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LADY SUE'S FORTUNE
Less than an hour later four people were assembled in the small withdrawing-room of Acol Court.
Master Skyffington sat behind a central table, a little pompous of manner, clad in sober black with well-starched linen cuffs and collar, his scanty hair closely cropped, his thin hands fingering with assurance and perfect calm the various documents laid out before him. Near him Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, sitting with his back to the dim November light, which vainly strove to penetrate the tiny glass panes of the casement windows.
In a more remote corner of the room sat Editha de Chavasse, vainly trying to conceal the agitation which her trembling hands, her quivering face and restless eyes persistently betrayed. And beside the central table, near Master Skyffington and facing Sir Marmaduke, was Lady Susannah Aldmarshe, only daughter and heiress of the late Earl of Dover, this day aged twenty-one years, and about to receive from the hands of her legal guardians the vast fortune which her father had bequeathed to her, and which was to become absolutely hers this day to dispose of as she list.
"And now, my dear child," said Master Skyffington with due solemnity, when he had disposed a number of documents and papers in methodical order upon the table, "let me briefly explain to you the object ... hem ... of this momentous meeting here to-day."
"I am all attention, master," said Sue vaguely, and her eyes wide-open, obviously absent, she gazed fixedly on the silhouette of Sir Marmaduke, grimly outlined against the grayish window-panes.
"I must tell you, my dear child," resumed Master Skyffington after a slight pause, during which he had studied with vague puzzledom the inscrutable face of the young girl, "I must tell you that your late father, the noble Earl of Dover, had married the heiress of Peter Ford, the wealthiest merchant this country hath ever known. She was your own lamented mother, and the whole of her fortune, passing through her husband's hands, hath now devolved upon you. My much-esteemed patron--I may venture to say friend--Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, having been appointed your legal guardian by the Court of Chancery, and I myself being thereupon named the repository of your securities, these have been administered by me up to now.... You are listening to me, are you not, my dear young lady?"
The question was indeed necessary, for even to Master Skyffington's unobservant mind it was apparent that Sue's eyes had a look of aloofness in them, of detachment from her surroundings, which was altogether inexplicable to the worthy attorney's practical sense of the due fitness of things.
At his query she made a sudden effort to bring her thoughts back from the past to the present, to drag her heart and her aching brain away from that half-hour spent in the hall, from that conversation with her friend, from the recollection of that terribly cruel blow which she had been forced to deal to the man who loved her best in all the world.
"Yes, yes, kind master," she said, "I am listening."
And she fixed her eyes resolutely on the attorney's solemn face, forcing her mind to grasp what he was about to say.
"By the terms of your noble father's will," continued Master Skyffington, as soon as he had satisfied himself that he at last held the heiress's attention, "the securities, receipts and all other moneys are to be given over absolutely and unconditionally into your own hands on your twenty-first birthday."
"Which is to-day," said Sue simply.
"Which is to-day," assented the lawyer. "The securities, receipts and other bonds, grants of monopolies and so forth lie before you on this table.... They represent in value over half a million of English money.... A very large sum indeed for so young a girl to have full control of.... Nevertheless, it is yours absolutely and unconditionally, according to the wishes of your late noble father ... and Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, your late guardian, and I myself, have met you here this day for the express purpose of handing these securities, grants and receipts over to you, and to obtain in exchange your own properly attested signature in full discharge of any further obligation on our part."
Master Skyffington was earnestly gazing into the young girl's face, whilst he thus literally dangled before her the golden treasures of wealth, which were about to become absolutely her own. He thought, not unnaturally, that a girl of her tender years, brought up in the loneliness and seclusion of a not too luxurious home, would feel in a measure dazzled and certainly overjoyed at the brilliant prospect which such independent and enormous wealth opened out before her.
But the amiable attorney was vastly disappointed to see neither pleasure, nor even interest, expressed in Lady Sue's face, which on this joyous and momentous occasion looked unnaturally calm and pallid. Even now when he paused expectant and eager, waiting for some comment or exclamation of approval or joy from her, she was silent for a while, and then said in a stolidly inquiring tone:
"Then after to-day ... I shall have full control of my money?"
"Absolute control, my dear young lady," he rejoined, feeling strangely perturbed at this absence of emotion.
"And no one ... after to-day ... will have the right to inquire as to the use I make of these securities, grants or whatever you, Master Skyffington, have called them?" she continued with the same placidity.
"No one, of a surety, my dear Sue," here interposed Sir Marmaduke, speaking in his usual harsh and dictatorial way, "but this is a strange and somewhat peremptory question for a young maid to put at this juncture. Master Skyffington and I myself had hoped that you would listen to counsels of prudence, and would allow him, who hath already administered your fortune in a vastly able manner, to continue so to do, for a while at any rate."
"That question we can discuss later on, Sir Marmaduke," said Sue now, with sudden hauteur. "Shall we proceed with our business, master?" she added, turning deliberately to the lawyer, ignoring with calm disdain the very presence of her late guardian.
The studied contempt of his ward's manner, however, seemed not to disturb the serenity of Sir Marmaduke to any appreciable extent. Casting a quick, inquisitorial glance at Sue, he shrugged his shoulders in token of indifference and said no more.
"Certainly, certainly," responded Master Skyffington, somewhat embarrassed, "my dear young lady ... hem ... as ... er ... as you wish ... but ..."
Then he turned deliberately to Sir Marmaduke, once more bringing him into the proceedings, and tacitly condemning her ladyship's extraordinary attitude towards his distinguished patron.
"Having now explained to Lady Sue Aldmarshe the terms of her noble father's will," he said, "methinks that she is ready to receive the moneys from our hands, good Sir Marmaduke, and thereupon to give us the proper receipt prescribed by law, for the same ..."
He checked himself for a moment, and then made a respectful, if pointed, suggestion:
"Mistress de Chavasse?" he said inquiringly.
"Mistress de Chavasse is a member of the family," replied Sir Marmaduke, "the business can be transacted in her presence."
"Nothing therefore remains to be said, my dear young lady," rejoined Master Skyffington, once more speaking directly to Sue and placing his lean hands with fingers outstretched, over the bundles of papers lying before him. "Here are your securities, your grants, moneys and receipts, worth £500,000 of the present currency of this realm.... These I, in mine own name and that of my honored friend and patron, Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, do hereby hand over to you. You will, I pray, verify and sign the receipt in proper and due form."
He began sorting and overlooking the papers, muttering half audibly the while, as he transferred each bundle from his own side of the table to that beside which Lady Sue was sitting:
"The deeds of property in Holland ... hem.... Receipt of moneys deposited at the bank of Amsterdam.... The same from the Bank of Vienna.... Grant of monopoly for the hemp trade in Russia.... hem ..."
Thus he mumbled for some time, as these papers, representing a fortune, passed out of his keeping into those of a young maid but recently out of her teens. Sue watched him silently and placidly, just as she had done throughout this momentous interview, which was, of a truth, the starting point of her independent life.
Her face expressed neither joy nor excitement of any kind. She knew that all the wealth which now lay before her, would only pass briefly through her hands. She knew that the prince--her husband--was waiting for it even now. Doubtless, he was counting the hours when his young wife's vast fortune would come to him as the realization of all his dreams.
In spite of her present disbelief in his love, in spite of the bitter knowledge that her own had waned, Sue had no misgivings as yet as to the honor, the truth, the loyalty of the man whose name she now bore. Her illusions were gone, her romance had become dull reality, but to one thought she clung with all the tenacity of despair, and that was to the illusion that Prince Amédé d'Orléans was the selfless patriot, the regenerator of downtrodden France, which he represented himself to be.
Because of that belief she welcomed the wealth, which she would this day be able to place in his hands. Her own girlish dreams had vanished, but her temperament was far too romantic and too poetic not to recreate illusions, even when the old ones had been so ruthlessly shattered.
But this recreation would occur anon--not just now, not at the very moment when her heart ached with an intolerable pain at thought of the sorrow which she had caused to her one friend. Presently, no doubt, when she met her husband, when his usual grandiloquent phrases had once more succeeded in arousing her enthusiasm for the cause which he pleaded, she would once more feel serene and happy at thought of the help which she, with her great wealth, would be giving him; for the nonce the whole transaction grated on her sense of romance; money passing from hand to hand, a man waiting somewhere in the dark to receive wealth from a woman's hand.
Master Skyffington desired her to look over the papers, ere she signed the formal receipt for them, but she waved them gently aside:
"Quite unnecessary, kind master," she said decisively, "since I receive them at your hands."
She bent over the document which the lawyer now placed before her, and took the pen from him.
"Where shall I sign?" she asked.
Sir Marmaduke and Editha de Chavasse watched her keenly, as with a bold stroke of the pen she wrote her name across the receipt.
"Now the papers, please, master," said Lady Sue peremptorily.
But the prudent lawyer had still a word of protest to enter here.
"My dear young lady," he said tentatively, awed in spite of himself by the self-possessed behavior of a maid whom up to now he had regarded as a mere child, "let me, as a man of vast experience in such matters, repeat to you the well-meant advice which Sir Marmaduke ..."
But she checked him decisively, though kindly.
"You said, Master Skyffington, did you not," she said, "that after to-day no one had the slightest control over my actions or over my fortune?"
"That is so, certainly," he rejoined, "but ..."
"Well, then, kind master, I pray you," she said authoritatively, "to hand me over all those securities, grants and moneys, for which I have just signed a receipt."
There was naught to do for a punctilious lawyer, as was Master Skyffington, but to obey forthwith. This he did, without another word, collecting the various bundles of paper and placing them one by one in the brown leather wallet which he had brought for the purpose. Sue watched him quietly, and when the last of the important documents had been deposited in the wallet, she held out her hand for it.
With a grave bow, and an unconsciously pompous gesture, Master Skyffington, attorney-at-law, handed over that wallet which now contained a fortune to Lady Susannah Aldmarshe.
She took it, and graciously bowed her head to him in acknowledgment. Then, after a slight, distinctly haughty nod to Sir Marmaduke and to Editha, she turned and walked silently out of the room.
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