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Mr. Meeson's Will online

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his acquaintance.

In due course, Eustace and his legal adviser arrived at Pump-court, and,
oh! how the heart of James, the barrister, swelled with pride when, for
the first time in his career, he saw a real solicitor enter his chambers
accompanied by a real client. He would, indeed, have preferred it if the
solicitor had not happened to be his twin-brother, and the client had
been some other than his intimate friend; but still it was a blessed
sight - a very-blessed sight!

"Will you be seated, gentlemen?" he said with much dignity.

They obeyed.

"And now, Meeson, I suppose that you have explained to my brother the
matter on which you require my advice?"

"No, I haven't," said Eustace; "I thought I might as well explain it to
you both together, eh?"

"Hum," said James; "it is not quite regular. According to the etiquette
of the profession to which I have the honour to belong, it is not
customary that matters should be so dealt with. It is usual that papers
should be presented; but that I will overlook, as the point appears to be

"That's right," said Eustace. "Well, I have come to see about a will."

"So I understand," said James; "but what will, and where is it?"

"Well, it's a will in my favour, and is tattooed upon a lady's neck."

The twins simultaneously rose from their chairs, and looked at Eustace
with such a ridiculous identity of movement and expression that he fairly
burst out laughing.

"I presume, Meeson, that this is not a hoax," said James, severely. "I
presume that you know too well what is due to learned counsel to attempt
to make one of their body the victim of a practical joke?"

"Surely, Meeson," added John, "you have sufficient respect for the
dignity of the law not to tamper with it in any such way as my brother
has indicated?"

"Oh, certainly not. I assure you it is all square. It is a true bill, or
rather a true will."

"Proceed," said James, resuming his seat. "This is evidently a case of an
unusual nature."

"You are right there, old boy," said Eustace. "And now, just listen,"
and he proceeded to unfold his moving tale with much point and emphasis.

When he had finished John looked at James rather helplessly. The case was
beyond him. But James was equal to the occasion. He had mastered that
first great axiom which every young barrister should lay to heart - "Never
appear to be ignorant."

"This case," he said, as though he were giving judgment, "is, doubtless,
of a remarkable nature, and I cannot at the moment lay my hand upon any
authority bearing on the point - if, indeed, any such are to be found. But
I speak off-hand, and must not be held too closely to the _obiter dictum_
of a _viva voce_ opinion. It seems to me that, notwithstanding its
peculiar idiosyncrasies, and the various 'cruces' that it presents, it
will, upon closer examination, be found to fall within those general laws
that govern the legal course of testamentary disposition. If I remember
aright - I speak off-hand - the Act of 1. Vic., cap. 26, specifies that a
will shall be in writing, and tattooing may fairly be defined as a rude
variety of writing. It is, I admit, usual that writing should be done on
paper or parchment, but I have no doubt that the young lady's skin, if
carefully removed and dried, would make excellent parchment. At present,
therefore, it is parchment in its green stage, and perfectly available
for writing purposes.

"To continue. It appears - I am taking Mr. Meeson's statement as being
perfectly accurate - that the will was properly and duly executed by the
testator, or rather by the person who tattooed in his presence and at his
command: a form of signature which is very well covered by the section
of the Act of 1. Vic., cap. 26. It seems, too, that the witnesses
attested in the presence of each other and of the testator. It is true
that there was no attestation clause: but the supposed necessity for an
attestation clause is one of those fallacies of the lay mind which,
perhaps, cluster more frequently and with a greater persistence round
questions connected with testamentary disposition than those of any other
branch of the law. Therefore, we must take the will to have been properly
executed in accordance with the spirit of the statute.

"And now we come to what at present strikes me as the crux. The will is
undated. Does that invalidate it? I answer with confidence, no. And mark:
evidence - that of Lady Holmhurst - can be produced that this will did not
exist upon Miss Augusta Smithers previous to Dec. 19, on which day the
Kangaroo sank; and evidence can also be produced - that of Mrs.
Thomas - that it did exist on Christmas Day, when Miss Smithers was
rescued. It is, therefore, clear that it must have got upon her back
between Dec. 19 and Dec. 25."

"Quite so, old fellow," said Eustace, much impressed at this coruscation
of legal lore. "Evidently you are the man to tackle the case. But, I say,
what is to be done next? You see, I'm afraid it's too late. Probate has
issued, whatever that may mean."

"Probate has issued!" echoed the great James, struggling with his rising
contempt; "and is the law so helpless that probate which has been allowed
to issue under an erroneous apprehension of the facts cannot be recalled?
Most certainly not! So soon as the preliminary formalities are concluded,
a writ must be issued to revoke the probate, and claiming that the Court
should pronounce in favour of the later will; or, stay, there is no
executor - there is no executor! - a very important point - claiming a grant
of letters of administration with the will annexed: I think that will be
the better course."

"But how can you annex Miss Smithers to a 'grant of letters of
administration,' whatever that may mean?" said Eustace, feebly.

"That reminds me," said James, disregarding the question and addressing
his brother, "you must at once file Miss Smithers in the registry, and
see to the preparation of the usual affidavit of scripts."

"Certainly, certainly," said John, as though this were the most simple
business in the world.

"What?" gasped Eustace, as a vision of Augusta impaled upon an enormous
bill-guard rose before his eyes. "You can't file a lady; it's

"Impossible or not, it must be done before any further steps are taken.
Let me see; I believe that Dr. Probate is the sitting Registrar at
Somerset House this sittings. It would be well if you made an appointment
for to-morrow."

"Yes," said John.

"Well," went on James, "I think that is all for the present. You will, of
course, let me have the instructions and other papers with all possible
speed. I suppose that other counsel besides myself will be ultimately

"Oh! that reminds me," said Eustace; "about money, you know. I don't
quite see how I am going to pay for all this game. I have got about fifty
pounds spare cash in the world, and that's all: and I know enough to be
aware that fifty pounds do not go far in a lawsuit."

Blankly James looked at John and John at James. This was very trying.

"Fifty pounds will go a good way in out-of-pocket fees," suggested James,
at length, rubbing his bald head with his handkerchief.

"Possibly," answered John, pettishly; "but how about the remuneration of
the plaintiff's legal advisers? Can't you" - addressing Eustace - "manage
to get the money from someone?"

"Well," said Eustace, "there's Lady Holmhurst. Perhaps if I offered to
share the spoil with her, if there was any."

"Dear me, no," said John; "that would be 'maintenance.'"

"Certainly not," chimed in James, holding up his hand in dismay. "Most
clearly it would be 'Champerty'; and did it come to the knowledge of the
Court, nobody can say what might not happen."

"Indeed," answered Eustace, with a sigh, "I don't quite know what you
mean, but I seem to have said something very wrong. The odds on a
handicap are child's play to understand beside this law," he added sadly.

"It is obvious, James," said John, that, "putting aside other matters,
this would prove, independent of pecuniary reward, a most interesting
case for you to conduct."

"That is so, John," replied James; "but as you must be well aware, the
etiquette of my profession will not allow me to conduct a case for
nothing. Upon that point, above all others, etiquette rules us with a
rod of iron. The stomach of the bar, collective and individual, is
revolted and scandalised at the idea of one of its members doing
anything for nothing."

"Yes," put in Eustace, "I have always understood they were
regular nailers."

"Quite so, my dear James; quite so," said John, with a sweet smile. "A
fee must be marked upon the brief of learned counsel, and that fee be
paid to him, together with many other smaller fees; for learned counsel
is like the cigarette-boxes and new-fashioned weighing-machines at the
stations: he does not work unless you drop something down him. But there
is nothing to prevent learned counsel from returning that fee, and all
the little fees. Indeed, James, you will see that this practice is common
amongst the most eminent of your profession, when, for instance, they
require an advertisement or wish to pay a delicate compliment to a
constituency. What do they do then? They wait till they find £500 marked
upon a brief, and then resign their fee. Why should you not do the same
in this case, in your own interest? Of course, if we win the cause, the
other side or the estate will pay the costs; and if we lose, you will at
least have had the advantage, the priceless advantage, of a unique

"Very well, John; let it be so," said James, with magnanimity. "Your
check for fees will be duly returned; but it must be understood that they
are to be presented."

"Not at the bank," said John, hastily. "I have recently had to oblige a
client," he added by way of explanation to Eustace, "and my balance is
rather low."

"No," said James; "I quite understand. I was going to say 'are to be
presented to my clerk.'"

And with this solemn farce, the conference came to an end.



That very afternoon Eustace returned to Lady Holmhurst's house in
Hanover-square, to tell his dear Augusta that she must attend on the
following morning to be filed in the Registry at Somerset House. As
may be imagined, though willing to go any reasonable length to oblige
her new-found lover, Augusta not unnaturally resisted this course
violently, and was supported in her resistance by her friend Lady
Holmhurst, who, however, presently left the room, leaving them to
settle it as they liked.

"I do think that it is a little hard," said Augusta with a stamp of her
foot, "that, after all that I have gone through, I should be taken off to
have my unfortunate back stared at by a Doctor some one or other, and
then be shut up with a lot of musty old wills in a Registry."

"Well, my dearest girl," said Eustace, "either it must be done or else
the whole thing must be given up. Mr. John Short declares that it is
absolutely necessary that the document should be placed in the custody of
the officer of the Court."

"But how am I going to live in a cupboard, or in an iron safe with a lot
of wills?" asked Augusta, feeling very cross indeed.

"I don't know, I am sure," said Eustace; "Mr. John Short says that that
is a matter which the learned Doctor will have to settle. His own
opinion is that the learned Doctor - confound him! - will order that you
should accompany him about wherever he goes till the trial comes off;
for, you see, in that way you would never be out of the custody of an
officer of the Court. But," went on Eustace, gloomily, "all I can tell
him, if he makes that order, is, that if he takes you about with him he
will have to take me too."

"Why?" said Augusta.

"Why? Because I don't trust him - that's why. Old? oh, yes; I dare say he
is old. And, besides, just think: this learned gentleman has practised
for twenty years in the Divorce Court! Now, I ask you, what can you
expect from a gentleman, however learned, who has practised for twenty
years in the Divorce Court? I know him," went on Eustace,
vindictively - "I know him. He will fall in love with you himself. Why, he
would be an old duffer if he didn't."

"Really," said Augusta, bursting out laughing, "you are too
ridiculous, Eustace."

"I don't know about being ridiculous, Augusta: but if you think I am
going to let you be marched about by that learned Doctor without my being
there to look after you, you are mistaken. Why, of course he would fall
in love with you, or some of his clerks would; nobody could be near you
for a couple of days without doing so."

"Do you think so?" said Augusta, looking at him very sweetly.

"Yes, I do," he answered, and thus the conversation came to an end and
was not resumed till dinner-time.

On the following morning at eleven o'clock, Eustace, who had managed to
get a few days' leave from his employers, arrived with Mr. John Short to
take Augusta and Lady Holmhurst - who was going to chaperon her - to
Somerset House, whither, notwithstanding her objections of the previous
day, she had at last consented to go. Mr. Short was introduced, and much
impressed both the ladies by the extraordinary air of learning and
command which was stamped upon his countenance. He wanted to inspect the
will at once; but Augusta struck at this, saying that it would be quite
enough to have her shoulders stared at once that day. With a sigh and a
shake of the head at her unreasonableness, Mr. John Short submitted, and
then the carriage came round and they were all driven off to Somerset
House. Presently they were there, and after threading innumerable chilly
passages, reached a dismal room with an almanack, a dirty deal table, and
a few chairs in it, wherein were congregated several solicitors' clerks,
waiting their turn to appear before the Registrar. Here they waited for
half-an-hour or more, to Augusta's considerable discomfort, for she soon
found that she was an object of curiosity and closest attention to the
solicitors' clerks, who never took their eyes off her. Presently she
discovered the reason, for having remarkably quick ears, she overheard
one of the solicitors' clerks, a callow little man with yellow hair and
an enormous diamond pin, whose appearance somehow reminded her of a
new-born chicken, tell another, who was evidently of the Jewish faith,
that she (Augusta) was the respondent in the famous divorce case of Jones
v. Jones, and was going to appear before the Registrar to submit herself
to cross examination in some matter connected with a grant of alimony.
Now, as all London was talking about the alleged iniquities of the Mrs.
Jones in question, whose moral turpitude was only equalled by her
beauty, Augusta did not feel best pleased, although she perceived that
she instantly became an object of heartfelt admiration to the clerks.

Presently, however, somebody poked his head through the door, which he
opened just wide enough to admit it, and bawling out -

"Short, re Meeson," vanished as abruptly as he had come.

"Now, Lady Holmhurst, if you please," said Mr. John Short, "allow me to
show the way, if you will kindly follow with the will - this way, please."

In another minute, the unfortunate "will" found herself in a large and
lofty room, at the top of which, with his back to the light, sat a most
agreeable-looking middle-aged gentleman, who, as they advanced, rose with
a politeness that one does not generally expect from officials on a fixed
salary, and, bowing, asked them to be seated.

"Well, what can I do for you? Mr. - ah! Mr." - and he put on his
eye-glasses and referred to his notes - "Mr. Short - you wish to file a
will, I understand; and there are peculiar circumstances of some sort in
the case?"

"Yes, Sir; there are," said Mr. John Short, with much meaning. "The will
to be filed in the Registry is the last true will of Jonathan Meeson, of
Pompadour Hall, in the county of Warwick, and the property concerned
amounts to about two millions. Upon last motion day, the death of
Jonathan Meeson, who was supposed to have sunk in the Kangaroo, was
allowed to be presumed, and probate has been taken out. As a matter of
fact, however, the said Jonathan Meeson perished in Kerguelen Land some
days after the shipwreck, and before he died he duly executed a fresh
will in favour of his nephew, Eustace H. Meeson, the gentleman before
you. Miss Augusta Smithers" -

"What," said the learned Registrar, "is this Miss Smithers whom we have
been reading so much about lately - the Kerguelen Land heroine?"

"Yes; I am Miss Smithers," she said with a little blush; "and this is
Lady Holmhurst, whose husband" - and she checked herself.

"It gives me much pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Smithers,"
said the learned Doctor, courteously shaking hands, and bowing to Lady
Holmhurst - proceedings which Eustace watched with the jaundiced eye of
suspicion. "He's beginning already," said that ardent lover to himself.
"I knew how it would be. Trust my Gus into his custody? - never! I had
rather be committed for contempt."

"The best thing that I can do, Sir," went on John Short, impatiently,
for, to his severe eye, these interruptions were not seemly, "will be to
at once offer you inspection of the document, which, I may state, is of
an unusual character," and he looked at Augusta, who, poor girl, coloured
to the eyes.

"Quite so, quite so," said the learned Registrar. "Well, has Miss Smithers
got the will? Perhaps she will produce it."

"Miss Smithers _is_ the will," said Mr. John Short.

"Oh - I am afraid that I do not quite understand" -

"To be more precise, Sir, the will is tattooed on Miss Smithers."

"_What_?" almost shouted the learned Doctor, literally bounding from
his chair.

"The will is tattooed upon Miss Smithers's back," continued Mr. John
Short, in a perfectly unmoved tone; "and it is now my duty to offer you
inspection of the document, and to take your instructions as to how you
propose to file it in the Registry" -

"Inspection of the document - inspection of the document?" gasped the
astonished Doctor; "How am I to inspect the document?"

"I must leave that to you, Sir," said Mr. John Short, regarding the
learned Registrar's shrinking form with contempt not unmixed with pity.
"The will is on the lady's back, and I, on behalf of the plaintiff, mean
to get a grant with the document annexed."

Lady Holmhurst began to laugh; and as for the learned Doctor, anything
more absurd than he looked, intrenched as he was behind his office chair,
with perplexity written on his face, it would be impossible to imagine.

"Well," he said at length, "I suppose that I must come to a decision. It
is a painful matter, very, to a person of modest temperament. However, I
cannot shrink from my duty, and must face it. Therefore," he went on with
an air of judicial sternness, "therefore, Miss Smithers, I must trouble
you to show me this alleged will. There is a cupboard there," and he
pointed to the corner of the room, "where you can make - 'um - make the
necessary preparations."

"Oh, it isn't quite so bad as that," said Augusta, with a sigh, and she
began to remove her jacket.

"Dear me!" he said, observing her movement with alarm, "I suppose she is
hardened," he continued to himself: "but I dare say one gets used to this
sort of thing upon desert islands."

Meanwhile poor Augusta had got her jacket off. She was dressed in
an evening dress, and had a white silk scarf over her shoulder: this
she removed.

"Oh," he said, "I see - in evening dress. Well, of course, that is
quite a different matter. And so that is the will - well, I have had
some experience, but I never saw or heard of anything like it before.
Signed and attested, but not dated. Ah! unless," he added, "the date
is lower down."

"No," said Augusta, "there is no date; I could not stand any more
tattooing. It was all done at one sitting, and I got faint."

"I don't wonder at it, I am sure. I think it is the bravest thing I ever
heard of," and he bowed with much grace.

"Ah," muttered Eustace, "he's beginning to pay compliments now, insidious
old hypocrite!"

"Well," went on the innocent and eminently respectable object of his
suspicions, "of course the absence of a date does not invalidate a
will - it is matter for proof, that is all. But there, I am not in a
position to give any opinion about the case; it is quite beyond me, and
besides, that is not my business. But now, Miss Smithers, as you have
once put yourself in the custody of the Registry in the capacity of a
will, might I ask if you have any suggestion to make as to how you are to
be dealt with. Obviously you cannot be locked up with the other wills,
and equally obviously it is against the rules to allow a will to go out
of the custody of the Court, unless by special permission of the Court.
Also it is clear that I cannot put any restraint upon the liberty of the
subject and order you to remain with me. Indeed, I doubt if it would be
possible to do so by any means short of an Act of Parliament. Under these
circumstances I am, I confess, a little confused as to what course should
be taken with reference to this important alleged will."

"What I have to suggest, Sir," said Mr. Short, "is that a certified copy
of the will should be filed, and that there should be a special paragraph
inserted in the affidavit of scripts detailing the circumstances."

"Ah," said the learned Doctor, polishing his eye-glasses, "you have given
me an idea. With Miss Smithers' consent we will file something better
than a certified copy of the will - we will file a photographic copy. The
inconvenience to Miss Smithers will be trifling, and it may prevent
questions being raised hereafter."

"Have you any objections to that, my dear?" asked Lady Holmhurst.

"Oh, no, I suppose not," said Augusta mournfully; "I seem to be public
property now."

"Very well, then; excuse me for a moment," said the learned Doctor.
"There is a photographer close by whom I have had occasion to employ
officially. I will write and see if he can come round."

In a few minutes an answer came back from the photographer that he would
be happy to wait upon Doctor Probate at three o'clock, up to which hour
he was engaged.

"Well," said the Doctor, "it is clear that I cannot let Miss Smithers out
of the custody of the Court till the photograph is taken. Let me see, I
think that yours was my last appointment this morning. Now, what do you
say to the idea of something to eat? We are not five minutes drive from
Simpson's, and I shall feel delighted if you will make a pleasure of a

Lady Holmhurst, who was getting very hungry, said that she should be most
pleased, and, accordingly, they all - with the exception of Mr. John
Short, who departed about some business, saying that he would return at
three o'clock - drove off in Lady Holmhurst's carriage to the restaurant,
where this delightful specimen of the genus Registrar stood them a most
sumptuous champagne lunch, and made himself so agreeable, that both the
ladies nearly fell in love with him, and even Eustace was constrained to
admit to himself that good things can come out of the Divorce Court.
Finally, the doctor wound up the proceedings, which were of a most lively
order, and included an account of Augusta's adventures, with a toast.

"I hear from Lady Holmhurst," he said, "that you two young people are
going to take the preliminary step - um - towards a possible future
appearance in that Court with which I had for many years the honor of
being connected - that is, that you are going to get married. Now,
matrimony is, according to my somewhat extended experience, an
undertaking of a venturesome order, though cases occasionally come under
one's observation where the results have proved to be in every way
satisfactory; and I must say that, if I may form an opinion from the
facts as they are before me, I never knew an engagement entered into
under more promising or more romantic auspices. Here the young gentleman
quarrels with his uncle in taking the part of the young lady, and thereby
is disinherited of vast wealth. Then the young lady, under the most
terrible circumstances, takes steps of a nature that not one woman in
five hundred would have done to restore to him that wealth. Whether or no
those steps will ultimately prove successful I do not know, and, if I
did, like Herodotus, I should prefer not to say; but whether the wealth
comes or goes, it is impossible but that a sense of mutual confidence and
a mutual respect and admiration - that is, if a more quiet thing,

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Online LibraryH. Rider HaggardMr. Meeson's Will → online text (page 11 of 16)