Curious Happenings to the Rooke Legatees - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

Curious Happenings to the Rooke Legatees ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Opis

Five people were seated around a table in the private office of a well-known solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn. Their expressions and general attitude were sufficiently disturbed to suggest that their gathering was of no ordinary moment. A grey-haired, untidy looking woman in seedy black was tapping the mahogany table in front of her with long, ill-cared for nails, and breathing quickly. A fat, red-cheeked man, with a waistcoat the lower buttons of which failed to connect, with blue watery eyes and a loose, but good-humoured, mouth, was whistling softly to himself.

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Liczba stron: 271

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Contents

I. THE ATONEMENT OF MR. MOUNTAIN

II. THE POPINJAY AND THE EMERALD

III. THE PERFECT WITNESS

IV. THE UNEXPECTED MURDER

V. THE AUCTIONEER’S LICENCE

VI. ANN JOINS THE CLUB

VII. PERCY SKIRTS THE MORASS

VIII. MIRACLE AT MONTE CARLO

IX. AN OPPORTUNIST IN ARMS

X. WHO’S WHO AT THE PARTY

I. THE ATONEMENT OF MR. MOUNTAIN

Five people were seated around a table in the private office of a well-known solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn. Their expressions and general attitude were sufficiently disturbed to suggest that their gathering was of no ordinary moment. A grey-haired, untidy-looking woman in seedy black was tapping the mahogany table in front of her with long, ill-cared-for nails, and breathing quickly. A fat, red-cheeked man, with a waistcoat the lower buttons of which failed to connect, with blue watery eyes and a loose, but good-humoured, mouth, was whistling softly to himself. A pleasant-faced, but shabbily dressed, young man was leaning back in his chair with his hands in his pockets and a palpably assumed air of indifference. Next to him a girl of agreeable, almost striking appearance, with attractive, light-brown hair, thoughtful eyes, the blunt finger-tips of a professional typist and the rather wan complexion of the underfed City toiler, was seated a little grimly in her chair, with eyes which seldom moved from the door. She showed no signs of nervousness, but there was an intense light in her eyes which betrayed her condition of mind. Her rather jaunty beret seemed an unsuitable headgear. Every now and then, notwithstanding her efforts, her lips twitched a little under the strain. Next to her was an older man, better dressed than his companions, with deeply lined face and weary expression. He had somehow the air of a man facing a crisis, but he had also the air of one prepared to receive the good or the evil of life with resignation. A tentative conversation had petered out. The little company either watched the swaying of the boughs of the lime trees outside the window or concentrated their attention upon the door.

“I’m fed up with this,” the stout man declared, mopping his forehead with a handkerchief of dubious appearance. “Why don’t the bloke come?”

“We have only been here about ten minutes,” the younger man reminded him.

“It seems an hour,” the woman with the grey, untidy hair moaned. “It seems a whole day–it seems a lifetime!”

“And all over a matter, I dare say, of a paltry fifty quid,” the man with the weary expression muttered.

“Fifty quid would do me a bit of good,” his neighbour sighed.

Then their suspense was suddenly ended. The heavy mahogany door was pushed inwards. A tall, exceedingly good-looking elderly gentleman, followed by an obvious clerk, entered the room. The former bowed stiffly to the little company, who greeted him almost in silence. He made his way towards a vacant chair and took a sheet of paper from his secretary’s hand.

“Let me introduce myself,” he began curtly. “I am Sir George Eastman, head of the firm of Eastman and Pelligrew. You, I gather, are the legatees under the will of my late client, Mr. Desmond Rooke?”

“That sounds all right so far, Sir George,” the stout man said, once more mopping his forehead. “What we are anxious to know is–what are we legatees of? Scarcely ever heard of the old boy myself.”

“We shall come to that,” Sir George announced. “I have here a list of your names. The first upon the list is Miss Ann Rooke.”

The girl leaned forward.

“That is my name, sir,” she said in a low but quite pleasant voice.

Sir George consulted his paper once more.

“You are twenty-two years old, an orphan, employed as typist by a firm of provision merchants in Thames Street?”

“That is correct, sir.”

“Then I have here Mrs. John Rooke, widow of John Rooke, builder, of Tottenham, aged fifty-two.”

The woman with the long fingernails paused in her nervous movements.

“My name,” she admitted huskily. “John Rooke was my husband.”

The solicitor passed on.

“The next name on my list,” he continued, “is Phillip Rooke, aged forty-eight, of no occupation.”

The stout man nodded gloomily.

“I’ve been everything from an auctioneer to a scene-shifter,” he confided. “Nothing doing at present. I’m touching the dole,” he added, with a semi-defiant glance around. “Got as much right to it as anyone, after all. Paid my taxes when I was better off.”

“The next,” Sir George went on, studying the list through his horn-rimmed eyeglass, “is Mr. Colin Rooke, aged twenty-five, journalist.”

The young man held up his hand.

“Rather a vagabond sort of journalist, I’m afraid, sir,” he said, with a faint smile, “but I scrape along somehow.”

“The last name on my list,” the lawyer concluded, “is Mr. Percy Rooke, insurance agent.”

“That is my name, sir,” the better-dressed man assented, a little wearily.

Sir George Eastman leaned back in his chair, laid the paper before him and pressed his finger-tips together. He was so much the typical family solicitor that he might have stepped out of a film.

“After the most exhaustive enquiries,” he said, “I have been able to satisfy myself and, what is more important, the Court, that you five are the only possible relatives of the late Desmond Rooke bearing his name. That, I may add, was one of the stipulations of his will.”

“There is a will, then?” the fat man asked eagerly.

“There is a will,” Sir George admitted.

“Sounds hopeful, anyway.”

“I should perhaps explain,” the lawyer continued, “that Mr. Desmond Rooke was by no means an old client of the firm. He came to me some six months ago and asked me to draw up a will for him. I explained that it was not the custom of this firm to accept clients without a recommendation. He said that he had no friends, and in any case he preferred a lawyer who was a stranger. He handed me his card, from which it appeared that he was associated with an undertaking conducted under the somewhat curious title of ‘Investments Limited,’ having offices in Crane Court, Moorgate Street. I asked him to call again in a few days’ time, but he insisted upon transacting the business at once. My office, therefore, rang up his bankers, who within a few minutes were able to reassure me as to the respectability of the company in question. I thereupon accepted the task of drawing up the will, accepted the deposit of a certain box which has remained in the vaults of the firm, and the executorship of the estate, and am in a position––”

“For God’s sake,” the nervous old woman broke in, “tell us where we are! Is there anything for us?”

The lawyer looked at the woman in mild surprise.

“My dear lady,” he remonstrated, “you will forgive me. These details have to be faced and I have had to satisfy myself before I could call you together that you five were the people you purported to be and that there was no other person who had a right to the name of Rooke. The money left by my client consisted wholly of War Loan stock. On his instructions this has been disposed of, the death duties have been paid, the fees of my firm have been deducted and the balance is here in my clerk’s hands for your acceptance.”

The girl could keep still no longer. She leaned shivering across the table.

“How much is it?” she gasped. “How much, please?”

Again there was an irritating pause while the eyeglass was fitted into its place. Sir George glanced at the paper which his secretary passed to him.

“The amounts of the drafts which my clerk will now hand you, and for which he will collect the receipts,” he announced, “are sixty-four thousand seven hundred pounds. Five bank vouchers for that amount are here. I congratulate you all,” the lawyer concluded, rising to his feet, “upon what must be, I am sure, a pleasant windfall.”

They were all on their feet except the grey-haired woman, who twice strove to stand up and failed. The clerk, who was watching her narrowly, poured out and passed her a glass of water, which she drank feverishly. Sir George smiled tolerantly at them as, with the drafts in their hands, they stood almost speechless. The girl was sobbing quietly. The young man seemed dazed. The perspiration was pouring down the forehead of the stout gentleman and his mouth was wide open. Sir George, with slightly relaxed expression, bade them all farewell.

“My clerk,” he said, “will answer any further questions. You will excuse me if I hurry off.”

The girl leaned towards him.

“There is one question I want to ask, sir. Where and how did Mr. Rooke die?”

“Yes, where was it?” the young man added.

The lawyer hesitated for a moment.

“Mr. Rooke,” he confided, “died under somewhat unfortunate circumstances on one of the smaller Channel Islands. He was living there in concealment.”

“My God!” the young man exclaimed. “The Sark murder case!”

The motley little gathering of five–dazed, excited, still scarcely able to realise this thing which had arrived–paused on the broad pavement outside the impressive-looking offices which they had just left and exchanged friendly glances. The woman with the untidy grey hair, Mrs. John Rooke, held on to one of the iron palings. Phillip Rooke, the stout gentleman who was in trouble with his waistcoat, addressed the others.

“Look here,” he said, “we’re all relatives of a sort. We came together by chance. It don’t seem right to separate without a word. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I went up those stairs a broken man. I’ve come down feeling I want to cry or laugh or dance or something. I haven’t got a wife to go home to, but I want to drink a glass of wine with someone. What about it?”

The girl and the young man beamed acquiescence. Mrs. John Rooke smoothed her hair. The insurance agent grunted.

“What I’m coming to is this,” the stout man went on. “I have a draft for sixty-four thousand seven hundred pounds in my pocket and four bob and a few pence, but what I’ve got, too, is a pal in that bank over there–branch of Barclays. I would propose that we go over there, I show this draft, and if I can open an account I’ll draw out fifty quid or so, and I know a little restaurant round the corner where we can just sit down and drink a bottle of the best and get acquainted, and if anyone says a spot of lunch afterwards, I’m not against it. What about it, my fellow relatives?”

“I call that the right spirit,” the young man declared. “What do you say, Miss Ann?”

“I’d love it,” she declared. “Do let’s go. We should feel so much more confidence.”

They trooped across the street. The stout man, who had buttoned up his waistcoat and acquired a swagger, led the way. They marched into the bank, which happened to be almost deserted, and notwithstanding a few curious glances from the clerks, walked up to the counter. The cashier looked up, nodded and welcomed his friend.

“Mr. Broadbent,” the latter introduced with a little wave of the hand, “friends of mine here–as a matter of fact, relatives. We have all come into a bit of money. Know the lawyer chap across the way–Sir George Eastman?”

“Know him!” the cashier replied with a smile. “One of our most valued clients.”

Phillip Rooke produced his draft.

“See what I’ve got here, Mr. Broadbent,” he said. “You being my landlord and knowing me well, you might tell me–is this bit of paper all right?”

The cashier glanced at the draft, turned it over, read it through carefully and smiled.

“This strip of paper, as you call it, Mr. Rooke,” he said, “is worth sixty-four thousand seven hundred of the very best. No getting away from it. It is as good as Bank of England notes.”

“Then what I should like,” the stout man observed, “is to open an account with you, deposit that draft and have you hand me across fifty quid. You know that’s my name–Phillip Rooke–you know the Sir George Eastman whose name is at the bottom of it, and it’s drawn on your own bank.”

“Mr. Rooke,” the bank official declared, “we shall be delighted to have you for a client. If you will sign your name at the back, the business will be accomplished.”

There was a little ripple of relief amongst the four people behind. Their guide turned and smiled at them triumphantly.

“There you are, my relatives,” he said. “It’s a cinch, you see. We’re all right. The money is real. You see, sir,” he went on, signing his name laboriously and pushing across the draft, “this came like a bolt from the blue to us five surviving relatives of an old cove that’s just pegged out.”

“Very lucky people, all of you,” the cashier said with a smile, as he began to count some notes. “How much did you say, Mr. Rooke?”

“Make it a hundred quid if it’s all the same to you,” the latter replied.

“I’ll make you out a cheque to sign in a moment,” the other promised. “You can either conclude the business now or come in later.”

“I’ll come in again later,” was the prompt response. “We have something to do first with a bit of this hundred quid. Can you guess what it’s going to be, Mr. Broadbent?”

The cashier for a moment was positively human. He smiled at his friend and tenant and he smiled at the other four.

“Knowing you, Phillip,” he said, “I can guess! . . .”

Out into the sunlit streets again they trooped. Somehow or other they felt a little more alive. The thing seemed real.

“You hadn’t any money there before, had you, Mr. Rooke?” the lady with the untidy grey hair asked.

“Not a bob,” her relative assured her. “I’ve not had an account there for four years and then it was only a pettifogging one.”

“Handed out the money without a word, didn’t he?” the elderly lady asked, looking around.

“It’s all very well,” the young man remonstrated with a smile, “but I don’t see why you should entertain us, Mr. Rooke. I’ve got a pound in my pocket. Couldn’t we make a little pool?”

“No more of that, my lad,” the other insisted. “The one thing I’m short of is relatives. I have no one at home to hurry back to–and God, how I want a drink! This way.”

He led them into a small, unassuming-looking restaurant, passed the downstair room, and mounted to an apartment on the first floor where about a dozen tables were set for luncheon. In the corner was a small bar. Mr. Phillip Rooke grinned at the barman. The barman grinned back again.

“How’s time, Fred?”

The barman glanced at the clock.

“Two minutes to go,” he said.

“Two bottles of champagne–the best you’ve got,” his patron ordered. “You can get ’em on the counter ready and open ’em as the clock strikes. We’re all for the law this morning, me and my friends, and we wouldn’t break it for the world. The law has done us all right, hasn’t it?” he went on. “Come along to that table in the corner. Just a couple of sandwiches each, Fred. We’ll see about lunch later on. . . .”

It was a strange, staccato kind of feast, punctuated here and there with hysterical laughter, wondering exclamations. The melancholy insurance agent lost his dumbness. He was the first to raise his glass and drink a solemn toast to their departed relative. Then they all began to talk. In half an hour’s time they were busy exchanging addresses; then there was a good deal of hand-shaking and they all prepared to separate.

“Keep the table,” Mr. Phillip Rooke ordered the barman as he paid the bill. “I’m going to collect an odd pal or two and be back to lunch.”

The girl, who seemed to have become prettier with every sip of her wine and every moment’s realisation of this new happiness, kissed him lightly on each cheek as she took her leave.

“You’re such a dear human being,” she exclaimed, “and I love to think you are half an uncle. What a wonderful day!”

“The young lady’s said it,” Mrs. John Rooke agreed, wiping her eyes. “It’s a wonderful day.”

“One, I think,” the young man declared, with his eye fixed upon the girl, “which we are not likely to forget in a hurry.”

They met again a month later. This time it was the young man who welcomed them one by one, as they mounted the stairs of a Strand restaurant and came to the round table where he and Miss Ann Rooke were waiting. There was a great change in their appearance. Mrs. John Rooke’s hair was still a little untidy, but a coiffeur had been at work upon it and she wore a very smart black frock and a hat that was almost fashionable. Mr. Phillip Rooke flamboyantly sported a tail-coat and white tie. The insurance agent was attired in a dinner-jacket like his host. Miss Ann looked charming in a sort of semi-evening dress of black taffeta. They talked volubly for several moments whilst every one of them took a cocktail. The young man indicated their places at the table, ordered another round of cocktails and told the waiter to serve dinner in ten minutes.

“Look here,” he said, leaning forward, “I thought it would be nice to all meet again and see how we were getting on, but I had also a purpose in asking you to come together. You remember the end of our conversation at the lawyer’s?”

“I have thought about it many times,” the insurance man admitted, looking up suddenly. “Our old benefactor being done away with, you mean?”

“That’s what I’ve had on my mind,” the young man confessed. “Now, I’ll tell you something I didn’t let on to at the time: we were all sort of struck dumb that morning. I was in the Channel Islands at the time that old man was found dead at the bottom of the cliffs. I was reporting on a special trial in Guernsey. We heard of this affair, and another friend and I sailed a small boat over to the island. We were both journalists, both inquisitive–although I never for one moment dreamed that I was ever going to be personally interested. There is little doubt, of course, as to whether it was a murder, accident or suicide, but my pal and I came to a certain decision. We believed that this old chap was murdered, and what I have asked you all to come and talk over to-night is just this–I think we ought to do something about it. The police have practically dropped the case. When I think what we all owe to the old gentleman I think it’s up to us to look into it. I propose that we make a little fund, it won’t take much money, but I thought you would all like to share, and if you like to entrust the thing to me, I will work on the case and see if I can make anything out of it. I think we owe it to the old boy.”

There was a murmur of assent. Mrs. John Rooke straightened her hair under her hat and looked with anxious eyes at her young host.

“Whatever happened,” she said, “it wouldn’t touch our legacies?”

“Of course not,” he assured her. “We’ve got our money all right, we’re secure for our lives, and I think it’s only reasonable we should show a little gratitude. I’m going to suggest that you each contribute a hundred pounds to the fund and I’ll get to work. I rather think that Miss Ann is going to help me–in fact, she has started on her share of the work already–and if there’s anything any of you others can do, of course, you’re welcome. I rather fancy, though, that we don’t need much outside help, except, of course, from the police.”

“My hundred pounds is here when you want it,” the stout man declared.

“And mine.”

“And mine,” the other two chimed in.

The young man smiled his thanks and clapped his hands.

“Now,” he directed the maître d’hôtel, “business is over. We will get on with the dinner.”

The young lady typist who passed by the name of Miss Ann Smith rose from her chair with a little sigh of resignation, covered over her machine, picked up her notebook and, crossing the floor of the somewhat barely furnished office, knocked at the door and entered the sanctum of Mr. Herbert Mountain, managing director of “Investments Limited.” That gentleman, who had been engaged in the task of signing a number of blue-sheeted documents, finished the last, pushed them away with a gesture of relief and leaned back in his chair.

“Sit down, Miss Smith,” he invited.

Miss Smith, recognising that the daily battle of wits had commenced, obeyed at once and opened her book. Her employer eyed her approvingly.

“Been here a month to-day, haven’t you, Miss Smith?” he enquired.

“I believe that is so,” she admitted.

“Comfortable?”

“Quite, thank you.”

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