‘I’m aware of that,’ said Cornelius, ‘but it nevertheless served to concentrate the mind. You see, I still rise at six o’clock every morning, but as I no longer have an office to go to, I spend many self-indulgent hours considering how to distribute my wealth now that Millie can no longer be the main beneficiary.’
Cornelius took another long puff of his cigar before continuing. ‘For the past month I have been considering those around me – my relatives, friends, acquaintances and employees – and I began to think about the way they have always treated me, which caused me to wonder which of them would show the same amount of devotion, attention and loyalty if I were not worth millions, but was in fact a penniless old man.’
‘I have a feeling I’m in check,’ said Frank, with a laugh.
‘No, no, my dear friend,’ said Cornelius. ‘You are absolved from any such doubts. Otherwise I would not be sharing these confidences with you.’
‘But are such thoughts not a little unfair on your immediate family, not to mention . . .’
‘You may be right, but I don’t wish to leave that to chance. I have therefore decided to find out the truth for myself, as I consider mere speculation to be unsatisfactory.’ Once again, Cornelius paused to take a puff of his cigar before continuing. ‘So indulge me for a moment while I tell you what I have in mind, for I confess that without your cooperation it will be impossible for me to carry out my little subterfuge. But first allow me to refill your glass.’ Cornelius rose
from his chair, picked up his friend’s empty goblet and walked to the sideboard.
‘As I was saying,’ continued Cornelius, passing the refilled glass back to Frank, ‘I have recently been wondering how those around me would behave if I were penniless, and I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way to find out.’
Frank took a long gulp before enquiring, ‘What do you have in mind? A fake suicide perhaps?’
‘Not quite as dramatic as that,’ replied Cornelius. ‘But almost, because – ’ he paused again ‘ – I intend to declare myself bankrupt.’ He stared through the haze of smoke, hoping to observe his friend’s immediate reaction. But, as so often in the past, the old solicitor remained inscrutable, not least because, although his friend had just made a bold move, he knew the game was far from over.
He pushed a pawn tentatively forward. ‘How do you intend to go about that?’ he asked.
‘Tomorrow morning,’ replied Cornelius, ‘I want you to write to the five people who have the greatest claim on my estate: my brother Hugh, his wife Elizabeth, their son Timothy, my sister Margaret, and finally my housekeeper Pauline.’
‘And what will be the import of this letter?’ asked Frank, trying not to sound too incredulous.
‘You will explain to all of them that, due to an unwise investment I made soon after my wife’s death, I now find myself in debt. In fact, without their help I may well be facing bankruptcy.’
‘But . . .’ protested Frank.
Cornelius raised a hand. ‘Hear me out,’ he pleaded, ‘because your role in this real-life game could prove crucial. Once you have convinced them that they can no longer expect anything from me, I intend to put the second phase of my plan into operation, which should prove conclusively whether they really care for me, or simply for the prospect of my wealth.’
‘I can’t wait to learn what you have in mind,’ said Frank.
Cornelius swirled the brandy round in his glass while he collected his thoughts.
‘As you are well aware, each of the five people I have named has at some time in the past asked me for a loan. I have never required anything in writing, as I have always considered the repayment of these debts to be a matter of trust. These loans range from ￡100,000 to my brother Hugh to purchase the lease for his shop – which I understand is doing quite well – to my housekeeper Pauline, who borrowed ￡500 for a deposit on a secondhand car. Even young Timothy needed ￡1,000 to pay off his university loan, and as he seems to be progressing well in his chosen profession, it should not be too much to ask him – like all of the others – to repay his debt.’
‘And the second test?’ enquired Frank.
‘Since Millie’s death, each of them has performed some little service for me, which they have always insisted they enjoyed carrying out, rather than it being a chore. I’m about to find out if they are willing to do the same for a penniless old man.’
‘But how will you know . . .’ began Frank.
‘I think that will become obvious as the weeks go by. And in any case, there is a third test, which I believe will settle the matter.’
Frank stared across at his friend. ‘Is there any point in trying to talk you out of this crazy idea?’ he asked.
‘No, there is not,’ replied Cornelius without hesitation. ‘I am resolved in this matter, although I accept that I cannot make the first move, let alone bring it to a conclusion, without your cooperation.’
‘If it is truly what you want me to do, Cornelius, then I shall carry out your instructions to the letter, as I have always done in the past. But on this occasion there must be one proviso.’
‘And what might that be?’ asked Cornelius.
‘I shall not charge a fee for this commission, so that I will be able to attest to anyone who should ask that I have not benefited from your shenanigans.’
‘No “buts”, old friend. I made a handsome profit from my original shareholding when you sold the company. You must consider this a small attempt to say thank you.’