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“Me?” cried Cherry Fairfax, hazel eyes wide with wonder.

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 heiress?”

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 ago.”

“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 over him.”

“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 surprising—”

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 sincere congratulations.”

“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.”

“Mr. Champion—”

“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 in 1911—”

“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 with it?”

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 his eyebrows.

“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 chair.

“Well, sir, and what can I do for Major Dryden?”

“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 temporary handles.”

“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 this war?”

“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 him cheerfully.

“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 intentions?”

“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 she?”

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 over—”

“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 casually.

“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. . . .”


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