IT WAS a simple will. For a rich man’s will, the will of Vernon Arlis Landingham could hardly have been simpler. There were small bequests to a few old servants and a generous one to Sam and Belle Jones, the couple who had looked after him for the last fifteen years. The rest of the estate was to be divided equally between his two sons, George Purvey and Edwin White Landingham.
Everyone in the room looked at me with expressions which I interpreted as ranging from greedy delight through shock to simple curiosity. Had the old man disinherited his favorite, his adored grandson, James Arlis Landingham, me? I smiled at them, with my secret knowledge of surprises to come.
My grandfather had died in his sleep four days ago at the age of 77. The huge funeral had taken place yesterday. Today we had met in his lawyer’s office for the reading of his will.
In addition to Wilbur Arthur, grandfather’s youthful lawyer, there were nine of us sitting side-by-side in chairs drawn into a semi-circle about the old desk that Wilbur’s father had used in this law office for more than fifty years.
There was my Uncle George, the eldest son, a thin, dapper 51; his wife Edna, a tall, gaunt, sour-faced woman who towered above her husband; and their only child, George, Junior, a flabby looking, 23-year-old boy who was only slightly taller than his father. Uncle Edwin, the second son, was 49, pink, fat, and bald. He wore a goatee that was probably intended to add some interest to his face but merely looked ridiculous. His wife, Virginia, was an over-stuffed, grand-dame looking character befitting her assumed role as leader in the society of our little city, Mondeville. Their two oldest girls, Selma at 25 and Lillian at 23, seemed to have no purpose in life except to emulate their mother; though so far, even with their prospective money and their evident good looks, they had been unable to make a suitable marriage.
The youngest child, Susan, at 17 was plain compared with her sisters, but there was an eager sparkle about her that made her seem foreign to her family. She was already, to the surprise and almost consternation of her father and mother, a talented painter. She worked at painting with the intensity found in people who are driven by their talent. She was the only one of the bunch that I considered to be worth the powder to blow them up.
I was present as the heir to my dead father’s share of the estate. My father, Jonathan Arlis Landingham, the youngest son, would now have been 46, but he had been killed, along with my mother, in an automobile accident fifteen years ago when I was three. I had been taken by my grandparents to raise. When my grandmother had died five years later, my grandfather had assumed sole responsibility for my upbringing. Whatever the problems might have been in such an arrangement, the fact was that my grandfather and I got along swimmingly. He was a very patient and indulgent man when I was very young, and as I got older we grew to respect and enjoy each other, so I felt that though I had missed out on parents, there was plenty for me to be thankful for.
My grandfather, Sam and Belle Jones, and I had lived for the past ten years in one end of the huge old house in Landingham Court. The rest of the house was shut up and empty. Landingham Court dead-ended in a large circle, and the mansion was perpendicular to the street at its end. On each side parallel to the street were the houses of George and Edwin. There were no other houses on the street.
The whole lawn area, front and back, was continuous for the three houses. Behind the mansion there were flower gardens, a vegetable garden, several lightly wooded acres, and a service road which cut through from another street and led to the rear of each of the houses. The grounds were all cared for by Sam Jones and by daily men hired by him when needed. Everything had the well-cared-for look, the special look of money. The street was public, but had such a strong enclave characteristic that people entering its 1000-foot length felt as if they were trespassing on private domain and tended to stay out unless they had business there. On the other hand, the street was kept very clean and if a pot-hole appeared, a city crew was soon there to repair it. One of the countless advantages of money and influence is this concern about your comfort and well-being.
Forming a backdrop to the enclave, the slope of an old weathered mountain started about half a mile back and rose to a height of about 1300 feet. The peak directly behind the mansion was known as Old Roundtop. The slope was not really very steep and the trails up the mountain were easy to negotiate. My grandfather, up to the day he died, roamed over the mountain on an almost daily basis. It was his way of keeping in touch he had said. Old Roundtop was also one of my favorite haunts for photography, hunting, and plain walking.
Mr. Arthur opened a manila folder and placed the will in it. Chairs were creaking as everyone began to stir, and whispered conferences were starting among the eight family members. I discovered that Mr. Arthur was furtively watching me. Somehow he knew the meeting was not finished; that more was to come. So I said, “Mr. Arthur, I have a letter here that my grandfather wished to have read by you at this meeting.” I took out of my jacket pocket a long envelope of crackly bond and handed it to him. “He told me that when he died I was to get this letter from a ‘secret’ compartment of his desk and hand it over to you, unopened at this meeting. He rewrote it every year and reminded me on my birthdays since I was a small child.” As formally as I knew how, I said, “I am here and now discharging that responsibility.”
The lawyer turned the envelope over and stared at the sealing wax. His caution led him to ask George and Edwin to verify that the envelope had not been opened. Warily, they said there were ways to open such an envelope without leaving any indication. “For God’s sakes, open it and get on with it,” Edwin nervously urged.
The lawyer cut through the flap of the envelope with his fake-dagger letter opener and took out several sheets of paper. “It’s dated last month,” he said. “I’ll just read it aloud, now.”
“To my sons, George and Edwin:
“It has been a long time since either of you has paid serious attention to me or to what I said. If you had done so, this letter would not have been necessary. I will guarantee that this reading will, before it is finished, have your complete, undivided attention.
“I desired to accomplish several things in secrecy and in a way no court could challenge. I knew, for instance, if I disinherited you that you would contest the will, and because there is a good sum of money involved, lawyers would keep it in the courts for years. Further, I did not want to rely on young Arthur to keep it secret. I understand very well the pressures that money can exert, and I could not afford the possibility that he might secretly inform you to curry favor. If his father were still living, it could have been an entirely different procedure.”
“That is libelous,” expostulated Mr. Arthur.
“Wilbur, cut the foolishness and read the letter,” said George.
“Anyway,” said Edwin, “you can hardly sue him.”
“He had no cause to distrust me,” protested Mr. Arthur, still smarting, but he lowered his eyes to the letter and resumed his reading:
“I am sure you have noted, probably with pleasure, that James is not mentioned in my will. I doubt if you will be pleased by the reason. James already has his share of the estate. Over the past ten years, I have transferred to him by gift approximately one-third the value of my estate. For secrecy, the funds were deposited in a Pittsburg bank and complete control has always resided with James. For legal purposes, until he is twenty-one, the bank will serve as James’s guardian.
“I have consulted a law firm in Pittsburg about this and am assured that short of having me declared incompetent there is no legal action available to you to cause James any difficulty.
“If you are tempted by some later parts of this letter to try such an action please remember that it would have to be heard under either Judge Havermill or Judge Larkin. You may know that I have played chess once a week with Fred Havermill for over twenty years and you know that Bill Larkin and I are often fishing companions. It seems to me unlikely that a man I frequently beat in chess will be willing to declare me incompetent and Bill Larkin believes that outwitting fish is the height of mental achievement and I’ve outfished him for many years.
“I have one other grandchild upon whom I look with pride – Susan. I have established a trust fund for her that will make it possible for her to continue her art studies. Details can be obtained by Susan by writing to Mr. J. P. Whittier, Mellon National Bank, Pittsburg. I have done my utmost, and I think successfully, to make it impossible for Edwin or anyone to subvert control of it from Susan.
“I was once much more bitter toward you, George and Edwin, than I am now. I have come to the conclusion that the most debilitating influence that one can undergo is to be a putative heir but to have to wait too long for the inheritance. The expectation of money robs one of drive in the early years, and one gets in the habit of someone bailing him out of financial difficulties so he never develops the proper caution about money. Also, the expectation of money causes one to live continually beyond his means. To compound the difficulties easy credit is available to him.
“I did not have this problem because my father died when I was nineteen, and I had to take charge of his estate and struggle to keep the business going. I was never able to continue my education because of the necessity to manage the mill. But I had no choice and can take no credit; I had to be serious about my work.
“I have long thought that your major failure, both of you, is the lack of anything serious in your life. How could Edwin have flunked out of law school? How does it happen that George is the only M.D. in the country whose practice doesn’t bring in enough for him to live on? Not only could neither of you be serious about your work; you could not even be serious about your play. At work and at play you are both dabblers.
“I know now that I should have either given you your share of the estate when you were twenty-one or disinherited you at that time. As it was, you remained in limbo for decades waiting for me to die, becoming ever more dependent on my handouts, and, in the end, hating me for your dependency and for living too long. By the time I understood the situation you were past changing. I apologize to you for not knowing better.
“I know that by now I have thoroughly bored you so I will give you a little preview of the remainder of this letter by asking a question with my word that you will find the answer to be of considerable interest. Here’s the question: What is the purpose of the brick structure I have been working on in my back yard for ten years?
“I started building it for amusement but when I noticed that your interest in me was low that it aroused no curiosity, I decided I would make it of interest to you. I assume I now have your attention.
“You will find the visible part of my estate to be very much less than you are expecting. If I had not the feeling that I share the blame for your lack of development, it would be even less. You will find that there is little you can put your hands on except for the home property containing our three houses. At worst you will have to sell this property and divide the proceeds. It is obviously valuable property and your share may seem like a lot of money to you. Both of you have sponged off me so much you do not have any notion of the cost of living. You will not be able to hand me your utility bills nor will you have my pantry as a free and inexhaustible supermarket, so I warn you that if you live in the style to which you have become accustomed, I estimate the money will last six to seven years.
“What happened to all the money? That’s what you are asking now. Very simply let me say: I have hidden the money and I’m going to give you a reasonable chance to find it.
“For a time I was puzzled how I could hide a large amount of money and yet benefit some worthy cause if it was never found. I finally thought of a way to do it. Ten years ago I started converting cash into bearer bonds. A broker in a distant city bought them for me. All the bonds are either college building fund bonds or municipal park land purchase bonds. There are exactly twenty bonds each of $100,000 face value hidden in a waterproof container (plastic to prevent the use of a metal detector) somewhere on Old Roundtop. I don’t think you can find it without instructions. If you are unable to find the instructions the net result will be that I have donated $2 million for good causes – actually a better use of the money than leaving it to you, but I wanted to give you one more chance to be serious about something.
“By now you may have begun to suspect that the instructions are connected with my brick structure – my monument as I always called it to myself. I doubt if any of you except Jim has closely examined my monument. I started it ten years ago simply to learn bricklaying because I had always wanted to try it. At present you will find it is about twenty feet by forty feet and about four feet high. Unlike most brick structures, it is solid brick except for the mortar. I estimate that it contains roughly 75,000 bricks.
“The instructions for finding the bond cache are stamped on an aluminum disc about the size of a quarter. This disc is hidden in this structure.
“I originally chose aluminum because I thought it would be transparent to X-rays if you tried X-raying the bricks, but I later decided I could not be sure that some sonic device might be used, so you are informed that there are some 20,000 such discs in the monument only one of which contains the instructions. My friend, Bill Shankle, who owns the brickyard arranged for me to insert about half of the discs into the cut clay before the bricks were baked; the rest of them are in the mortar between the bricks.
“You may be clever enough to outwit me, but the way I figure it, you are going to have to disassemble my monument, break up each brick, and examine each piece of mortar until you find the instruction disc. It could be a long, hard job, and I don’t see how you can hire it done because the secret is bound to get out and everyone will know that possession of the disc is worth a fortune.
“Vernon Arlis Landingham.”
All of a sudden it seemed as if everyone in the room but Mr. Arthur and I were talking at once. Both George and Edwin were demanding advice from Mr. Arthur. With some exasperation, but still plenty of money-induced deference, Mr. Arthur said, “At this point, I am not your lawyer. If I were, I should certainly say that I don’t see any possible legal action that will do you any good. No court order can find the money for you and that, right now, is the heart of the problem. What I would advise, George and Edwin, is that you immediately have me draw up a partnership agreement between you in which you agree to share the money equally when you do find it. Remember, it is not likely that both of you will find the disc. The one who finds it could easily keep all of the money. That is what I would urge you to do, just now.”
As the hubbub went on, I suddenly had a vision. Last fall, one beautiful sunny afternoon, I had been up on Old Roundtop hunting squirrels. I was sitting on a stump, not moving a muscle, with my .22 rifle cradled in my arms and my eyes searching through the brown, red, and yellow leaves of the tree tops when out the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of red on the path on the other side of the gully. Another flash of red and my grandfather, wearing a bright red sport shirt, was standing in a clear stretch of the path about 200 yards from me. I started to yell a greeting to him but something in his manner stopped me. He was standing almost as immobile as I was sitting, and he was closely examining the surrounding area. I watched as he carefully and deliberately scanned the mountainside. I was directly behind a bushy young cedar tree from his viewpoint. I could see clearly through the bush, but I knew he could not see me. I really did not think of it as spying on him but was simply held back by his peculiar manner.
Suddenly he turned and strode rapidly along the trail. It was easy to follow his progress as his red shirt came in and out of view. When he came to a small waterfall known as Falling Rock, he ducked behind the waterfall and disappeared from view. It must have been five minutes until he reappeared and went on along the trail and out of sight.
I had, at that time, puzzled briefly over the matter and put it from my mind. But now in the lawyer’s office, I thought about Falling Rock. The water fell about seven feet forming a thin curtain about nine feet wide. Behind this curtain of water was a six-foot deep cavern whose walls looked almost artificially constructed of rock slabs. How easy it would be to remove one of these slabs, dig out a little space behind it, insert a container of bonds, replace the slab, and presto – safe as a bank vault.
“Well, well,” I thought, “Isn’t that interesting. What will I do about it?”
Hand set in Deepdene. Display type is Goudy Text with Lombardic Initials. Text stock is 60-lb. Patina; cover is Leatherfinish. Ink is Van Son 40904. Published by Jake Warner and 460 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.