The Dorrington Deed-Box
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"Aw right then, keep it for the bloke it b'longs to. I don't want it."
"No," returned the navvy with rising indignation, "but I want mine, though! Wotcher done with it? Eh? It ain't a rotten old 'un like this 'ere. None o' yer 'alf-larks. Jist you 'and it over, come on!"
"'And wot over?" asked the dockman, growing indignant in his turn. "You drops yer 'at over the bridge like some kid as can't take care of it, and I brings it up for ye. 'Stead o' sayin' 'thank ye, 'like a man, y' asks me for another 'at! Go an' bile yer face!" And he turned on his heel.
"No, ye don't!" bawled the navvy, dropping the battered hat and making a complicated rush at the other's retreating form. "Not much! You gimme my 'at!" And he grabbed the dockman anywhere, with both hands.
The dockman was as big as the navvy, and no more patient. He immediately punched his assailant's nose; and in three seconds a mingled bunch of dockman and navvy was floundering about the street. Dorrington saw no more. He had the despised hat in his hand, and, general attention being directed to the action in progress, he hurried quietly up the nearest court.
Samuel Greer, having got clear of the barber by paying his penny, was in much perplexity, and this notwithstanding his acquisition of the navvy's hat, a very decent bowler, which covered his head generously and rested on his ears. What should be the move now? His hat was clean gone, and the codicil with it. To find it again would be a hopeless task, unless by chance the navvy should discover his mistake and return to the barber's to make a rectification of hats. So Samuel Greer returned once more to the barber's, and for the rest of the day called again and again fruitlessly. At first the barber was vastly amused, and told the story to his customers, who laughed. Then the barber got angry at the continual worrying, and at the close of the day's barbering he earned his night's repose by pitching Samuel Greer neck and crop into the gutter. Samuel Greer gathered himself up disconsolately, surrounded his head with the navvy's hat, and shuffled off to the "Ship and Anchor."
At the "Ship and Anchor" he found one Barker, a decayed and sodden lawyer's clerk out of work. Greer's temporary affluence enabling him to stand drinks, he was presently able, by putting artfully hypothetical cases, to extract certain legal information from Barker. Chiefly he learned that if a will or a codicil were missing, it might nevertheless be possible to obtain probate of it by satisfying the court with evidence of its contents and its genuineness. Here, at any rate, was a certain hope. He alone, apparently, of all persons, knew the contents of the codicil and the names of the witnesses; and since it was impossible to sell the codicil, now that it was gone, he might at least sell his evidence. He resolved to offer his evidence for sale to Flint at once, and take what he could get. There must be no delay, for possibly the navvy might find the paper in the hat and carry it to Flint, seeing that his name was beneficially mentioned in it, and his address given.Plainly the hat would not go back to the barber's now. If the drunken navvy had found out his mistake he probably had not the least notion where he had been nor where the hat had come from, else he would have returned it during the day, and recovered his own superior property. So Samuel Greer went at once, late as it was, and knocked up Mr. Flint.
Flint congratulated himself, feeling sure that Greer had thought better of his business and had come to give his information for anything he could get. Greer, on his part, was careful to conceal the fact that the codicil had been in his possession and had been lost. All he said was that he had seen the codicil, that its date was nine months later than that of the will, and that it benefited Jarvis Flint to the extent of some ten thousand pounds; leaving Flint to suppose, if he pleased, that Cater, the executor, had the codicil, but would probably suppress it. Indeed this was the conclusion that Flint immediately jumped at.
And the result of the interview was this: Flint, with much grudging and reluctance, handed over as a preliminary fee the sum of one pound, the most he could be screwed up to. Then it was settled that Greer should come on the morrow and consult with Flint and his solicitor Lugg, the object of the consultation being the construction of a consistent tale and a satisfactory soi-disant copy of the codicil, which Greer was to swear to, if necessary, and armed with which Paul Cater might be confronted and brought to terms.
It may be wondered why, ere this, Flint had not received the genuine codicil itself, recovered by Dorrington from Greer's hat. The fact was that Dorrington, as was his wont, was playing a little game of his own. Having possessed himself of the codicil, he was now in a position to make the most from both sides, and in a far more efficient manner than the clumsy Greer. People of Jarvis Flint's sordid character are apt, with all their sordid keenness, to be wonderfully short-sighted in regard to what might seem fairly obvious to a man of honest judgment. Thus it never occurred to Flint that a man like Dorrington, willing, for a miserable wage, to apply his exceptional subtlety to the furtherance of his employer's rascally designs, would be at least as ready to swindle that master on his own account when the opportunity offered; would be, in fact, the more ready, in proportion to the stinginess wherewith his master had treated him.
Having found the codicil, Dorrington's procedure was not to hand it over forthwith to Flint. It was this: first he made a careful and exact copy of the codicil; then he procured two men of his acquaintance, men of good credit, to read over the copy, word for word, and certify it as being an exact copy of the original by way of a signed declaration written on the back of the copy. Then he was armed at all points.
He packed the copy carefully away in his pocket-book, and with the original in his coat pocket, he called at the house in Bermondsey Wall, where Paul Cater had taken up his quarters to keep guard over everything till the will should be proved. So it happened that, while Samuel Greer, Jarvis Flint, and Lugg, the lawyer, were building their scheme, Dorrington was talking to Paul Cater at Cater's Wharf.
On the assurance that he had business of extreme importance, Cater took Dorrington into the room in which the old man had died. Cater was using this room as an office in which to examine and balance his uncle's books, and the corpse had been carried to a room below to await the funeral. Dorrington's clothes at this time, as I have hinted, were not distinguished by the excellence of cut and condition that was afterwards noticeable; in point of fact, he was seedy. But his assurance and his presence of mind were fully developed, and it was this very transaction that was to put the elegant appearance within his reach.
"Mr. Cater," he said, "I believe you are sole executor of the will of your uncle, Mr. Jeremiah Cater, who lived in this house." Cater assented.
"That will is one extremely favourable to yourself. In fact, by it you become not only sole executor, but practically sole legatee."
"I am here as a man of business and as a man of the world to give you certain information. There is a codicil to that will."
Cater started. Then he shrugged his shoulders and shook his head as though he knew better.
"There is a codicil," Dorrington went on, imperturbably, "executed in strict form, all in the handwriting of the testator, and dated nine months later than the will. That codicil benefits your cousin, Mr. Jarvis Flint, to the extent of ten thousand pounds. To put it in another way, it deprives you of ten thousand pounds."
Cater felt uneasy, but he did his best to maintain a contemptuous appearance. "You're rushing ahead pretty fast," he said, "talking about the terms of this codicil, as you call it. What I want to know is, where is it?"
"That," replied Dorrington, smilingly, "is a question very easily answered. The codicil is in my pocket." He tapped his coat as he spoke.
Paul Cater started again, and now he was plainly discomposed. "Very well," he said, with some bravado, "if you've got it you can show it to me, I suppose."
"Nothing easier," Dorrington responded affably. He stepped to the fireplace and took the poker. "You won't mind my holding the poker while you inspect the paper, will you?" he asked politely. "The fact is, the codicil is of such a nature that I fear a man of your sharp business instincts might be tempted to destroy it, there being no other witness present, unless you had the assurance (which I now give you) that if you as much as touch it I shall stun you with the poker. There is the codicil, which you may read with your hands behind you." He spread the paper out on the table, and Cater bent eagerly and read it, growing paler as his eye travelled down the sheet.
Before raising his eyes, however, he collected himself, and as he stood up he said, with affected contempt, "I don't care a brass farthing for this thing! It's a forgery on the face of it."
"Dear me!" answered Dorrington placidly, recovering the paper and folding it up; "that's very disappointing to hear. I must take it round to Mr. Flint and see if that is his opinion."
"No, you mustn't!" exclaimed Cater, desperately. "You say that's a genuine document. Very well. I'm still executor, and you are bound to give it to me."
"Precisely," Dorrington replied sweetly. "But in the strict interests of justice I think Mr. Flint, as the person interested, ought to have a look at it first, in case any accident should happen to it in your hands. Don't you?"
Cater knew he was in a corner, and his face betrayed it.
"Come," said Dorrington in a more business-like tone. "Here is the case in a nutshell. It is my business, just as it is yours, to get as much as I can for nothing. In pursuance of that business I quietly got hold of this codicil. Nobody but yourself knows I have it, and as to how I got it you needn't ask, for I sha'n't tell you. Here is the document, and it is worth ten thousand pounds to either of two people, yourself and Mr. Flint, your worthy cousin. I am prepared to sell it at a very great sacrifice – to sell it dirt cheap, in fact, and I give you the privilege of first refusal, for which you ought to be grateful. One thousand pounds is the price, and that gives you a profit of nine thousand pounds when you have destroyed the codicil – a noble profit of nine hundred per cent. at a stroke! Come, is it a bargain?"
"What?" ejaculated Cater, astounded. "A thousand pounds?"
"One thousand pounds exactly," replied Dorrington complacently, "and a penny for the receipt stamp – if you want a receipt."
"Oh," said Cater, "you're mad. A thousand pounds! Why, it's absurd!"
"Think so?" remarked Dorrington, reaching for his hat. "Then I must see if Mr. Flint agrees with you, that's all. He's a man of business, and I never heard of his refusing a certain nine hundred per cent. profit yet. Good-day!"
"No, stop!" yelled the desperate Cater. "Don't go. Don't be unreasonable now – say five hundred and I'll write you a cheque."
"Won't do," answered Dorrington, shaking his head. "A thousand is the price, and not a penny less. And not by cheque, mind. I understand all moves of that sort. Notes or gold. I wonder at a smart man like yourself expecting me to be so green."
"But I haven't the money here."
"Very likely not. Where's your bank? We'll go there and get it."
Cater, between his avarice and his fears, was at his wits' end. "Don't be so hard on me, Mr. Dorrington," he whined. "I'm not a rich man, I assure you. You'll ruin me!"
"Ruin you? What do you mean? I give you ten thousand pounds for one thousand and you say I ruin you! Really, it seems too ridiculously cheap. If you don't settle quickly, Mr. Cater, I shall raise my terms, I warn you!"
So it came about that Dorrington and Cater took cab together for a branch bank in Pimlico, whence Dorrington emerged with one thousand pounds in notes and gold, stowed carefully about his person, and Cater with the codicil to his uncle's will, which half an hour later he had safely burnt.
So much for the first half of Dorrington's operation. For the second half he made no immediate hurry. If he had been aware of Samuel Greer's movements and Lugg's little plot he might have hurried, but as it was he busied himself in setting up on a more respectable scale by help of his newly-acquired money. But he did not long delay. He had the attested copy of the codicil, which would be as good as the original if properly backed with evidence in a court of law. The astute Cater, wise in his own conceit, just as was his equally astute cousin Flint, had clean overlooked the possibility of such a trick as this. And now all Dorrington had to do was to sell the copy for one more thousand pounds to Jarvis Flint.
It was on the morning of old Jerry Cater's funeral that he made his way to Deptford to do this, and he chuckled as he reflected on the probable surprise of Flint, who doubtless wondered what had become of his sweated inquiry agent, when confronted with his offer. But when he arrived at the ship-store shop he found that Flint was out, so he resolved to call again in the evening.
At that moment Jarvis Flint, Samuel Greer, and Lugg the lawyer were at the house in Bermondsey Wall attacking Paul Cater. Greer, foreseeing probable defiance by Cater from a window, had led the party in by the wharf door and so had taken Cater by surprise. Cater was in a suit of decent black, as befitted the occasion, and he received the news of the existence of a copy of the codicil he had destroyed with equal fury and apprehension.
"What do you mean?" he demanded. "What do you mean? I'm not to be bluffed like this! You talk about a codicil – where is it? Where is it, eh?"
"My dear sir," said Lugg peaceably – he was a small, snuffy man – "we are not here to make disturbances or quarrels, or breaches of the peace; we are here on a strictly business errand, and I assure you it will be for your best interests if you listen quietly to what we have to say. Ahem! It seems that Mr. Samuel Greer here has frequently seen the codicil – "
"Greer's a rascal – a thief – a scoundrel!" cried the irate Cater, shaking his fist in the thick of Greer's squint. "He swindled me out of ten pounds! He – "
"Really, Mr. Cater," Lugg interposed, "you do no good by such outbursts, and you prevent my putting the case before you. As I was saying, Mr. Greer has frequently seen the codicil, and saw it, indeed, on the very day of the late Mr. Cater's decease. You may not have come across it, and, indeed, there may be some temporary difficulty in finding the original. But fortunately Mr. Greer took notes of the contents and of the witnesses' names, and from those notes I have been able to draw up this statement, which Mr. Greer is prepared to subscribe to, by affidavit or declaration, if by any chance you may be unable to produce the original codicil."
Cater, seeing his thousand pounds to Dorrington going for nothing, and now confronted with the fear of losing ten thousand pounds more, could scarce speak for rage. "Greer's a liar, I tell you!" he spluttered out. "A liar, a thief, a scoundrel! His word – his affidavit – his oath – anything of his – isn't worth a straw!"
"That, my dear sir," Lugg proceeded equably, "is a thing that may remain for the probate court, and possibly a jury, to decide upon. In the meantime permit me to suggest that it will be better for all parties – cheaper in fact – if this matter be settled out of court. I think, if you will give the matter a little calm and unbiassed thought, you will admit that the balance of strength is altogether with our case. Would you like to look at the statement? Its effect, you will see, is, roughly speaking, to give my client a legacy of say about ten thousand pounds in value. The witnesses are easily produced, and really, I must say, for my part, if Mr. Greer, who has nothing to gain or lose either way, is prepared to take the serious responsibility of swearing a declaration – "
"I don't believe he will!" cried Cater, catching at the straw. "I don't believe he will. Mind, Greer," he went on, "there's penal servitude for perjury!"
"Yes," Greer answered, speaking for the first time, with a squint and a chuckle, "so there is. And for stealin' an' suppressin' dockyments, I'm told. I'm ready to make that 'ere declaration."
"I don't believe he is!" Cater said, with an attempt to affect indifference. "And anyhow, I needn't take any notice of it till he does."
"Well," said Lugg accommodatingly, "there need be no difficulty or delay about that. The declaration's all written out, and I'm a commissioner to administer oaths. I think that's a Bible I see on the shelf there, isn't it?" He stepped across to where the old Bible had lain since Greer flung it there, just before Jerry Cater's death. He took the book down and opened it at the title-page. "Yes," he said, "a Bible; and now – why – what? what?"
Mr. Lugg stood suddenly still and stared at the fly-leaf. Then he said quietly, "Let me see, it was on Monday last that Mr. Cater died, was it not?"
"Late in the afternoon?"
"Then, gentlemen, you must please prepare yourselves for a surprise. Mr. Cater evidently made another will, revoking all previous wills and codicils, on the very day of his death. And here it is!" He extended the Bible before him, and it was plain to see that the fly-leaf was covered with the weak, straggling handwriting of old Jerry Cater – a little weaker and a little more straggling than that in the other will, but unmistakably his.
Flint stared, perplexed and bewildered, Greer scratched his head and squinted blankly at the lawyer. Paul Cater passed his hand across his forehead and seized a tuft of hair over one temple as though he would pull it out. The only book in the house that he had not opened or looked at during his stay was the Bible.
"The thing is very short," Lugg went on, inclining the writing to the light. "'This is the last will and testament of me, Jeremiah Cater, of Cater's Wharf. I give and bequeath the whole of the estate and property of which I may die possessed, whether real or personal, entirely and absolutely to – to —' what is the name? Oh yes – 'to Henry Sinclair, my clerk —'"
"What?" yelled Cater and Flint in chorus, each rising and clutching at the Bible. "Not Sinclair! No! Let me see!"
"I think, gentlemen," said the solicitor, putting their hands aside, "that you will get the information quickest by listening while I read. '– to Henry Sinclair, my clerk. And I appoint the said Henry Sinclair my sole executor. And I wish it to be known that I do this, not only by way of reward to an honest servant, and to recompense him for his loss in loan transactions with me, but also to mark my sense of the neglect of my two nephews. And I revoke all former wills and codicils.' Then follows date and signature and the signatures of witnesses – both apparently men of imperfect education."
"But you're mad – it's impossible!" exclaimed Cater, the first to find his tongue. "He couldn't have made a will then – he was too weak. Greer knows he couldn't."
Greer, who understood better than anybody else present the allusion in the will to the nephews' neglect, coughed dubiously, and said, "Well, he did get up while I was out. An' when I got back he had the Bible beside him, an' he seemed pretty well knocked up with something. An' the winder was wide open – I expect he opened it to holler out as well as he could to some chaps on the wharf or somewhere to come up by the wharf door and do the witnessing. An' now I think of it I expect he sent me out a-purpose in case – well, in case if I knowed I might get up to summat with the will. He told me not to hurry. An' I expect he about used himself up with the writin' an' the hollerin' an' the cold air an' what not."
Cater and Flint, greatly abashed, exchanged a rapid glance. Then Cater, with a preliminary cough, said hesitatingly, "Well now, Mr. Lugg, let us consider this. It seems quite evident to me – and no doubt it will to you, as my cousin's solicitor – it seems quite evident to me that my poor uncle could not have been in a sound state of mind when he made this very ridiculous will. Quite apart from all questions of genuineness, I've no doubt that a court would set it aside. And in view of that it would be very cruel to allow this poor man Sinclair to suppose himself to be entitled to a great deal of money, only to find himself disappointed and ruined after all. You'll agree with that, I'm sure. So I think it will be best for all parties if we keep this thing to ourselves, and just tear out that fly-leaf and burn it, to save trouble. And on my part I shall be glad to admit the copy of the codicil you have produced, and no doubt my cousin and I will be prepared to pay you a fee which will compensate you for any loss of business in actions – eh?"
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