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A RIGHT GOOD WILL

 

Some maiden ladies can manage to make any chair they sit in look uncomfortable. Grace Halliday was such a one; her rigid back would have done duty as a plumb-line.

Sitting upright on the edge of the chair, she drew her thin lips even tighter, and gave the sitting-room another painstaking inspection from the thick-pile carpet to the chandelier. Then she put into words the unspoken thoughts of her sister.

‘Well, I must say, Martha managed to collect some nice pieces. Very nice. Must be worth a tidy sum.‘

Ellen broke off her own appraisal of the room and nodded agreement. She knew better than to offer any vocal opinion while Grace had the floor.

‘Hmm. that table‘s Hepplewhite, or I‘m mistaken. Looked after, too. Still, I don‘t see any need to drag us half across the country to hear the will read.‘

Ellen‘s face displayed the appropriate emotion. Grace went on,

‘Surely the solicitor could have told us by letter or something. All this fuss for a few hundred pounds. This mourning outfit hasn‘t left me much change out of fifty, I can tell you.‘

With a subtle change of features Ellen expressed her astonishment. Grace took note of the expression and continued,

‘All this trouble and expense just to let us know who gets what. Of the furniture, I mean. There can‘t be much in the way of cash, after all. She never had two pennies to rub together, I‘ll be bound.‘

The sound of the door-bell startled them into sudden remembrance of the purpose of the meeting. Each hastened to adopt an expression of quiet grief befitting the occasion.

‘That‘ll be the solicitor chap, I suppose,‘ said Grace. ‘Go on, then ! Answer the door, Ellen.‘

‘Yes, Grace,‘ said Ellen submissively.

On the door-step stood a young man of certainly less than thirty summers. A bright-faced, pleasant young man.

‘Oh, hullo ! I‘ve come on behalf of Mr Jarvis. May I come in ?‘

His manner quite overcame Ellen, and she took refuge in silence. Opening the door wider, she allowed the young man to step inside. He quickly made his way to the sitting-room for all the world as though he were in his own home.

‘Good morning, ladies ! Now don‘t tell me. Let me see if I can place you. You‘ll be Miss Grace, I think ? And this will be Miss Ellen ? Am I right ?‘

Ellen was caught in the act as she nodded and smiled. At once she retreated to her chair, leaving Grace in command.

‘I don‘t know who you are, young man, but I think a little more reverence would be fitting.‘

‘Oh, do you think so ?‘ he asked, quite unabashed. ‘I‘m very sorry, ladies, but Mr Jarvis – who should have been here today, of course – is unable to attend. Assizes, you know. So I‘m to stand in for him. Hope you won‘t mind ?‘

‘All I mind, young man, is being kept hanging about here. So just get on with it, and – ‘

‘Of course, ‘ he said. ‘Well now, shall we sit down ? At the table here ? Would you mind taking this chair, Miss Grace ? And you here, Miss Ellen ?‘

Ellen looked at him with a growing respect. Not often did Grace meet with such an opponent. But Grace was not beaten yet.

’Look here, is this performance really necessary ? We know the situation. There won‘t be much cash, that‘s certain. And – since Martha clearly died a spinster – it‘s reasonable to suppose that her bits will go to her next-of-kin. Just tell us who gets what furniture, and we can all go home !‘

The young man stooped in the act of opening his brief-case and looked steadily at Grace. He caught Ellen‘s eye, and gave her a quick smile before bending his head over the brief-case again. From the case he drew the expected papers and laid them on the table. Then, reaching into it again, he drew forth a small battery-powered tape-recorder, which he placed beside the papers.

‘What is all this ?‘ Grace demanded.

‘If you‘ll allow me, ladies . . . In her last meeting with Mr Jarvis, when the will was signed, a few weeks before – before her untimely death, Miss Halliday expressed the desire to read her own will to you – !‘

‘She did what !‘

‘Yes, ladies. I wasn‘t present, of course, but I gather from Mr Jarvis that she had been – saddened by her estrangement from her two sisters. Shall we say that she felt she would like to speak to you just once more ?‘

Grace was unusually silent, and Ellen began to fumble in her bag for a handkerchief.

‘Not the customary procedure, of course, but quite in order. The provisions are, of course, all contained in the official document. This meeting today was – shall we say ? – a whim on her part. I gather she had not seen you for some years ?‘

Grace refused to be drawn. Ellen, with unaccustomed courage, spoke for both.

‘It was the First World War. Martha had met a – a gentleman friend. A soldier, you know. And, well, perhaps you can guess – er, anyway she had to go away, you know, and – ‘

‘You never saw her again ?‘

‘No. She did write, of course, but – ‘

‘The letters were not opened !‘ Grace broke in.

‘I see,‘ said the young man quietly. ‘Well now, shall we say that it was one of her last requests that you should meet here today, and that she should be allowed to speak to you both for the last time ?‘

Grace rose to her feet, her features pinched.

‘I‘ll tell you this, young man – and I speak for Ellen, too – I‘m not stopping here to listen to this tomfoolery. Mr Jarvis knows where he can find me ! Come along, Ellen !‘

The young man remained quite unmoved. ‘Then I take it you are happy to forego your share ?‘

‘What do you mean ?‘

It is an express condition of the will that the beneficiaries be present at the meeting. However, if you wish to leave, I – ‘

But Grace was already resuming her seat.

‘Good ! Then I take it we can proceed. This is a recording of Miss Martha Halliday‘s last will and testament – ‘

He broke off, and seemed for a moment unaccountably moved by the occasion. Then, as though steeling himself to an unwelcome duty, he reached forward and switched on the machine.

For a few moments there was no sound except for the gentle hiss of the tape. A slight crackle. A pause. A hesitant voice whispered, ‘Shall I start now ?‘ Another pause. Then, sweet and clear, the voice of the dead Martha broke the silence. The young man hurriedly turned away as though to leave the three sisters together, and crossed to the window, where he stood with his back to the room, looking out on a garden lit with a cold February sunshine.

‘Now that the time has come I – I hardly know how to begin. Some time ago Doctor Neal told me – what I now know to be true – that I have but a short time left to me. I was sorely tempted to use this – this fact – to persuade you, Grace – and Ellen, of course, to come and see me. But I – I couldn‘t do that !‘

Ellen hurriedly looked at the face of her sister. Grace was leaning forward in her chair, her features set and cold.

‘It‘s a long time, isn‘t it, since I last spoke to you ? Nearly fifty years ? A long time. Edward was killed, you know – or perhaps you didn‘t ? Just after he got back to France after his leave. And his son was born in the Spring of 1916.

I don‘t want you to think that I was in want. No, Edward‘s mother and father took me in and cared for me. For both of us. And I‘m sure Tom – that‘s my son – repaid them in full. He‘s done very well, has Tom. I‘m very proud of him. Managing that huge business . . .

I‘m telling you about all this that happened so long ago because – well, I wouldn‘t want the legal stuff in the will to cause any misunderstanding. I‘m sure that now, like me, your wants will be very few. Comfort, and a nice home – and friends, you know.

You see, Grace – and Ellen – Tom tells me that I‘m quite well-to-do now. Edward‘s parents left me something, and Tom has invested it well. So you’ll perhaps be a little surprised to hear that I shall be leaving something like a hundred thousand pounds. It does sound a dreadful lot of money, doesn‘t it ?

I shan‘t be leaving anything to Tom, because that‘s his wish. He insists that he has already had more than he deserves. And I know that you‘ll both have reached the age when my bits of furniture will be more acceptable than money. I do hope I‘ve chosen for each of you the pieces you would like.

So I‘m going to leave all the money to my grandson, John. He‘s always wanted his own business, and the capital will help to give him a good start. I‘m only sorry I won‘t be here to see it built. "John Rogers and Son" – I expect he‘ll have a son. Doesn‘t it sound nice ?

Well, my dears, that‘s just about all I want to say. I‘ve had a very happy life. Only one or two regrets. I would like to have seen you both again, but perhaps you were right. Perhaps we‘re wiser to hold on to our illusions.‘

The gentle voice ceased, and there was now no sound in the room but Ellen‘s quite weeping. For a long time no one spoke, until at length the tape came to an end.

The young man turned from the window and crossed the room to switch off the machine. He looked down compassionately on Ellen‘s bowed head, and turned to speak to Grace. She was sitting bolt upright, looking directly before her, her lips rigid with an obvious effort to control herself. Then she looked at Ellen and the dam seemed about to burst. With renewed control she rose to her feet. Her voice was low and harsh.

‘So that‘s it ! That‘s it ! She‘s managed it in the end. Humiliated ! Humiliated ! I knew we shouldn‘t have come ! We shouldn‘t have come !‘

She began to make her way towards the door, clearly expecting Ellen to follow. But for one Ellen gave signs of rebellion.

‘No, no ! You‘re wrong, Grace ! You‘re wrong ! Whose fault is it ? If we‘re humiliated ? Whose fault ?‘

All the emotions which Grace had evidently been holding in check now burst in full flood upon her sister.

‘Whose fault is it ? If you think I‘m going to take this lying down, you‘re greatly mistaken ! You always were a spineless creature, Ellen. Well, this may be all right for you. Not me ! She‘s going to pay for this – we‘ll have the will put aside ! Last will and testament indeed ! If you ask me, she was out of her mind !‘

Her eyes were wild, and the corners of her mouth showed white. Ellen shrank into the chair, momentarily defeated.

At this point, the young man. taking advantage of Grace‘s pause for breath, broke in.

‘It won‘t do, Miss Grace. One of the witnesses to Miss Halliday‘s will was her own doctor. Besides, even if you were right, anything she left would automatically come to her next-of-kin. Her son, in this case. Really, you know, in that event you wouldn’t even have any right to the furniture she left. In the circumstances, I think you must accept that Miss Halliday was not ungenerous. I‘m sure you agree, Miss Ellen ?‘

A piercing glare from Grace dared Ellen to do any such thing. But her sister was beginning to see things more clearly.

‘Yes, I do ! I‘m sorry we‘ve wasted so – so many years. So many years. I‘d like to think – I believe – Martha was saying that she had forgiven us – ‘

‘Forgiven us ?‘ Grace broke in, her face contorted.

‘Yes, forgiven us. And I‘m going to accept my share of the furniture as a token of it. That‘s all.‘

‘Very well, Ellen. I suppose you realize that, as the elder, I have the first choice ?‘

‘I‘m sorry, Miss Grace,‘ the young man broke in, with the ghost of a smile. ‘By the terms of the will, the disposition of the furniture must be agreed between all three beneficiaries !‘

‘What ! This John – John Rogers, or whatever his name is ?‘

‘That‘s right. Miss Halliday‘s grandson. And yourselves, of course. I expect she thought he would make a useful third party. To agree an equitable distribution, you know. Now if you and Miss Ellen can both accept that Miss Halliday‘s disposition is agreeable to you, I‘m fairly sure Mr Rogers would be happy with it. Anyway, I‘ll leave you my card. Perhaps you‘ll get in touch when you‘ve reached agreement ?‘

And the young man replaced the documents and the tape-recorder, fastened his brief-case, nodded to Grace, bestowed a warm smile upon Ellen, and was gone.

There was silence for some moments, but at length it became clear that Grace could contain herself no longer.

‘Well, of all the ill-mannered, conceited – we‘ll see about this ! We‘ll see what Mr Jarvis has to say about it ! I‘ll give him "When we‘ve reached agreement" indeed – !‘

She stopped, to digest her fury. Then, slowly, a thin smile began to light her face.

‘Just a minute ! Just a minute ! What was it he said ? It‘s a condition of the will that all the beneficiaries must be present at the reading ? Of course ! Of course ! That John Rogers – he wasn‘t here, was he ?‘

She looked at Ellen in spiteful glee.

‘You see, Ellen ? You see ? He can‘t inherit ! He can‘t inherit ! The money‘s ours ! He wasn‘t here !‘

Ellen rose, with a new determination in her eyes, and faced her sister squarely.

‘Oh, but he was, Grace ! Didn‘t you guess ?‘

‘What do you mean ?‘

‘The card on the table there ! I think you‘ll find that the name on it is John Rogers !‘

And, of course, it was.