I had no sooner buried my wife than I received a summons to the reading of her late Uncle’s will. Truth told, I was not a man brought low by grief. Numb and distant, perhaps, but three long years of watching death’s shadow hover had sucked the compassion from my soul. I was not aware of any inheritance that Arabella might have expected, but a trip to the Inns of Court in London seemed a pleasant diversion.
I was walking through the kind of fine rain that falls with more insistence than any thundershower. The streets were as wet as I and the mud smeared a noxious dubbin on my boots. Carriages slurped past me, and the cries of street vendors were muted by the moisture in the air. I turned into Hawthorne Lane. Number 15 was not in the best of repair; only the stout, studded door seemed to have received any maintenance in the past few years, the timber was oiled, the handle and knocker gleaming in spite of the weather. A brass plate fixed below the knocker read:
‘Bloat & Scrivener’
I was not even to meet with a partner, as the lawyers’ letter instructed me to ask for a Cartwright, sans titre. I gave the door a firm rap with the knocker. Scarce had I loosed my grip but the door opened.
It seemed neither question nor invitation. The speaker drew the heavy wooden door aside and motioned with his eyes, and I followed them into a dark, narrow hallway. I had not expected the newly fashionable gas lighting, but the gloom inside was dispiriting. Sconces held unlit candles, and the faint smell of damp decay lingered even after I brought my kerchief to my nose. I followed my less than garrulous guide down the corridor. He stopped abruptly and dealt a murderous blow to a door that seemed ill-prepared to receive it. Then he turned the knob with a delicate twist of his fingertips and melted away.
‘Come in, come in’ came the enthusiastic, reedy cry. ‘Ye’ll be Moffat, then’.
I recognised the Scots accents of my native Edinburgh, though mine own had long since faded away. His was a most peculiar voice: high-pitched, with unexpected modulations, as if a moderate student of the bagpipes were practising on his chanter. No less odd was the appearance of the man himself. He might have been of middling height, had his lower limbs not revealed the effects of a childhood diet like that of the worst slum-dweller. His head was uncommon large, the forehead bulging forth made his hairline seem to recede, though it plainly did not. I warrant that looking directly down at his head from above would have revealed an elongated oval. His nose was hooked and his chin curled up, as like to meet it. Were it not for the striking blue innocence of his eyes, he would have been the very image of a singularly malevolent Mr Punch.
He introduced himself as Cartwright, though of course I had guessed as much. Wishing me good morning, he pushed a meagre pile of papers fastened with a grubby, once red ribbon, in my direction.
‘Thaire ye are, it’ll aw be thaire.’
‘But Mr Cartwright…’ I began
‘It’s Cartwright, naw but Cartwright.’
‘Well. Let it be so, but I understood there was to be a reading of a will?’
‘And for why? When ye are the only fellow these papers concairn?’
‘And ye’ll no be reading them here!’ he added curtly.
With that he ushered me out: laying not a finger on me, he propelled me all the way into Hawthorne Lane as if by the force of the will under his enormous brow.
To my chagrin, if not to my surprise, the rain still hung mistily in the air. Two boys running toward the Wig and Feather careened into my person. It was all I could do to preserve my dignity and balance. I checked my pockets and my purse. Only my half-hunter was missing. I wished the thieves well on it, for the watch had told no time since my wife had become ill. Some may think me at once sentimental and callous, for though I wound it not once since the day she took to her bed I let it fall to thieves without a second thought, and this only one scant week after her death. Both charges I will not countenance. I had my reasons, though I do not care to share them. At least not yet.
I hailed a hansom cab and cursed the inclemency of the weather once more as the near side wheel slurried my boots and trews.
‘Cheapside, The Chaste Maid Inn.’ I said as I settled in the seat. The driver’s grunt was eloquent and bespoke a premium on the fare. As much for the indesirability of my destination as the elegant cut of my clothes, no doubt.
‘A rare place, sir.’ The driver said gruffly as we arrived.
‘Rare enough.’ I allowed, paying in coin.
‘You’ll not find another such in Cheapside.’ The bark of his laugh was echoed by the crack of his whip and I was forced leap clear of the carriage to avoid the splashing mud.
Be assured that places like the Chaste Maid were in fact none too rare in many parts of London. Its custom was comprised of the rough butchers and slaughtermen of the Shambles and the more rakish of the commodity brokers from Goldsmith’s Row: young blowhards in search of women who made mock of the hostelry’s name. My room was cheap, as it needed to be: I had made nothing of my modest means in the years of my wife’s illness. Capital needs growth and I had tended mine but poorly.
Passing through the public bar, I noted Thackeray the landlord hugger-mugger with two hulking brutes who appeared to know little of silverside of beef or silver trading. The staircase at the rear was dark and unwelcoming, but it led to my room and I took them at a gallop. The bed was little more than a cot and the remaining furnishings as ill-matched as the load on a totter’s van. I threw my topcoat and hat on the stained bedding and rummaged in the coat for the red taped packet of papers.
They were varied: several folded sheets of good vellum, two of the new-fangled lozenge-shaped ‘envelopes’ for the Penny Post and one curious parchment with a broken wax seal. The parchment was clearly an older document, though none appeared new. The Penny Post had delivered the two envelopes to Bloat & Scrivener over a year ago. I sat on the cot, pushing the soaking topcoat toward the bolster. I had no intention of remaining another night.
Unaccountably, I trembled as I opened the parchment. It bore the palsied hand of the aged, the tremors marring the cursive beauty of the copperplate. I began to read.
‘It being the year of our Lord 1838 anno Domini, and I, Septimus Coble, of Gibbous House, Bamburgh, Northumbria, being of sound mind, do make this my last will and testament, voiding all and any extant or anterior wills and codicils.
I do leave all my possessions in sum and total to the husband, should there be any such person, of my great niece Arabella Coble, on condition that said party do move himself and all chattels to reside in Gibbous House without delay on being apprised of the contents of this my last will and testament.
Signed and sealed by Septimus Coble in the presence of
This 27th day of February 1838 anno Domini.’
I felt sick to my stomach. I could be rich, but at what price? The proximity of Northumbria Edinburgh filled me with dread. Border country.
Coble’s will had dropped from my hand and lay like a discarded playbill on the rough planks of the floor. I picked it up, folded it carefully into a crisp square and hid it in the lining of my hat. The Penny Post letters drew my eye: I recognised the hand on one. The rounded, feminine curves and the idiosyncratic angles of the descenders and ascenders were indubitably those of my late wife, although I had not seen her pick up a pen in the last two years of her invalidity. I tore the letter from its cover. The handwriting was less sure, no doubt, than in her days of robust health; but the very fact of it was a facer indeed. I began to read.
‘Esteemed Mr Bloat,
I have received word from a confidential source that you may be in possession of some information that could prove to be to my advantage in the fullness of time. Should it be within your power and not constitute any breach of faith, trust or confidentiality, would you apprise me of any expectations that I may have?
I regret, as I am an invalid, that I am unable to attend your chambers. Therefore I petition you most respectfully to reply at your convenience,
Mrs Arabella Moffat, nee Coble.’
Laying it to one side, I picked up the other. A masculine hand, also recognisable, I had but moments ago read its owner’s last wishes concerning the disposition of his legacy. I drew the letter from its enveloping lozenge; if it had been read more than once, it had been treated with extraordinary delicacy. The missive began abruptly: in medias re, without salutation or preamble. Whether it was read by Bloat, Scrivener or, God’s grace, Cartwright, was therefore unknown:
‘Be in no doubt, I hold yourselves responsible should my great-niece be so misguided as to believe I hold her in any kind of affection. Whence she knows of any legacy, I should be most gratified to be enlightened, as your lawyerly selves were left in no doubt by mine own instructions as to the extreme confidentiality of this matter. I urge you not to enter into any correspondence with Miss Arabella Cadwallader nee Coble, on pain of a suit on which I should have no hesitation in expending my yet not inconsiderable fortune.
The queasy feeling in my abdomen was no mere hunger pang. I thought only of the name Cadwallader, by which — to my knowledge — my late wife had never been known.