The offices of Messrs Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols were in Lincoln's Inn Fields. The first Nichols had been dead since the reign of King William the Fourth, the second since the jubilee year of Queen Victoria. The remaining brace were Lord Dawlish's friend Jerry and his father, a formidable old man who knew all the shady secrets of all the noble families in England.
Bill walked up the stairs and was shown into the room where Jerry, when his father's eye was upon him, gave his daily imitation of a young man labouring with diligence and enthusiasm at the law. His father being at the moment out at lunch, the junior partner was practising putts with an umbrella and a ball of paper.
Jerry Nichols was not the typical lawyer. At Cambridge, where Bill had first made his acquaintance, he had been notable for an exuberance of which Lincoln's Inn Fields had not yet cured him. There was an airy disregard for legal formalities about him which exasperated his father, an attorney of the old school. He came to the point, directly Bill entered the room, with a speed and levity that would have appalled Nichols Senior, and must have caused the other two Nicholses to revolve in their graves.
'Halloa, Bill, old man,' he said, prodding him amiably in the waistcoat with the ferrule of the umbrella. 'How's the boy? Fine! So'm I. So you got my message? Wonderful invention, the telephone.'
'I've just come from the club.'
'Take a chair.'
'What's the matter?'
Jerry Nichols thrust Bill into a chair and seated himself on the table.
'Now look here, Bill,' he said, 'this isn't the way we usually do this sort of thing, and if the governor were here he would spend an hour and a half rambling on about testators and beneficiary legatees, and parties of the first part, and all that sort of rot. But as he isn't here I want to know, as one pal to another, what you've been doing to an old buster of the name of Nutcombe.'
'Not Ira Nutcombe?'
'Ira J. Nutcombe, formerly of Chicago, later of London, now a disembodied spirit.'
'Is he dead?'
'Yes. And he's left you something like a million pounds.'
Lord Dawlish looked at his watch.
'Joking apart, Jerry, old man,' he said, 'what did you ask me to come here for? The committee expects me to spend some of my time at the club, and if I hang about here all the afternoon I shall lose my job. Besides, I've got to get back to ask them for--'
Jerry Nichols clutched his forehead with both hands, raised both hands to heaven, and then, as if despairing of calming himself by these means, picked up a paper-weight from the desk and hurled it at a portrait of the founder of the firm, which hung over the mantelpiece. He got down from the table and crossed the room to inspect the ruins.
Then, having taken a pair of scissors and cut the cord, he allowed the portrait to fall to the floor.
He rang the bell. The prematurely-aged office-boy, who was undoubtedly destined to become a member of the firm some day, answered the ring.
'Inspect yonder soufflee.'
'You have observed it?'
'You are wondering how it got there?'
'I will tell you. You and I were in here, discussing certain legal minutiae in the interests of the firm, when it suddenly fell. We both saw it and were very much surprised and startled. I soothed your nervous system by giving you this half-crown. The whole incident was very painful. Can you remember all this to tell my father when he comes in? I shall be out lunching then.'
'An admirable lad that,' said Jerry Nichols as the door closed.
'He has been here two years, and I have never heard him say anything except "Yes, sir." He will go far. Well, now that I am calmer let us return to your little matter. Honestly, Bill, you make me sick. When I contemplate you the iron enters my soul. You stand there talking about your tuppenny-ha'penny job as if it mattered a cent whether you kept it or not. Can't you understand plain English? Can't you realize that you can buy Brown's and turn it into a moving-picture house if you like? You're a millionaire!'
Bill's face expressed no emotion whatsoever. Outwardly he appeared unmoved. Inwardly he was a riot of bewilderment, incapable of speech. He stared at Jerry dumbly.
'We've got the will in the old oak chest,' went on Jerry Nichols.
'I won't show it to you, partly because the governor has got the key and he would have a fit if he knew that I was giving you early information like this, and partly because you wouldn't understand it. It is full of "whereases" and "peradventures" and "heretofores" and similar swank, and there aren't any stops in it. It takes the legal mind, like mine, to tackle wills. What it says, when you've peeled off a few of the long words which they put in to make it more interesting, is that old Nutcombe leaves you the money because you are the only man who ever did him a disinterested kindness--and what I want to get out of you is, what was the disinterested kindness? Because I'm going straight out to do it to every elderly, rich-looking man I can find till I pick a winner.'
Lord Dawlish found speech.
'Jerry, is this really true?'
'You aren't pulling my leg?'
'Pulling your leg? Of course I'm not pulling your leg. What do you take me for? I'm a dry, hard-headed lawyer. The firm of Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols doesn't go about pulling people's legs!'
'It appears from the will that you worked this disinterested gag, whatever it was, at Marvis Bay no longer ago than last year. Wherein you showed a lot of sense, for Ira J., having altered his will in your favour, apparently had no time before he died to alter it again in somebody else's, which he would most certainly have done if he had lived long enough, for his chief recreation seems to have been making his will. To my certain knowledge he has made three in the last two years. I've seen them. He was one of those confirmed will-makers. He got the habit at an early age, and was never able to shake it off. Do you remember anything about the man?'
'It isn't possible!'
'Anything's possible with a man cracked enough to make freak wills and not cracked enough to have them disputed on the ground of insanity. What did you do to him at Marvis Bay? Save him from drowning?'
'I cured him of slicing.'
'You did what?'
'He used to slice his approach shots. I cured him.'
'The thing begins to hang together. A certain plausibility creeps into it. The late Nutcombe was crazy about golf. The governor used to play with him now and then at Walton Heath. It was the only thing Nutcombe seemed to live for. That being so, if you got rid of his slice for him it seems to me, that you earned your money. The only point that occurs to me is, how does it affect your amateur status? It looks to me as if you were now a pro.'
'But, Jerry, it's absurd. All I did was to give him a tip or two. We were the only men down there, as it was out of the season, and that drew us together. And when I spotted this slice of his I just gave him a bit of advice. I give you my word that was all. He can't have left me a fortune on the strength of that!'
'You don't tell the story right, Bill. I can guess what really happened--to wit, that you gave up all your time to helping the old fellow improve his game, regardless of the fact that it completely ruined your holiday.'
'It's no use sitting there saying "Oh, no!" I can see you at it. The fact is, you're such an infernally good chap that something of this sort was bound to happen to you sooner or later. I think making you his heir was the only sensible thing old Nutcombe ever did. In his place I'd have done the same.'
'But he didn't even seem decently grateful at the time.'
'Probably not. He was a queer old bird. He had a most almighty row with the governor in this office only a month or two ago about absolutely nothing. They disagreed about something trivial, and old Nutcombe stalked out and never came in again. That's the sort of old bird he was.'
'Was he sane, do you think?'
'Absolutely, for legal purposes. We have three opinions from leading doctors--collected by him in case of accidents, I suppose--each of which declares him perfectly sound from the collar upward. But a man can be pretty far gone, you know, without being legally insane, and old Nutcombe--well, suppose we call him whimsical. He seems to have zigzagged between the normal and the eccentric.
'His only surviving relatives appear to be a nephew and a niece. The nephew dropped out of the running two years ago when his aunt, old Nutcombe's wife, who had divorced old Nutcombe, left him her money. This seems to have soured the old boy on the nephew, for in the first of his wills that I've seen--you remember I told you I had seen three--he leaves the niece the pile and the nephew only gets twenty pounds. Well, so far there's nothing very eccentric about old Nutcombe's proceedings. But wait!
'Six months after he had made that will he came in here and made another. This left twenty pounds to the nephew as before, but nothing at all to the niece. Why, I don't know. There was nothing in the will about her having done anything to offend him during those six months, none of those nasty slams you see in wills about "I bequeath to my only son John one shilling and sixpence. Now perhaps he's sorry he married the cook." As far as I can make out he changed his will just as he did when he left the money to you, purely through some passing whim. Anyway, he did change it. He left the pile to support the movement those people are running for getting the Jews back to Palestine.
'He didn't seem, on second thoughts, to feel that this was quite such a brainy scheme as he had at first, and it wasn't long before he came trotting back to tear up this second will and switch back to the first one--the one leaving the money to the niece. That restoration to sanity lasted till about a month ago, when he broke loose once more and paid his final visit here to will you the contents of his stocking. This morning I see he's dead after a short illness, so you collect. Congratulations!'
Lord Dawlish had listened to this speech in perfect silence. He now rose and began to pace the room. He looked warm and uncomfortable. His demeanour, in fact, was by no means the accepted demeanour of the lucky heir.
'This is awful!' he said. 'Good Lord, Jerry, it's frightful!'
'Awful!--being left a million pounds?'
'Yes, like this. I feel like a bally thief.'
'Why on earth?'
'If it hadn't been for me this girl--what's her name?'
'Her name is Boyd--Elizabeth Boyd.'
'She would have had the whole million if it hadn't been for me. Have you told her yet?'
'She's in America. I was writing her a letter just before you came in--informal, you know, to put her out of her misery. If I had waited for the governor to let her know in the usual course of red tape we should never have got anywhere. Also one to the nephew, telling him about his twenty pounds. I believe in humane treatment on these occasions. The governor would write them a legal letter with so many "hereinbefores" in it that they would get the idea that they had been left the whole pile. I just send a cheery line saying "It's no good, old top. Abandon hope," and they know just where they are. Simple and considerate.'
A glance at Bill's face moved him to further speech.
'I don't see why you should worry, Bill. How, by any stretch of the imagination, can you make out that you are to blame for this Boyd girl's misfortune? It looks to me as if these eccentric wills of old Nutcombe's came in cycles, as it were. Just as he was due for another outbreak he happened to meet you. It's a moral certainty that if he hadn't met you he would have left all his money to a Home for Superannuated Caddies or a Fund for Supplying the Deserving Poor with Niblicks. Why should you blame yourself?'
'I don't blame myself. It isn't exactly that. But--but, well, what would you feel like in my place?'
'Wouldn't you do anything?'
'I certainly would. By my halidom, I would! I would spend that money with a vim and speed that would make your respected ancestor, the Beau, look like a village miser.'
'You wouldn't--er--pop over to America and see whether something couldn't be arranged?'
'I mean--suppose you were popping in any case. Suppose you had happened to buy a ticket for New York on to-morrow's boat, wouldn't you try to get in touch with this girl when you got to America, and see if you couldn't--er--fix up something?'
Jerry Nichols looked at him in honest consternation. He had always known that old Bill was a dear old ass, but he had never dreamed that he was such an infernal old ass as this.
'You aren't thinking of doing that?' he gasped.
'Well, you see, it's a funny coincidence, but I was going to America, anyhow, to-morrow. I don't see why I shouldn't try to fix up something with this girl.'
'What do you mean--fix up something? You don't suggest that you should give the money up, do you?'
'I don't know. Not exactly that, perhaps. How would it be if I gave her half, what? Anyway, I should like to find out about her, see if she's hard up, and so on. I should like to nose round, you know, and--er--and so forth, don't you know. Where did you say the girl lived?'
'I didn't say, and I'm not sure that I shall. Honestly, Bill, you mustn't be so quixotic.'
'There's no harm in my nosing round, is there? Be a good chap and give me the address.'
'Well'--with misgivings--'Brookport, Long Island.'
'Bill, are you really going to make a fool of yourself?'
'Not a bit of it, old chap. I'm just going to--er--'
'To nose round?'
'To nose round,' said Bill.
Jerry Nichols accompanied his friend to the door, and once more peace reigned in the offices of Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols.
The time of a man who has at a moment's notice decided to leave his native land for a sojourn on foreign soil is necessarily taken up with a variety of occupations; and it was not till the following afternoon, on the boat at Liverpool, that Bill had leisure to write to Claire, giving her the news of what had befallen him. He had booked his ticket by a Liverpool boat in preference to one that sailed from Southampton because he had not been sure how Claire would take the news of his sudden decision to leave for America. There was the chance that she might ridicule or condemn the scheme, and he preferred to get away without seeing her. Now that he had received this astounding piece of news from Jerry Nichols he was relieved that he had acted in this way. Whatever Claire might have thought of the original scheme, there was no doubt at all what she would think of his plan of seeking out Elizabeth Boyd with a view to dividing the legacy with her.
He was guarded in his letter. He mentioned no definite figures. He wrote that Ira Nutcombe of whom they had spoken so often had most surprisingly left him in his will a large sum of money, and eased his conscience by telling himself that half of a million pounds undeniably was a large sum of money.
The addressing of the letter called for thought. She would have left Southampton with the rest of the company before it could arrive. Where was it that she said they were going next week? Portsmouth, that was it. He addressed the letter Care of The Girl and the Artist Company, to the King's Theatre, Portsmouth.Next