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Authors: Philip Gooden

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BOOK: The Ely Testament
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Tom learned of these details from a comrade of his father whom he had met recently. His mother Marian did not talk much about his father, hardly mentioned him at all in fact, although it had of course been many years since the Captain's death. His most tangible legacy to Tom apart from height and dark hair had perhaps been the form of his given name, since his mother called him Tom from his earliest years to distinguish him from Captain Thomas. After a longish interval Mrs Ansell got married again, to an attorney who behaved towards Tom with distant affection. It was on account of Mark Holford that Tom had decided to make a career in law. His stepfather was dead as well now.

These musings carried Tom most of the way through the service for Mr Lye. When it was over the congregation followed the coffin outside, where the other carriages were waiting. The coffin was returned to the hearse to be transported to its allotted place in Abney Park. While the chapel bell was tolling, the women left in a separate party since they would not be present for the actual interment, but at the wake later that day.

The men went on foot after the hearse. Tom was introduced by David Mackenzie to the gentleman who he had assumed, correctly, was Alexander Lye's brother. Ernest Lye was closer to middle age than old age. He was fairly slight. He had the same penetrating blue gaze as Alexander. The likeness was enhanced when he sneezed and drew out a black-bordered handkerchief. Tom had forgotten until that instant that a sneeze was the final earthly sound he had heard from Ernest's brother.

Tom was introduced as a trusted member of the firm. David Mackenzie said to Ernest Lye, ‘He will be visiting you soon on that business we discussed.'

‘I'll be pleased to see you, Mr Ansell,' said Ernest.

They spoke in low tones, not merely because they were following a hearse but because the missing will was a delicate topic. They reached the burial place and clustered round the open grave as the bearers brought the coffin out once more. Tom was near the back and found Mr Eric Fort standing next to him. The little undertaker's man said in a professionally subdued voice, ‘I have to say that I prefer Abney Park to Norwood or Highgate. It is quite my favourite among the London burial grounds. What do you think, sir?'

‘I expect you're right. I have not as much experience as you,' said Tom in an offhand way which he hoped would finish the conversation. While the dour-faced clergyman was running through his lines on the edge of the grave, Mr Fort sometimes nodded in vigorous agreement and muttered, ‘Very true, very true'. Tom found Mr Fort's presence unsettling. Perhaps it was the other man's relish for the whole business. Maybe it was his teeth, which every time that Tom glanced at him seemed more and more to resemble old gravestones, uneven and stained and chipped.

He was glad to escape the company of the toothy individual from Willow & Son when the interment was over. He travelled back with David Mackenzie, Mr Ashley and another junior member of the firm, a pleasant chap called William Evers, with whom Tom was friendly. The journey in one of the funeral carriages towards the smoky air and clogged streets of north London took some time. There was a general sense of release and relaxation. The mourners were looking forward to the food and drink waiting for them at the Regent's Park house that belonged to Alexander Lye and his sister Edith. Tom said nothing of his mission to Ely, since Mr Mackenzie had stressed how confidential it all was. But he did make some comment about how Ernest Lye seemed much less, well, old than his brother.

‘I can enlighten you there,' said Mr Mackenzie. ‘I have only just discovered that Mr Lye's father was twice married. Mr Ernest Lye was the child of his second wife, Mr Alexander of his first, as is Miss Edith. Alexander Lye is a child of the eighteenth century, Ernest is a product of the nineteenth like the rest of us. Therefore the Lyes are stepbrothers.'

‘If you'll allow me, sir,' said William Evers, ‘I believe that “half-brothers” is the appropriate term for issue who share a parent. Those who do not share a parent are step-siblings.'

Mr Ashley, who was a stickler for accuracy, nodded in approval. Mackenzie seemed not too put out by the correction. He added, ‘There is more though. Something else I have recently discovered. The lady with Mr Ernest Lye is not his sister but his wife. The Lye brothers have only the one sister, Edith, who we are on our way to visit now. And before you can put me right, Mr Evers, I should of course have said
whom
we are on our way to visit . . .'

Tom was sitting next to Evers and he could almost feel the heat of his companion's blush in the confines of the carriage. Mackenzie, pleased at his little victory, patted his black-clad stomach and ruminated on human behaviour.

‘There was no obligation on my late, lamented partner to be clear about his family circumstances, of course, and I do not believe that the brothers – or half-brothers, Mr Evers – were close but it is strange how one may have only the sketchiest notion of people one has spent half a lifetime with.'

As he said this, he glanced at Tom who was sitting in the opposite seat. Tom had no doubt he was thinking of the missing will.

The Wake

T
he wake at the Regent's Park house was a quite jolly affair, even jollier than most wakes. Tom wondered whether it was because there was no one there who truly regretted the passing of Alexander Lye. As David Mackenzie said, the half-brothers had not been close. His sister Edith, who had apparently been distraught to hear of his death, now behaved like a puppet. She was guided to a chair by her half-brother Ernest and a glass of port put in her frail grasp. Tom didn't hear her speak a word or see her take a sip. As far as she was visible, she looked at least as old as Alexander had been – which tended to confirm they were real brother and sister, with no halves or steps involved – but she remained heavily veiled. She possessed a lot of white hair, which came shooting out from under her hat. Her maid fussed about her, despite being nearly as old as her mistress. Age seemed a qualification for the other servants and, like the house itself, they had a faded, worn-out air.

As for the general mourners, they were either those with a professional connection from Scott, Lye & Mackenzie and a couple of other law firms – although the days when Lye had been a familiar figure in the legal world were long gone – or they were neighbours, who pulled the appropriate faces and uttered the right words but then got on with the business of eating, drinking and chatting.

There was plenty of port and sherry, as well as tea. Hams, pies, cheeses and cakes were piled high in the dining room and guests wandered between there and the morning room. The women were already at the house, Helen and her mother Mrs Scott and Mrs Mackenzie and others, and pretty soon the rooms were full of noise and even the odd burst of laughter, quickly checked. The cemetery at Abney Park with its burial rites was a distant memory. William Evers cornered Tom by one of the high windows that looked out over the Park. He seemed anxious.

‘I say, do you think I really upset the guv'nor by putting him right about step-brothers and so on? Should've kept my mouth shut, I suppose.'

‘I think he enjoyed putting you down, Will. In a good-natured way.'

‘Then I suppose I'm glad to have been a source of pleasure for him.'

Tom put a hand on Evers' despondent shoulder and the junior brightened at once. He took another swig of sherry.

‘I hear you are going on confidential business to Ely,' he said.

‘Not confidential enough, it seems.'

‘Oh dear, another mistake.'

‘No, no,' said Tom. Yet he was surprised at how quickly things got round an office.

‘You are lucky to be in Mr Mackenzie's confidence.'

Tom shrugged. To change the subject, he said, ‘Have you seen Mrs Ernest Lye?'

‘I have indeed,' said Evers, looking towards an attractive woman on the other side of the morning room. As Ernest Lye was a lot younger than his brother Alexander, then Mrs Lye was in turn appreciably younger than her husband. Will Evers sighed and Tom thought he knew what the matter was.

‘How is Miss Rosamond?' he said.

‘Thriving and . . . and as beautiful as ever,' said his friend. ‘I must speak to her father next week. I
will
speak to him.'

Miss Rosamond Hartley was the daughter of a doctor. Will Evers had been her admirer for some time now. He thought – he hoped – that his feelings were returned. All that remained was for him to approach Dr Hartley, man to man, and ask permission. Tom had lost count of the number of occasions on which the junior lawyer had stated that he intended to speak to the doctor next week. That ‘next week' never seemed to arrive.

‘I have sounded her out and think my prospects are good, but I do not know for sure. If only I could have a glimpse of her diary,' said Will, draining his sherry and then examining the empty glass as though he expected more drink to materialize by magic. ‘Women confide their secret thoughts to their diaries, don't they? If I saw what she was writing, it would give me some clue as to her real feelings. Then I could call on her father, armed with some ammunition, so to speak.'

‘You must be bold, Will,' said Tom, thinking that Will might find a message he didn't like in Miss Rosamond's diaries. ‘Speak to her father. Really do so next week.'

‘I suppose you're right. You are a lucky man, Thomas Ansell, to have such a wife as you have.'

Automatically, Tom looked round for Helen. He noticed that she was talking to Mrs Lye, the wife of Ernest. They were having an animated conversation.

‘I met an author the other day,' said Will. Tom struggled to catch the connection, then realized that Helen's reputation as a writer was spreading round the firm, like other things. Will Evers continued, ‘I suppose he wasn't an author exactly, but a journalist. It was at Willow & Son. Mr Mackenzie had sent me there on business to do with today's funeral. A fellow who called himself Mute.'

‘Mute?'

‘Not his real name but a pseudonym of course. He writes a column in a periodical called
Funereal Matters
, I think.'

‘Not part of my regular reading.'

‘Nor mine. But there are plenty of people interested in the subject of death and funerals and the like.'

‘There are,' said Tom, thinking of Eric Fort.

‘Oh look, here comes the guv'nor. Expect he wants to talk to you,' said Will, disappearing in the quest for fresh alcohol.

David Mackenzie took Tom to one side, saying that he wanted to show him something. They skirted the knots of mourners and the islands of old chairs and occasional tables which littered the large room. They climbed the stairs and walked down a dark passage towards the rear of the house. It was here, Mackenzie explained, that Alexander Lye kept the room which served as his private office or den. He produced a key.

‘I am holding this key with Miss Edith's permission. As you've probably seen, Tom, she is not capable of very much.'

He unlocked the door. A window gave on to a garden where the sun shone on autumn leaves and an untidy lawn. There was enough illumination to glimpse the interior of the room, which was as Mackenzie had described it to Tom a few days before. Even if things had been neatly arranged, it would have been a packed chamber with all the documents, law books, boxes, almanacs, records, files and folios. But, as it was, it seemed as though a miniature whirlwind had bored into the centre and thrown everything everywhere.

In a kind of hollow in the middle, again as Mackenzie described it, was a comfortable armchair. A tasselled, red smoking-cap sat on the seat. The velvet cap was a reminder of Alexander Lye, and for some reason Tom became more aware of his death at that moment than at any time during the last week. The two men stood just inside the door of the room, gazing at the mess. Attempting to advance any further might have added to the confusion, so precarious were the mounds of paper. A smell of mould and disuse emanated from the den.

‘Mr Ashley and I are going to spend time here, attempting to bring this collection to order,' said Mackenzie. ‘It is not just a question of the missing will. There could be other items in this room which are, let us say, pertinent to the good name of Scott, Lye & Mackenzie and which should not find their way on to the King's Cross dust-heap.'

‘Rather you than me,' said Tom without thinking.

‘If by that you mean that I am better placed to judge what matters to the firm, then you are right,' said Mackenzie. Then, in a milder tone, ‘But your mission is important too, Tom. You must do your best to discover whether Alexander left any kind of testament or will in the house at Ely. I think it unlikely. I gather he was an infrequent visitor. But it is possible that you will find
something
and we should leave no stone unturned. You are a dab hand at investigating.'

Tom wondered whether Mackenzie was mocking him with this last remark but he seemed to be serious. He continued, ‘Mr and Mrs Lye are apprised of the situation, and willing to give you every assistance. Mr Lye doesn't believe you'll find anything but he did say that there were some family papers deposited by Alexander at the Ely house, papers which he has never examined properly.'

‘And if we find nothing . . .?'

‘Then we shall have to apply to the Court of Probate and they will follow the law, of course, which states that in cases of intestacy . . .?'

Luckily, Tom had been reading up on this and so was able to answer. The situation was more complicated than usual because Lye had left neither widow nor children, who would have been the automatic beneficiaries. In such instances as this the law was that the estate should be divided among the heirs of the intestate's father. In other words, it would go to Alexander's sister, Miss Edith, and to his half-brother, Mr Ernest.

‘Which is most likely what his will says or would say, if it exists,' said Mackenzie. ‘What we want to avoid is going to the Court of Probate, and having the intestacy business being broadcast everywhere.'

BOOK: The Ely Testament
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