The Riddle

Bonezboyz © Man and woman thinking with big question mark. Doubts, problem, curious, confused. Questions concept illustration

How does a practical joker settle his estate? With a familiar, unsolvable old brainteaser, that’s how…

The rich want me.
The wise are sure of me.
Fools know me.
Heroes fear me.

Uncle Stephen had posed this riddle many times over the years. He was a practical joker.

His solicitor had just finished reading his will. The bulk of his estate would pass to the beneficiary who solved the riddle. I was a beneficiary with my cousin, Jake.

“Is that legal?” Jake spluttered.

Mr Carlton’s eyes glistened with amusement. He and Uncle Stephen had been friends for decades.

“It’s unusual, I must say. But a testator may impose any stipulation regarding the distribution of assets provided it doesn’t involve breaking the law.

The estate is to be divided three-quarters to one-quarter, the beneficiary who solves the riddle taking the greater amount. If it remains unsolved, there will be an equal division.”

I could almost hear Uncle Stephen chuckling from the grave.

When Jake and I were young, we spent most holidays at Uncle Stephen’s sprawling country mansion. He was fond of riddles and began asking this one when we were in our early teens.

Jake’s first guess was “wealth”.

“Knowledge” was the first answer I had ventured, although I knew it didn’t fit all the clues.

“I’ll be pushing up daisies before either of you solve it,” Uncle Stephen told us with a mischievous grin.

After completing business studies at university, Jake convinced Uncle Stephen to finance several enterprises that invariably involved overseas trips.

Jake was handsome and I often wondered how many broken hearts he left behind.

But his main passion was the pursuit of money.

I don’t think he deliberately set out to hurt anyone. He just liked to acquire things the easy way, and Uncle Stephen was a little to blame for spoiling him.

I squeezed in visits to Uncle Stephen between marriage, motherhood and work and was regularly quizzed on the riddle.

“Are you ever going to tell me the answer?” I’d asked with an exasperated laugh during tea on my last visit.

Uncle Stephen winked at me over his teacup.

“The answer might come to you when you least expect it.”

“I’m sick of hearing that silly riddle,” Jake often complained. “The man isn’t the full quid. He still treats us like children.”

Some of Uncle’s jokes were a bit juvenile. But my two boys thought the whoopee cushions, fake spiders and short sheets on the beds were a scream.

“You and I are his closest relatives,” Jake reminded me when Uncle Stephen progressed to his seventies.

The implication was obvious, but I could easily imagine him leaving his fortune to a home for destitute comedians.

Jake often exaggerated problems to enlist financial help.

“Why don’t you take advantage, Susan?” he suggested. “Uncle Stephen is very generous.”

Well, I’m only human, and I must admit I was tempted. I suppose that had my husband and I found ourselves in dire straits I would have swallowed my pride and asked for help. But we always got by.

Jake’s exasperated click of the tongue jolted me back to the present.

“Only a lunatic would make a provision like that,” he complained.

Mr Carlton pursed his lips.

“Your uncle was a little, shall we say, eccentric, but he was in full possession of his faculties.”

He opened a file and removed two envelopes. One was addressed to me, the other to Jake.

“The letters contain an identical clue.”

Jake took his envelope and fingered it for a long moment.

“I suppose I could have a shot at it, seeing there’s a clue.” He looked at me sheepishly. “What do you think, Susan?”

“If we both choose not to answer, the estate will be divided equally,” I reminded him.

He turned the envelope over and his fingers played around the sealed flap.

“I still think it’s silly but, hey, what the heck.” He tore the envelope open.

I picked up my envelope and opened it.

Dear Susan,

Well, here I am, six feet under. The rich want me, the wise are sure of me, fools know me, heroes fear me. Think hard, dearest niece.

Here is your clue: throughout the years, what have you asked from me? Good luck.

Uncle Stephen.

“Money!” Jake told Mr Carlton. At least it was an honest answer.

Mr Carlton seemed pleased with my cousin’s response.

“Unfortunately, your answer is incorrect,” he declared.

“But that wasn’t a proper clue,” Jake protested. I think he realised too late that a clue that meant nothing to him might mean something to me.

Mr Carlton looked at me and raised an eyebrow.

I read the clue again.

Trite as it may sound, I had loved Uncle Stephen for what he was, not for what he possessed.

I’d wanted, and asked, nothing from him.

“Nothing,” I said.

Mr Carlton smiled broadly and held out his hand to congratulate me.

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