Episode 11: The Safe Deposit Box
Season 1: The World Unseen
‘Well, Peggy, what do you think?’
Major Arthur Lock, a man who had run down ruthless dacoits and fought hand to hand with the warriors of the Mahdi, felt oddly nervous as he waited for his niece’s reaction. He and Peggy were still feeling their way with one another. His prolonged absence from Tarian Hall meant their only recent contact had been through letters. Arthur was not a much of a man for writing personal letters, so the correspondence, to him at least, had seemed stilted.
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And now Peggy was in London for the first time in her life. She gazed round the large, light drawing room of the apartment — four bedrooms, drawing room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom (private bathroom, the agent had emphasized) — on Great Russell Street. If Peggy approved, it was to be their London home for the foreseeable future.
‘I like it, Uncle —’
‘I like it, Arthur. The entire apartment, I mean. It’s big, but it doesn’t feel too big. It’ll be cosy once we have some furniture and curtains in it. Once it’s not so bare.’
Arthur nodded. Yes, it was all bare. There was no furniture anywhere, nor kitchenware, bedding, towels, and the rest. He had taken on the place unfurnished. He didn’t want to live among someone else’s furniture and possessions. Now there was the not-so-small matter of kitting the place out. But new wallpaper with cream, green and gold stripes covered the walls, drawing, dark green carpet covered the floor, and a small chandelier hung from the ceiling. And thankfully, there were net curtains up. The other rooms were similarly bare, but similarly freshly painted, papered, and carpeted or tiled. It was well-maintained, which was why it hadn’t come cheap.
‘We’ll soon sort that out,’ he said. ‘And I have some camp beds and bedding being delivered from the Army & Navy Stores today. Those will do until we’ve bought some proper beds. We can go over to Fortnum & Mason now to get whatever else we need to get going. There’s time before the appointment with your father’s solicitor. We can stay in the hotel another night and begin settling in tomorrow. What do you think?’
‘I think that’s grand, but can we look for furniture tomorrow?’
‘Yes, of course. I don’t have strong opinions on furnishings, so I’ll let you guide me.’
‘Have no fear,’ Peggy said. ‘I have very strong opinions on furnishings.’
* * *
Six hours later, having ordered crockery, cutlery, teapots, glasses, food and drink provisions, towels, bed linen, blankets, and a dozen other things, to be delivered later that day, and then having made their way from Piccadilly to Fleet Street, Arthur and Peggy sat in the office of the late Henry Lock’s solicitor.
It was a small office on the second floor of a narrow building on Red Lion Court, reached through an alley off Fleet Street. As they had walked up the alley, Arthur felt he was stepping back into the eighteenth century. The City of London was a warren that he had never been able to orientate himself within on his few visits.
Red Lion Court was so small and so enclosed that little natural light reached the buildings in it. And with the overcast skies and the fog which never seemed to fully disperse in these close surroundings, it seemed to Arthur that the conference might as well be taking place at night.
The gas lamps in the office cast a milky light on bookshelves full of impressive legal volumes, filing cabinets so crammed the drawers would not shut, and walls hung with impressive-looking documents attesting to the occupant’s credentials. The low ceiling gave the room a cave-like atmosphere, and the air had a musty odour of paper, ink, sealing wax, tobacco smoke, and dust, a thick odour that Arthur mused must have built up undisturbed over decades. How a man can coop himself up in a place like this all day is beyond me, he thought.
And at the centre of this legal cave, was the ancient troll-like figure of Mr Jasper Cruddock, senior partner in the firm of Batchelor and Cruddock, a little man with little hair on his head but large beetling eyebrows. He wore a frock coat and trousers that were shiny at the knees and elbows, and Arthur guessed from the style that he had worn these same clothes for many years. But Henry Lock had thought highly enough of the man that when he settled in Ireland, he kept his legal affairs in London.
Cruddock gazed around the table, his eyes lingering on each of them for a few seconds, as if he was making an assessment.
‘I can see that all the interested parties are present,’ he said, and then paused in a lawyerly way, as if allowing an opportunity for someone to contradict him.
Satisfied that no-one was going to, he continued, ‘That is to say, Miss Margaret Lock, daughter and sole issue of the deceased; Major Arthur Lock, youngest brother of the deceased; and Mr Anthony Lock, nephew of the deceased, that is to say, the oldest son of the oldest brother of the deceased, Sir Edmund Lock, Baronet, and also acting at this meeting as the representative of Sir Edmund.’
At the conclusion of this preamble, Mr Cruddock cleared his throat and coughed into a handkerchief.
Arthur wondered why Cruddock went through this rigmarole, given that everyone sitting around the table knew who the others were. Peggy and Tony had not met before, but they knew of each other, and Arthur had certainly briefed her on what to expect from him when they were en route in the cab.
‘Your cousin Tony holds a grudge against me, Peggy,’ Arthur had said as they headed up Shaftesbury Avenue. ‘That shouldn’t colour his attitude towards you, but I’m afraid it might, especially now I’m your guardian. If he says anything unpleasant to you, don’t take it personally. You’re only guilty by association.’
‘But why does he bear a grudge against you, of all people?’ Peggy said.
‘Mostly because his father signed Tarian Hall over to me. As the oldest son, Tony would have expected to inherit it, along with the baronetcy, at some point. But his father had no interest in keeping the place going — too expensive — and was more than happy to offload it onto me.’
‘But wouldn’t Tony have kept it going?’
‘No, he would have auctioned off the contents and then sold the land and buildings for as much as he could get. Between you and me, Tony is up to his eyes in debt — gambling mostly, but also investments in racehorses that were no good at racing, Mexican goldmines that turned out not to contain any gold, and American railroad schemes that foundered in the Southern swamps. His father used to bail him out but reached the limits of his purse and his patience. Tony’s even tried to tap me once of twice.’
‘And what did you say to him?’
‘I told him to go to hell.’
Peggy’s expression showed she thought this was a harsh response.
‘I’m sorry you don’t approve,’ Arthur said.
‘Well, he is family,’ Peggy said. ‘Everybody needs a helping hand now and then, don’t they? Especially from their relations.’
‘Oh, Tony’s had plenty of helping hands. He takes what they offer him, gives no thanks, and then wastes the money in the same way. He’s a twenty-five-year-old man now. The excuse of callow youth won’t wash any more. I told Edmund to put him into the army, but he took no notice. Might have done the boy some good. Too late now.’
Arthur realized his tone was becoming heated. Better shut up or I’ll make the girl think I’m an ogre, he mused. But irresponsible young men like Tony infuriated him.
‘No doubt he’ll take the scoundrel’s route and find himself an heiress to marry,’ he said.
Peggy looked alarmed. ‘Oh, you don’t think — ’
‘No, Peggy, you’re safe. I have a pretty good idea of the value of your father’s estate and believe me, it wouldn’t be enough for Tony. No, I expect he’ll find himself a sweet American girl, the daughter of a tycoon. He needs to be careful, though. All that carousing is affecting his looks.’
‘I think you’re being very mean to cousin Tony, ‘ Peggy said.
Lock glanced at her, not sure if she was joking.
And now here was Tony Lock, sitting across the table. Arthur hadn’t seen him in four years, at least. The lad had certainly put on weight. His skin was sallow and there were dark bags under his bloodshot eyes. His black hair was long and brushed back from his forehead. He wore a red velvet jacket over a baggy white shirt and a floppy black bowtie. He looked more like a dissolute poet than the son of a baronet.
Tony had been there when they arrived, greeting Arthur perfunctorily, but making a great fuss of Peggy, kissing on her on both cheeks (‘It’s the French way, so much more sympathique than shaking hands,’ he said, to Arthur’s irritation), pulling her chair out as she sat at the table, even demanding that Cruddock provide tea for her. It was only when Peggy assured him several times that she did not want tea that he dropped the subject. Since this introduction, he had sat simpering at Peggy and glowering at Arthur.
Cruddock picked up a sealed document that lay on the table in front of him. ‘This is the last will and testament of Mr Henry Lancelot Lock, dated 16th January, 1895.’ He cleared his throat again, broke the seal, and began to read from it.
The will appointed Mr Jasper Cruddock as executor, and stated that Henry Lock had been of sound mind when he signed it. There was some other legalese which Arthur didn’t fully understand, and then Cruddock observed that the provisions for Kathleen Agnes Lock, made in case she should outlive her husband, were no longer relevant.
Then he read, ‘To my daughter, Margaret Kathleen Lock…’
As Cruddock worked his way through the list, beginning with the house in Clifden and a cottage in the New Forest that Arthur had never heard of before, Arthur glanced at Peggy. How is she bearing up? he wondered. This is another rite of passage for her, a symbol of the finality of it all. She looked pale but composed in her black mourning clothes, and was listening to Cruddock with polite attention.
‘… and the contents of a safety box, held in the Fleet Street branch of Child & Co. All the property and assets itemized above to be held in trust until my daughter reaches twenty-one years, the trust to be jointly administered by Mr Jasper Cruddock and Major Henry Lock.’
Arthur considered the property, money, and stocks that were now Peggy’s. It was not a vast fortune, but it would be enough for her to live comfortably on, so long as she didn’t end up marrying a dissolute spendthrift. Like Tony.
‘And finally, to my nephew, Anthony Hannibal Lock…’ Cruddock continued.
So it was worth his while coming, Arthur thought.
‘… the sum of two hundred pounds in cash.’
Tony was disappointed and didn’t hide it. He gave Arthur an accusatory look, as if he had somehow persuaded his brother to alter a much more generous provision.
‘Are there any questions?’ Cruddock said.
Peggy shook her head and said, ‘No, sir.’
‘None from me either,’ Arthur said.
‘How long will it take? For me to get the money, I mean,’ Tony said, shifting impatiently in his chair.
‘Well, I have to prepare all the necessary paperwork, register the probate, write to the bank, and so on. I should say three months, perhaps a little longer,’ said Cruddock.
‘Three months?’ Tony said. ‘I know you legal chaps drag your feet whenever you can, but that’s a bit strong, isn’t it?’
Cruddock looked both perplexed and offended. ‘The law, Mr Lock, may move slowly, but it moves inexorably. Three months is a perfectly reasonable time for such matters.’
Tony stood up from the table, red-faced and agitated. Arthur noticed the spittle on his lips as he spoke.
‘I don’t know what’s wrong with this country,’ he said. ‘How’s a chap supposed to live when what’s rightfully his gets tied up for months by these legal shenanigans?’
‘Don’t take it out on Cruddock, Tony,’ Arthur said. ‘He’s only doing his job.’
Tony scowled at him and then disappeared out of the office door. They heard him stamp down the narrow, creaky staircase.
‘Oh, dear,’ said Cruddock.
‘Is there anything else?’ Arthur said.
‘Well, since I have a list of the contents of the safe deposit box — for tax purposes, you understand — you may take the keys now if you wish.’
They wished. Once they had the keys and a letter of authorisation from Cruddock, they left his office.
‘Are you alright, Peggy? Ready to face the world? I know that was difficult for you,’ Arthur said to her on the landing.
Peggy threw her arms around him and began to sob. Arthur prevented himself from flinching. He wasn’t used to dealing with emotional young woman and felt awkward and self-conscious. Nonetheless, he put his arms around her and held her close.
‘I miss them so much,’ she said between sobs. ‘I still can’t believe they’re gone.’
‘Not gone forever, Peggy dear. You’ll see them in the next life.’
‘I know I will. But it’s an awfully long time to wait.’
‘Yes, it is. But you’re going to have a wonderful, happy life. You have a lot to look forward to.’
It took a few minutes for Peggy to compose herself.
When they emerged into Red Lion Court, Tony was waiting for them, smoking a cigarette and looking sheepish.
‘I say, cuz, I’m sorry about that,’ he said to Peggy. ‘Don’t know what came over me. Been under a lot of strain recently. Business matters, you understand.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, cousin Tony,’ Peggy said in her good-natured way.
Her concern seemed to cheer Tony up. ‘Oh, that’s alright, cuz. But look, how about taking tea together? We could go to the Café Royal. Given we’ve never met before, it would —’
‘I’m sorry, Tony, but Peggy and I have a lot to do today,’ Arthur said.
Peggy looked at him with reproach. Did she really want to take tea with this bounder? he wondered. Then he remembered she had never met Tony, and her words from earlier came back to him: Well, he is family.
‘Look, Tony,’ Arthur said. ‘Why don’t we meet for dinner later this week, say, Friday, and then you and Peggy can get to know one another better.’
Tony grinned. ‘Yes, that would be splendid.’
‘Good. Now, how can I contact you?’
Tony looked uneasy. ‘Well, hmm… the fact is, things are a bit fluid at the moment. Probably best if I contact you.’
Arthur handed him one of the cards he’d had printed with his new London address.
Tony glanced at it. ‘Top hole. Great Russell Mansions, eh? Perfect bachelor digs.’ He winked at Arthur.
Tony insisted on kissing Peggy again on both cheeks before he said goodbye. Arthur and Peggy watched him saunter down the alley to Fleet Street, whistling affectedly.
‘He’s very unhappy, isn’t he?’ Peggy said when he was out of earshot.
‘Yes, he is, but it’s his own fault,’ Arthur said. ‘He had every advantage growing up, and he’s made a hash of things.’
‘Why do you have to be so hard about everything and everyone?’
‘I don’t think I am. Am I hard with you?’
Peggy shook her head. ‘No, Arthur dear, you’ve been nothing but kind, and I love you for it. But you’re quite unbending with other people. Why not extend some kindness to Tony? He’s your nephew, after all, just as I’m your niece.’
‘I know a thing or two about young Tony that would make your —’
Peggy put a gloved finger to his lips. ‘Hush now, grumpy uncle. Let’s not talk about that kind of thing. What are we doing now?’
‘Why don’t we wander down to Child & Co and see what’s in this safe deposit box of yours? Then we’ll go somewhere for tea.’
Peggy nodded. ‘A safe deposit box does sound intriguing, though I can’t think what could be in it.’
‘I wouldn’t get too excited. It’s probably just a few valuables that your father decided not to keep at home.’
Peggy took his arm, and they went out to Fleet Street and made the short walk to Child & Co.
There were several minutes of credential checking and then Mr Jameson, a junior manager with brilliantined hair so shiny it dazzled Arthur’s eyes, escorted them to the secure vault in the bank’s basement. There was much unlocking of gates and doors, and all the while, he focused his attention on Peggy and not her uncle. I really hadn’t realized the effect she has on young men until today, Arthur thought, feeling ancient.
They entered a room lined with small metal cabinets.
‘Each cabinet has two locks, Major Lock…’ Jameson paused, amused at the repeated word, but began speaking again when he saw Arthur did not share his amusement. ‘Ahem… your key opens one of them and mine the other. Inside the cabinet is the safe deposit box of your, ahem, late brother —’ he glanced at Peggy with a look of pity ‘ — and your other key will open that. There is a private room just over there where you can open the box without being disturbed.’
They opened the cabinet and removed the box. Mr Jameson showed them to the private room, pointed out the bell button to be used to summon him, and then left them alone, though not without taking another look at Peggy.
Arthur raised his eyebrows once the door closed.
‘And what’s that look for?’ Peggy said.
‘His attentiveness towards you was overdone.’
‘Sure, he’s a young man, and that’s what young men do with girls. I can deal with it.’
‘I know you can. That doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it.’
‘You were a young man once.’
‘Touché,’ Arthur said, laughing. ‘Now let’s see what’s in here, shall we?’
He unlocked the box and raised its lid.
‘You unpack it, Peggy. It belongs to you.’
Peggy took out the first item, a silk bag with drawstrings. She opened the strings and tipped it. A shower of gold coins clattered onto the tabletop.
‘Oh, it’s like finding treasure,’ Peggys said excitedly.
Arthur picked up a few of the coins. ‘Let’s see. Sovereigns mostly, but with a few German gold marks and some Californian coins. I’d forgotten how much Henry was obsessed with the possibility of bank runs and financial crashes. I suppose this was his emergency supply, just in case.’
‘They’re rather beautiful,’ Peggy said, holding a sovereign up to the light.
‘And worth a bit. I should say there’s about five hundred pounds worth there, should you ever need it.’
‘What shall we do with them?’
‘I propose we leave them here and not think about them unless we need to.’
Peggy’s expression became serious. ‘I suddenly feel very grown-up. Though I am tempted to take some of them home to play with. But you’re right. We’ll leave them here.’
‘Let me put them back in the bag. What else do you have in there?’
‘Let’s see… here’s a copy of the deeds for the Clifden house… and here’s a jewellery box with two, no, three strings of pearls, some rings and some bracelets.’
‘Those must have belonged to our mother,’ Arthur said.
‘Ah, yes. I remember Mammy saying that Da had given her so much family jewellery when they married she told him to put some of it away.’
‘Do you want to take them now?’
‘No, I have plenty, more than I’ll ever wear. We’ll leave it all here with the coins… And here’s another set of deeds. This is for… oh, the cottage in the New Forest that Mr Cruddock mentioned. You know, I don’t remember Da talking about that.’
‘Neither do I. We’ll go down there and take a look when we have time. Is that everything?’
‘Yes, I think so… no, wait, a blank postcard, by the looks of it.’
The postcard was flat against the bottom of the box. Peggy got one of her nails underneath and flicked it up. She held it up so that they could both see the picture on the front.
‘According to the description, it’s a photograph of the Bay of Calvi in Corsica,’ Peggy said. ‘How odd to find a blank postcard in here.’
Arthur frowned and rubbed his scar. ‘I don’t recall Henry ever going there. Did he ever mention the place to you?’
‘No. Da and Mammy told me about all their travels before I was born and they never said a word about Corsica.’
‘In fact, Henry didn’t like France. He much preferred Germany and Switzerland.’
‘Then why is it in here?’
‘I don’t know. But we’ll take it with us. I have a feeling…’
‘Oh, only that it may have some meaning.’
And for the rest of the day Arthur and Peggy mused separately on what a blank postcard of the Bay of Calvi in Corsica could signify and why Henry Lock had thought it sufficiently important to store in a safe deposit box.
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