My First Case by Edmund Leamy

I had just been admitted a solicitor, and had been induced to start practice, or, rather, to look for it, in a town in one of the midland counties, where I had been persuaded there was a good opening for an attorney, the name by which members of my profession were then generally known. It was in the good old days before examinations became the stiff ordeals that they have been for many years, and I must confess that my attendance in the office where I was supposed to be serving my time was not as regular as it might have been. However, with a fair share of assurance, which the old clerk in my master’s office impressed on me was the chief secret of success, I opened my office, put a brass plate on the door, and installed as my clerk a young fellow of twenty-one or thereabouts, who had had some slight experience in the business of a country office. Day followed day, and the hoped for client never came. My clerk spent the time writing text—“this indenture,” and “whereas,” and other important words, which would figure in the deeds he expected one day to be called on to engross—but he at least had the satisfaction of drawing a salary, not a very large one, it is true, but it was something. As for me, I confess I was beginning to get heartily weary of waiting, and to feel almost ashamed of the brass plate on the door.

Sometimes a step sounding in the hall would set my heart fluttering; but this only announced a lady who wanted to know did we want eggs, or cabbage, or other articles of commerce. This, of course, was dreadfully disappointing; still, it was consoling to know that someone had found the house.

It was more assuring when one or two came in to know if “Torney Brown was in,” although that was the name of a rival practitioner long established in the town. It gave my clerk the opportunity of stating, in impressive tones, “No, this is ’Torney Malone’s office,” which he and I flattered ourselves was an excellent advertisement, and would some day have good results. Then came one day, a long, gawky-looking countryman to know when the Quarter Sessions were coming on, and what time had he for issuing a process. This was downright cheering. I asked him into my own office and made him sit down. I wrote out the date of the sessions and the last day for service on a sheet of notepaper with my address printed on it at the top. This induced him to tell me his case, in which, I need not say, I became deeply interested. It was a simple case of trover of a saddle, but I think I made as much out of it as if it were a question involving a thousand pounds. I examined and cross-examined him, like, I persuaded myself, an old hand, and felt certain that I had deeply impressed my client, for so I loved to think him. At last apparently satisfied, he rose to go.

“Well, good evenin’ to ye now, yer honour, and good luck, and myself ’ill come again before Thursday,” as he moved towards the door.

Then he hesitated for a second, and looking back he asked:

“Aren’t you ’Torney Brown, yer honour?”

I felt nettled, but controlling myself said quietly:

“No, I’m Mr. Malone, as you’ll see by the notepaper you have in your hand.”

He looked a little sheepishly at the notepaper, and then said as he moved off:

“Well, yer a very civil gentleman, anyhow.”

Thursday came, but my client did not turn up. The sessions day came, and although I had no business I thought I ought to put in an appearance in court. Amongst the first cases called was that in which my client, as I have called him, was plaintiff—his attorney was Mr. Brown. I fear I went back to my office in rather better humour that I otherwise would have done, when the barrister, as the County Court Judge was called then, dismissed the case, and with costs, against “my client.”

After this, weeks passed and no one came near the office, and I began to long even for the step of the vegetable woman, but towards dusk one October evening, just as I was about thinking of leaving the office, where I had been sitting before the fire whiling away the time with a novel, my clerk came in with a gleeful face to inform me that a gentleman desired to see me on legal business. My heart jumped into my mouth. I quickly hid the novel, put on my most professional appearance, seated myself at my desk, began to write, and was so engaged when the gentleman was shown in.

He was a man, I should say of five and forty, and had all the appearance of a country gentleman. I handed him a chair, which he took, and asked him what I could do for him.

His business was quickly explained. His aunt, an old lady, who resided with him, was dying, and desired to make her will. She wished to leave everything to her nephew—the gentleman who was consulting me, and who gave his name as Mr. George Ralph Jephson, “but my aunt calls me Ralph,” he added. “So I suppose,” he said, “it will not take you much time to prepare a will leaving everything to me? I should wish you, also, to come out with me and witness the execution of it. I suppose your clerk could come also?”

I replied that I would prepare the will according to his instructions in a few moments. I took down the name of the intending testatrix and his own information as to the nature of her property. Half a dozen lines were quite sufficient to dispose of it, as it was all to go, without any reservation or condition, to the one person. I got my clerk to make out a clean copy, and when this was done, he and I, and Mr. Jephson got into the latter’s dog cart, which a small boy was holding outside the office door.

Of Mr. Jephson I knew nothing, save that he had recently taken the house and demesne of Longfield, which had been untenanted for many years, owing to a tragedy that had taken place there, and it was said that he had come from Dorsetshire. His house was about nine miles outside the town, but the road was good and the horse a fast goer, and we did it in a little over the hour. A short, winding avenue led up to the house, which looked gloomy, as the only light visible escaped through the fanlight over the door.

This, when he pulled up, was opened in answer to Mr. Jephson’s knock by an old, rather slatternly woman. He showed my clerk and me into the dining-room, where a bright fire was burning, and, requesting us to be seated, said he would go up to see if the lady were ready to receive us. He returned in a few moments, ushered us up the stairs, and, turning down the right corridor pushed in a door that was not fastened.

The room, which was not over-well furnished for so pretentious a house, was lighted by two candles. On a bed raised not more than a foot from the ground, and placed in a corner behind the door, lay a woman of at least seventy years old. She was very small, and her face had a very gentle expression, and, notwithstanding her advanced age, was wonderfully fair, and had but very few wrinkles. Her eyes were still bright, and it was evident she must have been a very pretty girl.

There was no one else in the room save Mr. Jephson, the clerk, and myself, and the door was closed. I produced the draft will and said, addressing myself to the lady:

“You wish to make your will?”

“Yes; oh, yes.”

“And you wish to leave everything to your nephew?”

“Yes, to Ralph—to Rafy—everything.”

“Then please listen, madam, while I read this, it is very short.”

“Bring the candle nearer your face and let me look at you,” she said.

The request surprised me, but I could not well refuse it.

“No, no, you are not like him, my——Rafy; but he had blue eyes like yours——blue eyes, and you could see the gold glint in his hair.”

This speech perplexed me. Mr. George Ralph Jephson, who was standing in the shadow behind me, although inclined very much to grey now, had evidently had very dark hair, while his eyes were of a deep, almost dark grey.

“May I read the will?”

“Is everything given to Rafy?”

“Yes; listen——

“I, Eleanor Glasson, devise and bequeath all the property, real and personal, I die seized and possessed of, or to which I may become entitled to in expectancy, reversion, or remainder, to my dear nephew, George Ralph Jephson.”——

“Say to Rafy; write Rafy. Will not that do?” interrupted the old lady in a tone of mingled tenderness and eagerness.

“But I had better put in his full name,” I said.

“Well, then, read it again.”

I read.

“Not George! Ralph—Rafy. It is to Rafy.”

“You see, she never called me George,” said Mr. Jephson, in a low voice, “tell her it is all right.”

Before I could reply, the old woman said:

“Let me look at you again,” and she laid her hand in mine. “Bend down and let me look into your eyes. Ay, they are like Rafy’s blue eyes. Will you let me kiss you for his sake?” and she put up her little wasted hands against my cheeks and kissed me. “I knew you wouldn’t wrong Rafy, would you?”

“No, no,” said I, much touched and somewhat confused, and then turning to Mr. Jephson, I said, “There must be something wrong.”

“Perhaps you had better come downstairs with me and I’ll explain,” said Mr. Jephson in, I thought, a slightly agitated tone.

We went to the dining-room, and Mr. Jephson having carefully closed the door, stood with one elbow resting on the fireplace, and addressed me.

“Over thirty years ago a cousin of mine, another nephew of Miss Glasson’s, whose name was Ralph, and of whom she was passionately fond, eloped with a girl beneath his position, and his father proving unforgiving the young couple went to the United States. A short time after arriving there the news of his death by drowning came home. It nearly broke my aunt’s heart, for she had favoured the marriage out of her love for Ralph, and now seemed to think she was in some way responsible for his death. For a time she was bereft of her senses and was under surveillance; when she recovered she seemed to give her whole affection to me, and insisted on my dropping the name of George and calling myself Ralph, which I am entitled to do, as it is my second name. At times she used to speak of him to me and only to me, and she used to talk of the difference between his eyes and mine; of late she very often speaks of him, and, as is often the way of old people, forgets he is dead, but I am the only Ralph in the family now, and it is to me that she intends to leave what she has.”

“I should like to talk to the lady by myself if you see no objection,” I said.

“I fear it would only excite her,” he replied, with a faint suggestion of annoyance. “I have told you everything she can tell. She is ready to sign the will if you will witness it.”

“But if, as you say, she believes the other Ralph is still alive it appears to me it is to him she desires to leave the property.”

“If that is your opinion and you will not accept my statement, I suppose there is no more to be said,” he answered rather gruffly.

I rose to go and signalled to my clerk.

“You will let me offer you a glass of wine,” he said; “and I should be glad if you will stay and dine with me. Your drive home is a pretty long one.”

I accepted the wine and some biscuits, as did also my clerk, and then, when I declared we were ready for the road, Mr. Jephson said he would drive us himself.

I thought it was rather strange he did not offer to send the coachman, as he had himself already covered the road twice that day. But as he and I sat in the dog-cart in front he volunteered an explanation. He did not wish, he said, his servants to know too much about his business. But this appeared to me rather a curious explanation. There was nothing about the business that required concealment, I said to myself.

“And that is the reason why I wished you to bring your clerk with you. I like to have discreet people, and not babblers about me, and I always make it a point whenever I can to employ professional men.”

This was intended, no doubt, as flattering, and I fear I was not above being pleased with it. I knew after that it was also intended as a hint that he expected I would not speak about the business which had taken me to Longfield.

When we arrived at my office he offered me a fee of five guineas; but I refused this on the ground that the business in which he had employed me had come to nothing. Saying good-night in a cordial way Mr. Jephson drove away.

It would seem as if this case brought me luck. The very next day a defendant in a rather bad assault case came in to engage my services. I appeared for him at the Petty Sessions and made what, I flattered myself, was a very good defence. Anyhow, he was acquitted, and I had the satisfaction of reading in the local paper, the “Midland Gazette,” “that the ingenious defence and the brilliant speech made by Mr. Malone on behalf of the accused proves that he is a valuable acquisition to our local Bar.”

After this, business began to come in pretty rapidly, but, to my regret, my clerk, who was very anxious to settle in Dublin, got the chance of a situation in the then well-known firm of solicitors in Dame Street, Messrs. Wrexham & Co. I gave him, as he deserved, an excellent character, which procured the place for him.

He had left me about a month, and something like two months had elapsed since Mr. Jephson’s visit, when I read in the obituary column of the “Irish Times” the announcement of the death of Miss Glasson, of Longfield House, Co. ——. I had, of course, often thought of the little old woman of the sweet face and the undying love for Ralph of the blue eyes, and I began to wonder if she had made any will and, if so, who was the legatee. But, after all, the matter was one in which I had no concern, yet I felt gratified somehow, that she did not execute the will which, acting on Mr. Jephson’s instructions, I had prepared for her. I addressed myself to my increasing business and the matter soon passed from my mind.

Some weeks after this announcement in the “Times,” my clerk one day brought a card into my private office, saying:—

“The gentleman desires to see you, sir.”

I looked at the card. “Mr. Wrexham.” It was the name of the solicitor to whom my first clerk had gone.

“Show him in,” I said.

Mr. Wrexham, after a courteous salute, took the proffered chair and plunged into business at once.

“You are doubtless aware,” he said, “that Miss Glasson died at Longfield House a short time ago?”

I nodded assent.

“She was very wealthy; left about 30,000. The whole goes by her will, to her nephew, John Ralph Jephson. My firm has, however, been instructed by Mrs. Ralph Jephson, the widow of another nephew who died two years ago——”

“Two years ago?” I exclaimed.

“Yes—we have been instructed by her to contest the will on the ground of undue influence. We have accordingly entered a caveat, but, to be frank with you, I fear we have not much evidence to go on. We know that the late Miss Glasson entertained a very strong affection for Ralph Jephson, and always intended to make him her devisee and legatee—she had no power to dispose of her property except by will—but she was living with her nephew, George Ralph Jephson, and had been bedridden for some time. He kept away every other relative from his house. He took this place in Ireland, brought her hither, and it was not until the announcement of her death that her other relatives knew of her whereabouts. It chanced that your late clerk was given the draft caveat to make a clean copy of it for lodgment in the office of the Court, and the name attracting his attention he mentioned to my head clerk the scene he had witnessed in Miss Glasson’s room. The clerk related the story to me, and that accounts for my presence here to-day. I fear,” added Mr. Wrexham, after a pause, “that a fraud has been perpetrated, and that the will for which probate is sought does not express the wishes of the deceased lady.”

“Who prepared and witnessed the will?” I asked.

“A solicitor and his clerk.”

“And the solicitor?”

“A young fellow named Devaney; he lives in the next county—do you know him?”

“He was admitted as a solicitor the same time as I.”

“Mr. Jephson seems to have a preference for young practitioners,” said Mr. Wrexham, with a smile, and he added: “Do you happen to know anything about Devaney?”

“Well, I have heard he does little business, and he is, I fear, addicted to drink. Otherwise he is a good fellow.”

“Just the kind of man to be made the innocent instrument of a fraud; and now I feel certain that a fraud has been committed on the poor lady who is dead and on the relatives whom she wished to benefit, and, of course, your evidence is all-important. I could, of course, have written and sent you a subpœna, but I thought it more courteous to wait on you myself. The case is listed for the day after to-morrow, when I hope it will be convenient for you to be in Dublin.”

I confess I should have preferred that my evidence were dispensed with, but I had no doubt that in some way or other a fraud had been perpetrated, and the sweet face and the recollection of the poor dead lady’s trust in me appealed irresistibly to me.

When the case came on I saw for the first time the widow of Ralph Jephson. Beside her sat her daughter. She was rather petite, exceedingly pretty, and her face bore an unmistakeable likeness to her dead grand-aunt. I was taken with her at once, and, I must confess, I found it very difficult to keep my eyes away from the quarter where she was seated.

The evidence against the validity of the will was, except mine and my clerk’s, very slight. It was deposed to by the servants who had been in the employment of the deceased that she always spoke of making Ralph Jephson her sole heir, but these servants had left the employment more than two years ago. They had to admit, on cross-examination, that Mr. George Ralph Jephson was sometimes called Ralph, but they denied that they had ever heard the testatrix so describe him.

I deposed to what I have already stated, but I was unable to say that I considered the testatrix had not testamentary capacity. I could only say I believed she wished to leave her property to Ralph, and not to George Ralph, Jephson.

This brought the judge down on me, and he asked me why, if that was so, I didn’t carry out her intentions? That it was my duty to do so. I had not seen it in that light, and felt very uncomfortable as I left the witness-box.

Then came the witnesses for the defence. Mr. George Ralph Jephson swore his aunt had habitually called him Ralph; that occasionally she called him George; and had frequently promised to leave him everything, and that it was by her directions he went on both occasions for a solicitor. What he told Mr. Malone about his cousin Ralph was, he believed, true, and he was surprised to learn now for the first time that he had not been drowned, as was reported, and had only recently died.

Then came a servant whom I recognised as the woman who had opened the door for me. She wore mourning, and scarcely lifted her veil as she kissed the book. She gave her evidence nervously, and she began by explaining that she was never in a courthouse before. She swore she attended deceased, and that the latter had frequently said that she would leave everything to her nephew, Mr. George Ralph Jephson; that sometimes deceased—but that was only lately, a few weeks before she died—rambled about little Rafy, as she called him, that was drowned. As far as she could judge, the lady was in her right mind.

Mr. Devaney, solicitor, proved that he attended with a will prepared on the directions of Mr. Jephson, and which left everything to him. He had never seen testatrix before. He had no reason to doubt that she knew what she was doing. He read the will slowly for her. It was very short, and she said she understood it thoroughly, and she added that she wished to leave everything she had in the world to her nephew there, pointing, as she did so, to Mr. Jephson, who was standing at the side of the bed near witness.

Mr. Devaney’s clerk gave similar evidence, and it appeared as if there was no more to be said. But Mr. Daunt, Q.C., who had let the previous witnesses off, I thought, rather easily, proceeded to cross-examine the clerk very closely.

“You had never seen the testatrix before, I suppose?”

“Never.”

“But you took a good look at her when you did see her?”

“Well, I looked, of course, but I did not notice her very much—there was not very much light.”

“Oh! there was not very much light,” said Mr. Daunt, steadying his spectacles and fixing his gaze on the clerk. “How much light?”

“One candle.”

“Only one candle when the testatrix was making her mark! Was that the reason she gave for not signing her name in full?”

“No. She said when Mr. Devaney asked her if she would sign her name, that she did not know how to write, but that she thought her mark would do.”

“Did not know how to write!” interrupted the judge. “I thought testatrix was a lady of position.”

“So she was, my lord,” said Mr. Daunt.

“And did you take particular notice of the testatrix?” said counsel, addressing the witness.

“Well, not particular. I mean, I did not notice very much of her; but I noticed her hand and her finger when she was making her mark.”

“Oh, you did! Tell the Court and the jury what you noticed,” said Mr. Daunt, catching the edges of his gown and pulling them forward.

“I noticed that her hands were very coarse for a lady, I thought, my lord,” said the witness looking up towards the judge. “And I saw that her forefinger had a deep mark along it, as if it had been badly cut or crushed some time or other.”

“Come,” said Mr. Daunt, leaning forward and looking the clerk full in the face. “Do you think you would know the testatrix if you saw her again?”

A buzz of excitement ran through the crowd.

“If I saw her again? Sure she’s dead.”

“Sure she’s dead,” said Mr. Daunt, echoing him; “but if she wasn’t, do you think you could recognise her?”

“I think I might.”

“And if you saw the hand and the finger would you recognise them?”

“I would.”

“Are you sure of that?”

“I—I—well, I am sure. I believe I would.”

“But Mr. Daunt,” put in the judge, “this is an extraordinary course you are taking. The plea you have put in on behalf of your client is undue influence.”

“Quite so, my lord; but the case is an extraordinary one, and I ask your lordship to bear with me for a moment in the interests of justice.”

The judge nodded.

“My lord,” continued Mr. Daunt, “would your lordship be good enough to request the witness, Agnes Marvel,” that was the name of the servant who had been examined—“to come forward?”

“But, my lord,” said Mr. Star, Q.C., who was on the opposite side, “this is quite irregular. My learned friend had an opportunity of cross-examining Agnes Marvel when she was in the witness-box.”

“I shall call her forward, and then, if Mr. Daunt puts any question to which you take exception, I shall be happy to hear you, Mr. Star.”

“Thank you, my lord,” said Mr. Star, as he resumed his seat.

“I do not intend to ask any questions,” said Mr. Daunt. “So my learned friend need not have been in such a hurry to interpose.”

“Come forward, Agnes Marvel!” said the crier.

The woman came and stood near the clerk who was giving evidence.

“Lift up your veil, madam,” said Mr. Daunt.

She did so with trembling hands which were encased in black cotton gloves.

“Now, will you be good enough to remove your gloves.”

“What is the meaning of this?” said Mr. Star, Q.C., jumping up.

“My lord, I make this request on my responsibility as counsel.”

“Where is the objection, Mr. Star?” said the judge.

The woman removed her gloves. Her face as she did so became deathly white, and without a word of warning she fell back, and would have fallen on the witness-table if the crier, who was standing near her, had not caught her in his arms.

There were cries of “Water!” and “Take her out into the air!”

“Perhaps, my lord,” said Mr. Star, “an adjournment of the court would be agreeable, as it is near luncheon time.”

“What do you say to that, Mr. Daunt?” asked the judge.

“May I ask the witness one more question, my lord.”

“Yes.”

“Did you, witness, see that woman’s hand?”

“Yes.”

“Was that the hand that signed the will?”

“I believe so.”

The excitement in court was now intense.

“I think,” said the judge, “we should go on. Bring in that woman if she has recovered,” he continued, addressing a policeman.

The woman was brought in.

“Now,” said the judge, turning towards Mr. Daunt, “you may repeat your question; but first let me warn this woman. Agnes Marvel?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“The question which counsel is now about to put concerns you. Listen to it.”

Mr. Daunt repeated the question, and the clerk answered it as before.

“Do you think you could recognise the features?”

“Now that I look at them I believe I do; but I won’t be positive.”

“My lord,” said Mr. Daunt, “may I recall Mr. Malone?”

“For what, Mr. Daunt?”

“That he may describe the appearance of the lady whom he saw——”

“My lord! my lord!” interrupted Agnes Marvel, “if ye promise not to hang me I’ll tell the truth. ’Twas I signed the will—’twas I signed it, and there’s the man that tempted me,” and she pointed to where Mr. George Ralph Jephson had been seated, but in the excitement he had succeeded in escaping.

There is no need to pursue the narrative further. Suffice it to say that the false will was set aside, and luckily, one made some years previous, and which was in the custody of a solicitor in England, was forthcoming. By this all the property of the late Miss Glasson was bequeathed in trust to Ralph Jephson and his children in equal portions should he predecease testatrix. The whole, therefore, fell to Miss Blanche Jephson.

But it may be interesting to state that Mr. Daunt was as much surprised at the denouement as anyone else. He had intended to put only a few questions to Mr. Devaney’s clerk as a matter of form, but the statement of the latter that the testatrix had said she had never written a line in her life aroused his curiosity, and when the clerk described the finger of testatrix a light suddenly flashed on his mind that made his way clear. With the acuteness and habit which come from long practice, he had taken note of the witness, Agnes Marvel, as she came to the stand to take the oath. She had, of course, to remove the glove from her right hand before taking the book in it, and he saw the disfigurement of the forefinger. Seeing that he had no case otherwise, he determined to hazard everything on the chance that Agnes Marvel had signed the will and not Miss Glasson.