Letters from Armorica: The Solicitor (7 December 1015)

Armand’s First Letter. Amelia’s First Letter.

13 Norwich Street, Yorke, Cumbria
7 December 1015

My dear cousin Amelia,

The situation here remains largely as it was when I ended my letter yesterday; I am at an impasse. No, I am in a cleft stick, and I am unsure how to extricate myself.

I see that I must go back several days.

By the afternoon of the 5th I had received a new suit from Father’s tailor—he was the first of the tradesmen with whom I had to make things right—and so was suitably attired to pay a visit to Father’s solicitor, one Jno. Wackspallen, Esq. To say I approached this interview with trepidation is to greatly understate the point; for Wackspallen had shown himself entirely unwilling to discuss Father’s business with anyone but Father or his heir—and had expressed the wish and desire to see me before proceeding any farther.

Solicitors are men of subtleties. I am sure you see this one, Amelia. He said he wished to see me; he said he was unwilling to discuss Father’s business with anyone but Father or his heir. So the man had business with me, but he never said he recognized me as Father’s heir.

Was this an oversight? A habit of being closed-mouthed in the extreme? Or had Father somehow legally disowned me? His gnomic utterances had provided neither Mother nor John Netherington-Coates the slightest comfort. Indeed, he told Grandmaster Netherington-Coates politely but firmly to get out and never return.

He was more conciliatory with Mother, and indeed one might say he was as sympathetic as a dried-out old legal husk could well be; but the point remains he refused to discuss any matter at all relating to Burlington Massey until he had spoken with me.

I found him in his chambers, into which his clerk, a stick-like figure as dessicated as himself, admitted me with a raised eyebrow. He rose from his desk—I do believe I imagined the clouds of dust that seemed to fall from him as he did so—and said, “Armand Massey. Your appearance is other than I have been led to expect. Indeed, I was unsure that I would see you at all.”

“Your source being my father, I presume. I suppose he led you to believe that I was a profligate and ne’er-do-well who was forced to flee Cumbria ahead of the bailiffs?”

“He said nothing of profligacy. He did have much to say about irresponsibility, ingratitude, and unworthiness.”

“I am not surprised. My father and I had a disagreement, sir. He wished me to devote my days to succeeding him as grandmaster of the Former’s Guild. I wished to devote my days to my craft rather than to his ambitions.”

“May I ask how you have been doing so these past years?”

I had come prepared for this, Amelia. Father, whatever his faults, had not raised a fool. I extracted from my coat pocket several letters I had carried with me from Mont-Havre, and handed them over.

“I believe you will find everything you wish to know in these.”

His eyebrows rose when he saw Lord Doncaster’s seal on the first; it was the first sign of human life I perceived in his demeanor. As to the second, he merely asked me, “And this M. Suprenant?”

“He is a noted member of the Guilde du Marchandes in Mont-Havre, and my partner in a business concern.”

“This ‘Tuppenny Wagon Company’ of which he speaks?”

“Yes.”

Wackspallen read through the letters carefully, then regarded me drily over his half-moon spectacles.

“Very well, Mr. Massey.”

“I should prefer Tuppenny, Mr. Wackspallen. It is the name I customarily use these days.”

“So I see. But for your current concerns, ‘Massey’ will do better.”

I nodded. “As you say.”

“Mr. Massey, I regret to tell you that your father has disinherited you. Or, perhaps I should say, attempted to do so.”

I felt a chill, Amelia, a distinct chill.

“I feared he had; and yet you say, ‘attempted’. You are a man who is careful with his words, Mr. Wackspallen.”

“Your father came to me perhaps a year ago. He described you as I have said, and claimed that you were in a league with his enemies. He was angry, Mr. Massey. I might go so far as to say that he was in a rage. He demanded that I redraft his will in your disfavor. Later he returned and signed the new draft.”

“So there is no more to be said, then.”

The solicitor somehow gave the impression of having raised a finger without actually having done so.

“I had reservations, Mr. Massey. My profession is one that requires much discretion of speech while allowing little discretion of action; and yet, as I say, I had reservations.”

He opened a drawer and removed two documents, laying them side by side on the desk between us.

“This,” and he indicated one with a nod of his head, “is your father’s original will. You may examine it if you choose, but I assure there is nothing in it that is in the least unusual. And this,” a nod to the other, “is the new one. Read it, if you please.”

I did so. The language was heavy going, but clear enough. I was stricken from the line of inheritance; Father’s belongings, saving a fund for Mother, were to go to his nearest male relation other than myself.

“I should wish to draw your attention to two passages, Mr. Massey. The first is Mr. Burlington Massey’s attestation to his soundness of mind and body; the second you surely have found for yourself.”

I nodded. It all seemed quite distressingly plain.

“When your father came to me to amend his will he was in a rage, as I have said; but I found no grounds for questioning the soundness of his mind. When he returned some weeks later to sign the new will, he seemed disturbed, and he uttered claims about you that seemed unlikely; but again, I had no grounds for contest.”

Wackspallen took off his half-moon spectacles and looked me directly in the eye.

“Over the following months he returned at decreasing intervals, and each time asked my aid to strike you from his will. And each time I perforce showed him his current will and that he had already done so. It became clear to me that whatever soundness of mind he possessed when signing the new will, he now lacked. And yet sign it he had.”

I had been listening attentively, as you can well imagine, Amelia.

“Are you saying that I will have to prove in Chancery Court that my father has lost his mind in order to gain my legacy?”

He looked at me sharply.

“No, no,” I said, “I am well provided for. What I want is to see my mother equally well provided for.”

“Under the terms of the new will, she will be adequately taken care of,” he said. “But….”

“But my father is not yet dead, and indeed may live for many years in his reduced state.”

He nodded. “That is so. Now, Mr. Massey, I do believe that you have grounds for lodging such a suit in Chancery, though of course you would need to expose your father’s condition to the world.”

“Have I any option?”

“One could simply wait. Madness, regrettably, happens in these cases; and whatever the terms of your Father’s will he has not declared you—pardon the word, I pray—illegitimate. No one can prevent you from overseeing his interests during this time, and having made your acquaintance and inspected these letters I stand ready to help you in any manner in which I am allowed. But there is another matter to speak of.”

It was with difficulty that I restrained from tearing at my hair.

“And what could that possibly be?” I exclaimed.

“The second clause, Mr. Massey, in which your father speaks of his nearest male relation other than yourself.”

“What of it?”

“As a matter of course, we have endeavored to trace your father’s relations so that we will stand ready to execute his will in the fullness of time. And so far, Mr. Massey, we have been unable to discover any such.”

“What are you saying?”

“We have not exhausted all possibilities, Mr. Massey. Do not mistake me. But it may well be that your father has no living male relations this side of the Ark, if I may permit myself.”

“And in that case?”

“Your Father’s new will is null and void, being established on a condition contrary to fact.”

I had to spend a moment taking this in. Then I said, “Is there anything I can do to speed up the search?”

The corners of his mouth might have flickered up a small fraction of an inch as he consulted a paper he removed from another drawer. “Not unless you can tell me anything of the descendants of your grandfather’s mother’s third cousin Norbert Flagoner.”

“Oh, yes, good old cousin Norbert. I remember my grandfather speaking of him never at all.”

“As you say, Mr. Massey.”

“And how long is this search likely to take?”

“It is slow, Mr. Massey, for we must rely on correspondents in various parts of the country; and the distant relations of a man in good physical health are a matter of little moment to them. But I can assure you that it will take far less time than any action in Chancery possibly could. I have known cases—” He shook his head.

“Some,” he said, “are legendary among my brethren. Were you a peer, I might encourage you to lodge such an action, but otherwise I cannot recommend it.”

I nodded. “Very well,” I said. “You have eased my mind somewhat, for which I thank you, and simplified my difficulties very little, I fear. My life is no longer here; and yet it seems that no one else has standing to oversee my father’s affairs.”

“That is the case, Mr. Massey. And yet, now that I have met you perhaps there is something to be done. I must consider.”

And so we parted. I have spent the intervening time wrestling with Father’s accounts and making things right with his creditors, none of whom should have been creditors.

And I am still at a loss, Amelia. I must needs return to Armorica; but I cannot leave my mother at this time, with all of this as yet unsettled. Were my status as heir unquestioned I could assign a trustee of some kind, I suppose, perhaps your father; as it is, I must wait.

Your perplexed and beleaguered cousin,

Armand

Next letter

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