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THE SPANIARD'S THUMB
THE CURSE OF THE THUMB
“Me?” cried Cherry Fairfax, hazel eyes wide
The lawyer inclined his head gravely.
“But why me?”
Mr. Champion, a dry, self-contained, elderly
family solicitor of the old school, smiled faintly at the pretty, excited young
lady sitting bolt upright in her chair on the other side of his desk.
“Because the late Mrs. Falloway-Fairfax willed
it so. . . . Why are you so astonished? Didn’t you realise you were the logical
Cherry shook her head. “I’ve never thought
very much about it—County Durham is a long way from Winchingham, you know.
Besides, I thought the old dear had forgotten all about me; I’ve only seen her
about twice in my life, and the last time was years ago. I’ve almost forgotten
what she looked like. I remember vaguely being in great awe of her; she seemed
to be so old and—and majestic. Besides—” said Cherry again, and hesitated.
“Besides what?” asked Mr. Champion.
“Well, when we thought about it at all—Aunt
Margaret and I—we imagined the place would go to George Dryden, being a boy and
old ladies apt to be a bit silly about boys.”
“H’m,” murmured the lawyer. “Ah—yes—that would
be Major Dryden—”
“Major? Cousin George a major?” A little frown
gathered on Cherry’s smooth forehead. “Yes, I suppose George would grow up to be
something like that. He’s some years older than I am, of course, but I can
faintly remember him as a small boy. A horrible child. The sort of boy who eggs
on smaller children into silly and really dangerous adventures, and then laughs
derisively at their failures and hurts. He got me into a whole heap of trouble
the last time we were at Falloway Hall together—but, as I say, that was years
“Aeons ago,” admitted Mr. Champion, surveying
his young client with grave amusement.
“He was the apple of Great-Aunt Lavinia’s
eye,” went on Cherry reminiscently. “He was only the worm in the apple to me!
And now he’s a major! Very brave and daring, I suppose—ribbons and medals all
“Well, if there are,” said Mr. Champion
gently, “you ought to know why there are.”
At which Cherry smiled forgivingly, and her
voice grew soft. “Yes . . . I know. I’m probably wronging him; lots of beastly
little boys grow up to be brave, decent men. Which makes it all the more
The old man interrupted her. “There is really
no occasion for surprise, Miss Fairfax. I can assure you that it was always the
intention of the late Mrs. Falloway-Fairfax that you should inherit Falloway
Hall. She—ah— she had her reasons for naming an heiress rather than an heir.” He
went on hurriedly as if regretting that last remark. “Even had she died
intestate you would have succeeded to the estate; you are her nearest living
relative. For many years there have been no—ah—ties of consanguinity; you are
her grandniece through her deceased husband, whereas Major Dryden is merely—I
think—a cousin twice removed.”
He pushed back his chair, rose to his tall,
thin height and came round and stood over her. “But these are now trivial
details. There are other considerably more important matters which, however, we
can deal with a little later. The simple fact remains that you are now the owner
and mistress of Falloway Hall and its encumbrances, and I extend to you my most
“Thank you, Mr. Champion; that’s very nice of
you.” Cherry, still sitting down, looked up at him with slightly wistful eyes.
“That word ‘encumbrances’ sounds a little ominous. I suppose that means things
like death duties and taxation and other unpleasant things.”
“And other more pleasant things, my dear. I
was using the word in its legal sense.”
“Yes, Miss Fairfax?”
Cherry smiled demurely. “I think I like ‘my
dear’ better,” she murmured. “ ‘Miss Fairfax’ makes me feel a little lonely, but
there’s a kind of taken-under-your-wing feeling about ‘my dear.’ . . . Mr.
Champion, how much— I mean—well, what is this estate worth?”
The old man chuckled dryly and rubbed his long
chin. “You mean you would like to know the nature and substance of your
inheritance. Well, I take it you, are already acquainted with Falloway Hall and
its twenty- seven acres—”
“Twenty-seven acres!” gasped Cherry.
“Yes. It has its own farm, lately somewhat
neglected, I fear, mainly because of shortage of labour. As to income from the
estate, in which I gather your immediate interest lies, this is derived partly
from certain investments and securities—with which it will be my duty to
acquaint you later—but mainly from holdings, very largely urban ground rents.
Some of these investments and securities may have to be sacrificed to pay death
duties, but even allowing for that I should say that gross income would amount
to . . . oh, I should imagine it will be in the vicinity of twenty thousand
pounds a year.”
“Twenty—thousand—pounds! A year!”
“Approximately that, approximately that. The
Falloways at one time owned practically all the land on which the town of
Winchingham now stands. This was the original estate granted to the first Sir
Jeremy Falloway. Much has since been sold, but they—or you, as I must say
now—still own quite a large area. Additional landed property added to the estate
through the marriage of the late Mrs. Falloway-Fairfax’s father, and sold by her
“Twenty thousand pounds!” wailed Cherry, to
whom this was untold, incalculable wealth. “A year—every year! Twenty-seven
acres! Falloway Hall—and that’s got about twenty-seven rooms in it, if I
remember anything about it. . . . Mr. Champion, what on earth am I going to do
Mr. Champion chuckled again. “Do with it, my
dear? Live in it. Marry some nice young man and fill the place with children.
Happy, healthy, noisy children. That’s what Falloway Hall needs. . . .”
Later on that same day Mr. Champion had
another visitor. He glanced at the card handed to him by his clerk and raised
“Show him in,” he said thoughtfully.
The man who entered the room a moment later
was of medium height and somewhat stocky build. His hair was an indeterminate
shade of brown, his eyes hazel-coloured with green flecks in them, his jaw
notice-able without being prognathous; and he sported one of those fierce
moustaches that are a by-product of World War II. The close-knit, muscular body
was clad in an obviously brand-new grey suit.
The moustache made Mr. Champion think of a
double-ended shaving brush. He fixed his fascinated eyes on it and waved it to a
“Well, sir, and what can I do for Major
“Ex,” grunted the visitor, placing his new hat
carefully on the floor beside him.
“I beg your pardon?”
George Dryden straightened up and grinned
disarmingly from under the moustache. “Plain Mister Dryden, sir. I’ve been out
of the Army about a month now, and I don’t believe in hanging on to these
“Ah!” murmured Mr. Champion understandingly.
“So you are a mere civilian again, Mr. Dryden. And how does it feel?”
“Reserve of officers,” George corrected him
briefly. “But same thing. And it feels queer. I feel a considerable sense of
loss. I’ve been in Germany all this time up till about a month or so ago, and I
don’t mind admitting, Mr. Champion, that so far as we were concerned things
weren’t too bad at all. But back home again and in civvy street . . . My word,
sir, this country’s starving!”
“Not starving, Mr. Dryden. Not exactly
starving. But ill-fed.”
“And cigarettes!” went on the ex-major warmly.
“I can still get them, but at what a price! Clothes—anything. . . . Who did win
“The United States of America,” said Mr.
Champion dryly. “History repeats itself.” He pushed back his chair an inch or
two and crossed his legs. “However, I presume you haven’t come to see me merely
to discuss our common domestic hardships?”
“No,” said George thoughtfully. “No. . . .” He
tugged at that ferocious moustache. Then he said abruptly: “So little Cherry
Fairfax gets Falloway Hall.”
This was much too abrupt for Mr. Champion. He
eyed George with glacial calm and begged his pardon once more. George grinned at
“All right, sir, all right. Don’t look at me
as though I were an unsuccessful claimant with wicked designs on little Cherry.
You know who I am, Mr. Champion?” he asked, the grin vanishing suddenly.
Mr. Champion made a show of picking up the
calling card and re-reading it. “You are Mr. George Dryden.”
George showed slight signs of impatience.
“More than that—and you know it. You can’t help knowing, since you were
Great-Aunt Lavinia’s lawyer—”
“Mr. Dryden, there is no talk of any claimants
to Falloway Hall. The matter of inheritance is beyond dispute. The late Mrs.
Falloway-Fairfax distinctly and deliberately willed her estate to her grandniece
by marriage, Miss Cherry Fairfax. Furthermore, you refer to the departed lady as
your great-aunt. But you are not her grand-nephew; you are merely—I fancy I am
correct in saying this—you are merely a cousin twice removed by mar-riage.”
“Dammit, sir,” protested George mildly, “I
know all that. And I’m not making any sort of claim on the place. I said so.
True, I had a hazy idea that Great-Aunt Lavinia was going to name me as her
heir, and I confess to being a bit surprised; but I assure you I am not in the
slightest degree disappointed or envious. I don’t want the damn’ place. Good
luck to Cherry. Only—”
He paused. Mr. Champion said nothing, but
continued to regard him with that cool lawyer’s stare.
“Well, sir,” went on George a little
desperately, “what I want to know is this: is Cherry going to live in Falloway
Hall, or is she going to sell it?”
“And why, Mr. Dryden, do you want to know
this? And what makes you think I would divulge my client’s actions or
“Because,” growled George.
“Scarcely a satisfactory reason, Mr. Dryden,”
said the old man suavely. “Nevertheless, because there is no especial reason for
secrecy, I will tell you. It is one of the conditions of the will that Miss
Fairfax does not sell the place in her lifetime. Presumably, therefore, she will
take up residence there.”
“Typical of the law,” grunted George. “She
can’t sell while she’s alive; she could hardly sell after she’s dead, could
Mr. Champion ignored this. He stood up as if
to give George a gentle hint that he was beginning to outstay his welcome.
“Mr. Dryden, you can hardly expect me, as Miss
Fairfax’s solicitor, to enter into any discussion with you on this subject. But
since you seem desirous of discussion—though I am bound to say I fail to see how
it concerns you at all— and since you have, I assume, a solicitor of your own,
why don’t you go to him?”
“Because,” replied George calmly, “my lawyer
doesn’t know anything about the funny things that go on at Falloway Hall.”
Mr. Champion froze where he stood. Before, he
had been coolly polite, but now he became patently hostile. After a while he sat
down again, glared at George and said icily: “I fail to understand you.”
“I wonder if you do,” murmured George,
brushing up his oversize moustache in an automatic gesture. “No, Mr. Champion, I
don’t think you do. You were Great-Aunt Lavinia’s lawyer for many, many years,
and you must know something of the history of Falloway Hall—”
“History,” snapped the old man, “is history.
It is past. Finished and done with.”
“Didn’t you say something just now about
history repeating itself? It does sometimes, you know. . . . Look here, sir, I
want you to understand this. I’m on Cherry’s side; I’m thinking of that kid,
unprotected save for some vague, shadowy aunt, going down there to live in that
rambling barn of a Hall—”
“And why not? Why shouldn’t she? You speak as
though there were something to be afraid of, some menace or another hanging
“I speak,” said George deliberately, “as
though I knew something of the story of the cellar.”
And once again Mr. Champion was silent for a
few moments. He brooded awhile under shaggy eyebrows. Then he seemed to come to
a decision, and he stood up once more, this time finally.
“I shall not continue to pretend to
misunderstand, Mr. Dryden,” he said quietly. “But neither do I intend to probe
into a painful past. I shall content myself merely with informing you that since
the untimely death of the last Sir Jeremy Falloway—”
“In that cellar,” interjected George almost
“Er—yes, in that cellar. . . . But since that
time—that was, I think, in 1902—nothing whatever untoward has occurred to mar
the harmony of life at Falloway Hall. The late Mrs. Falloway-Fairfax, I may
remind you, lived out her long life there; she was seventy-eight when she died,
and she died peacefully in her bed. Let Miss Fairfax enjoy her inheritance in
blissful ignorance of that old story—that old wives’ tale, as I believe it to
be. Let sleeping dogs lie, Mr. Dryden.”
“Okay,” said George equably, reaching for his
hat. “Okay. Maybe you’re right; maybe it is all—dead and done with. I sincerely
hope so. But I’ve never liked that particular proverb, Mr. Champion. Sleeping
dogs sometimes wake up when you least expect it.”
“Not these,” said Mr. Champion confidently,
“not these. These have died in their sleep. . . .”