Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/The dead man's hand


I was looking over some old family papers in my library one cold winter’s night, some years ago, when I met with the following strange story. I well remember the circumstance, for it was the last night of the old year, and there was a deep snow on the ground. After a snug dinner in the library, all alone, I had the fire made up, put my feet on the fender, and was fast going off into a doze, when I remembered that I had left unfinished a box of old family papers which my lawyer had brought up for my inspection a week ago. I drew the tin box well up on to the hearth-rug, made a dive, and fetched up a packet of yellow papers tied up with red tape. Expecting some old deed or other, I was somewhat surprised when my eye fell on the following words: “The Dead Man’s Hand; or, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.”

I have since ascertained that the papers in question were the property of my grandfather, who was a barrister. I believe he had a large practice at the bar, before he retired on coming into the property. The only other fact I know about him is, that the place is still shown in the ha-ha, where, after a hard run with the Downshire hounds, he was thrown from his horse and carried home to rise no more.

The “Dead Man’s Hand” was not a lively subject on a dark December night, with two feet of snow on the ground, and the winter wind howling wildly through the elm trees, and dying away in a sullen roar in the distant chase. However, I snuffed the candles, stirred up the fire, which cast a ruddy glow into the dark corner where the old book-case stands, and read as follows:—

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Some years ago I was engaged in a very singular case, the leading points of which I will endeavour to recall. I remember it made a deep impression on me at the time; and, even now, some of the circumstances and persons come to my memory painfully distinct. The face of one old woman often haunts me—there—I see her now, in the witness-box, haggard and withered as a witch; a malevolent smile playing round her face, and her eye—what an evil eye it was—gleaming with a wild light: the whole countenance indicative of suppressed cunning. I was a young man then, and had not at that time met with the success which afterwards fell to my lot. Briefs, in those days, were godsends indeed. I remember very well, that I had sat all day in my dull lonely chambers, and my small boy, dignified with the name of clerk, had sat all day in his duller and lonelier room, when creak, creak, creak, came a footstep on the old stairs. Few steps ever got past the second floor, so I listened anxiously at that critical juncture—yes—no—yes, on it came past the capacious maw of Mr. Deedes, that eminent conveyancer, whose table is covered with hundred-guinea abstracts and twenty-guinea settlements.

Rat-tat-tat came the knock at the door; off rushed the clerk, in such a hurry that he upset the ink over my “Reports,” for which he was threatened with instant dismissal on the next provocation, my wrath being only appeased by the extremity of penitence and humility to which he was thereby reduced. I believe we should really have parted shortly afterwards, when I caught the young scamp in my wig and gown, pantomiming out of the back window, had I not remembered his wretched home in Scragg’s Court, Fetter Lane, and his mother, who plaintively said, she was “a lone, lorn widder with thirteen childer.”

But this by the way. My quick ear caught the word “Brief,” uttered by a strange voice in the passage, and I waited in some anxiety, apparently plunged in a mass of papers—Viner’s Abridgment, the Statutes at Large, and other works of the same light nature, forming a sort of breastwork round me. My clerk, who seemed suddenly to have increased in height and self-importance, and to be a clerk in large practice, inquired in a sufficiently loud voice, if I could see Mr. —— from Messrs. ——, a large and wealthy firm—their very names made my mouth water—or should he wait till, &c. &c.

The attorney’s clerk was shown in. Why had he wanted to see me, for he had nothing to say, his only observation being about the hour of consultation? I know that attorney’s clerk saw in a moment the amount of my business to a T, and I was glad when he was gone. The brief was large and the fee a heavy one; and my leader was Mr. Serjeant Wasp. Why and how had it been given to me? Had Messrs. —— & —— observed my indefatigable manner in court—of doing nothing? or was legal success written in my countenance?

But I was too anxious for much speculation, and lightly laying to my soul the flattering unction that I certainly deserved it, wherever it came from, unfolded it.

Brief for plaintiff. It was an action of ejectment, and there was, of course, the usual fictitious personage, John Doe; but the substantial plaintiff was a certain Reverend John Miller, and he sued to obtain possession of certain estates in C—shire, now in the occupation of Lady Woodlands, widow of Sir Harry Woodlands, of Woodlands, &c., baronet. The whole question turns upon the will made by the late Sir Harry Woodlands, in favour of the Reverend John Miller, leaving him sole devisee of all his estates, to the entire exclusion of his widow, Lady Woodlands, and her two daughters. The defendants dispute the will, but do not, we believe, intend to call witnesses. Of the three attesting witnesses, two are dead (curiously soon!), but the third, Sarah Varley, will prove testator’s signature, and that it was executed the day before the testator died. Such was the substance of my instructions. Turning to the “Landed Gentry,” I found “Woodlands, Sir Harry, of the Woodlands and Fairlawns, C—shire, baronet, high-sheriff, 17—.” Folding up my brief, I found on the back “Consultation at Serjeant Wasp’s chambers on Thursday next, at one.” On that day and hour, punctual to a minute, I knocked at the chambers of Serjeant Wasp, was admitted, and on the Serjeant’s looking up, I ventured to remark:

“Miller v. Woodlands, consultation to-day, sir, at one,” pulling out my watch to point the observation.

“Ah,” said the Serjeant, rising and slowly rubbing his hands together. “Good morning, Mr.—Mr.—”

I hastened so supply my name, which he repeated slowly.

“Ah!” he continued in a kindlier tone, as if thawing from a legal frost into every-day life. “Mr. B——; any relation to Mr. B—— of Downshire?”

I intimated I was his son.

“Dear me!” said the Serjeant, shaking me by the hand, a genial smile lighting up his face—the frost seemed entirely gone—“dear me! Your father’s a very old friend of mine—havn’t seen him for these ten years—at college together—lived together on same staircase in Pump Court. Ah! he hadn’t come into his property then. I remember once—”

And then followed a story of other days, which lasted a quarter of an hour at least, during all which time he seemed to exhale warmth and summer. During this time I thought, “Could the great Serjeant have given me a helping hand, and mentioned me as a deserving junior?” No! it was ridiculous.

When the story was over I again suggested “Miller v. Woodlands.”

“Ah! I know,” said he. “Great will case at C—— assizes. Let me see, to-day’s Thursday; come on about next Wednesday; go down Tuesday—come to my chambers on Tuesday evening at eight—consultation with our side. Good morning, Mr. B——; remember me to your father. Dear me, how time flies!” said the Serjeant, once more turning to his papers. The summer phase was past, and he seemed again frozen up into a kind of legal iceberg. So ended my consultation with Serjeant Wasp.

The following is from my diary:—

C——, Tuesday, March 21st, 17—.—Just back from the consultation—great excitement about this will case—the Woodlands family known and much respected about here—great sympathy expressed for Lady Woodlands. I am told the estate has been in the family three hundred years. What was the motive of Sir Harry in cutting them off? No evidence of his having ever had a quarrel with Lady W.—very odd! That’s not my business; ours won’t be the popular side to-morrow. By-the-bye, the Serjeant calculated quite correctly about the case coming on to-morrow. Lady W., has got Vizzard, Q. C, the leader of the circuit, against us, and Slimy for junior. The Rev. John Miller came to the consultation to-night—large stout man with small eyes. I don’t like him, and found a difficulty in being polite to him—says he was at college with the late Sir Harry—pities Lady W.; offered a compromise, which was resolutely declined. N.B. I don’t believe a word of it.

Wednesday, March 22nd.—Plaintiff’s case over—crowded court—Lady W. sat it out. I am afraid she hasn’t a ghost of a chance. By the way, she looked more like a ghost than a living being—the case was quite straightforward—I opened the pleadings—the Serjeant made a masterly speech—the will was then put in—Sarah Varley, the only one of the three attesting witnesses living (the deaths of the other two witnesses is a curious circumstance, but their deaths were proved in the regular way), was called to prove the will; an ugly old woman and very deaf: she swore positively that Sir Harry, before signing the will, expressed his entire satisfaction at it when it was read over to him. In cross-examination, she was so deaf that Vizzard sat down discomfited. The Serjeant summed up his case, and the court then adjourned.

Thursday, March 23rd.—The case is over. The defendants called no witnesses. Vizzard’s speech very eloquent—about three hours. The judge summed up briefly, and the result was a verdict for plaintiff. There was a suppressed groan when the verdict was given. Lady W. had fainted.

Friday, March 24th.—My head swims, my hand shakes as I write, and I am hardly conscious of my own identity. I have just returned from the strangest scene. On leaving the court this afternoon, where I was conducting a small case, my sleeve was pulled by a tall woman, who asked to speak a few words with me. I stepped aside into an archway, and she said, hurriedly, ‘Sarah Varley is dying. She sent me to find Mr. D——, the attorney. I can’t find him. She says she would see you—she has something most important to say—some secret. Come quickly, or she’ll be dead.’ Overcome by the woman’s eagerness I followed her, and we passed through several back streets and courts, until she stopped at a door in a dirty court. The woman pointed to an upper window, where a candle flickered and flared, and we passed up a creaking narrow stair. Sarah Varley was lying on a low bed in the corner. She was haggard and ghastly; there was a bottle near her with a label, and I knew at once she had poisoned herself. She was apparently asleep—what if she were dead? What had she to confess? My fears were momentary, for I found a doctor had just left, who gave slight hopes of her recovering from the large dose of poison she had swallowed. The other woman took up the candle and threw a yellow glare on the sleeper, saying, ‘She’s a bit mithering at times, sir; don’t mind that, she’ll soon come to.’ In a few minutes Sarah Varley began to speak in broken sentences: ‘Money—more! more! Dead men tell no tales.—ha! ha!’ She laughed hideously; then she woke up with a start, and fell back exhausted. After a few minutes the other woman said, ‘Here’s the gentleman you wanted to see, Sarah, that you wanted to tell something to.’ Sarah Varley turned her eyes towards me, and said, faintly, ‘Quick, I’m dying!—lower, lower,’ pulling me convulsively by the arm. I bent down, and she whispered in my ear, ‘He was dead, quite dead; that man tempted me with money, more than I had ever seen before. He put the pen in his hand,—it was cold, quite cold, and he signed the paper.’ Horrified, I exclaimed, ‘Tell me, as you’re a dying woman, who signed the will?’ She replied slowly and distinctly. ‘Mr. Miller; he signed with the dead man’s hand,’ and then she said, wandering, ‘Money! more money!—I will have more!’ I made another effort. ‘I adjure you, Sarah Varley, as you’re a dying woman, is this true?’ She raised herself with an effort, and said, eagerly, ‘It is! it is! I swear it, so—so help—hel—’ Her head fell back—she was dead.

J. A.