by Robert Ferguson
“Well, that all seems to be in order,” said the ageing, chubby solicitor, pushing the battered passport and somewhat tatty birth certificate back across his desk towards his visitor. The young man folded them away into the pocket of his nondescript jacket. “You’ve been travelling extensively in the Far East, then? Presumably that explains why you have only just heard of your Uncle’s sad …er..,demise?”
The young man did not reply to the solicitor’s implied question, so the lawyer tried again. “You and your Uncle and Aunt were not close, then, I assume?”
“No, I hadn’t seen them since I left school and went East.”
“To seek your fortune, as it were, ha, ha,” the solicitor offered. “Remind me, where was it you were at school?”
“Sisbury”, the young man replied. So that’s where the tie came from, the solicitor thought, but was learning that this was not a man given to idle chat.
“I am correct in understanding that you hold my Uncle’s Will, and are its sole executor?” the young man continued.
“Yes, indeed. In fact, we have been trying to find you for eighteen months. I did consider employing a private detective. The estate could have borne the cost. It is quite substantial, of course, but…” another pause, “well, I was sure you would turn up sooner or later, and, of course, here you are at last. Ha, ha. Yes.
“But, of course, you will not be aware of how they died. As you know, Sir Richard was an enthusiastic motorist. Never an accident or...ah, …a ‘ticket’”, the solicitor sounded the inverted commas punctiliously, “in fifty years of driving. And then, for no explicable reason, he drove them both off a not abnormally twisting road in the North-West of Scotland. The car hit the rocks beneath and burst into flames, and it was three days before anyone, including the police, put the car, the bodies and the names of Sir Richard and Lady Margaret together. So very sad, so very sad. Haa, hum.”
The young man did not register emotion of one sort or another. “So, what were the terms of the Will, may I ask?”
“Indeed, I have it here,” the solicitor murmured, opening the slim file in front of him on the desk. “Well, yes, it begins….”
“Just the gist will do for the present,” the young man suggested. “No doubt you can let me have a copy to take away.”
“But of course, of course. Well, after local bequests to staff and friends, with which, as executor, I have dealt long since, there is the house, of course, … Gission House, it’s…”
“Yes, I know where and what it is,” the young man said rather abruptly. The solicitor thought kindly, “Ah, delayed shock,” but continued to summarize the relevant provisions of the Will.
“The monetary funds were spread prudently, but of course I consolidated them as became appropriate in a ‘client fund’ to await your …erm…re-emergence, may I say? The total is some £2,475,000, to which I can give you access with a minimum of additional formality, bank requirements and so on.”
“Yes, please,” the young man replied, “as soon as possible, so that I can re-invest it to my benefit.”
“You will no doubt be taking it abroad, ha,ha, to somewhere sophisticated like Singapore or Hong Kong?” The young man gave no indication of his intentions in that regard. Instead, he said, “And you can give me the keys to the house, no doubt? Perhaps I can take them with me now?”
“Yes, yes, of course. One moment.” The solicitor prised himself from his chair and waddled to open the office door. “Miss Briggs, may we have the keys to Gission House, if you please. Our client will be taking them with him, if you could so record? Thank you.”
He had indeed found the house the day before, after an extensive drive around the environs of the village in the somewhat muddy, brown, modest and unnoticeable family saloon car he had hired many miles away the day before that. He hadn’t wanted to ask for directions. Strangers asking for directions to long-unoccupied large houses in the English countryside would inevitably give rise to suppositions, gossip, questions, and worst of all memories, and he was necessarily a very private man. Yesterday, having checked as far as possible that he was unobserved, he had just pushed back the gate by the road, but had not driven up the drive, just found the house and then gone to the top of a convenient nearby hill to view the property and its grounds from a distance.
Old and large it certainly was, timber framed with stone facing to the ground floor, brick to the first floor, and wattle-and-daub infilling to the second floor and gabble-ends above that. Where visible, the main timbers and walls had once been painted in the traditional black-and-white patterns typical of the region, but the weather had long been uninterrupted in the gradual wear that it had imposed. The black was now more like a dark grey, and what had been white was at best described as cream, streaked with orange-red where the gutters above were holed and leaking. Diamond-paned windows were set in timber frames, apparently intended to be closed but gaping slightly where the wood had warped. The doors looked solid enough, however, and were made of planks thick enough to be used for the building of a ship. The house looked comfortably old, and settled onto its foundations, but not in bad shape for an old ‘un.
The gardens, however, were a shambles. So much the better, he thought, turning briskly into the drive, looking for somewhere to park where the car would be out of sight. The no doubt once-mown lawns were like continuous hay fields within the dilapidated boundary fence. Shrubs, once set in neatly cut out beds, had grown up and together, almost to form a curtain around the front of the house. Almost, but not quite. There were too many gaps for his purpose. Anyone driving, or worse still walking, past on the road could still see portions of the frontage. This wouldn’t do.
Around the back of the house, however, a brick-floored yard lay in front of what he supposed would be the kitchen door. The yard nestled between outhouses, stables and storehouses he presumed, and of no interest to him other than as cover from prying eyes. He checked to see that none of the surrounding hills provided a view into the yard, pulled the car over against a suitable wall, and got out.
Walking carefully across the brick surface, which had been frosted into unevenness by winters without adequate care, he took from his briefcase the bunch of ancient iron keys which the solicitor had given him. Even when he had found a key that fitted the demands of the lock to the back door, a monster of a thing which seemed to weigh a ton, he had to be careful in turning it not to use too much force and risk breaking it off in the lock. Force was needed, however, to push the door open against the huge iron hinges and the floor within, and that was accompanied by a certain amount of unwelcome noise.
Once inside, however, the dim light from the grimy, cobweb- and shrub-shaded window showed he was in an old-fashioned scullery. Ignoring the grubby Belfast sink – was everything in the house on this huge scale? – he walked through the kitchen beyond, and on into a corridor which did indeed lead to a door covered in green baize. Through the door, again resistant on stiff hinges, the house opened out in all its glory.
He found himself, not in a room but in a space, a huge, overwhelming space. There was no ceiling. The space simply rose to the massive oak roof-timbers. The walls were hung with vast tapestries, the colours faded and the backing canvas showing through where the silk had worn away. The same went for the acres of carpet, the reds and blues of its oriental origin again worn except where furniture had once protected it, unmoved perhaps for centuries but now gone. What furniture remained was spread sparcely, the shine of its solid chestnut and rosewood now diminished by a heavy layer of dust.
Stairs rose on either side of the twin, glass-panelled inner front doors. He picked the left-hand staircase, for no good reason. Oil paintings of ancestors, and views of the park and the gardens around the house, hung on the walls all the way up to the landing. He began to tour the first-floor rooms. More once-rich tapestries and carpets in a huge dining-room, and the two only slightly smaller salons, the latter decorated also by gilt-framed mirrors which seemed to double the size of the rooms. What had clearly been a sewing room and a children’s school-room, the former well stocked with fabrics, sewing silks and darning wools, and the latter with books and paper. All would serve his purpose well, as would the mattresses and bedclothes in the bedrooms and extensive airing-cupboards he found on the second-floor. The attics were bare, empty but for apple-shelves and cobwebs, and interested him not at all.
Going around each tapestry in turn, he flung it back from the skirting board until he found an ancient power-point, a relic of domestic electrical history. Careful not to crack the Bakelite cover, he unscrewed the fitting from the wall, adjusted the wiring to his satisfaction so that a few strands of copper stuck out of the edge of the covering box, and then screwed the whole thing back onto the wall, covering his screwdrivers’ few inevitable scratches with grime gathered from where the skirting board no longer quite met the floor. Then he lowered the tapestry back into its place and went on to the next, and the next…
Three hours later, he was done. He gathered his tools carefully back into his briefcase, counting them to make sure none had been overlooked, went back through the kitchen and to the scullery, and glanced out of the window overlooking the yard. Neither seeing nor hearing anyone outside, he let himself out of the back door, locked it, and oiled the lock and hinges. He walked calmly to his car, and drove in a totally controlled manner back onto the main road, as far as he could tell, unseen.
Having handed in his hire-car at one airport, and obtained another, equally nondescript, at another, the young man drove to a big commercial city on the other side of the country and checked into an hotel near the centre. The next morning’s visit to the neighbouring bank saw the money he had obtained through the solicitor’s good offices spirited away on the first leg of its convoluted journey to an anonymous account where it would be safe, and far away for ever, from all eyes except his own. All the money, that is, except sufficient to pay the substantial insurance premium on Gission House and its contents.
“I’ve just inherited it,” he blandly told the insurance consultant from whom he bought the policy, “and I’m just off on a business trip. No doubt we can arrange to take an inventory when I get back in a few days’ time. Anyway, I’m sure my uncle’s solicitor will have an inventory. Must have, I expect, don’t you? I’ll get him to send it along to you, when I get back. Just hope that premium covers it all, ha,ha, but I expect it will, it’s certainly big enough. Anyway, I’ll be back by Friday, and nothing’s going to happen in that time, is it?”
“Ha,ha,” the consultant replied weakly, and hoped to goodness he was right.
The young man made a long journey that night, back to Gission House. He turned off his car’s headlights as he approached the gate to the drive, and, having reached the house, parked in the back yard again. He didn’t stay long. All his preparations were in place. He simply turned on the main switch by the fuse-box in the kitchen, and left the way he had come in, silently.
The next morning, preparing to board his ‘plane for the Caribbean with papers in a different name from the one known to the solicitor, bank manager and insurance agent, he glanced through the morning paper, and was well-pleased to see the report of the sad loss of Gission House by fire. “Totally destroyed,” the report lamented, “One of the finest late 17th century architectural masterpieces of its region, and its amazing collection of tapestries with it. A sad loss to the heritage of the nation.”
Sipping his coffee patiently, the young man wondered idly what sort of people Sir Richard and Lady Margaret Miller had been, and hoped that they would have been pleased that their inheritance had been passed on successfully, even if they could have had no knowledge of the recipient.