A Romance of Lake Wakatipu
The Faro-table—A Hebrew named Isaac, or old Iak—Sam Perkins, the Little Old Man with a Grizzly Beard—How Josiah Begg's Will got to Otago—An Irregular Marriage in Scotland—The Story of a Celebrated Lawsuit—"Entitled to Succeed quâ Relict."
The faro-table was still a popular institution in California. The sums staked were not so large as they had been during the first days of the goldfields discoveries; still, they were sufficient to make the play exciting, and involved not a few of its dupes in ruin. Many of these establishments were run on a kind of joint-stock or syndicate system. A number of men clubbed together and set up one of their number, supposed to be well-versed in the art, the profits and losses being equally shared in by the whole. In that way fortunes were made and incomes eked out by persons whom it was never suspected would have lent themselves to such questionable devices.
Our friend the house-steward was embarked in one of these speculations. He eked out a respectable salary from Mr. Josiah Begg by "standing in" as one of six in the gambling hell conducted by a certain Hebrew named Isaac, better known amongst the fraternity as old Iak. The establishment was known as a resort for questionable characters; indeed, the most reputable part of its patrons was the miner who came down to town for a spell.
Although not in high favour with the digging class, Iak was well known amongst them, and while they remained in town they made his house a sort of rallying point, so that when they lost the run of each other they knew where to go to meet again.page 64
These spells in town and periodical visits to old Iak had the result of clearing out not a few, and, being unable to defray the expense of their return journey, Iak had always on hand an assortment of this class waiting the opportunity for making a rise and getting back again.
One little old man with a grizzly beard, named Sam Perkins, had remained on hand for a considerable time. Being, as Iak described him, a crafty old fellow, he had succeeded in making himself useful as a runner or tout for the establishment. In that way he earned a precarious living—a bare subsistence—but not sufficient to start him off again. According to his own account, a few dollars were no good to him. He would have to get sufficient to take him out of the country altogether. He was too well known, he said, on the Californian Goldfields ever to think of doing any good.
The house-steward, now to a great extent relieved from his duties in Josiah Begg's household, spent a good deal of his time in this establishment, of which, as already stated, he was a sleeping partner. He took no part in the active work of the place, and, beyond certain conferences held with his partner Iak, he was merely an onlooker.
Although these conferences were strictly private and confidential, we are enabled to say that one of them had direct reference to the little old man with the grizzly beard.
"Give him fifty 'quid,' and the will soldered up in its tin case, and pack him away to New Zealand," said the old Jew. "I know that's where he wants to shape for. He wants to get to the new diggings. He's a crafty old dog, and I am quite sure the prospect of getting another fifty out of you when this law-case is over will make him stick hard and fast to the will, and, if it's ever wanted again, I'll guarantee to get scent of him, and the will too."
"What we want is to have it put well out of the way in the meantime, and, if we succeed in these law proceedings, we never want to hear of it more. If not, we must know where to lay hands on it." So spake the house-steward, and from these remarks it will be gathered the will referred to was that of his late master, of which, with the connivance of the housekeeper, he got possession on the evening of Mr. Begg's death.page 65
The idea was to get the will carried out of the country, so that no knowledge of it might remain. At the same time, it was deemed highly inexpedient to destroy or lose all trace of it, as, in the event of certain proceedings at law failing, it would be required to substantiate other claims which, Miss Stewart and her confrère considered, might be turned to their own personal advantage.
The negotiations referred to above resulted in an arrangement being come to, and the "little old man with the grizzly beard," with the will and a fifty-pound note in his possession, were, in a few days thereafter, on board ship en route for Otago, New Zealand, then a great centre of attraction for the digging population of the world.
In that explanation two difficulties are virtually cleared up—first, as to how Josiah Begg's will found its way to the Wakatipu; and, second, as to how the report got about that he (Mr. Begg) died intestate.
In view of the last-named fact, or, rather, fallacy, three separate actions-at-law arose. One was instituted by two brothers, residents in England, who averred that their deceased father had been cousin-german to Mr. Begg, and that they, being his next-of-kin, were entitled to succeed to the estate. The other claimant was Miss Stewart, who now alleged she was the lawful wife of Mr. Begg, by virtue of an irregular, though binding, marriage contracted in Scotland a few years previously. The third claimant was the Public Trustee, who claimed possession of the estate in the meantime, with the view of administering and preserving the same for behoof of whom it might concern.
Being merely an ad interim application, the Judge sanctioned the Public Trustee's appointment, and directed the other claimants to fight out their respective contentions.
By dint of Registrar's certificates, excerpts from births, deaths, and marriages records, together with certain notarial instruments, the two brother claimants had no great difficulty in establishing the relationship, but, before getting the coveted possessions, it still remained for them to contest Miss Stewart's alleged marriage-rights. Her assertions were that, on a certain specified date, Mr. Bsgg had, in presence of certain parties, page 66during their visit to Scotland, acknowledged her to be his lawful wife; that they subsequently visited various parts of Scotland, and lived on that footing. Returning to San Francisco, the relations were kept secret, but still they were maintained, the motive for secrecy being a whim or caprice on deceased's part, arising from the fact that he was supposed to be the father of an illegitimate female child residing somewhere in Great Britain.
The ex-house-steward, being appealed to, made certain affidavits which went to show that Miss Stewart exercised in the household of deceased prerogatives superior to those of a mere housekeeper; and others besides the house-steward were able to testify to the same effect.
On that evidence long debates ensued as to whether or not an irregular marriage, contracted in Scotland, could be held valid in the United States of America. Some of the Judges held that it could, others that it could not; but, on appeal to the Supreme Tribunal, it was ruled by a majority that they were bound to give effect to such marriage.
That, let it be understood, was merely a preliminary step in the proceedings. Although favourable to Miss Stewart, it still rested with her to make good her allegations of marriage by legal proof. For that purpose Commissions were forwarded to Scotland, and lawyers of high standing employed, both to take the evidence and pronounce an opinion upon the facts as to whether or not they established a marriage by the law of Scotland.
Strange to say, the evidence adduced by these Commissions entirely corroborated Miss Stewart's version of what occurred in Scotland, and, from the number and scattered location of the witnesses bearing testimony thereto, it is hardly possible to imagine any subtle understanding could have existed amongst them.
In one instance an old hotel-register was produced with the name of Mr. and Mrs. Josiah Begg, and, on being shown the photograph of the alleged Mrs. Begg, it was identified as the lady referred to in the register.
Counsel learned in the law gave it as their opinion the facts adduced in evidence were quite sufficient to establish the marriage page 67by promise de præsenti aut subsequenti copulâ, as provided for by the laws of Scotland.
Under examination for the defence, some of the witnesses varied slightly as to dates, and even circumstances; but these variations, considering the time that had elapsed, were not considered material.
The story of this celebrated lawsuit reached Crossford, and amongst others who took interest in its progress was the old Hamilton lawyer, and the burky callant, his sister's son. The latter had now been assumed a partner in the business of his uncle. They espoused the cause of the two brothers, mentioning the arrangements made for the natural daughter Mary, which arrangements had, to their knowledge, been faithfully carried out, as also Josiah Begg's intimation to them of his intention to leave the girl sole heir to bis property. They saw nothing to lead them to suppose Josiah had the slightest intention of marrying; on the contrary, they were fully convinced he had no such intention.
Such was the nature of the evidence given by David Barclay and his junior partner before the Commission; but, still, it was indirect evidence, and as such it had not the weight of the direct testimony tendered on the other side.
On the case coming again before the Courts in San Francisco, with this mass of evidence before them, the Judges could do nothing but declare Jean Stewart was duly married to the now deceased Josiah Begg, in accordance with the law of Scotland thereunto made and provided, and that, as the said marriage was binding in the United States of America, she, the said Jean Stewart, was entitled to succeed, quâ relict, to the means and estate of which he was possessed at the time of his death.
An appeal against that decision was lodged, but no one relied much upon its success. It had, however, the effect of hanging up the final decision for some time longer, and in the meantime Bill Fox's discovery at the Wakatipu, through the instrumentality of Duncan Campbell, got upon the scene, although there still remains a good deal to be told before its arrival can be formally announced.