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Title: Proof Positive
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100361.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: April 2011
Date most recently updated: April 2011

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Title: Proof Positive
Author: Fred M White

*

Author of: "The Pawn and the Rook," "The Shadow of the Dead Hand,"
"A Bootless Errand," etc., etc.

*

Published in the Western Mail (Perth, W.A.), Thursday, 4 August, 1927.

*

One thing old William Lane could never forget and that was the fact that
Connie Danvers was Miss Danvers of Holsworthy Manor. She might be to-day
the mere housekeeper of a tenant farmer in the shape of her brother
Walter, and that the old place was let on a long lease to those odious
Samley-Gedge people, but the basic fact remained. Lane might be a rich
man now, as he undoubtedly was, but he had been born under the shadow of
the Manor and moreover he was the foster brother of the last but one of
the prosperous and mighty Danvers in those days nearly seventy years
ago, when things were very different. And because of that and because he
had neither kith nor kin he was intensely proud of the fact that Connie
and her brother treated him as an equal.

Over half a century ago he had emigrated to Australia with his father,
and had been left as a mere lad entirely without education to face the
world alone. He had done well in one way and another being naturally
shrewd, and in the course of time had made a fortune of no small
dimensions, after which he had come home to settle down in the village
of his birth, with his confidential secretary, Godfrey Curtis, whom he
had originally found in some Australian bank and brought with him to
England to look after his monetary affairs. The coterie was made up by
one Sam Crichton, an old schoolfellow of Walter Danvers, who had joined
him in the more or less vain hope of making a competence out of the one
farm Danvers had retained when he let the old place on a long lease in
the hope of clearing off the mortgages in time. It was a very fine let
to those odious and vulgar Samley-Gedge, husband and wife, who had come
into that part of the country more or less, so Gedge said, because he
had known Lane out in Australia and had, indeed, once been a sort of
partner of his. The Gedges seemed to be very wealthy and hospitable in
their vulgar way, and made much of Lane who, however, was not too
responsive as Connie Danvers did not fail to notice. Anyway, their
coming was more or less due to William Lane and Connie was not
ungrateful.

But dear old William Lane was a different proposition altogether. He was
one of nature's gentlemen, and did more good in the neighbourhood in a
month than the Danvers had done in generations. So that he was a welcome
guest at the farm where he bought Connie's butter and eggs and poultry
with a lavishness which made her blush to take his money. It was some
consolation to know that most of her produce went in charity.

Both she and her brother were very fond of old William Lane. So was Sam
Crichton, Walter Danvers' partner. But it never once crossed the mind of
either of them that some of these early days they might benefit through
this one-time employee on the family estates. His money, of course,
would go to Godfrey Curtis, who was to all practical purposes the old
man's adopted son. When Lane died Curtis would return to Australia and
settle down there with his own relatives. And that would be that. They
all liked Curtis, who was a fine chap, and persona grata at the farm.
Honest Sam Crichton was a little jealous of him, though he would not
have had Connie guess it for the world. But then Connie was something
more than a lovely and well-born maid, and women have a natural instinct
for that sort of thing. That fine individual Sam Crichton would have
been amazed and dismayed had he realised that Con had discovered his
secret long ago, though never by word or look had he betrayed his
feelings. Dear old Sam! And when a girl begins to think of a man she
respects and admires as 'dear old Sam' or anything else--. Moreover
Godfrey Curtis was at present in Australia on business connected with
his employer and would not be back for many months to come. And there
was a girl on the other side. Which secret he had confided to Connie.

But it was weary uphill work at the farm. The fact was more or less
forced from Walter Danvers one night shortly after Curtis's departure
for Australia as he smoked his pipe in the dining-room.

"I feel like chucking it sometimes," he sighed. "The rent we are getting
from those Gedge people pays the interest on the mortgages and small
reductions of same, but it is a devil of a pull. Why don't you chuck it,
Sammy, and leave me to carry on?"

Sam Crichton shook his honest, handsome head, and flushed. He was
watching the lovely figure in the big armchair with a pile of darning on
her knee. What would Connie be like in twenty years' time, he asked
himself. All that work and drudgery.... He managed to voice his thoughts
in a few discreet words.

"Don't you worry about me," Connie laughed. "According to all the
precedents dear old Lane must leave me everything when he dies.
Especially if Godfrey Curtis fails to come back. Don't frown, Walter, I
am only jesting."

"Much more likely to leave it to that Samley-Gedge lot," Walter growled.
"They are all over him these days."

With which Walter rose and drifted moodily out.

"It is a bit hard," Connie sighed.

"On you," Sam said. "If I wasn't here perhaps things would be easier. I
haven't said a word----"

"No, you are always quite the grande seigneur, Sam," Connie said,
demurely. "You are too proud, Sam. There is a certain pride that spells
conceit. That's yours, Sam. Placing yourself on a pedestal and admiring
the statue from a distance. So poor that you could never ask a girl to
marry you. That would not be playing the game from the statue point of
view. But if the girl cared for you, isn't there something to be said
from her point of view? Do you realise, Sam, that you have been making
love to me for the last two years and more?"

Sam reddened through his tan like a schoolboy.

"Me!" he cried. "M-m-making love to you! I wouldn't dare. I swear I have
never said a single word----"

"Not one, Sam," Connie said, demurely. "But, then, you see, love
recognises no language limits. In the Victorian novels the hero always
spoke of a lifetime's devotion. But what was the use of that so long as
it led to nothing. A girl might have all that and die an old maid all
the same. And no true girl ever hankers after that. Oh, I know that you
study me----"

"Who wouldn't?" Sam said, sotto voce.

"Thank you, Sam. That was very pretty and sincere. There is nothing that
you will not do for me. You are always on the look-out to save me
trouble. You have rather nice eyes, Sam, and they talk, if you don't.
They were quite eloquent just now when I was gabbling all that nonsense
about Mr. Lane's money. Sam, are you not ashamed to sit there as if I
was not worth answering?"

Sam's honest soul was bathed in illuminating light.

"I couldn't ask you to marry me," he said, firmly.

"Purely as a matter of argument, why not?" Connie asked. "We are both
poor and, I hope, very honourable. This, of course, is a great drawback
in life's progress, but I think that it makes for happiness in the end.
And if I am going to be a dairymaid all my life, why shouldn't I have
somebody to look after me and, equally, why not somebody to look after
you. Eh, Sam?"

Sam seemed to hear the words from a long way off. The afterglow of a
gorgeous sunset filled the room and framed Connie like a picture. Then
from the outer world the sound of hurried steps and Walter burst into
the room.

"Lane," he cried, "poor old Lane. Dining at the Manor with the Gedge
family. In the library afterwards transacting some business with his
host. I met Harrison, the butler, running for a doctor. A most ghastly
thing."

With a little cry Connie sprang to her feet.

"You don't mean to say?" she gasped, "that----"

"Dead," Walter whispered. "He just fell back and died."

       *       *       *       *       *

It was something more than a nine days' wonder in the village. The poor
old gentleman was dead and gone and scores of local poor would miss him
terribly. Gossips standing at cottage doors asked one another what would
become of his money. He hadn't a single relative in the world, for, had
such been the case, he would have looked such relations up and they
would have benefited. What was to become of the Hospice and all the
wonders it contained?

Then, as is inevitable in country places, rumour began to get busy.
Everything had gone to that there Samley-Gedge! They had been partners
in business years ago in Australey. A crying shame, it was, and him
making such a fuss of the poor young squire and his sister. 'Sides, them
Gedges had money enough already. And not one penny for the poor of the
parish as promised.

Not that Walter Danvers or Connie had expected anything. Such a thought
had never occurred to either of them. Still the late William Lane had
hinted at such great things that Walter took the first opportunity of
speaking to his burly tenant on the subject. The big man with the heavy
red face and small gimlet eyes smiled.

"Wonderful how these things get out in these villages," he said
casually. "I have not mentioned the matter to a soul and I am sure my
wife hasn't either. Still, the will has to be proved and it will be
public property then so you might as well know now. You see, years ago
Lane and myself did a lot of speculating together. We were both poor
struggling men and for a time things were all against us. And when the
luck turned and we both stood on firm ground we had a bit of a quarrel.
I might have been wrong, but Lane was sailing a bit too near the wind
for me. However, he is dead and gone now, poor chap, and I'll say no
more. The very night he died, he came up to the Manor and showed me his
will in which he left everything to me. He was going to alter it and
make all sorts of provision for the poor here and so on when he just
laid back and died as you heard at the inquest. All he intended to do
but didn't put down in writing shall be done, Danvers, you can bet on
that. I told my solicitors as much when I wrote to them enclosing the
original will. I regard poor Lane's wishes as a sacred duty. I shall see
that nobody suffers."

Danvers made no comment though he went his way by no means easy in his
mind. Intimate as he had been with the late William Lane, the latter had
never said much about his past in the way of business details. But more
than once he had alluded to Gedge in a way that was not exactly
extravagant in the way of appreciation. They exchanged visits and dined
with one another, but----. And now apparently Lane had left his quondam
partner everything. Well, the world would know all about that in good
time. And, in any case it was no business of his, Walter decided.

Yet the proving of the will in the Probate Court dragged on in the
inert, languid manner peculiar to legal processes and at the end of a
year the estate was still in the hands of the Court. Some difficulty in
getting in contact with the witnesses to the document, Walter
understood. The will had been made years before in the back of the
Australian beyond and these witnesses had more or less vanished into
darkness. Nor had the will been made by a lawyer but was on a single
sheet of foolscap paper in the handwriting of the testator himself.
Still, Walter understood from Gedge that as the signature and
handwriting was not in dispute it was only a question of time before the
Court would presume the genuineness of the testament and pass it for
probate.

There was only one man who could throw any light on this very dubious
darkness and he was far enough away. Not one word had reached the home
from from Godfrey Curtis since his departure over a year ago, and
probably now he would never visit England again. He had not even left
his address behind him, so that chapter was closed and the romance of
William Lane ended.

And then, one fine morning in October following the old man's
death--that is, October in the following year--Curtis walked into the
home farm dining-room as if he had never left. They were just sitting
down to luncheon, and welcomed him with open arms.

"Give an account of yourself," Walter cried.

"The short and simple annals of the poor," Curtis quoted. "Fifteen
months hard work--no more. Then, when my mother came back completely
restored to health after a long illness, I deemed it time to run over
here, if only to visit the grave of that dear old man."

"Then you knew all about it?" Connie asked.

"'Why, of course. From the local paper which I had sent out to me
regularly. Of course, I ought to have written to some of you, but you
know how one forgets such things. And you hadn't my address, either. And
so Gedge comes into all that money! Over Six Hundred Thousand Pounds!
Rather rough on some of us, eh? But Gedge hasn't got it yet."

"No, but he will in a month or so," Walter pointed out grimly. "Did you
happen to know anything about this will?"

"Not a word," Curtis confessed. "Though I can throw a lot of light on it
if I am asked to. However----"

With which Curtis changed the conversation as if so far as he was
concerned, the subject was finished. He was uncertain as to how long he
would stay in England, but, as to that, he could be more definite the
following night after he had seen a firm of solicitors in London on the
morrow.

It was just after noon next morning as he entered the offices of Steel,
Brights, and Steel, and asked to see one of the partners. It was a
Bright he saw, and what he had to say deeply interested that gentleman.
He was still more interested in a memorandum which Curtis placed on the
table before him.

"Now, this is in my writing. Mr. Bright," he said. "It was taken down
from dictation, and the date is 23rd July last year, as you can see. The
signature at the foot is that of my late employer, Mr. William Lane, of
The Hospice, Caveaham. It was dictated the morning following a heart
attack. My employer suffered that way. Your legal experience will tell
you that the memorandum was intended as the basis of a will the old
gentleman intended to make. Sort of instructions to counsel. It was
intended that I was to come up to town and see your firm with those
instructions, but I didn't come, because I was suddenly called away to
Australia. I was to come to you because of the high reputation of your
firm, and the fact that you are solicitors to the Danvers estate. In
ordinary circumstances that memorandum might be accepted by the Court as
a real will. I seem to have read of such cases."

"Quite," the lawyer agreed. "But not in case of a properly signed and
witnessed will which provides for a contingency the very opposite to the
instructions in your memorandum."

"But the memorandum is witnessed by my late employer's butler and
housekeeper," Curtis pointed out. "Highly respectable people, whereas no
witnesses to what we may call the genuine will are to be found at all."

"Precisely. But considering that the will that Mr. Samley-Gedge seeks to
prove is actually in the testator's own handwriting----"

"Even that mountain might be got over," Curtis interrupted, with a
smile. "Listen to my prologue, or, rather, my epilogue."

Mr. Bright listened politely until at a pregnant sentence from Curtis he
jumped from his seat and appeared to go in off the deep end with a
vehemence the like of which that decorous office had never seen before.

"Does anybody else know this?" he demanded.

"Not a soul," Curtis replied.

"Then we must get to work at once. I'll lock that memorandum up in the
office safe if you don't mind. Thank you. Now put on your hat, and come
with me as far as Somerset House. I want to have a good look at that
will of Mr. Lane's."

       *       *       *       *       *

Nobody seemed to know anything definite, but it was common talk that
there was something wrong in connection with the testimonial intentions
of the late William Lane. Somebody had entered a caveat--whatever that
might mean--against the will, and the case was coming on for hearing
before Christmas. And if this meant that Gedge was going to lose all
that money, then a hundred per cent. of his neighbours would be pleased.

But Mr. Samley-Gedge wasn't going to lose. Nor did he make any secret of
the fact. Nor were the poor in the district going to suffer. Their care
would be a sacred duty. The Hospice where Lane had lived would be turned
into a cottage hospital properly endowed, as Mr. Lane had always
promised, though the scheme was not mentioned in his will, which,
however, had been made twenty years ago in Australia at a time when he
and Gedge were more or less partners. He was not going to say much, but
the neighbourhood would know all about it within a very short time now.

It was 'The Southern Daily Messenger' that afforded those interested in
the progress of the case all the information they required. Through that
paper they learnt for the first time of the memorandum that formed the
base of the action which Godfrey Curtis and others were taking to annul
the will. In brief, the memorandum, duly signed and witnessed in July
the previous year, provided that the estate should be equally divided
between Walter Danvers, his sister, Samuel Crichton, and Godfrey Curtis,
in equal shares, subject to certain charities and that the estate should
be administered by the public trustee.

This was exciting enough, but there was more to follow when, on the
second day of the proceedings, Godfrey Curtis went into the witness box
to give his evidence. 'The Southern Daily Messenger' gave the following
almost verbatim account of the proceedings:--

Mr. Godfrey Curtis, an Australian, and late secretary to the testator,
then entered the witness box and, under examination by Mr. Walbrook,
K.C. (for the plaintiffs) testified that for some years he had acted as
confidential adviser to Mr. Lane. He had resigned his post as cashier in
the bank where Mr. Lane kept his account to take up the post. Mr. Lane
was an entirely self-made man, with little education, and therefore,
needed assistance as his wealth grew. Acting under witness's advice, the
testator realised most of his assets, and on coming to England, invested
practically all of his money in War Bonds. The dividends were collected
through the dead man's bankers, so that he was saved the trouble and
worry as to his investments. Witness had never heard of the will
propounded by the defendant Gedge until he read about it in a paper
which reached him in Australia, though he knew that many years ago the
testator and Gedge were in some sort of speculative business together.
The memorandum in which the action was founded was dictated to him
(witness)a few days before he was suddenly called home to Australia in
consequence of illness in the family, and was more or less inspired by a
heart attack which the testator had had, and witness had ventured to
expostulate with him on the fact that he has never made his will. On the
strength of that the memorandum was dictated to witness by the dead man,
and, as a precaution, signed and witnessed by Lane's butler and
housekeeper, who, however, were not informed as to its contents.

A COURT DRAMA.

Cross-examined by Sir Charles Morley, K.C.: Kindly look at this
document. You see what it is?

Witness: Yes; the original of the contested will.

Sir Charles: So you say. You are familiar with Mr. Lane's signature. Do
you dispute the one to the will?

Witness: Had I seen it anywhere else I should have said without
hesitation that it was my late employer's signature.

Sir Charles: I am greatly obliged to you, sir. Will you be so good as to
examine the body of the document. Have you any doubt that it is in the
handwriting of the late William Lane?

Witness: Every doubt. In fact, I know it is not.

Sir Charles: And why, pray?

Witness: For a very good and sufficient reason. An illiterate man can
easily learn to scribble some sort of signature, but it does not follow
that he can write.

Sir Charles: Do you mean to suggest----

Witness: I am not suggesting anything. The calligraphy in the body of
this document is not Mr. Lane's, for the simple reason that he could
neither read nor write.

* * * *

The poor old man's secret had been well kept. The one thing in life of
which he was ashamed. Not even Gedge had guessed it. But the evidence,
taken on commission from certain bank officials in Australia, had been
sufficient to establish the forgery, and the case collapsed as Curtis
left the witness box. And when the nine-days wonder was over and Gedge
in custody and his shaky financial position disclosed, Walter Danvers
and Connie went back to the Manor, though the latter is not likely to
remain there long.



THE END


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