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The Steady Running of the Hour

THE SOLICITORS


Images

Gentle rain falls from a colorless London sky. I thread my way through the sidewalk crowds on High Holborn, checking the street signs against the map in my hand. Kingsway. Procter Street. Rainwater gathers in dark puddles, reflecting the white delivery vans, the jet-black cabs and candy-red buses.

I turn left and follow Sandland Street to Bedford Row, a line of four-story terraced Georgian houses with brick facades. Beside the entrance to number 11 there is a brass plaque: TWYNING & HOOPER, SOLICITORS. I push a button on the intercom, feeling dazed and shaky. At breakfast I had two cups of coffee, but they didn’t help much. I look up at the security camera. The white columns of the doorway have Ionic capitals.

—Good morning. How can I help you?

—I’m Tristan Campbell. I have an appointment with James Prichard—

The receptionist buzzes me in. She takes my jacket and leads me into a waiting room with a tufted leather couch.

—I’ll get Geoffrey right away.

A few minutes later she comes back carrying a tray with a porcelain tea service. The tea scalds my tongue, so I stir in more milk. I look up and see the receptionist watching me from behind her desk. Our eyes meet and she smiles. Absently I page through a copy of the Financial Times from the coffee table. I finish the tea and flip over the cup. SPODE COPELAND’S CHINA ENGLAND.

—Mr. Campbell. A pleasure to meet you at last.

Khan approaches with a quick stride and shakes my hand. He wears a slim-fitting suit of dark navy. His brogues are buffed to an impressive shine.

—Shall we go and meet James?

Khan leads me up a tall wooden staircase. Above us are vast murals on the walls and ceiling: a king on horseback heralded by angels; young Britannia with her shield and trident, receiving the tributes of the world.

Two young men in neckties come down the stairs, maroon folders tucked beneath their arms. They nod solemnly as we pass. I look down at my thrift-store clothes, a wrinkled dress shirt and a pair of old slacks.

—I feel underdressed.

Khan smiles. —Not at all. You’re the client. We’re the solicitors.

We walk down a corridor to a pair of French doors. Khan pauses here, lowering his voice.

—A word before we go in. Naturally you can address him as James, he doesn’t stand on formality. But I might suggest you answer any questions—

Khan hesitates.

—As directly as you can. I can say from personal experience that vagueness goes nowhere with James. He sees right through it. Be as blunt as you can with him and he’ll be honest with you in turn. How does that strike you?

—Great.

Khan smiles warmly. He knocks on the door and ushers me in. The office is large but spartan. A table with carved lion’s feet, its surface covered with paper stacked in neat piles. A leather couch and club chairs. An immense Persian rug. Prichard stands behind the table, a sheet of paper lifted intently before his face. He is silver-haired and wears a tie and waistcoat over a French-cuffed shirt. He raises a hand to us, then paces between the window and the fireplace, his eyes fixed on the page. Prichard signs the sheet over his desk and calls in a secretary to collect it. He turns, beaming.

—If you can fill the unforgiving minute, Prichard quotes, with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—

He extends his hand. —James Prichard. Sorry to have kept you waiting. I suppose London weather is living up to your expectations?

Prichard gestures to one of the chairs; he and Khan sit on the couch opposite. They cross their legs in the same direction. Framed photographs hang on the wall behind them. Above Khan’s shoulder there is a black-and-white picture of a group of men in three-piece suits gathered stiffly around a bald man with a white mustache. The bald man’s head is tilted slightly to the camera and he holds a pipe in his hand.

—Is that Clement Attlee?

Prichard looks at me.

—That’s right. He was a client of ours.

I point at a tall, fair-haired young man in the photograph.

—And that’s you?

Prichard nods, but he doesn’t turn toward the picture.

—I did very little work on Mr. Attlee’s estate. It was handled by the most senior solicitors, but they let me sit in on a few meetings for posterity’s sake.

Prichard pauses. —At any rate, how was your journey? Don’t be put off London on account of Heathrow. Or British Airways, for that matter. Our charms are elsewhere. What hotel have they put you in?

—Brown’s.

—Splendid. Seen much of London yet?

—I got here last night.

—Well, have a look around before you go. The Tower. Regent’s Park. The British Museum.

Prichard looks at Khan.

—The confidentiality agreement, Khan prompts.

—Of course, Prichard says. You’ve read it carefully?

—Yes.

—And Geoffrey tells me you’re without your own representation?

—Yes.

Prichard nods. —As I’m sure you noticed, the agreement forbids revealing details of the case to any outside party, which makes advisors rather pointless anyway. Will you sign the agreement now? Without it I should not be able to tell you the details of the case.

Khan puts the thick document on the coffee table before us and offers his fountain pen. I flip to the signature page at the back and scratch out a misshapen signature. Khan calls in a young woman to notarize the document.

—Everything said henceforth, Prichard warns, is strictly confidential. Geoffrey, I can take over from here.

Khan walks out with the young woman, closing the door behind him. Prichard watches me for a moment, as if waiting for me to speak first. He smiles faintly.

—This is quite a long shot, but are you familiar with the Mount Everest expeditions of the 1920s?

—Expeditions?

—You’re forgiven. Geoffrey told me you were a history student, but it’s hardly the kind of thing one studies at university these days. Shall we move to the desk? I’m afraid I’ll need my notes to explain all this.

Prichard pulls out a chair for me in front of his desk and sits opposite. He shuffles among stacks of documents, some of them typewritten, others written in longhand on unlined paper.

—I’ve been brushing up on the case all week—I warn you, it’s quite a headache. I’ll endeavor not to bog you down with details, but it’s essential that you understand the ‘problem’ of the Walsingham estate, and the sooner you grasp the problem, the better, for our time is limited. Most of what I’ll tell you was recorded by Peter Twyning, the estate’s executor. Fortunately he took meticulous notes. The case was a headache from the moment Twyning took it on. And he knew it.

Prichard unfolds a pair of tortoiseshell reading glasses and puts them on. He examines the page before him.

—Our client was a man called Ashley Walsingham. At the age of seventeen, Walsingham inherited a substantial estate from his great-uncle George Risley, the founder of a very profitable shipping line. This was 1913. Risley was childless, and as Walsingham’s own father was dead, Risley looked upon Ashley as his grandson. When Risley died, Ashley inherited the majority of his estate. Peter Twyning managed the Risley estate and would later become executor of Walsingham’s fortune.

—Ashley went up to Magdalene College, Cambridge, in the Michaelmas term of 1914. Rather bad timing, wouldn’t you say? The war began that August and Ashley duly applied for a commission in the army. By the summer of 1916 he was about to be sent to France. In his last week in England he met a woman called Imogen Soames-Andersson.

Prichard looks up at me. —Does that name mean anything to you?

—No.

—A pity. I’d hoped it might. You see, Imogen was the sister of your great-grandmother Eleanor.

I shake my head. —I’ve never heard of them. Soames—

—Soames-Andersson. Anglo-Swedish—an unusual family. Twyning left pages of notes on the Soames-Anderssons alone. The father was a Swedish diplomat, first deputy to the Swedish envoy in London. The mother was English, apparently an accomplished sculptress. They had two daughters, Eleanor and Imogen. The English side, the Soameses, had quite an artistic pedigree, and the daughters were brought up in the same line, rather bohemian. Eleanor later became a painter of some distinction.

—She was my great-grandmother?

Prichard frowns. —Yes, we’ll get to that bit. As I said, Ashley met Eleanor’s younger sister Imogen in August 1916. They had some kind of love affair for a week, then Ashley was deployed to France. We presume the two of them kept in touch. In November 1916, Ashley was badly wounded in one of the last battles of the Somme offensive. He was mistakenly reported dead. Imogen was notified by this law firm of Ashley’s death, only to learn a week later that he was in fact alive. As soon as she heard, Imogen went directly to France. She found Ashley at a hospital in Albert, near the front line. They met briefly but had an argument, or so Ashley told Twyning. Then Imogen disappeared. As far as we know, she never returned to England and was never seen again.

—What happened to her?

Prichard takes off his eyeglasses.

—We don’t know. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know. Ms. Soames-Andersson had a reputation for being rather—impulsive, shall we say. At least in Twyning’s view. From his notes, I gather he considered her something of a wild card. Certainly he wished she’d never crossed paths with Ashley. There was much speculation on the cause of her disappearance, but nothing was ever proven. Evidently Ashley believed she was still alive, for he told Twyning so on several occasions.

Prichard glances at his wristwatch. He puts his eyeglasses back on.

—I’ve neglected the most important part. The climbing. At Charterhouse one of Ashley’s schoolmasters was Hugh Price, the famous mountaineer. Price took him climbing in Wales, with summer seasons in the Alps. In 1915 Ashley was elected to the Alpine Club, and by the early 1920s he was said to be one of the best climbers in England. In 1924 Ashley won a spot on the third British expedition to Mount Everest. A few days before he sailed for India en route to Tibet, Ashley came to this law firm and asked Twyning to revise his will. Previously his principal beneficiary had been his mother, but Ashley had Twyning amend the will to leave the majority of his estate to Imogen.

—But I thought she was gone—

—She had been missing for seven years.

—You can leave money to a missing person?

—Why not? It’s not illegal. It’s simply a very bad idea. Naturally Twyning tried to dissuade him from the changes, but Ashley insisted the money sit in trust until such time as Imogen or her direct descendant claimed the estate. He ordered that the trust sit for eighty years. If no one claimed it by then, it was to be divided among various charitable beneficiaries—the Ashmolean Museum, the Alpine Club, a few village churches in Berkshire. This clause was intended to make it impossible for anyone to preempt Imogen’s claim during her conceivable lifetime, or for the estate to escheat to the Crown.

Prichard flips over the sheet of paper on his desk.

—Ashley Walsingham was killed on Mount Everest on the seventh of June 1924, caught by a storm during a summit attempt. His mother received her portion of the estate, but Imogen never surfaced. For decades we’d been expecting to distribute the remainder when the eighty years ran out. We’d already drawn up the papers. But last month all that changed.

—You see Mr. Campbell, in the last few years there’s been a certain interest in Eleanor’s painting, though from what I’ve gathered it has less to do with her work than her connections. Evidently Eleanor was close to the Camden Town Group as well as some notable French painters. Last month a graduate student was looking through Eleanor’s letters at the British Library. She found something that caught her eye, and eventually the letter got passed on to us. We believe it concerns Imogen.

Prichard lifts a photocopy from his desk.

—This letter may clear up why Mr. Walsingham left the money to either Imogen or her direct heir. Not her sister or parents, mind you, but only her descendant.

He pushes the page across his desk.

—The letter was written in 1925 from Eleanor to her husband. The ‘C.’ mentioned here is, of course, your grandmother. She was eight at the time, and evidently having difficulties in school.

The photocopy is the final page of the letter. The handwriting is florid but precise.

Francis thinks I shall be able to get at least 8,000 francs for Smythe’s portrait. Provided it hasn’t been damaged in transit – as I fear given its odd shape & the inevitable shoddy crating. He’s certain that Broginart will take it as soon as he lays his eyes upon it. I’m not convinced.

Naturally it worries me to hear that C. is again at odds with her best interests. I agree that Miss Evans is rather dense & unsympathetic when it comes to C., yet there is no denying the girl is impetuous & easily distracted. Certainly we’ve striven to raise her as we judged best, but I suppose it’s equally true we’ve made allowances for her & always shall. Every day she is more the image of her mother, in both appearance & temper.

I laugh to think how I. would consider it another mark of destiny or divine signature that C. is not as we raise her, but as she was born to be. I must also admit I sometimes treasure C.’s obstinacy, having been without I. all these years. But above all, I worry, lest she meet the fate of her mother.

I must go now – the concierge has just announced the intrepid Mme. Boudin. Once again.

Burn this.

Love to all,

Eleanor

I hand the letter back to Prichard. He takes his glasses off and leans back in his chair.

—You understand the implication?

—My grandmother was Imogen’s daughter, not Eleanor’s.

Prichard nods. —With you her only living descendant. I suppose the letter survived by pure hazard. Legally it’s of little use. It doesn’t even call Imogen by name.

—It seems clear to me—

—If it’s truthful. But it may not be, for any number of reasons. That’s why the law won’t rely on a letter like this. We would need more substantial documentation.

—Like what?

—Official documents connecting your grandmother to Imogen. Considering they went to the trouble to hide your grandmother’s maternity, one wonders if such papers exist. Failing that, more evidence like this, put together, could be a persuasive argument. But we would need far more.

I take a moment to think.

—Would this Walsingham be the father, then?

—Possibly. It would explain a great deal.

—I don’t understand. You think I can find out something about this?

Prichard stands. He begins to pace around the room.

—We are at an impasse. The Walsingham trust was drawn up with great privacy in mind. What the trustees can do by way of investigation is strictly limited. Mr. Walsingham believed Imogen would come forward on her own to claim the estate, and he didn’t want anyone probing into their private affairs. This letter certainly suggests why. In any case, the trust explicitly forbids us from hiring third-party help of any kind. For eighty years there have been no probate researchers, no private investigators, nothing.

Prichard stops before a tall window, shaking his head.

—It’s exasperating to say the least. And it’s persisted all my career. Mr. Twyning always said the Walsingham fortune must sort itself out sooner or later, that with so much money involved an heir must surface. But it’s never happened. You’re the first outside party that’s ever qualified to be told about this trust, and I can tell you achieving that wasn’t easy. Even as a potential heir you had to be subject to a confidentiality consistent with the trust, which is why you can’t hire outside help any more than we can. That’s hardly encouraging, but it’s possible the evidence may not be particularly difficult to find. We simply don’t know, because we’ve always been straitjacketed. We know the truth exists, but we’re prohibited from looking for it.

Prichard looks at me.

—You’ve the opportunity of being more enterprising.

He turns back to the window. The rain has quickened outside and sheets of water are tumbling down the glass. A man on the street below dashes for cover.

—The Walsingham case was at our firm when I joined. That was forty-one years ago this March. I should like to have this case settled before I retire, and settled as our client intended. The money wasn’t really meant to go to any church or museum. So you can imagine how pleased I was to hear of this letter, and to learn of your existence. Let’s say it’s one of my legacy cases, and I shouldn’t like it to be a defeat.

—I wouldn’t know where to start.

Prichard nods. —Let me give you a piece of advice. If there is proof of your relation to Imogen, I doubt it will be in government archives or the like. You can look, of course, but you and Geoffrey already went through that business with your mother’s papers, and the one thing trustees have been permitted to do is look through vital records. There’s no paper trail to Imogen after 1916. All the usual records have been searched. Nothing turns up.

Prichard taps his finger on the photocopy.

—This letter is the breakthrough. It’s the thread you ought to follow. New evidence often opens new doors. In eighty years no one had the benefit of this knowledge, nor had they the freedom you have. Do you follow me?

—It’s incredible.

—It certainly is. It’s also a mess, and I’m enlisting you to sort it out. You won’t thank me, for I’ve yet to tell you the worst of it. Today is the sixteenth of August, is it not?

Prichard sits down behind his desk and lifts another sheet of paper.

—Ashley Walsingham was killed on the seventh of June 1924. The news appeared in the British press on the twenty-first. As soon as he learned of it, Twyning tried to get in contact with Imogen, but of course he couldn’t. Accordingly, the Walsingham estate passed into trust on the seventh of October 1924. You recall it was an eighty-year—

—That’s in two months.

Prichard looks at me.

—More or less. If the estate isn’t claimed, it passes to the alternate beneficiaries on seventh of October. That leaves you roughly seven weeks. You see why I insisted you come to London straightaway. I grant you, it seems foul luck to have learnt of this letter only now, but imagine if we’d found it two months from now. It’s a question of perspective. A pessimist would say you’ve seven weeks to find what could not be found for eighty years—

Prichard leans forward. A wry smile crosses his lips.

—Mr. Campbell, let me ask you something. You’re not a pessimist, are you?

I hesitate. —I’m not sure.

—Spoken like a true Englishman. For my part, I’m confident you can achieve much by October. I don’t say you’ll find the proof, because we can’t be certain it survives. But you ought to be able to trace that which is traceable.

Prichard pushes a button on his telephone. He asks for Khan to be sent back in.

—As ever, Geoffrey shall bring you up to speed on particulars. He’s your man for the details. Good luck.

Prichard stands and I spring up awkwardly, following him to the door. He shakes my hand again.

—If I can help, he says, don’t hesitate to call.

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