compared with that of the Duke of Lunedale, but perhaps a little longer in one family.”
“The duke is a new-fangled interloper,” replied hypocritical Jellicorse, though no other duke was the husband of the duchess of whom he indited daily; “properties of that sort come and go, and only tradesmen notice it. Your estates have been longer in the seisin of one family, madam, than any other in the Riding, or perhaps in Yorkshire.”
“We never seized them!” cried Mrs. Carnaby, being sensitive as to ancestral thefts, through tales about cattle-lifting. “You must be aware that they came to us by grant from the Crown, or even before there was any Crown to grant them.”
“I beg your pardon for using a technical word, without explaining it. Seisin is a legal word, which simply means possession, or rather the bodily holding of a thing, and is used especially of corporeal hereditaments. You ladies have seisin of this house and lands, although you never seized them.”
“The last thing we would think of doing,” answered Mrs. Carnaby, who was more impulsive than her sister, also less straightforward. “How often we have wished that our poor lost brother had not been deprived of them! But our father’s will was sacred, and you told us we were helpless. We struggled, as you know; but we could do nothing.”
“That is the question which brought me here,” the lawyer said, very quietly, at the same time producing a small roll of parchment sealed in cartridge paper. “Last week I discovered a document which I am forced to submit to your judgment. Shall I read it to you, or tell its purport briefly?”
“Whatever it may be, it can not in any way alter our conclusions. Our conclusions have never varied, however deeply they may have grieved us. We were bound to do justice to our dear father.”
“Certainly, madam; and you did it. Also, as I know, you did it as kindly as possible toward other relatives, and you only met with perversity. I had the honor of preparing your respected father’s will, a model of clearness and precision, considering — considering the time afforded, and other disturbing influences. I know for a fact that a copy was laid before the finest draftsman in London, by — by those who were displeased with it, and his words were: ‘Beautiful! beautiful! Every word of it holds water.’ Now that, madam, can not he said of many; indeed, of not one in-”
“Pardon, me for interrupting you, but I have always understood you to speak highly of it. And in such a case, what can be the matter?”
“The matter of all matters, madam, is that the testator should have disposing power.”
“He could dispose of his own property as he was disposed, you mean.”
“You misapprehend me.” Mr. Jellicorse now was in his element, for he loved to lecture — an absurdity just coming into vogue. “Indulge me one moment. I take this silver dish, for instance; it is in my hands, I have the use of it; but can I give it to either of you ladies?”
“Not very well, because it belongs to us already.”
“You misapprehend me. I can not give it because it is not mine to give.” Mrs. Carnaby looked puzzled.
“Eliza, allow me,” said Mistress Yordas, in her stiffer manner, and now for the first time interfering. “Mr. Jellicorse assures us that his language is a model of clearness and precision; perhaps he will prove it by telling us now, in plain words, what his meaning is.”
“What I mean, madam, is that your respected father could devise you a part only of this property, because the rest was not his to devise. He only had a life-interest in it.”
“His will, therefore, fails as to some part of the property? How much, and what part, if you please?”
“The larger and better part of the estates, including this house and grounds, and the home-farm.”
Mrs. Carnaby started and began to speak; but her sister moved only to stop her, and showed no signs of dismay or anger.
“For fear of putting too many questions at once,” she said, with a slight bow and a smile, “let me beg you to explain, as shortly as possible, this very surprising matter.”
Mr. Jellicorse watched her with some suspicion, because she called it so surprising, yet showed so little surprise herself. For a moment he thought that she must have heard of the document now in his hands; but he very soon saw that it could not be so. It was only the ancient Yordas pride, perversity, and stiffneckedness. And even Mrs. Carnaby, strengthened by the strength of her sister, managed to look as if nothing more than a tale of some tenant were pending. But this, or ten times this, availed not to deceive Mr. Jellicorse. That gentleman, having seen much of the world, whispered to himself that this was all “high jinks,” felt himself placed on the stool of authority, and even ventured upon a pinch of snuff. This was unwise, and cost him dear, for the ladies would not have been true to their birth if they had not stored it against him.
He, however, with a friendly mind, and a tap now and then upon his document, to give emphasis to his story, recounted the whole of it, and set forth how much was come of it already, and how much it might lead to. To Scargate Hall, and the better part of the property always enjoyed therewith, Philippa Yordas and Eliza Carnaby had no claim whatever, except on the score of possession, until it could be shown that their brother Duncan was dead, without any heirs or assignment (which might have come to pass through a son adult), and even so, his widow might come forward and give trouble. Concerning all that, there was time enough to think; but something must be done at once to cancel the bargain with Sir Walter Carnaby, without letting his man of law get scent of the fatal defect in title. And now that the ladies knew all, what did they say?
In answer to this, the ladies were inclined to put the whole blame upon him, for not having managed matters better; and when he had shown that the whole of it was done before he had any thing to do with it, they were firmly convinced that he ought to have known it, and found a proper remedy. And in the finished manner of well-born ladies they gave him to know, without a strong expression, that such an atrocity was a black stain on every legal son of Satan, living, dead, or still to issue from Gerizim.
“That can not affect the title now — I assure you, madam, that it can not,” the unfortunate lawyer exclaimed at last; “and as for damages, poor old Duncombe has left no representatives, even if an action would lie now, which is simply out of the question. On my part no neglect can be shown, and indeed for your knowledge of the present state of things, if humbly I may say so, you are wholly indebted to my zeal.”
“Sir, I heartily wish,” Mrs. Carnaby replied, “that your zeal had been exhausted on your own affairs.”
“Eliza, Mr. Jellicorse has acted well, and we can not feel too much obliged to him.” Miss Yordas, having humor of a sort, smiled faintly at the double meaning of her own words, which was not intended. “Whatever is right must be done, of course, according to the rule of our family. In such a case it appears to me that mere niceties of laws, and quips and quirks, are entirely subordinate to high sense of honor. The first consideration must be thoroughly unselfish and pure justice.”
The lawyer looked at her with admiration. He was capable of large sentiments. And yet a faint shadow of disappointment lingered in the folios of his heart — there might have been such a very grand long suit, upon which his grandson (to be born next month) might have been enabled to settle for life, and bring up a legal family. Justice, however, was justice, and more noble than even such prospects. So he bowed his head, and took another pinch of snuff.
But Mrs. Carnaby (who had wept a little, in a place beyond the candle-light) came back with a passionate flush in her eyes, and a resolute bearing of her well-formed neck.
“Philippa, I am amazed at you,” she said, “Mr. Jellicorse, my share is equal with my sister’s, and more, because my son comes after me. Whatever she may do, I will never yield a pin’s point of my rights, and leave my son a beggar. Philippa, would you make Pet a beggar? And his turtle in bed, before the sun is on the window, and his sturgeon jelly when he gets out of bed! There never was any one, by a good Providence, less sent into the world to be a beggar.”
Mrs. Carnaby, having discharged her meaning, began to be overcome by it. She sat down, in fear of hysteria, but with her mind made up to stop it; while the gallant Jellicorse was swept away by her eloquence, mixed with professional views. But it came home to him, from experience with his wife, that the less he said the wiser. But while he moved about, and almost danced, in his strong desire to be useful, there was another who sat quite still, and meant to have the final say.
“From some confusion of ideas, I suppose, or possibly through my own fault,” Philippa Yordas said, with less contempt in her voice than in her mind, “it seems that I can not make my meaning clear, even to my own sister. I said that we first must do the right, and scorn all legal subtleties. That we must maintain unselfish justice, and high sense of honor. Can there be any doubt what these dictate? What sort of daughters should we be if we basely betrayed our own father’s will?”
“Excellent, madam,” the lawyer said; “that view of the case never struck me. But there is a great deal in it.”
“Oh, Philippa, how noble you are!” her sister Eliza cried; and cried no more, so far as tears go, for a long time afterward.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50