When Mr Flick returned from Sicily he was very strongly in favour of some compromise.
He had seen the so-called Italian Countess — who certainly was now called Contessa by everybody around her — and he did not believe that she had ever been married to the old Earl. That an Italian lady had been married to the old lord now twenty-five years ago, he did believe — probably the younger sister of this woman — and he also believed that this wife had been dead before the marriage at Applethwaite. That was his private opinion. Mr Flick was, in his way, an honest man — one who certainly would have taken no conscious part in getting up an unjust claim; but he was now acting as legal agent for the young Earl, and it was not his business to get up evidence for the Earl’s opponents. He did think that were he to use all his ingenuity and the funds at his disposal he would be able to reach the real truth in such a manner that it should be made clear and indubitable to an English jury; but if the real truth were adverse to his side, why search for it? He understood that the English Countess would stand her ground on the legality of the Applethwaite marriage, and on the acquittal of the old Earl as to the charge of bigamy. The English Countess being firm, so far as that ground would make her firm, it would in reality be for the other side — for the young Earl — to prove a former marriage. The burden of the proof would be with him, and not with the English Countess to disprove it. Disingenuous lawyers — Mr Flick, who though fairly honest could be disingenuous, among the number — had declared the contrary. But such was the case; and, as money was scarce with the Countess and her friends, no attempt had been made on their part to bring home evidence from Sicily. All this Mr Flick knew, and doubted how far it might be wise for him further to disturb that Sicilian romance. The Italian Countess, who was a hideous, worn-out old woman, professing to be forty-four, probably fifty-five, and looking as though she were seventy-seven, would not stir a step towards England. She would swear and had sworn any number of oaths. Documentary evidence from herself, from various priests, from servants, and from neighbours there was in plenty. Mr Flick learned through his interpreter that a certain old priest ridiculed the idea of there being a doubt. And there were letters — letters alleged to have been written by the Earl to the living wife in the old days, which were shown to Mr Flick. Mr Flick was an educated man, and knew many things. He knew something of the manufacture of paper, and would not look at the letters after the first touch. It was not for him to get up evidence for the other side. The hideous old woman was clamorous for money. The priests were clamorous for money. The neighbours were clamorous for money. Had not they all sworn anything that was wanted, and were they not to be paid? Some moderate payment was made to the hideous, screeching, greedy old woman; some trivial payment — as to which Mr Flick was heartily ashamed of himself — was made to the old priest; and then Mr Flick hurried home, fully convinced that a compromise should be made as to the money, and that the legality of the titles claimed by the two English ladies should be allowed. It might be that that hideous hag had once been the Countess Lovel. It certainly was the case that the old Earl in latter years had so called her, though he had never once seen her during his last residence in Sicily. It might be that the clumsy fiction of the letters had been perpetrated with the view of bolstering up a true case with false evidence. But Mr Flick thought that there should be a compromise, and expressed his opinion very plainly to Sir William Patterson. “You mean a marriage,” said the Solicitor-General. At this time Mr Hardy, Q.C., the second counsel acting on behalf of the Earl, was also present.
“Not necessarily by a marriage, Sir William. They could divide the money.”
“The girl is not of age,” said Mr Hardy.
“She is barely twenty as yet,” said Sir William.
“I think it might be managed on her behalf,” said the attorney.
“Who could be empowered to sacrifice her rights?” said Mr Hardy, who was a gruff man.
“We might perhaps contrive to tide it over till she is of age,” said the Solicitor-General, who was a sweet-mannered, mild man among his friends, though he could cross-examine a witness off his legs — or hers — if the necessity of the case required him to do so.
“Of course we could do that, Sir William. What is a year in such a case as this?”
“Not much among lawyers, is it, Mr Flick? You think that we shouldn’t bring our case into court.”
“It is a good case, Sir William, no doubt. There’s the woman — Countess, we will call her — ready to swear, and has sworn, that she was the old Earl’s wife. All the people round call her the Countess. The Earl undoubtedly used to speak of her as the Countess, and send her little dribbles of money, as being his Countess, during the ten years and more after he left Lovel Grange. There is the old priest who married them.”
“The devil’s in it if that is not a good case,” said Mr Hardy.
“Go on, Mr Flick,” said the Solicitor-General.
“I’ve got all the documentary evidence of course, Sir William.”
“Go on, Mr Flick.”
Mr Flick scratched his head. “It’s a very heavy interest, Sir William.”
“No doubt it is. Go on.”
“I don’t know that I’ve anything further to say, except that I’d arrange it if I could. Our client, Sir William, would be in a very pretty position if he got half the income which is at stake.”
“Or the whole with the wife,” said the Solicitor-General.
“Or the whole with the wife, Sir William. If he were to lose it all, he’d be — so to say, nowhere.”
“Nowhere at all,” said the Solicitor-General. “The entailed property isn’t worth above a thousand a year.”
“I’d make some arrangement,” said Mr Flick, whose mind may perhaps have had a not unnatural bend towards his own very large venture in this concern. That his bill, including the honorarium of the barristers, would sooner or later be paid out of the estate, he did not doubt — but a compromise would make the settlement easy and pleasant.
Mr Hardy was in favour of continued fighting. A keener, honester, more enlightened lawyer than Mr Hardy did not wear silk at that moment, but he had not the gift of seeing through darkness which belonged to the Solicitor-General. When Mr Flick told them of the strength of their case, as based on various heads of evidence in their favour, Mr Hardy believed Mr Flick’s words and rejected Mr Flick’s opinion. He believed in his heart that the English Countess was an impostor, not herself believing in her own claim; and it would be gall and wormwood to him to give such a one a moiety of the wealth which should go to support the ancient dignity and aristocratic grace of the house of Lovel. He hated compromise and desired justice — and was a great rather than a successful lawyer. Sir William had at once perceived that there was something in the background on which it was his duty to calculate, which he was bound to consider — but with which at the same time it was inexpedient that he should form a closer or more accurate acquaintance. He must do the best he could for his client. Earl Lovel with a thousand a year, and that probably already embarrassed, would be a poor, wretched creature, a mock lord, an earl, without the very essence of an earldom. But Earl Lovel with fifteen or twenty thousand a year would be as good as most other earls. It would be but the difference between two powdered footmen and four, between four hunters and eight, between Belgrave Square and Eaton Place. Sir William, had he felt confident, would of course have preferred the four footmen for his client, and the eight hunters, and Belgrave Square; even though the poor English Countess should have starved, or been fed by the tailor’s bounty. But he was not confident. He began to think that that wicked old Earl had been too wicked for them all. “They say she’s a very nice girl,” said Sir William.
“Very handsome indeed, I’m told,” said Mr Flick.
“And in love with the son of the old tailor from Keswick,” said Mr Hardy.
“She’ll prefer the lord to the tailor for a guinea,” said Sir William.
And thus it was decided, after some indecisive fashion, that their client should be sounded as to the expedience of a compromise. It was certain to them that the poor woman would be glad to accept, for herself and her daughter, half of the wealth at stake, which half would be to her almost unlimited riches, on the condition that their rank was secured to them — their rank and all the privileges of honest legitimacy. But as to such an arrangement the necessary delay offered no doubt a serious impediment, and it was considered that the wisest course would be to propose the marriage. But who should propose it, and how should it be proposed? Sir William was quite willing to make the suggestion to the young Lord or the young Lord’s family, whose consent must of course be first obtained; but who should then break the ice to the Countess? “I suppose we must ask our friend, the Serjeant,” said Mr Flick. Serjeant Bluestone was the leading counsel for our Countess, and was vehemently energetic in this case. He swore everywhere that the Solicitor-General hadn’t a leg to stand upon, and that the Solicitor-General knew that he hadn’t a leg. Let them bring that Italian Countess over if they dared. He’d countess her, and discountess her too! Since he had first known the English courts of law there had been no case hard as this was hard. Had not the old Earl been acquitted of the charge of bigamy, when the unfortunate woman had done her best to free herself from her position? Serjeant Bluestone, who was a very violent man, taking up all his cases as though the very holding of a brief opposite to him was an insult to himself, had never before been so violent. “The Serjeant will take it as a surrender,” said Mr Flick.
“We must get round the Serjeant,” said Sir William. “There are ladies in the Lovel family; we must manage it through them.” And so it was arranged by the young Lord’s lawyers that an attempt should be made to marry him to the heiress.
The two cousins had never seen each other. Lady Anna had hardly heard of Frederic Lovel before her father’s death; but, since that, had been brought up to regard the young Lord as her natural enemy. The young Lord had been taught from his youth upwards to look upon the soi-disant Countess and her daughter as impostors who would some day strive to rob him of his birthright — and, in these latter days, as impostors who were hard at work upon their project. And he had been told of the intimacy between the Countess and the old tailor — and also of that between the so-called Lady Anna and the young tailor. To these distant Lovels — to Frederic Lovel who had been brought up with the knowledge that he must be the Earl, and to his uncle and aunt by whom he had been brought up — the women down at Keswick had been represented as vulgar, odious, and disreputable. We all know how firm can be the faith of a family in such matters. The Lovels were not without fear as to the result of the attempt that was being made. They understood quite as well as did Mr Flick the glory of the position which would attend upon success, and the wretchedness attendant upon a pauper earldom. They were nervous enough, and in some moods frightened. But their trust in the justice of their cause was unbounded. The old Earl, whose memory was horrible to them, had purposely left two enemies in their way. There had been the Italian mistress backed up by the will; and there had been this illegitimate child. The one was vanquished; but the other —! Ah — it would be bad with them indeed if that enemy could not be vanquished too! They had offered £30,000 to the enemy; but the enemy would not accept the bribe. The idea of ending all their troubles by a marriage had never occurred to them. Had Mrs Lovel been asked about it, she would have said that Anna Murray — as she always studiously called the Lady Anna, was not fit to be married.
The young lord, who a few months after his cousin’s death had been old enough to take his seat in the House of Peers, was a gay-hearted, kindly young man, who had been brought home from sea at the age of twenty on the death of an elder brother. Some of the family had wished that he should go on with his profession in spite of the earldom; but it had been thought unfit that he should be an earl and a midshipman at the same time, and his cousin’s death while he was still on shore settled the question. He was a fair-haired, well-made young lad, looking like a sailor, and every inch a gentleman. Had he believed that the Lady Anna was the Lady Anna, no earthly consideration would have induced him to meddle with the money. Since the old Lord’s death, he had lived chiefly with his uncle Charles Lovel, having passed some two or three months at Lovel Grange with his uncle and aunt. Charles Lovel was a clergyman, with a good living at Yoxham, in Yorkshire, who had married a rich wife, a woman with some two thousand a year of her own, and was therefore well to do in the world. His two sons were at Harrow, and he had one other child, a daughter. With them also lived a Miss Lovel, Aunt Julia — who was supposed of all the Lovels to be the wisest and most strong-minded. The parson, though a popular man, was not strong-minded. He was passionate, loud, generous, affectionate and indiscreet. He was very proud of his nephew’s position as head of the family — and very full of his nephew’s wrongs arising from the fraud of those Murray women. He was a violent Tory, and had heard much of the Keswick Radical. He never doubted for a moment that both old Thwaite and young Thwaite were busy in concocting an enormous scheme of plunder by which to enrich themselves. To hear that they had both been convicted and transported was the hope of his life. That a Radical should not be worthy of transportation was to him impossible. That a Radical should be honest was to him incredible. But he was a thoroughly humane and charitable man, whose good qualities were as little intelligible to old Thomas Thwaite, as were those of Thomas Thwaite to him.
To whom should the Solicitor-General first break the matter? He had already had some intercourse with the Lovels, and had not been impressed with a sense of the parson’s wisdom. He was a Whig Solicitor-General, for there were still Whigs in those days, and Mr Lovel had not much liked him. Mr Flick had seen much of the family — having had many interviews with the young lord, with the parson, and with Aunt Julia. It was at last settled by Sir William’s advice that a letter should be written to Aunt Julia by Mr Flick, suggesting that she should come up to town.
“Mr Lovel will be very angry,” said Mr Flick.
“We must do the best we can for our client,” said Sir William. The letter was written, and Miss Lovel was informed in Mr Flick’s most discreet style that, as Sir William Patterson was anxious to discuss a matter concerning Lord Lovel’s case in which a woman’s voice would probably be of more service than that of a man, perhaps Miss Lovel would not object to the trouble of a journey to London. Miss Lovel did come up, and her brother came with her.
The interview took place in Sir William’s chambers, and no one was present but Sir William, Miss Lovel, and Mr Flick. Mr Flick had been instructed to sit still and say nothing unless he were asked a question; and he obeyed his instructions. After some apologies, which were perhaps too soft and sweet — and which were by no means needed, as Miss Lovel herself, though very wise, was neither soft nor sweet — the great man thus opened his case. “This is a very serious matter, Miss Lovel.”
“Very serious indeed.”
“You can hardly perhaps conceive how great a load of responsibility lies upon a lawyer’s shoulders, when he has to give advice in such a case as this, when perhaps the prosperity of a whole family may turn upon his words.”
“He can only do his best.”
“Ah yes, Miss Lovel. That is easy to say; but how shall he know what is the best?”
“I suppose the truth will prevail at last. It is impossible to think that a young man such as my nephew should be swindled out of a noble fortune by the intrigues of two such women as these. I can’t believe it, and I won’t believe it. Of course I am only a woman, but I always thought it wrong to offer them even a shilling.” Sir William smiled and rubbed his head, fixing his eyes on those of the lady. Though he smiled she could see that there was real sadness in his face. “You don’t mean to say you doubt?” she said.
“Indeed I do.”
“You think that a wicked scheme like this can succeed before an English judge?”
“But if the scheme be not wicked? Let me tell you one or two things, Miss Lovel — or rather my own private opinion on one or two points. I do not believe that these two ladies are swindlers.”
“They are not ladies, and I feel sure that they are swindlers,” said Miss Lovel very firmly, turning her face as she spoke to the attorney.
“I am telling you, of course, merely my own opinion, and I will beg you to believe of me that in forming it I have used all the experience and all the caution which a long course of practice in these matters has taught me. Your nephew is entitled to my best services, and at the present moment I can perhaps do my duty to him most thoroughly by asking you to listen to me.” The lady closed her lips together, and sat silent. “Whether Mrs Murray, as we have hitherto called her, was or was not the legal wife of the late Earl, I will not just now express an opinion; but I am sure that she thinks that she was. The marriage was formal and accurate. The Earl was tried for bigamy, and acquitted. The people with whom we have to do across the water, in Sicily, are not respectable. They cannot be induced to come here to give evidence. An English jury will be naturally averse to them. The question is one simply of facts for a jury, and we cannot go beyond a jury. Had the daughter been a son, it would have been in the House of Lords to decide which young man should be the peer — but as it is, it is simply a question of property, and of facts as to the ownership of the property. Should we lose the case, your nephew would be — a very poor man.”
“A very poor man, indeed, Sir William.”
“His position would be distressing. I am bound to say that we should go into court to try the case with very great distrust. Mr Flick quite agrees with me.”
“Quite so, Sir William,” said Mr Flick.
Miss Lovel again looked at the attorney, closed her lips tighter than ever, but did not say a word.
“In such cases as this prejudices will arise, Miss Lovel. It is natural that you and your family should be prejudiced against these ladies. For myself, I am not aware that anything true can be alleged against them.”
“The girl has disgraced herself with a tailor’s son,” almost screamed Miss Lovel.
“You have been told so, but I do not believe it to be true. They were, no doubt, brought up as children together; and Mr Thwaite has been most kind to both the ladies.” It at once occurred to Miss Lovel that Sir William was a Whig, and that there was in truth but little difference between a Whig and a Radical. To be at heart a gentleman, or at heart a lady, it was, to her thinking, necessary to be a Tory. “It would be a thousand pities that so noble a property should pass out of a family which, by its very splendour and ancient nobility, is placed in need of ample means.” On hearing this sentiment, which might have become even a Tory, Miss Lovel relaxed somewhat the muscles of her face. “Were the Earl to marry his cousin — ”
“She is not his cousin.”
“Were the Earl to marry the young lady who, it may be, will be proved to be his cousin, the whole difficulty would be cleared away.”
“I am told that she is very lovely, and that pains have been taken with her education. Her mother was well born and well bred. If you would get at the truth, Miss Lovel, you must teach yourself to believe that they are not swindlers. They are no more swindlers than I am a swindler. I will go further — though perhaps you, and the young Earl, and Mr Flick, may think me unfit to be entrusted any longer with this case, after such a declaration — I believe, though it is with a doubting belief, that the elder lady is the Countess Lovel, and that her daughter is the legitimate child and the heir of the late Earl.”
Mr Flick sat with his mouth open as he heard this — beating his breast almost with despair. His opinion tallied exactly with Sir William’s. Indeed, it was by his opinion, hardly expressed, but perfectly understood, that Sir William had been led. But he had not thought that Sir William would be so bold and candid.
“You believe that Anna Murray is the real heir?” gasped Miss Lovel.
“I do — with a doubting belief. I am inclined that way — having to form my opinion on very conflicting evidence.” Mr Flick was by this time quite sure that Sir William was right, in his opinion — though perhaps wrong in declaring it — having been corroborated in his own belief by the reflex of it on a mind more powerful than his own. “Thinking as I do,” continued Sir William — with a natural bias towards my own client — what will a jury think, who will have no such bias? If they are cousins — distant cousins — why should they not marry and be happy, one bringing the title, and the other the wealth? There could be no more rational union, Miss Lovel.”
Then there was a long pause before anyone spoke a word. Mr Flick had been forbidden to speak, and Sir William, having made his proposition, was determined to await the lady’s reply. The lady was aghast, and for a while could neither think nor utter a word. At last she opened her mouth. “I must speak to my brother about this.”
“Quite right, Miss Lovel.”
“Now I may go, Sir William?”
“Good morning, Miss Lovel.” And Miss Lovel went.
“You have gone farther than I thought you would, Sir William,” said Mr Flick.
“I hardly went far enough, Mr Flick. We must go farther yet if we mean to save any part of the property for the young man. What should we gain, even if we succeeded in proving that the Earl was married in early life to the old Sicilian hag that still lives? She would inherit the property then — not the Earl.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01