Best Detective Stories of Cyril Hare - Cyril Hare - ebook

Cyril Hare's short stories were mostly written for the London Evening Standard. Among them, The Story of Hermione, in which the eponymous character grows rich from the all too convenient deaths of several relatives, has been called one of the most chilling short stories ever written. Sister Bessie describes vividly the agonies of a blackmail victim and the desperate crimes he commits in the hope of freeing himself from his tormentor. Miss Burnside's Dilemma describes the predicament of a person who uncovers a piece of unscrupulous, but entirely legal chicanery by someone she had previously admired. A Life for a Life explores the possibility of atonement for one's earthly sins after death.

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Best Detective Stories of Cyril Hare

by Cyril Hare

Copyright 1959 Alfred Alexander Clark.

This edition published by Reading Essentials.

All Rights Reserved. 

Best Detective Stories

of Cyril Hare










“IT TAKES TWO . . .”











Other Crimes








The Children







“Where There’s a Will——”

Julian Symondson reached the crest of the hill and stood for a moment looking across the valley at the agreeable little house for which he was making. It was a gusty day towards the end of October, a day of fleeting sun and shower, luminous with all the colour of autumn and keen with a foretaste of winter. It was exactly the type of day that sends energetic young men every Sunday marching in their hundreds over the more picturesque parts of the country. It was exactly the type of day that Julian most cordially detested. It is only right to add that he also disliked the country, whether picturesque or not, walking, and, above all, Sunday.

If Julian had been asked to say what, next to himself, he really cared for, he would certainly have replied, “Life!” “Life” to him did not include the countryside, or bracing October afternoons, or the rich mud which squelched lovingly beneath his over-thin shoes. “Life” meant London, and London meant half a dozen restaurants and not more than three night-clubs (they changed from year to year, but there were never more than three), two bars, ten streets and the faces of a handful of friends. It was not much, but it had been enough to make Julian completely happy—enough, too, to make him, from being rather better than well off, in three years from his coming of age completely penniless. It had seemed unbelievable at the time, but a day came when the restaurants ceased to give credit and the clubs to cash cheques, when the handful of friends shrank into a group of embarrassed people who avoided his eye at meal-times and remembered pressing engagements when he tried to raise the delicate question of a fiver or so to tide him over the weekend. On that day Julian remembered that he was not entirely alone in the world. Blood was thicker than water. He possessed an aunt.

Now he wondered a little wearily, as he descended the slope with the stiff steps of a townsman, whether it would not be truer to say that his aunt possessed him. She owned the cottage in which he lived rent-free, she paid the wages of the servant who looked after him, and the allowance which just kept him in whisky and cigarettes. She had been kindness itself to him—the kind country neighbours whom she had introduced to him had repeated the phrase till he could have screamed; she had certainly saved him from poverty, dire and complete; and in return she exacted—what? Merely that he should live in the country, away from the temptation of that wicked place London, and walk over to tea with her every Sunday. (Walk, mind you, not even use the little two-seater which her bounty allowed! Her window commanded a great stretch of country and she could see a mile off if there were any attempt at shirking.) He was not, he told himself for the hundredth time, an ungrateful man—far from it. He was profoundly thankful to Aunt Agnes for what she had done. He was even fond of her in a way. She was a good sort, really, though incapable of understanding what a young man really wanted in this world, as pious widows who live in the country are apt to be. But he had by now endured three years of this thraldom, and as he climbed the final ascent which led him to the house he caught himself wishing that she were dead.

Nephews—and particularly those who are entirely dependent on their aunts—have no business to entertain, even for a moment, wishes of this kind. Julian was not so depraved as to be unconscious of this, and he had hardly formed the wish before he repented of it, and resolved to atone for his ingratitude by being particularly considerate to his aunt that afternoon. Julian’s good resolutions were not often very effective; and it so happened that this one was even less so than most, for the simple reason that at the moment when it was made Mrs. Thorogood had already been dead for something like half an hour. She had died very quietly in her arm-chair by the drawing-room window, looking out over the view that she loved so much, at about the same time that Julian appeared on the distant horizon. So quiet had been her passing that the maid who brought in the tea-tray had thought that her mistress was dozing, and had gone out for the afternoon as usual without suspecting that anything was wrong. Thus it was that when Julian entered the drawing-room he and the cat were the only living creatures in the house.

There was nothing uncommon in finding the old lady asleep in her chair. He was not sorry when he did so, for thereby he was saved so many minutes of rather painfully righteous conversation. On this occasion, with the deft quietness of one who knows his way about, he lit the lamp beneath the silver urn, brought the water to the boil, made the tea, poured out two cups (weak with milk and two lumps of sugar for her, strong and black for himself) and then turned to wake her up.

His first reaction when he realised that Aunt Agnes would not wake up again, ever, was a feeling of extreme faintness. Not for the first time, but more keenly than ever before, he regretted that Mrs. Thorogood’s principles did not allow her to keep any spirits in the house. For want of a better stimulant he drank both cups, one after the other, and found his nerves beginning to grow steadier. For a time, however, he felt quite incapable of any action. He sat still, staring aimlessly at the motionless features, hardly less animated than his own. Poor old Aunt Agnes! This was (he told himself) a blow—really a much worse blow than he had ever anticipated. He had scarcely realized how dependent on her he had been. After all, for three years she had done everything for him, paid for him, looked after him, thought for him. It was thanks to her that he had been saved from heaven knew what fate, even the ultimate degradation of working for his living. He had never really been as grateful to her as he should, he reflected sadly. And now it was too late. He felt suddenly very much alone in the world.

He rose unsteadily to his feet and looked round the pleasant, well-ordered room. It was very much a respectable widow lady’s room, he reflected—so prim and neat and on its best behaviour! There came back to him the recollection of all the hours of boredom that he had endured in it, and a feeling of relief grew stronger and stronger in his breast. That was over, at all events! No more Sunday afternoons of interminable chatter—he was his own master now! Then he grinned sardonically as he realised that the room and all that it contained was now his own property. His aunt had said so more than once. “When I am gone, Julian,” she had told him, “all this will be yours. You love the place, don’t you?” “Yes, Aunt,” he had assured her, and she had purred in satisfaction. Oh! he had played his cards pretty well, all these years! Love the place, indeed! To his mind there was only one attraction in it, and that was that it was certain to fetch a good price in the market. He knew that she had refused half a dozen offers for it. It wouldn’t take him long to get it off his hands, and that done—London and all its joys spread themselves before his imagination.

It occurred to him to wonder whether she had left a will. Besides the house, which she had promised him, there must be a considerable amount of property, for she had made no secret of the fact that she was a fairly wealthy woman, in spite of her modest way of living. He had only heard her mention the subject once, soon after his establishment as her protégé, and Julian, who had a memory for such things, remembered her words exactly. “I shall really have to think about making my will now,” she had said. “Not that it could make much difference to you, dear boy, as you are my only heir in any case. But there are some things I should like to arrange before I go.” She had never explained exactly what things she meant, but he imagined that she had in mind small legacies to servants and so forth. It would be interesting, at all events, to see if she had done it.

He went across to the writing desk, where, he knew, his aunt used to keep all her business papers. Quietly, almost furtively, though he knew that there was nobody who could possibly disturb him, he ran through the neatly filed and docketed receipts, bills and correspondence which filled it.

It was not long before he lighted upon a long envelope occupying a pigeon-hole to itself and marked in Mrs. Thorogood’s firm, prim handwriting, “My Will”, followed by the date, “December 1910”. This had been struck out, and “January 1956” substituted.

With his heart beating considerably too fast for comfort, Julian drew out the contents. First came a long document in a clerkly hand, the ink somewhat faded with the years. It was the will of Miss Symondson as she then was, dated some twenty years before Julian was born. He glanced at it without interest, put it on one side and then turned to the other. This was quite short and entirely in his aunt’s handwriting. Julian read it from end to end.

Mrs. Thorogood bequeathed to her nephew her house, together with its grounds and furniture and the sum of £500 a year—an amount which, she added, had always sufficed to keep it in proper repair, and should with due economy enable him to do the same. The residue of her property was to be divided between the Charity Organization Society and the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. The will concluded with the words: “Should my nephew cease to occupy the house or attempt in any way to part with the possession or ownership of it by lease, sale, mortgage, or otherwise, he is to forfeit all benefits under this Will.”

There are some disasters too great to be understood at once, and Julian must have read the last sentence through half a dozen times before he grasped its meaning. At last the full horror of it broke in upon him. So this was what the old woman called being her “heir”! After all, she meant to tie him down still from the grave, and keep him in this dead-alive place for the rest of his life! This was all he got in return for what he had done, for all his detestable Sunday walks, for his—his—he was unable to think for the moment of anything else which he had done for his aunt, but this did not in the least moderate his growing fury. He looked out of the window to where the sky was darkening towards sunset, and felt that he had never seen anything so forbidding as the view which he was condemned now to put up with for ever. The thought made him cold, and, going to the fire, he poked it into a warmer blaze. He was still holding the will, and in the firelight the writing flickered as though it were alive. Confound the old woman! Why couldn’t she have left well alone and died intestate as she had half promised to do? With the poker in one hand he absently read the fatal document through once more, down to the names of the witnesses: “Martha Thwaites, Spinster” and “Louisa Peck, Widow”. Who on earth could they be? Then he remembered his aunt’s two “treasures” of maids, Martha and Louisa. They had both been killed in a motor accident on their holiday a year before and she had been quite inconsolable. Then very slowly, for his brain still felt numb with the shock it had received, an idea began to dawn upon him.

Once upon a time, while his parents were still alive, it had been suggested that Julian should become a lawyer, and to that end he had actually gone so far as to make some pretence at studying that dismal science. The pretence had not gone far, and if anybody had asked him how much he knew of the law he would have answered, in all sincerity, “Nothing”. Now, as he stood by the fireside, a fragment of his forgotten learning drifted back into his mind. “Marriage invalidates a will.” He remembered hearing it droned out by a tedious lecturer and copying the words wearily into a shiny red note-book. “Marriage invalidates a will.” Therefore his aunt’s first will, made when she was still Miss Symondson, simply didn’t count. If she had never made the second one—this horrible thing that he held in his hand at this moment—she would have been—what was the word?—intestate. And Martha and Louisa were dead. Therefore . . .

Julian would never afterwards admit, even to himself, that he did more than release his grip on the sheet of paper for an instant. But there was no denying the fact that after it had fluttered down into the flames he pressed the poker very firmly upon it until it was a crumpled heap of ashes. That done, he pulled himself together and telephoned for the doctor.

Next day Julian drove the little two-seater over into the neighbouring county town. He made his way to the offices of Messrs. Coltsfoot and Proudie, Solicitors, and sent in his card. The lad who took it in returned almost at once.

“Mr. Coltsfoot will see you, sir,” he said.

Mr. Coltsfoot was an elderly tired-looking man, with a bald head and immense bushy eyebrows which gave his occasional stare a peculiarly disconcerting quality.

“Mr. Julian Symondson,” he said, looking up from the card which he held in his hand. “You are the nephew of the late Mrs. Thorogood, I understand?”

“Exactly,” answered Julian. “Her only nephew, to be accurate—in fact, I think I am her only relative of any kind. And understanding that you were her solicitor——”

“We have acted for her in the past,” interjected Mr. Coltsfoot, “but latterly she seems to have preferred to manage most of her affairs herself.”

“—well, I thought you were probably the right person to see. Considering that I seem to be the heir and so forth, you know.”

Julian’s voice trailed off uncertainly under the purposeful glare of Mr. Coltsfoot’s eye.

“Surely Mrs. Thorogood left a will?” he demanded.

“Certainly not,” answered Julian, completely taken aback. “Absolutely not, in fact. Not in the least, I mean.”

“You have made a thorough search, I suppose? Old ladies sometimes leave these things in odd places.”

“Oh, complete, yes, rather! Looked everywhere, you know, and there’s simply not a thing to be seen. She was a very tidy old lady, too. But if you’ve any doubt about it,” he added with growing boldness, “I wish you’d come over with me and have a look. I want to be perfectly fair about it, I can tell you.”

“I am not suggesting that you are not being perfectly fair, as you call it,” replied the solicitor drily. “But, on the whole, I think it would be as well if I did.”

Julian could hardly restrain himself from chuckling aloud as he drove Mr. Coltsfoot back to the cottage in his car. Everything was working out just as he had hoped. It was too easy! In due course the old will would be found, pushed away under a mass of papers, enclosed in an envelope which he had artistically dirtied that morning to give it the appearance of age. (The original, with the damning date of 1956 upon its face, he had, of course, destroyed.) After that, his sincerity in the matter would be apparent; and Coltsfoot could burrow and rummage as much as he pleased before he found another. Julian had made sure of that.

Things proceeded according to plan. The invalid will was duly discovered, and Julian uttered carefully rehearsed little expressions of surprise. A long and thorough search then ensued—and Mr. Coltsfoot was surprisingly thorough—which produced precisely nothing.

“Odd!” said Mr. Coltsfoot, as he stood exhausted in the drawing-room, his curiosity at last satisfied. “Very odd!”

“What is odd?” asked Julian, by now somewhat impatient.

“This will,” said the solicitor, tapping his left hand with the document in his right, “was prepared by my firm for your aunt many years ago. It was lodged for safe keeping in our strong room. Quite recently—no more than two or three years ago—she asked us to return it to her, as she desired to make a fresh one. She did not—h’m—she did not favour us with her instructions on that occasion, however. But I am certainly surprised to find that she never carried out her intentions.”

“She changed her mind, that’s all,” said Julian shortly. “Nothing surprising in that, is there?”

“At all events,” said the solicitor deliberately, “it is somewhat unfortunate. That is to say, although I know nothing definite”—his eyebrows fairly scintillated discretion—“yet from what she let fall in my last interview with her I rather gathered that the document I hold in my hand did not altogether represent her final intentions. As it is——” He fumbled for his pince-nez and began to read it to himself.

“Now look here, sir,” said Julian rudely. “I know something about the law, I may tell you, even if you don’t. That will was made before my aunt married. Marriage invalidates a will. So——”

He broke off. Mr. Coltsfoot had looked up from his perusal, and Julian did not like his expression.

“Marriage invalidates a will!” the solicitor repeated. “Just so! Tell me, Mr. Symondson, did you ever know the late Mr. Thorogood?”

“Good Lord, no! He died years ago, before I was born.”

“Quite. Well, I’m afraid that he didn’t, in all respects, live up to his name. . . . At the time he met your aunt, and for many years afterwards, he had a wife living in an asylum, and the divorce laws were stricter then than they are now. Your aunt was very young, very much in love . . .”

“You mean that she——?” Julian managed to get out.

“I mean that she committed an indiscretion, as we used to call it in those days, and although she certainly atoned for it in after years by a life of the most exemplary Christian piety, she had no more right to call herself Mrs. Thorogood than I have. I can quite understand that your family did not speak about it, and I am afraid this must be somewhat of a shock to you. She had often told me of your devotion to her. You must try to forget it,” he added kindly.

“But the will!” cried Julian.

“Is, of course, perfectly unassailable in law. The whole estate goes to charity, I see. Dear me, Mr. Symondson, you really look ill. I’m afraid this has been a shock for you!”

Miss Burnside’s Dilemma

It’s the fact that it’s the vicar that makes the whole business so difficult. I simply don’t know what to do about it. Those were his very words to me when I taxed him with it after matins last Sunday. “Well, Miss Burnside,” he said, “and what do you propose to do about it?” He smiled at me as he said it, I remember—just a friendly, amused sort of smile over his shoulder as he locked the vestry door, and then he took off his hat in that courteous way of his and walked back to the vicarage, leaving me standing there without an answer. That was nearly a week ago. And I don’t know what the answer is. And he knows quite well that I don’t know. I can see it in his eye whenever we meet. And in a small place like this it does make for a really impossible situation.

My first thought was to go to the police about it. In fact, if it had not been for the chance that my nephew John was staying with me at the time I think I should have done so. I call it chance, but looking back on it now I feel that it was rather the hand of Providence. Because if I had obeyed that first impulse I can see now what a terrible scandal there would have been. And much worse than a mere scandal, indeed! It so happened that on that Sunday evening John—he is studying for the Bar and is a very clever boy indeed—was talking to me about a big law case there had been recently in which a poor woman was made to pay enormous damages for—what did he call it?—Malicious Prosecution. That made me think a great deal of the danger of acting rashly in the matter, and in the end I told him all about it and asked his advice. After all, he is very nearly a lawyer, and as he is not one of the village it didn’t seem to matter. John was tremendously interested—more interested than shocked, I’m afraid, but I suppose that is only natural—and he spent nearly the whole evening considering the matter when he ought to have been studying the Law of Real Property, which is his next examination, and in the end he told me that he could not find that any crime had been committed. Well, that may be the law, and of course I believe what my nephew tells me, but it does seem to me very wrong that the law should permit such things to be done—especially by a minister of the Church of England.

Of course, I could write to the bishop about it. Indeed, I have considered very seriously whether it is not my duty to write to the bishop. But it is a step that one shrinks from. In some ways it seems almost more serious than informing the police. I mean, it does seem almost equal to invoking the help of a Higher Power—I trust I am not being irreverent in putting it in that way. But I do not think the seriousness of it would deter me if I were only sure that the bishop would be able to do anything about it, and of that I cannot be sure. I asked John, but he could not help me. It appears that Church Law is not one of the subjects they examine him in, which seems a pity. However, he was very kind and helpful in explaining all kinds of points about the Law of Wills and so on, so that I do at least understand the whole of the dreadful story now quite clearly. Not that that is very much comfort to me, indeed! Rather the reverse. And situated as I am, there is literally nobody to whom I can turn for guidance. It is just the sort of problem that I could have set before the vicar himself until this terrible thing happened. But now——!

I want to be perfectly just to the vicar. In all the time that he has been in the village nobody, I am sure, has had a word to say against him, except indeed old Judd, and he, I fear, is irreclaimably ill disposed to every influence for good in the village. Of course, one might say that he—the vicar, I mean—has merely been a hypocrite all these years and that we have all been woefully deceived in him. But I prefer to think of him as a man suddenly exposed to a great Temptation and being carried away, as might happen to any of us. True, I cannot forget the way in which he brazened it out with me on Sunday, but neither can I believe that I have been utterly mistaken in the man, after knowing him so well for nearly ten years. That is the time that he has been in the village, and I remember quite well how good an impression he made when Mrs. Wheeler presented him to the living. It was quite soon after Mrs. Wheeler settled down among us, and bought the Hall and with it the patronage. I do not myself altogether approve of such a thing as a cure of souls being in the gift of a private person and I am very glad that Parliament has done something about it, though I can never understand quite what, but it seemed impossible to quarrel with Mrs. Wheeler’s choice, and the fact that he was her godson as well as her nephew made it so peculiarly appropriate. Certainly, we all agreed that it was a mercy that the old vicar had survived until after Sir John sold the place, for Sir John’s intellect was beginning to fail, and what with that and his dangerously Low Church tendencies one shudders to think what his choice might have been.

Altogether, there is no denying that the double change, at the Hall and the vicarage, was all to the good of the neighbourhood. Everybody liked Mrs. Wheeler. Even Judd had hardly a word to say against her. True, she lived very quietly, as was after all only proper for a widow who was no longer young; but until last year, when her health began to fail, she took her full part in all the village activities, and whenever help was needed she was unfailingly generous. As indeed she could well afford to be—not that I consider that that detracts in any way from her kindness of heart, but it was common knowledge that Mr. Wheeler, whoever he may have been, had left her very well provided for. The all-important thing was that she used her wealth for the good of others.

But if it is true to say that we respected the new vicar and admired Mrs. Wheeler—and I think it is—there is no doubt that we loved Miss Dalrymple. She, I should explain, was Mrs. Wheeler’s companion. There is a lot of nonsense talked about the companions of rich old ladies who have no daughters of their own to look after them. They are always represented as poor abject creatures, perpetually bullied and down-trodden by their employers. Miss Dalrymple was not at all like that. She was a very cheerful, active young woman—not really young, of course, only in comparison with Mrs. Wheeler she seemed so—and there was nothing in the least abject about her. Of course, she kept herself well in the background when Mrs. Wheeler was present, but that is no more than one would expect. And there was no doubt that they were very fond of each other. They were indeed just like mother and daughter—or, rather, like what mother and daughter should be but so often, alas, are not.

The only person in the place who did not seem absolutely devoted to Miss Dalrymple, strangely enough, was the vicar himself. It was strange, because in many ways they had so much in common. At one time, indeed, I had hopes that the pair of them would make a match of it. It seemed so extremely suitable, and I know that I did my little best to bring it to pass. Certainly, I have always felt that a bachelor vicar, however excellent, is out of place in a parish like ours—though I know that Saint Paul thought otherwise. But it was not to be, and as the years went on it was impossible not to notice a certain coolness—I wouldn’t go so far as to call it hostility—between him and Miss Dalrymple; although, of course, they always remained scrupulously polite and acted together quite harmoniously on committees and bazaars and at other parish functions.

That was how matters stood when Mrs. Wheeler came to the village, and that was how they remained for a very long time. Nothing changes very much with the years in a quiet place like this, except that we all grow a little older, and I think it was quite a shock to most of us to realize last year how very much older and more infirm dear Mrs. Wheeler had become. She went out less and less, and Miss Dalrymple, too, withdrew almost entirely from our little activities owing to the necessity of having to look after her. Mrs. Wheeler had some objection to a nurse, so that all the burden fell upon poor Miss Dalrymple. It was really very hard upon her, though she never complained, and I must say that she was quite as good and careful as any professional nurse could be.

A month or two ago, however, it became sadly evident that Mrs. Wheeler was seriously ill. Dr. Perry—who was always, I think, just the least bit afraid of her—plucked up the courage to insist that she should have a night nurse permanently on duty, and this gave Miss Dalrymple a little more freedom to come out and see her friends. One evening, shortly after the nurse had been installed, she came round to see me. I had expected her to be tired and anxious, but I was not prepared to find her quite so depressed and utterly unlike her usual cheerful self.

Naturally my first question was after Mrs. Wheeler.

“She is very ill indeed,” she told me. “Dr. Perry thinks that it is most unlikely that she will recover.”

It is always difficult to know what to say on such occasions. I said, “Oh dear!” which, I am afraid, was rather inadequate, but I tried to put as much sympathy into my voice as possible.

Miss Dalrymple said nothing for a moment or two but sat there looking very low and miserable. Finally she said, “The trouble is, Miss Burnside, that she doesn’t realize how ill she is.”

“Surely that is all to the good,” I said. “After all, if she is going to die, it is better that she should not be troubled with any forebodings about it. It isn’t as if she was a Roman Catholic,” I added, “and in need of making a confession or anything of that kind. Not that a dear, good woman like Mrs. Wheeler could have anything to confess, in any case.”

“It isn’t that,” she answered, looking more miserable than ever. “You see, Dr. Perry says that she might die at any minute, and I happen to know that she has not made any will.”

I confess that I could not help feeling a little shocked—disgusted even—that Miss Dalrymple should be thinking of such things at such a time, and I thought then—as I have thought many times since!—how mistaken one can be, even about somebody one has known for a long time. Of course, I knew, like everybody in the village, that Miss Dalrymple had absolutely nothing of her own, and I knew also, because Mrs. Wheeler had told me so, that her employer had intentions of making some provision for her after her death. I could quite understand Miss Dalrymple feeling disappointed at having to go out and look for another post at her age. But at the same time I could not but think that it was rather improper to be thinking of such matters, much more discussing them, while the person in question was still alive.

I must have shown something of my feelings in my expression, although I certainly did my best not to, for Miss Dalrymple immediately said, “Please don’t imagine that I’m thinking of myself, Miss Burnside.”

Naturally, I said, “Of course not!” though I wondered very much of whom else she could possibly be thinking. But what she said next surprised me very much indeed.

“It would be a lamentable thing,” she went on, “and, absolutely contrary to Mrs. Wheeler’s own wishes, if all that money of hers were to go to her son.”

Now this was the very first time that I, or anybody else so far as I was aware, had ever so much as heard that Mrs. Wheeler had a son, and that only goes to show how very reticent she had always been about her own affairs, and how very loyal a companion Miss Dalrymple had been, never once to have mentioned the fact to any of her friends in the village.

“Her son, Miss Dalrymple?” I said. “Whatever do you mean?” And then she told me all about him.

It appeared that Mrs. Wheeler had a son who, as is, I am afraid, so often the case with the children of the most excellent, religious people, had turned out very badly indeed. It crossed my mind that perhaps young Charles Wheeler—that was his name, apparently—took after his father, but this was really very uncharitable of me, for, of course, I knew nothing whatever about the late Mr. Wheeler except that he had made a great deal of money, and that, after all, was nothing against his character—rather the reverse. At all events, as the result of his misconduct (and although Miss Dalrymple, most properly, entered into no details, I gathered that it had been very grave indeed), the young man had for many years entirely cut himself off from his family. Miss Dalrymple did not so much as know where he was living, except that it was somewhere abroad, and the only communication that his mother had received from him recently was an application for money a little time before she was taken ill, which she had, of course, refused to consider in any way.

And now there was a possibility of Mrs. Wheeler’s money being diverted to this wicked person, to be turned by him to the most disreputable purposes! I could well understand Miss Dalrymple’s agitation at such a thing, although I may as well admit that I did not wholly credit her assertion that she was not thinking at all of her own prospects, because, after all, we are all human. Speaking for myself, I felt particularly alarmed when I reflected that Mrs. Wheeler’s property included the right of presentation to our living and that this might well fall into the hands of an outright rascal.

I was sadly perplexed in my mind as to what advice I should give Miss Dalrymple on this difficult question, for though I am always prepared to listen to other people’s troubles, and my friends have told me that I am a particularly good listener, giving advice is a responsibility which I do not care to undertake. At last it occurred to me to suggest that she should consult the vicar, who, from his position, was particularly suited to bring Mrs. Wheeler to a sense of the danger which she was in, and who was himself really interested in the matter in another way. I mean, until this moment everybody regarded him as Mrs. Wheeler’s nearest relative, although presumably he was well aware of the existence of his ill-behaved cousin.

I could see that Miss Dalrymple did not altogether like the prospect of confiding in the vicar, but she agreed to think it over, and a little later she went home, feeling, I am sure, all the better for having had a good chat. There is, I think, nothing better than a good chat with the right sort of person to make you look on the bright side of things.

Next morning, as soon as I had breakfasted, I put on my hat and went round to the Hall to enquire. I had done this many times since Mrs. Wheeler had been taken ill, of course, but on this occasion, though I am not, I trust, superstitious, I did feel a certain sense of foreboding as I did so. And sure enough, as I came round the bend in the drive, I saw that the blinds of the house had been drawn, and knew at once that our dear friend had passed away. I was about to turn round and go home again, when the front door opened and Miss Dalrymple came out. She saw me and came straight up towards me, so that, without feeling that I was in any way intruding, I was able to get the very first information about what had happened from her instead of having to rely upon village gossip, which is always rather undignified, in my opinion, and has the added disadvantage that one does not know what to believe!

Dear Mrs. Wheeler, she told me, had taken a sudden turn for the worse at about two o’clock that morning. Dr. Perry had been sent for immediately, of course, but he was out attending a maternity case, and in spite of all that Miss Dalrymple and the nurse could do, by the time that he arrived, which was not until nearly seven, all was over. The doctor had said that he could have done nothing had he been there in time, and I was glad to learn that the end had been altogether peaceful.

I dare say that I should not have been thinking of such things at such a moment, but, remembering our conversation of the evening before, I could not forbear saying, “Then I suppose poor Mrs. Wheeler was never able to make a will after all?”

Then Miss Dalrymple told me her great news! It seemed that after the first seizure Mrs. Wheeler had rallied and remained quite conscious and sensible for several hours. And during that time, knowing that her last hour had come, she had been able to make her will. By that will, Miss Dalrymple told me, she had bequeathed one thousand pounds to her nephew, the vicar, and the whole of the rest of her fortune to Miss Dalrymple herself!

I could hardly believe my ears. It really seemed too good to be true, and I congratulated her most warmly, but, I hope, with the solemnity that the occasion required. Still I found it difficult to credit that the story should have had so happy an ending.

“Forgive me for asking you,” I said, “but are you quite sure that this is really so? Have you seen the will yourself?”

“Indeed, I have,” she told me. “We sent for the vicar, of course, as soon as we saw how gravely ill she was. The moment she recovered consciousness, she told him to write down what she wished. I saw her sign the paper, and then the vicar and I put our names underneath hers as witnesses.”

When I had got as far as this in telling the story to my nephew John, he made a most peculiar noise, something between a snort and a laugh. Of course, with his knowledge, he saw at once what was wrong; but we are not all lawyers—thank goodness!—and neither Miss Dalrymple nor I had the least idea at the time that the will was anything but perfectly legal. Nor, I am sure, had poor Mrs. Wheeler, unless the knowledge was vouchsafed to her in Heaven, in which case it must have made her very unhappy, if such a thing is possible in Heaven. But it is the fact, cruel and unfair though it may seem, that the law does not allow a will to be legal unless it is witnessed by two persons, and that neither of those two persons is allowed to have any benefit from the will which they have witnessed. So that, as John put it, the only two people in the world who could not receive any of Mrs. Wheeler’s money under her will were the vicar and Miss Dalrymple, the only two people whom she desired to give anything to! I said then, and I think still, that it is most unreasonable and a kind of trap for innocent people like companions and country clergy who could not be expected to know anything about the law, because, after all, who could be better suited to witness an old lady’s will than her nephew and the woman who had looked after her for so many years? I think they should have thought of such things when the law was made, but I suppose it is too late to alter it now.

Of course, neither Miss Dalrymple nor I knew anything of this at the time, but we were speedily undeceived. The day after the funeral she came to see me in great distress and told me that she had been to consult a lawyer as to what was to be done about Mrs. Wheeler’s estate, and he had told her that by witnessing the will she and the vicar had signed away all their inheritance. She told me also that the vicar had called upon her and expressed his sorrow that his ignorance had led to her losing the reward of her long years of service, not to mention his own thousand pounds, which he admitted was a serious matter for him, for the living was not a good one.

After that Miss Dalrymple left the village, and I understand she secured another post with a lady at Cheltenham, where she was not well paid, and where, I am afraid, she was anything but happy. Meanwhile we in the village awaited the dreadful moment when Mr. Charles Wheeler would descend upon us to take possession of the property which had in this strange way become his after all. A week or more went by, and then we heard the great and unexpected news. I had it first from Mrs. Tomlin, at the post office; and although I always suspect anything from that source, it was soon afterwards confirmed by the vicar himself. It appeared that as soon as it was established that the will was of no effect, the vicar had enquiries made for the whereabouts of the son, and these enquiries had met with a speedy and most unhoped result. Charles Wheeler was no more! He had perished, very miserably, I am sorry to say, in some foreign town, quite soon after his last letter to his mother asking for assistance. The vicar had been shown that letter at the time, and he told me that in it he had stated that he was dangerously ill. It was the vicar who had counselled Mrs. Wheeler not to reply to it, thinking that the statement of his condition was only a ruse to get more money from the mother who had cast him off; and he said, very generously as I thought at the time, that he now regretted that he had not allowed his aunt to take measures which might have prolonged the unfortunate man’s life a little longer. But I told him that although the sentiment did him credit, it was much better as it was, and I remember that I went so far as to say that the death of Charles Wheeler might be accounted a providential event.