Coming soon to Knocklofty as a multi-part eBook
The Brasenose Bequest, by Australian author Edwin Leane, is a tale of a mysterious inheritance and the secrets locked deep in the fabric of a rotting mansion in the old goldfields of Ballarat, interwoven with shadowy intrigue and spiced with a fiery romance.
The first section will be offered free to whet your appetite. Once you’re hooked, you’ll be able to buy the next installments at a price well below that of a printed book.
And here’s how the scene is set:
Henry Puckle was waiting for me at the top of the stairs in his Lydiard Street chambers, ajig with suppressed excitement. “Good morning, good morning,” he cried, dancing from foot to foot in an absurd, elephantine sort of way. “Good to be alive on such a beautiful day, don’t you think?”
I peered up at him in disbelief and the beginnings of a bright anger. I had called on Henry Puckle, B.Comm, LL.B (Hons) by appointment for the reading of the last Will and Testament of Hugo Horatio Brasenose, friend and mentor, and a man only newly reunited with his maker.
‘Coronary failure’ was the cause of death according to the local GP – very quick, very unexpected. Brasenose had retired early one night and had been found with an open book on the floor next to his bed and unfinished glass of whiskey on his bedside table. The physician was of the opinion Brasenose may have actually drifted off to sleep before he suffered the fatal attack. Why else the abandoned nightcap? Why no attempt to skewer a page with a bookmark? Not that any of it mattered; my dear friend, a man I valued above all others, simply never awoke.
“Oh dear,” said the little solicitor, hand flying to his mouth. “That’s hardly appropriate given the circumstances, is it? I do apologise. Quite unforgiveable. But come in, Mr Neale, come in. I’ve just made a pot of tea and I’m sure you’d like a cuppa before we get down to business.”
I was not surprised to find myself the only person summoned to the reading. Brasenose had often told me he was alone in the world – “the last of the line, old boy. When I die the name dies with me. Not such a bad thing at that. Bloody silly moniker. Exit ‘Copper Conk.’ That’s what they used to call me at school in England, you know.”
As Puckle fussed with the teapot I stole a look at the document on his desk. Assuming it was the Will it seemed extraordinarily brief – barely a page in length. But that was hardly surprising either. Brasenose owned a rambling, rundown mansion, Nether Parkley, on the outskirts of Ballarat near Lake Wendouree, some Oriental rugs, a few pieces of decent furniture, numerous untidy stacks of books, a bicycle, a wardrobe full of rumpled linen suits and work clothes, and that was about it as far as I was aware.
He had few if any close friends other than myself, despite the fact he had lived in Australia for more than 30 years. He would have turned 80 if he’d survived another three weeks but looked much younger, boasting the sort of lithe, wiry physique and angular good looks that I had always associated with the heroes of Boys’ Own annuals.
Hugo Brasenose and I became nodding acquaintances when we encountered one another on out-of-town sketching expeditions. By extraordinary coincidence we often found we’d chosen the same beauty spot or subject matter to paint – a situation that caused a degree of good-natured banter and, eventually, a diffident, almost shy suggestion on his part that we join forces for ‘five o’clockers’ when we’d finished our creative efforts for the day.
Over time, these little drinks sessions became a regular and important part of both our lives. Occasionally we were joined by my cousin Kathleen who, I was fond of telling her, darted in and out of my life like a migrating swallow. She lived with her parents in County Kerry, Ireland, but spent the better part of each year roaming the world on photographic assignments for her agency.
Kathleen O’Connell had the kind of prettiness that you seem to find only in Ireland – flame-red hair, clear green eyes and skin so pale and fragile you instinctively felt it would be a sin to expose it to the sun, especially the harsh light of the Australian bush. Teamed with this was a vivacity and passion for living that often made me feel exhausted, despite the fact we were much the same age.
I was half-convinced I was in love with her but had never dared to confess my infatuation. She claimed Australia was her favourite place (“mainly because you live there,” she’d say with a wink) and had spent the past six months recording outback Aboriginal cave paintings on film.
Kathleen seemed to be the only woman with whom Brasenose was capable of any sort of intimacy, though he was always terribly correct in her company and unfailingly polite and courteous.
I was devastated when I learnt of my old friend’s death (the body was discovered by his once-a-week cleaning lady), the loss made even more acute by Kathleen’s absence on yet another photo shoot. Because I was the nearest thing he had to next of kin I assumed responsibility for all the funeral arrangements, suffering agonies of guilt and embarrassment over my inability to afford a more expensive coffin. I was jobless, yet again, and eking out a fairly miserable existence on a government pension, the borderline poverty occasionally alleviated by the sale of one of my paintings.
Brasenose had been buried in the least disreputable of his suits (“I want to make the final journey in my ‘Sanders of The River’ kit, old chap,” he once told me. “You’ll see to it, won’t you?”). The remnants of his wardrobe would almost certainly be offered to a local op shop.
“Well, let’s begin,” said the avuncular Mr Puckle, who seemed to be in high good humour after his initial indiscretion. “It’s not a complicated Will, since you are Hugo Brasenose’s sole beneficiary, apart from emoluments to Frank Billings, his bank manager, and my good self. Very handsome emoluments, I might add,” he chuckled. “Very handsome indeed! But apart from those, ah, considerations, there are, in fact, only two principal items in the bequest. Nether Parkley, the house, is now your property, including all chattels. But there is a curious codicil: you are (a) required to live in the house for at least 10 months of every year, and (b) you are not permitted to dispose of the property in your lifetime.
“If these conditions are not fulfilled, you forfeit the second and most significant portion of the bequest – the funds Hugo Brasenose had on deposit at the Commonwealth Bank here in Ballarat.”
With that, Henry Puckle leaned across the desk, beaming with pleasure, and extended a soft, pink, well-manicured hand. “Congratulations, Mr Neale,” he chortled. “This is as big a day in my life as it is in yours. I have never before shaken the hand of an instant millionaire, let alone a millionaire five times over!”
The solicitor’s pleasure increased, if anything, as the colour drained from my face. “I don’t imagine you’ll have any difficulty satisfying the terms of the codicil,” he said. “That being the case, permit me to formally hand you the title to Nether Parkley and, of course, the keys.
“I must confess I’m intrigued by this one,” he added, fingering a large and ornate key on a chain of otherwise mundane hardware. “Perhaps it unlocks a treasure chest in the basement of the mansion, or a secret room containing a skeleton!”
Puckle rocked with mirth, which he did his best to stifle with a large paisley handkerchief, but I was still stunned by the enormity of the bequest and sat frozen in my chair as I sipped my tea. Brasenose had lived very frugally, though there always seemed to be enough cash on hand to keep a cupboard in his study well stocked with Irish whiskey. “It would be a pretty dull existence without a Jammies at the end of the day,” he used to stay. “Come on, old boy, bottoms up!”
Where had the millions come from? Was it the residue of an old family fortune? Or perhaps Brasenose had been a ‘remittance man,’ bundled off to the colonies with money in his pockets on the tacit understanding he fade into obscurity. Then again, could my good friend have been a master blackmailer? Ballarat had once been the richest goldfield in the world and many a dark deed was woven into the fabric of local society.
What had Brasenose discovered?