Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Eleanor's victory - Part 25

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Illustrated by George Du Maurier.

Part 24Part 26



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Laura Mason was not dangerously ill. Her malady was by no means of a serious nature. The pink-blossom tint of her cheeks was intensified into vivid carnation; the turquoise-blue eyes shone with a feverish light; the little hands were very hot and dry. It was in vain that the physician from Windsor prescribed composing draughts. His patient would not be quiet or composed. In vain Eleanor tried to soothe the wounded spirit. It would not be at rest.

“It’s no use, Nelly,” the invalid cried, impatiently, “I must talk of him; I must talk of my sorrows, unless you want me to go mad. Oh, my poor Launcelot! my own dear Launcelot! how cruel it is to keep me from you!”

This was the worst part of the business. Poor Laura was perpetually entreating to be allowed to see Launcelot. Would they let her go to him; or would they send and ask him to come to her? They were the most cruel and heartless creatures if they could refuse to let her see him.

But Eleanor did refuse.

“It is impossible, my darling,” she said; “I cannot send for him. It is quite impossible that he and I should ever meet again, except as enemies. The will must be read in a few days. Let us wait till then. If Launcelot Darrell is sorry for what he has done, he will try to undo it. If he is not sorry, and takes possession of the estate upon the strength of a forged will, he must be a villain, unworthy even of your pity, Laura.”

“But I do pity him; and I love him.”

It was strange to see what a hold this unhappy affection had taken upon Laura’s shallow nature. This frivolous girl was as impressionable as she was volatile. The blow was more terrible to her than it would have been to a woman of higher and grander nature; but to such a woman the consequences of the blow would be, perhaps, lifelong, while it was scarcely likely that Laura would suffer for ever. She did not try to endure the grief that had fallen upon her. She was entirely without pride; and had no more shame in bemoaning her loss of Launcelot Darrell, than she would have had fifteen years before in crying over a broken doll. She did not care who knew her sorrows, and would have made a confidante of the servant who waited upon her, if Eleanor had not interfered to prevent her.

“I’m very miserable and wretched, Jane,” she said, while the girl was smoothing her pillows and arranging the tumbled bed-clothes, which had been twisted into mere wisps of linen by the perpetual tossings to and fro of the invalid. “I’m the most miserable creature that ever was born, Jane, and I wish that I was dead. I know it’s wicked, but I do. What’s the good of Dr. Featherstone prescribing for me, when I don’t want to be prescribed for? What’s the good of my taking lime-draughts, when I’d much rather die? What’s the use of those horrid opiates, that taste like stale London porter? Opiates won’t give me back Launce—”

She stopped abruptly at this point, checked by a warning look from Eleanor.

“You must not speak of Launcelot Darrell to these people, Laura,” Mrs. Monckton said, when the servant had left the room, “unless you want them to suspect that something strange has happened.”

“But they’ll know it, if my wedding is put off.”

“Your guardian will explain all that, Laura.”

Miss Mason bemoaned her fate even more piteously than before.

“It’s hard enough to be miserable,” she cried, “but it’s still worse to be miserable, and not to be allowed to say so.”

“Many people have sorrows to endure that cannot be spoken of,” Eleanor answered, quietly. “I had to bear the sorrow of my father’s death when I dared not speak of it.”

Mrs. Monckton saw very little of her husband during the few days of Laura’s illness. She only saw him, indeed, when he came to the door to make inquiries about his ward; but even in the few brief sentences exchanged by them, she could perceive that he was altered towards her. He had been cold and distant for a long time since their marriage; but now his manner had the icy reserve of a man who feels that he has been wronged. Eleanor comprehended this, and was sorry for it; but she had a dull, hopeless feeling that nothing she could do would alter it. The great purpose of her life had failed; and she began to think that nothing but failure could come to any hope of hers.

This feeling separated her completely from her husband. In her ignorance of the suspicions which tortured him, she could of course make no effort to set him right. The girl’s innocence and the man’s pride made a gulf that no power of affection could pass. If Eleanor could have guessed, ever so vaguely, at the cause of her husband’s reserve, a few words from her might have melted the ice: but she had not the faintest notion of the hidden source from which came those bitter waters that had swept away all outward tokens of her husband’s love; and those words remained unspoken. Gilbert Monckton thought that if his wife was not false, she was at least indifferent; and he bowed his head before the gloomy face of his Destiny.

“I am not to be loved,” he said. “Good-bye, once more, to that dream. And let me try to do my duty, and be in some way useful to my fellow creatures. Half my life has been swallowed up by egotistical regrets. May God give me grace to use the remnant of it more wisely.”

He had told Eleanor that as soon as Laura was a little better he should take her to the seaside.

“The poor child cannot remain here,” he said, “every gossip in the neighbourhood will be eager to know why the wedding is postponed; and unless we assign some simple reason for the change in our arrangements, there will be no limit to people’s speculations and conjectures. Laura’s illness will be the best possible excuse; and I will take her to the south of France. She may forget Launcelot Darrell by-and-by, when she finds herself in a strange place, surrounded by new associations.”

Eleanor eagerly assented to this.

“Nothing could be wiser than such an arrangement,” she answered. “I almost think the poor girl would die if she remained here. Everything reminds her of her disappointment.”

“Very well, then, I shall take her to Nice as soon as she is well enough to go. Will you tell her that I mean to do so, and try and make her feel some interest in the idea of the change?”

Eleanor Monckton had a very hard time of it in the sick room. Those frivolous people who feel their misfortunes very acutely for the time being, are apt to throw a heavy share of their burden upon the shoulders of their friends. Laura’s lamentations were very painful and not a little monotonous to hear; and there was a great deal of hard work to be done in the way of going over the same ground again and again, for that young lady’s consolation. She had no idea of turning her face to the wall and suffering in silence. Her manner had none of that artificial calm which often causes uneasiness to those who watch a beloved sufferer through some terrible crisis. Everything reminded her of her grief; and she would not be courageous enough to put away the things that recalled her sorrows. She could not draw a curtain over the bright picture of the past, and turn her face resolutely to the blank future. She was for ever looking back, and bewailing the beauty of that vanished hope, and insisting that the dream palace was not utterly ruined; that it might be patched up again somehow or other, not to be what it was before, that was impossible, of course; but to be something. The broken vase could surely be pieced together, and the scent of the faded roses would hang round it still.

“If he repents, I will marry him, Eleanor,” she said, at the end of almost every argument, “and we will go to Italy and be happy together, and he will be a great painter. Nobody would dare to say he had committed a forgery if he was a great painter like Holman Hunt, or Mr. Millais. We’ll go to Rome together, Nelly, and he shall study the old masters, and sketch peasants from the life; and I won’t mind even if they’re pretty, though it isn’t pleasant to have one’s husband always sketching pretty peasants; and that will divert his mind, you know.”

For four days Laura was ordered to keep to her bed, and during that time Eleanor rarely quitted the invalid’s apartments, only taking brief snatches of rest in an easy chair by the fire in Laura’s dressing-room. On the fifth day Miss Mason was allowed to get up, and then there were terrible scenes to be gone through; for the young lady insisted upon having her trousseau spread out upon the bed, and the chairs, and the sofas, and hung upon every available peg in the two rooms; until both those apartments became a very forest of finery, about which the invalid prowled perpetually, indulging in a separate fit of weeping over every garment.

“Look at this darling parasol, Nelly,” she cried, gazing at the tiny canopy of silk and whalebone with streaming eyes; “isn’t the real point lace over the pale pink silk lovely? And then it’s so becoming to the complexion, too! Oh, how happy I thought I should be when I had this parasol. I thought I should drive on the Corso with Launcelot, and now——! And the violet-satin boots with high heels, Nelly, made on purpose to wear with my violet-silk dress, I thought nobody could be unhappy with such things as those, and now—!”

Every speech ended in fresh tears, which sometimes trickled over a shining silken garment, and flecked the lustrous fabric with spots of water that took the brightness out of the splendid hues.

“To think that I should be so miserable as to cry over silk at nine and sixpence a yard, and not to care!” exclaimed Laura Mason; as if, in these words, she described the highest anguish-point that human misery can reach.

She had a few presents given her by Launcelot, they were very few, and by no means valuable, for Mr. Darrell, as we know, was essentially selfish, and did not care to spend his small stock of money upon other people; and she sat with these trifles in her lap for hours together, lamenting over them, and talking about them.

“There’s my silver thimble, my dear, darling little silver thimble,” she said, perching the scrap of glistening metal upon her little finger, and kissing it with that degree of rapture which the French vaudeville-ists call “explosion!”—“that nasty, spiteful Amelia Shalders said a silver thimble was a vulgar present, just what a carpenter, or any other common man, would have given to his sweetheart, and that Launcelot ought to have given me a ring or a bracelet, as if he could go buying rings and bracelets without any money. And I don’t care whether my thimble’s vulgar or not, and I love it dearly, because he gave it me. And I’d do lots of needlework for the sake of using it, only I never could learn to use a thimble—quite. It always seems so much easier to work without one, though it does make a hole in the top of one’s finger. Then there’s my tablets! Nobody can say that ivory tablets are vulgar. My darling little tablets, with the tiny, tiny gold pencil-case,”—the gold pencil-case was very tiny,—“and the wee mite of a turquoise for a seal. I’ve tried to write ‘Launcelot’ upon every leaf, but I don’t think ivory tablets are the very nicest things to write upon. One’s writing seems to slide about somehow as if the pencil was tipsy; and the lines won’t come straight. It’s like trying to walk up and down the deck of a steamer, one goes where one doesn’t want to go.”

The bewailings over the trousseau and the presents had a beneficial effect upon the heart-broken invalid. On the evening of the fifth day her spirits began to revive a little, she drank tea with Eleanor at a table by the fire in the dressing-room, and after tea tried on her wedding bonnet and mantle before the cheval glass.

This performance seemed to have a peculiarly consoling effect, and after surveying herself for a long time in the glass, and lamenting the redness of her eyelids, which prevented full justice being done to the beauty of the bonnet, Miss Mason declared that she felt a great deal better, and that she had a presentiment that something would happen, and that everything would come right somehow or other.

As it would have been very cruel to deprive her of this rather vague species of comfort, Eleanor said nothing, and the evening ended almost cheerfully. But the next day was that appointed for Mr. de Crespigny’s funeral and the reading of the will; and Laura’s anxiety was now really greater than it had ever been. She could not help believing Eleanor’s story of the forgery, though she had struggled long against the conviction that had been forced upon her, and her only hope was that her lover would repent, and suffer his aunts to inherit the wealth which had been no doubt bequeathed to them. Frivolous and shallow as this girl was, she could not for a moment contemplate marrying Launcelot under any other circumstances. She could not think of sharing with him a fortune that had been gained by fraud.

“I know he will confess the truth,” she said to Eleanor, upon the morning of the funeral, “he was led into doing wrong by his friend, that wicked Frenchman. It was only the impulse of the moment. He has been sorry ever since, I dare say. He will undo what he has done.”

“But if the real will has been destroyed?”

“Then his two aunts and his mother would share the estate between them. We were both mistaken, you know, Eleanor, in thinking that Launcelot would be heir-at-law if his great-uncle died without a will. My guardian told me so the other day when I asked him some question about the fortune. And he told Launcelot the same thing that night in the library, when they had the conversation about my fortune.”

If Laura was anxious upon this eventful day, Eleanor was anxious too. It was a new crisis in her life. Would Launcelot Darrell attempt to restore himself to the position he had occupied before the night of his uncle’s death, or would he hold to that which he might acquire by his deliberate fraud, and remain a hardened and impenitent criminal, defiant of the law he had outraged?


Gilbert Monckton went up to Tolldale immediately after the funeral, in order to be present at the reading of the will. He felt that he had a right to see the end of this business, in which his wife had played so extraordinary a part. The will was to be read by Henry Lawford’s clerk, in the sitting-room, or study, which Maurice de Crespigny had occupied for many years before his death.

There were a great many people who, like Gilbert Monckton, thought they had a right to be present upon this occasion; people who had been kept out of the old man’s house by the rigid watchfulness and the inflexible will of the two maiden ladies for the last twenty years or so, but who were freely admitted now, as no longer capable of doing mischief. All manner of distant relationships, so remote as to be almost untraceable, came to light upon this occasion: cousins, by marriage; sisters-in-law of dead first cousins, once removed; widowers, who attached themselves to the house of Crespigny by right of departed wives; widows who declared themselves near relations on the strength of claims held by defunct husbands; poor connections who came on foot, and who were so poor that it was really an impertinence in them to expect the smallest legacy; rich connections who came in splendid carriages, and who seemed even more eager for any stray twenty pounds for a mourning ring, that might be set against their names, than the poorest of the brotherhood. And indeed these owners of splendid carriages might have been needier than the dusty and weatherbeaten pedestrians; for when people try to make fifteen hundred a-year do the work of three thousand, every accidental twenty pounds is a God-send to them.

However it might be, everybody in the Woodlands drawing-room upon that particular morning was influenced by the same feeling, a compound sensation of hope and distrust, expectancy and despair. Surely there could never before have been so many eager faces assembled together in the same small space. Every face, young or old, handsome or ugly, aristocratic or plebeian, wore the same expression; and had thus a common likeness, which bore out the idea of some tie of relationship binding the whole assembly.

Every one regarded his or her neighbour as the possible inheritor of something worth having, and therefore a personal enemy. Smiling relations were suspected of being acquainted with the contents of the will, and secretly rejoicing in the certainty of their own names being pleasantly mentioned therein. Frowning relations were looked at darkly as probable arch-plotters who had worked upon the mind of the dead man. Diffident relations were feared as toadies and sycophants, who had no doubt plied Mr. de Crespigny with artful flatteries. Confident relations were dreaded as people who perhaps had some secret claim upon the estate, and were silently gloating over the excellence of their chances. Every one of these outsiders hated each other with vengeful and murderous hate; but they all sympathised in a far deeper hatred of the four favourites for these great legacy stakes, the two maiden ladies, Mrs. Darrell, and her son. It was almost certain that one or other of these four people would inherit the Woodlands property, and the bulk of the dead man’s fortune; unless, indeed, by one of those caprices common to eccentric valetudinarians; he should have left his wealth to some distant connexion, who had been too proud to toady him—and had moreover never had the chance of doing so. Yes, the three nieces and Launcelot were the first favourites in this eager race; and the outsiders speculated freely amongst themselves as to the chances and the “condition” of these four fortunate creatures. And if the outsiders hated each other desperately for the sake of very small chances, how much more desperate must have been the feelings of these four who were to enter for the great stake.

Launcelot Darrell met Mr. Monckton this morning for the first time since that strange scene upon the night of Maurice de Crespigny’s death. The young man had called at Tolldale Priory during the interval, but both the lawyer and his ward had been denied to him.

Perhaps amongst all those assembled in the chamber which had so lately been tenanted by the dead man, there was not one more painfully anxious than Gilbert Monckton, into whose mind no mercenary thought had ever entered.

It was in the hope of seeing his wife justified that Mr. Monckton had come to Woodlands upon this day. He had brooded over Eleanor’s denunciation of Launcelot Darrell perpetually during the week that had elapsed since the old man’s death; but the more he pondered upon that passionate accusation the more bewildered and perplexed he became.

Let it be remembered that he was a man whose nature had been rendered jealous and suspicious by one cruel deception which had embittered his youth and soured a generous disposition. His mind was penetrated with the idea that Eleanor had never loved him, and that she had loved Launcelot Darrell. This belief was the tormenting spirit, the insidious demon which had held possession of his breast ever since his brief honey-moon on the northern coast. He could not dismiss it all in a moment. The fiend was in possession, and was not very easily to be exorcised. That vehement denunciation, that passionate accusation which had rushed, impetuous and angry, from Eleanor Monckton’s lips, might be the outburst of a jealous woman’s fury, and might have its root in love. Eleanor had loved this young man, and was indignant against him for his intended marriage with Laura. If the desire to avenge her father’s death had alone actuated her, surely this passionate girl would have spoken before now.

It was thus that Gilbert Monckton argued. He did not know how eager Eleanor had been to speak, and how she had only been held back by the worldly wisdom of Richard Thornton. How should he know the long trial of patience, the bitter struggle between the promptings of passion and the cold arguments of policy which his wife had endured? He knew nothing except that something—some secret—some master passion—had absorbed her soul, and separated her from him.

He stood aloof in the dead man’s study while Mr. Lamb, the clerk, a grey-haired old man, with a nervous manner and downcast eyes, arranged his papers upon a little table near the fire and cleared his throat preparatory to commencing the reading of the will.

There was an awful silence in the room, as if everybody’s natural respiration had been suspended all in a moment, and then the clerk’s low voice began very slowly and hesitatingly with the usual formula.

“I, Maurice de Crespigny, being at this time,” &c., &c. The will was of some length, and as it began with a great many insignificant legacies, mourning rings, snuff-boxes, books, antique plate, scraps of valuable china, and small donations of all kinds to distant relations and friends who had been lost sight of on the lonely pathway along which the old man had crawled to his tomb under the grim guardianship of his two warders—the patience of the chief expectants was very sorely tried. But at last, after modest little annuities to the servants had been mentioned, the important clauses were arrived at.

To every one of the three sisters, Sarah and Lavinia de Crespigny and Ellen Darrell, the testator bequeathed money in the funds to the amount of two hundred a-year. All the “rest and residue” of his estate, real and personal, was left to Launcelot Darrell, “absolutely,” without condition or reserve.

The blood rushed up to the widow’s face, and then as suddenly receded, leaving it ghastly white. She held out her hand to her son who stood beside her chair, and clasped his clammy fingers in her own.

“Thank God,” she said in a low voice, “you have got your chance at last, Launcelot. I should be content to die to-morrow.”

The two sisters, pale and venomous, glared at their nephew. But they could only look at him. They could do nothing against him. He had won and they had lost; that was all. They felt strange buzzing noises in their ears, and the carpeted floor of the room seemed reeling up and down like the deck of a storm-tost vessel. This was all that they felt just at present. The shock was so great that its first effect was only to produce a kind of physical numbness which extended even to the brain.

I don’t suppose that either of these elderly ladies, each of whom wore stuff shoes and crisp little curls of unnaturally brown hair upon her forehead, could, by any possibility, have spent upon her own wants more than a hundred pounds a-year; nor had either of them been accustomed to indulge in the sweet luxury of charity. They were neither generous nor ambitious. They were entirely without the capacity of spending money either upon themselves or on other people, and yet they had striven as eagerly for the possession of this fortune as ever any proud, ambitious spirit strove for the golden means by which he hoped to work his way upon the road that leads to glory.

They were fond of money; they were fond of money, per se; without reference to its uses, either noble or ignoble. They would have been very happy in the possession of their dead kinsman’s fortune, though they might have gone down to their graves without having spent so much as the two hundred a-year which they received by this cruel will. They would have hoarded the government securities in an iron safe; they would have added interest to principal; they would have nursed the lands, and raised the rents, and been hard and griping with the tenants, and would have counted their gains and calculated together the increase of their wealth; but they would have employed the same cobbler who had worked for them before their uncle’s death; they would still have given out their stuff shoes to be mended; and they would have been as sharp as ever as to an odd sixpence in their dealings with the barber who dressed their crisp brown curls.

Launcelot Darrell kept his place beside his mother’s chair though the reading of the will was finished, and the clerk was folding the sheets upon which it was written. Never had any living creature shown less elation than this young man did upon his accession to such a very large fortune.

Mr. Monckton went up to the little table at which the lawyer’s clerk sat, folding up the papers.

“Will you let me look at that will for a moment, Mr. Lamb?” he asked.

The clerk looked up at him with an expression of surprise.

“You wish to look at it—?” he said, hesitating a little.

“Yes. There is no objection to my doing so, is there? It will be sent to Doctors’ Commons, I suppose, where anybody will be able to look at it for a shilling.”

The clerk handed Gilbert Monckton the document with a feeble little laugh.

“There it is, Mr. Monckton,” he said. “You remember your own signature, I dare say; you’ll find it there along with mine.”

Yes, there was the signature. It is not a very easy thing for the cleverest man, who is not a professional expert, to decide upon the authenticity of his own autograph. There it was. Gilbert Monckton looked at the familiar signature, and tried in vain to find some flaw in it. If it was a forgery, it was a very skilful one. The lawyer perfectly remembered the date of the will which he had witnessed, and the kind of paper upon which it had been written. The date and the paper of this corresponded with that recollection.

The body of the will was in the handwriting of the clerk himself. It was written upon three sheets of foolscap paper, and the signatures of the testator and the two witnesses were repeated at the bottom of every page. Every one of the three autographs differed from the others in some trifling point, and this circumstance, small in itself, had considerable influence upon Gilbert Monckton.

“If this will had been a forgery, prepared by Launcelot Darrell, the signatures would have been fac-similes of each other,” thought the lawyer; “that is a mistake which forgers almost always fall into. They forget that a man very rarely signs his name twice alike. They get hold of one autograph and stereotype it.”

What was he to think, then? If this will was genuine, Eleanor’s accusation must be a falsehood. Could he believe this? Could he believe that his wife was a jealous and vindictive woman, capable of inventing a lie in order to revenge herself upon the infidelity of the man she had loved? To believe this would be most everlasting misery. Yet how could Gilbert Monckton think otherwise, if the will was genuine? Everything hinged upon that, and every proof was wanting against Launcelot Darrell. The housekeeper, Mrs. Jepcott, declared most distinctly that nobody had entered the dead man’s room or touched the keys upon the table by the bed. This alone, if the woman’s word was to be depended upon, gave the lie to Eleanor’s story.

But this was not all. The will was in every particular the very opposite of such a will as would be likely to be the work of a forger.

It contained legacies to old friends of the dead man whom he had not himself seen for twenty years, and whose very names must have been unknown to Launcelot Darrell. It was the will of a man whose mind lived almost entirely in the past. There was a gold snuff-box bequeathed “to my friend Peter Sedgewick, who was stroke in the Magdalen boat at Henley-on-the-Thames, fifty-seven years ago, when I was six in the same boat;” there was an onyx shirt-pin left “to my old boon companion Henry Laurence, who dined with me at the Beefsteak Club with George Vane and Richard Brinsley Sheridan on my birthday.” The will was full of personal recollections dated fifty years back; and how was it possible that Launcelot Darrell could have fabricated such a will; when by Eleanor’s own admission he had no access to the genuine document until he came to substitute the forgery after his uncle’s death? The forgery must therefore, Gilbert Monckton argued, have been prepared while the young man was in utter ignorance as to the tenor of the actual will, according to Eleanor’s story; and this, the lawyer reasoned, was proof conclusive against his wife.

Launcelot could not have fabricated such a will as this. This will, therefore, was genuine, and Eleanor’s accusation was only prompted by a sudden burst of jealous rage, which had made her almost indifferent to consequences. Mr. Monckton examined the signatures again and again, and then, looking very sharply at the clerk, said, in a low voice:

“The body of this will is in your handwriting, I believe, Mr. Lamb?”

“It is, sir?”

“Can you swear that this is the genuine document; the will which you wrote and witnessed?”

“Most decidedly,” the clerk answered, with a look of astonishment.

“You have no suspicion whatever as to its authenticity?”

“No, sir, none! Have you any suspicion, Mr. Monckton?” he added, after a moment’s pause.

The lawyer sighed heavily.

“No,” he said, giving the paper back to the clerk; “I believe the will is genuine.”

Just at this moment there was a stir in the assembly, and Gilbert Monckton turned round to see what was taking place.

It was Mrs. Jepcott, the housekeeper, who was saying something to which everybody listened intently.

The reason of this attention which the housekeeper’s smallest word received from every member of that assembly, was the fact that she held a paper in her hand. Every eye was fixed upon this paper. It might be a codicil revoking the will, and making an entirely new disposition of the property.

A faint red flush began to light up the wan cheeks of the two old maids, and Launcelot Darrell grew more livid than death. But it was not a codicil; it was only a letter written by Maurice de Crespigny, and addressed to his three nieces.

“The night before my poor dear master died,” the housekeeper said, “I was sitting up with him all alone, and he called me to him, and he told me to fetch him his dressing-gown, which he’d been wearing all through his illness, whenever he sat up; and I fetched it; and he took a sealed letter out of the breast-pocket, and he said to me, ‘Jepcott, when my Will is read, I expect my three nieces will be very much disappointed, and will think I have not treated them fairly; so I’ve written them a letter, begging them not to be angry with me after I’m dead and gone; and I want you to keep it, and take care of it, until the Will has been read, and then give it to my eldest niece, Sarah, to read aloud to her two sisters in the presence of everybody.’ And this is the letter, Miss,” added Mrs. Jepcott, handing the sealed letter to Sarah de Crespigny.

“Thank God!” thought Gilbert Monckton, “I shall know now whether the will is genuine. If it is a fabrication, this letter must bring detection upon the forger.”