The last will and testament

0

by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

   Mr. Stanley McCubbin, aged 65 years and having a thick shock of grey hair and a ruddy complexion, lived alone with his faithful mongrel dog on a large parcel of land which had been in his family for three generations, from the time his ancestors first came to the Township of Lanark Highlands from Scotland in 1888. While both his father and his grandfather had been in military service, using the property somewhat neglectfully as a place to hang their respective hats between postings, Mr. Stanley McCubbin had opted instead to become a respectable farmer.

In spite of the extremely rocky ground upon which the homestead was built, he succeeded (with the assistance of local hired hands) in cultivating almost the entire parcel. Like most serious farmers of his time, he had also become involved in municipal politics, serving with the continuing respect of his community as both Councillor and Warden. Mr. Stanley McCubbin warranted the term “country gentleman” in every sense of the expression. In addition to being industrious and clean-living (and an active and committed Presbyterian to boot), Mr. Stanley McCubbin was a warm and kind man, who was slow to anger (though he could become recalcitrant at times, but that disposition would eventually melt, even if his opinion did not).

Like most men of his character, Mr. Stanley McCubbin was innately modest. Though he had amassed and maintained extensive land holdings, outbuildings and equipment, though he had year after year dutifully plowed his earnings into investments on the advice of his local bank managers, and watched those investments grow significantly, and never spent money either extravagantly or foolishly, Mr. Stanley McCubbin did not think of himself as a rich man, just blessed and fortunate.

Yet in spite of all these commendable attributes and personal wealth, Mr. Stanley McCubbin daily pondered his state of affairs with no small element of despondency, for you see, he had no one in particular to whom to leave his Estate. Not having married, and being an only child, Mr. Stanley McCubbin felt quite alone in the world. With so much of his time having been consumed by personal business undertakings and work on Municipal Council, Mr. Stanley McCubbin had grown old almost imperceptibly, and, more to the point, without having developed any close friendships or alliances, at least of the nature to compel him to name another as beneficiary in his last will and testament.

As Mr. Stanley McCubbin was an organized man, it was inescapable that he should eventually contemplate the terms of his last will and testament. Had he been married, there is no doubt that his wife would have prompted him to do so far sooner in life, especially if he had had children. But that natural impetus was missing in Mr. Stanley McCubbin’s solitary life. Eventually, however, he recognized that the subject was not to be ignored any longer. Once he set his mind to something, it was imperative that its purpose should be fulfilled, and sooner than later.

Accordingly, one cloudy Wednesday morning in late September, as Mr. Stanley McCubbin sat at his kitchen table after having attended to his regular morning chores, sipping his coffee and absently thumbing his investment reports, he decided to call his lawyer (Mr. Arthur Cameron) to arrange to discuss his last will and testament. Mr. Arthur Cameron, whose office was in the nearby Town of Shipman Mills some seven miles away, could see him the following day at 2:00 p.m., so advised the telephonist to whom Mr. Stanley McCubbin spoke that day.

While for many people a visit to the office of one’s solicitor is not considered anything approaching a formal occasion, for Mr. Stanley McCubbin the exact opposite was so. Mr. Stanley McCubbin had in fact planned his wardrobe for the visit from the instant he gingerly set the telephone receiver back in its cradle following his call to Mr. Arthur Cameron’s office. Make no mistake, this appointment was to be conducted with the solemnity of any other ritual ceremony, much like a wedding or a funeral. Mr. Stanley McCubbin adopted the same sense of propriety when appearing in Council Chambers; and of course it was no accident that in this persuasion his solicitor was of the same mind (and of an age, too).

On Thursday afternoon, promptly at 2:00 p.m., Mr. Stanley McCubbin (dressed in a light grey suit, sporting a blue bow tie and wearing a fedora) appeared dutifully at the office of his solicitor, and as he passed through the old oak entrance door of the historic red brick building, the chimes of the grandfather clock in the waiting room struck the hour. With equal rigour, Mr. Arthur Cameron, hearing his Client arrive, came from the sanctum sanctorum at the rear of the office to greet Mr. Stanley McCubbin. He too was suitably dressed, though he wore suspenders and a large maroon tie. The two had been friends for many years, in addition to having maintained a very satisfactory solicitor-client relationship during the same period. Much of the work which Mr. Arthur Cameron had done for Mr. Stanley McCubbin involved real estate transactions, loan agreements with the bank, and settling the estates of his departed parents. Until now, however, the subject of Mr. Stanley McCubbin’s last will and testament had never surfaced, largely because Mr. Arthur Cameron knew instinctively that reclusive and independently-minded farmers cannot be pushed.

A warm greeting and the usual pleasantries were exchanged between the gentlemen, and they then retired to the office of Mr. Arthur Cameron, where Mr. Stanley McCubbin was invited with the wave of a hand to seat himself in one of two upholstered armchairs, while Mr. Arthur Cameron assumed his traditional (and ever so slightly higher) leather swivel chair behind his desk. As Mr. Stanley McCubbin carefully placed his fedora on the chair seat next to him, Mr. Arthur Cameron eyed him attentively, sensing that what was about to transpire, while not precipitous, was something of importance to Mr. Stanley McCubbin. In the seconds that elapsed before Mr. Stanley McCubbin began to speak, the atmosphere of Mr. Arthur Cameron’s richly appointed inner office became unusually still and oddly expansive. The office housed a collection of stuff which Mr. Arthur Cameron had very deliberately and selectively collected over the past forty years.

Mr. Arthur Cameron was senior Counsel in Town where there were now six other lawyers, though all the others, with one exception, were involved strictly in the handling of family law and related matters, something from which Mr. Arthur Cameron had distanced himself many, many years before in preference for a narrow solicitor’s practice in rural conveyancing, estate settlements and corporate law. Everything about his office spoke confidence and stability, the large black safe with the florid lettering on its door (“The Goldie & McCulloch Co., Limited, Galt”), the thick and ornate Persian rugs, the handmade oak letter basket, the bank of law books (admittedly dusty) against one entire wall and the collection of brass, paintings and artifacts. The place lent itself to the discussion of one’s private affairs.

   Not surprisingly, Mr. Stanley McCubbin had not come to Mr. Arthur Cameron’s office entirely unprepared. Indeed, Mr. Stanley McCubbin had spent considerable time of an evening in his tidy study at home, bathed in the cone of yellow light which poured from the ancient floor lamp beside his well-worn easy chair, debating in his own mind what he should and should not do with the disposition of his worldly wealth upon his demise. It was a trickier matter than he had first imagined. Without immediate or even distant relatives to consider, the task was made all the more demanding.   His first thought had been his neighbours, who, like many people in a rural farming community, had more than once assisted the elderly bachelor, helping for example to pull his vehicle one Christmas Eve from a snowbank at the side of his long laneway, or bringing him food when he had been ill, feeding the livestock, and assisting (for reasonable compensation, naturally) with annual haying and other field operations. Yet, as much as he appreciated and valued his neighbours, he at times harboured the uneasy feeling that they were very much awaiting his passing and anticipating being remembered. This unfortunate sentiment was likely the product of nothing more than the perfectly human trait of envy of those who are well-off, and the equally understandable hope that one might be rewarded by them for previous kindnesses.

Those who are in waiting for beneficence often neglect to see the need for deeper motivation in the benefactor. As kind and generous as one might be, the rich are seldom prompted to dispose of their wealth without very compelling and often singularly selfish reason. Mr. Stanley McCubbin was no exception.

When, finally, Mr. Stanley McCubbin began to speak, his voice though strong sounded oddly remote, almost detached, and Mr. Arthur Cameron was inclined to wonder whether Mr. Stanley McCubbin was pronouncing words which he had rehearsed for presentation to a larger audience. Mr. Stanley McCubbin began his dissertation with a question, obviously rhetorical (since it was unclear to whom the question was addressed, neither did he appear to expect an answer, nor did he wait for one). His question was, “Who deserves to inherit my Estate?”. Moving along without waiting for an answer, Mr. Stanley McCubbin then engaged for the next fifteen minutes or so in what appeared to Mr. Arthur Cameron to be a denunciation of entitlement by any living person to any particle of the goods and money which Mr. Stanley McCubbin might ever own. Mr. Stanley McCubbin’s enthusiasm on the point rather shocked Mr. Arthur Cameron, who had never known Mr. Stanley McCubbin to speak out so strongly against anything, nor frankly at such length.

When at last he finished the theatrical portion of the oration, Mr. Stanley McCubbin seemed to crumple and expire into the cushion of his chair, as though relieved of a great distress, his left arm limp upon the wooden armrest, his right arm hanging inert and undignified along the other side of the chair. Mr. Arthur Cameron hardly knew what to do at this point, whether to agree with him or whether to offer any opinion whatsoever on the subject. Mr. Arthur Cameron squirmed in his leather chair uncomfortably, causing the leather to squeak and thus break the dead silence which otherwise prevailed.

As a lawyer, Mr. Arthur Cameron felt it was well beyond the scope of his professional obligation to weigh in upon the entitlement of anyone as a beneficiary, except of course within the context of lawful dependency. As has so often been observed, lawyers are mere scribes, charged to take instructions, not give them, and to ensure that those instructions are carried out within the letter of the law, perhaps with some needed cajoling along the way, but seldom to opine upon who might be a deserving recipient in the broader moral context. Indeed the matter of entitlement as anything other than the desire of the testator was really stretching the point as far as Mr. Arthur Cameron was concerned. You might as well ask Mr. Arthur Cameron who deserved to go to Heaven.

Nonetheless it was quite evident that Mr. Stanley McCubbin, though obviously driven to expound upon the subject, was in need of some support from Mr. Arthur Cameron at this juncture. It seemed that years of ignorance of the topic had caused the matter to fester rather more dramatically than was merited. Mr. Arthur Cameron, drawing at this point upon his many years of experience, knew enough to avoid dealing with the subject directly, at least as this point in time. Instead of asking Mr. Stanley McCubbin whom he might prefer to benefit, he asked him what he would like to see happen to his estate following his death.

That question gave Mr. Stanley McCubbin occasion for pause and deliberation. He had never pursued the thread of his initial thoughts about his beneficiaries beyond the point of the bequest, and now he appeared to stumble over the issue of how the proceeds of his estate were to be applied, much less by whom. Remarkably, the question posed by Mr. Arthur Cameron gave Mr. Stanley McCubbin renewed vitality and distinct interest in the debate in a far less emotional context. Mr. Stanley McCubbin actually sat straight up in his chair and fully regained his customary composure. In Mr. Stanley McCubbin’s mind, the question was no longer the finite and even vulgar matter of disbursement, but now a larger and more imposing consideration of possible perpetual advancement, however it might be accomplished.

In the hour that followed this awakening, Mr. Stanley McCubbin confided to his close professional friend, Mr. Arthur Cameron, that years of sober, restrained and dedicated hard work had in the end left Mr. Stanley McCubbin feeling either that he had accomplished nothing of true value in life or that no one was worthy of the fruits of his labour. Mr. Stanley McCubbin accepted that this was an odd paradox, but until now he had been unable to withdraw himself from the internal feud which so manifested itself only moments before. Mr. Stanley McCubbin was also clever and honest enough to understand that much of his success had come at the expense of personal happiness, that he was overwrought by the need to produce and accumulate; while at the same time begrudging the privilege of any other person to inherit the advantages without the penalties. He had unwittingly become a mean spirited and stingy old man, as unrecognizable as it may have been to any other than himself.

Knowing this, however, did not immediately open the gates of generosity. Mr. Stanley McCubbin had yet to settle upon what if anything was to be done about implementing a plan for the ultimate use of his estate after his death. The dilemma had now turned into one of stewardship, not mere entitlement. Furthermore, the uncertainty about the answer which had been raging within him for years, misguided as it was by having asked himself the wrong question, confirmed that he had been travelling down a dead end street, and that all his efforts to this point in resolving the issue had been completely wasted. He would have to start over.

At this point in their meeting, and in conclusion of it, Mr. Stanley McCubbin stood up from his chair almost abruptly. Extending his hand to Mr. Arthur Cameron, he thanked him for his time (and asked that he be billed accordingly), then took his leave without further remonstration. Mr. Stanley McCubbin had by unintended insight, got what he wanted, though of course he had yet to instruct Mr. Arthur Cameron on the terms of his last will and testament. That would have to wait for another day. Mr. Stanley McCubbin was not prepared to finalize either his will or his testament, that he knew.