1910 - Lucy and her sister Eva are devastated to learn on their father’s death that he had married their mother bigamously, making them illegitimate. If that isn’t bad enough, their father seemed to care nothing for them when he willed his entire estate to his legal wife leaving the girls and their mother Sylvia destitute.
EXTRACT from the end of Chapter One
As they approached their home in Newton Road, a fine detached house in its own grounds, Lucy spotted a motorcar in their driveway. Except for their father, hardly anyone they knew had a motorcar. And then she recognised it as belonging to the family solicitor, Mr Jarrett. Eva spotted it too.
‘Oh, look, there’s old Jarrett’s Humber,’ she exclaimed pointing.
‘Yes,’ Lucy said, quickening her pace. ‘Probate must be settled and not before time too.’
Her mother had been having some sleepless nights over the length of time it had taken, although she had tried to hide it from them, but Lucy had seen how nervous and distracted she had become of late.
The front door was ajar and Lucy pushed it opened and went in, Eva close behind her. Voices could be heard from the sitting-room; a man and a woman talking. The woman’s voice was loud and belligerent in tone. It certainly wasn’t her mother’s voice.
‘Mam!’ All at once concerned, Lucy called out, and walked swiftly into the room.
Mr Jarrett, their solicitor, short and rotund; stood before the fireplace. Beside him was a tall gaunt-looking woman probably few years older than Sylvia who Lucy had never seen before. She wore a shapeless hat and a poor quality knee length herring-bone jacket over a long black skirt. It struck Lucy that everything about the woman looked second-hand.
Lucy glanced at her mother ‘What’s going on, Mam?’
She was dismayed to see Sylvia sitting on an armchair beside the fireplace, quietly sobbing into a handkerchief, her shoulders hunched.
‘Mam, are you all right?’ Lucy hurried to her side.
Sylvia Chandler looked up, her eyes and nose red with crying. ‘Oh, Lucy, we’re ruined. Your father has betrayed me, he’s betrayed us all.’
There was an exclamation of anger from the woman. ‘It’s no more than you deserve,’ she uttered waspishly. ‘And a just punishment on you.’
‘Don’t you speak to my mother in that tone,’ Lucy flared, straightening her spine and glaring at the older woman. She glanced at the solicitor. ‘What’s the meaning of this, Mr Jarrett? Why have you allowed this person to reduce my mother to tears? Who is she anyway?’
‘It’s not my doing, Lucy,’ Mr Jarrett said hastily. ‘You’re mother has had a great shock,’ he went on in a serious tone.
‘She knew what she was doing,’ the woman put in. ‘She’s only got herself to blame.’
‘What’s my father done,’ Eva asked in a shrill voice. ‘Left everything to charity, has he? Thoughtless of us as usual, that would be just like him.’
‘No,’ the tall woman said in a hard voice. ‘He’s left everything to me.’
‘What?’ Lucy was startled. ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m Mary Chambers, the legal wife of Joseph Chambers,’ she said. ‘And the sole beneficiary of his will.’
Lucy stared at Mr Jarrett, unable to make sense of what the woman was saying. ‘What’s she talking about, Mr Jarrett. Who is Joseph Chambers?’
Mr Jarrett fingered his collar as though it was too tight for him. ‘Sit down Lucy and you too Eva. I have something grave to reveal to you.’
‘It’s quite simple,’ Mary Chambers cut in impatiently. ‘Joseph Chambers married me twenty-five years ago and then when my daughter was three years old he upped and deserted us for her.’ She threw up a gloved hand and pointed to Sylvia. ‘That Jezebel!’
Sylvia gave a little anguished cry and buried her face in her handkerchief again.
‘How dare you!’ Lucy shouted at her. ‘How dare you come into our home and insult my mother. Leave this house at once.’
Mary Chambers’ lips tightened. ‘This is now my house,’ she said emphatically. ‘Left to me in my husband’s will. His entire estate is mine.’
‘You keep mentioning a will,’ Lucy replied angrily. ‘But there is no will.’
‘I’m afraid there is,’ Mr Jarrett said apologetically. ‘If Mrs Chambers here will allow me to explain.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Twenty-odd years ago Joseph Chambers, having deserted his wife Mary in Cardiff, changed his name to Chandler, removed himself to Swansea and entered into a bigamous marriage with your mother Sylvia.’ He cleared his throat again. ‘As you can see his first wife is still very much alive.’
Lucy stared at him speechlessly. She could not believe what she was hearing.
‘Joseph Chambers made a will on his marriage to Mary,’ Mr Jarrett continued. ‘Leaving his entire estate, present and future, to her. That will has never been rescinded.’ He lifted a hand as Lucy was about to protest. ‘I’ve thoroughly checked the validity of the will, Lucy. It is legal and binding. There’s no way of breaking it I’m afraid.’
‘But that’s impossible!’ Eva exclaimed. ‘It’s a trick, that’s what it is! You’re a dirty trickster,’ she flared at the tall woman.
Mary Chambers sniffed disdainfully. ‘I may have known the worst of poverty in my life since my husband left me but I’ve always kept myself respectable.’ She glared at Eva and then at Lucy. ‘I’ll not be insulted by the likes of you,’ she continued. ‘Illegitimate offspring!’
‘Oh my God!’
Eva fell back a step, and clutched at Lucy’s hand, who felt a cold chill run up her spine at the shameful epithet.
Illegitimate? Her mother’s marriage had been no marriage at all. She and Eva had been born out of wedlock. It was a terrible stigma that would ruin their lives.
‘It’s the end for us all!’ Sylvia wailed, echoing her thoughts. ‘We’ll end up in the workhouse. Oh! How could Joseph do this to me?’
Lucy found her voice. ‘If it’s true that my father had committed bigamy, why didn’t you come forward sooner and face him? Why wait until he was dead?’ she asked angrily of Mary Chambers.
‘I knew nothing of him for years,’ she said. ‘Not until recently when a friend in Swansea sent me a cutting of an obituary and an article with a photograph from a local newspaper.’ She nodded. ‘I recognised my husband immediately even after twenty-odd years.’
Lucy was silent, remembering the article on the death of Joseph Chandler, a prominent businessman in the town.
‘Even if there were no will,’ Mr Jarrett said quietly. ‘Mrs Chambers here would inherit his estate as his legal wife. I’m afraid your mother has no claim whatsoever. Unless – unless Mrs Chambers will be generous and benevolent and make you an allowance.’
Sylvia rose hastily to her feet. ‘Yes, surely, Mrs Chambers,’ she began in an appealing tone. ‘You’ll not take everything. We’ll be destitute. Think of my girls!’
Mary Chambers looked angry. ‘You lured my husband away from me and our child,’ she accused her vice rising loud relentless. ‘You knew he was married. You’re as guilty as he was.’
‘I swear I didn’t know about you,’ Sylvia burst out. ‘When I met Joseph he told me he was a bachelor. I had no reason to disbelieve him.’
‘So you say!’
‘Stop it!’ Lucy shouted at the other woman. ‘You’ve no right to accuse my mother. She’s as much a victim as you are. If there’s anyone to blame it’s my father.’
Lucy felt her blood boil at the thought of it. All these years Joseph Chandler knew of the existence of the will he had made in Mary Chambers’ favour. He had callously taken no action to provide for Sylvia, the woman he had wronged, and his daughters. Obviously, his daughters were less than nothing to him.
‘Why did you show your face here today,’ Lucy challenged Mary Chambers. ‘Was it to gloat?’
‘I’m the one who has the grievance. I came to face down the woman who stole my husband,’ Mary Chambers said belligerently. ‘When Joseph deserted me he took everything. I’ve had to scrub floors, even take in washing to keep me and my daughter from starving.’
‘I’m sorry for that,’ Lucy said. ‘But it’s not our fault.’
‘Your mother...’ she began in a shrill tone, but Lucy shouted her down.
‘My mother is innocent.’ She glared at her. ‘It was Joseph Chandler who lured her into a bigamous marriage; into shame, humiliation and poverty. Have you given a single thought as to how we will live from now on?’
‘It’s not my concern,’ she said haughtily. ‘I’ve known poverty because of Joseph all my life, so has my daughter. She’s never had the advantages you’ve had.’
‘Why did my father leave you?’ Eva burst out furiously. ‘You did something shameful, didn’t you?’
‘No, I did not!’ Mary Chambers snapped. ‘He deserted me because I couldn’t give him the sons he yearned for,’ she said. ‘When my daughter was two years old I had a bad miscarriage. The doctors told me I would have no more children. Joseph blamed me. He was furious.’
‘So you finally admit that my mother had nothing to do with his deserting you,’ Lucy said triumphantly.
‘I too failed to give him a son,’ Sylvia exclaimed with a sob. ‘I always knew he despised me for it.’
‘Don’t expect any sympathy,’ Mary Chambers burst out furiously. She glanced around at the well-furnished room. ‘You’ve lived in the lap of luxury all these years. I’ve had to work my fingers to the bone just to exist.’
Sylvia whimpered and burst into tears again.
‘You should never have brought this woman here,’ Lucy said to Mr Jarrett, concerned to see her mother so upset. She pointed a finger at the door. ‘We want you out of our home now,’ she told the other woman. ‘You’re not prepared to help us so leave.’
Mary Chambers stood her ground stubbornly, her expression furious. ‘This house is now my property,’ she reminded them. ‘My own solicitor is arranging to sell up everything including the businesses. I’ll have what should have been rightfully mine at last.’
‘Sell up? Everything?’
‘I’m determined my daughter will have all the advantages which have been denied her throughout her life,’ Mary Chambers said vehemently. ‘It’s only right and just.’ She lifted her chin aggressively. ‘Consequently, I hereby give you all two weeks notice to quit this house.’
‘What?’ Lucy glared at the solicitor.
‘I say!’ Mr Jarrett exclaimed. ‘Turning them out is rather harsh, Mrs Chambers. Surely you can give a little leeway?’
‘That’s my last word,’ she said emphatically. ‘I’ve suffered enough already. Now it’s your turn,’ she said to Sylvia.
‘Oh, my poor girls!’ Sylvia cried out, and sank back into the armchair, her hands covering her face. ‘What will become of us all?’
‘I’ll go now,’ Mary Chambers said archly. ‘But remember this; the contents, fixtures and fittings of the house belong to me. You are to remove nothing but your personal possessions. Is that understood?’
‘You can’t do that,’ screeched Eva. ‘You can’t turn us out onto the street with just the clothes on our backs.’
‘I had little else when Joseph deserted me,’ Mary Chambers snapped out the words. ‘Work for your bread like I had to.’ She glared around at them. ‘You’re trespassing all of you. You’ve been duly warned.’