Chapter XI. Santa Claus Arrives
 

It was not long after this that Mr. Smith found a tall, gray-haired man, with keen gray eyes, talking with Mrs. Jane Blaisdell and Mellicent in the front room over the grocery store.

"Well--" began Mr. Smith, a joyful light of recognition in his eyes. Then suddenly he stooped and picked up something from the floor. When he came upright his face was very red. He did not look at the tall, gray-haired man again as he advanced into the room.

Mellicent turned to him eagerly.

"Oh, Mr. Smith, it's the lawyer--he's come. And it's true. It is true!"

"This is Mr. Smith, Mr. Norton," murmured Mrs. Jane Blaisdell to the keen-eyed man, who, also, for no apparent reason, had grown very red. "Mr. Smith's a Blaisdell, too,--distant, you know. He's doing a Blaisdell book."

"Indeed! How interesting! How are you, Mr.--Smith?" The lawyer smiled and held out his hand, but there was an odd constraint in his manner. "So you're a Blaisdell, too, are you?"

"Er--yes," said Mr. Smith, smiling straight into the lawyer's eyes.

"But not near enough to come in on the money, of course," explained Mrs. Jane. "He isn't a Hiller-Blaisdell. He's just boarding here, while he writes his book.

"Oh I see. So he isn't near enough to come in--on the money." This time it was the lawyer who was smiling straight into Mr. Smith's eyes.

But he did not smile for long. A sudden question from Mellicent seemed to freeze the smile on his lips.

"Mr. Norton, please, what was Mr. Stanley G. Fulton like?" she begged.

"Why--er--you must have seen his pictures in the papers," stammered the lawyer.

"Yes, what was he like? Do tell us," urged Mr. Smith with a bland smile, as he seated himself.

"Why--er--" The lawyer came to a still more unhappy pause.

"Of course, we've seen his pictures," broke in Mellicent, "but those don't tell us anything. And you knew him. So won't you tell us what he was like, please, while we're waiting for father to come up? Was he nice and jolly, or was he stiff and haughty? What was he like?"

"Yes, what was he like?" coaxed Mr. Smith again. Mr. Smith, for some reason, seemed to be highly amused.

The lawyer lifted his head suddenly. An odd flash came to his eyes.

"Like? Oh, just an ordinary man, you know,--somewhat conceited, of course." (A queer little half-gasp came from Mr. Smith, but the lawyer was not looking at Mr. Smith.) "Eccentric--you've heard that, probably. And he has done crazy things, and no mistake. Of course, with his money and position, we won't exactly say he had bats in his belfry--isn't that what they call it?--but--"

Mr. Smith gave a real gasp this time, and Mrs. Jane Blaisdell ejaculated:--

"There, I told you so! I knew something was wrong. And now he'll come back and claim the money. You see if he don't! And if we've gone and spent any Of it--" A gesture of despair finished her sentence.

"Give yourself no uneasiness on that score, madam," the lawyer assured her gravely. "I think I can safely guarantee he will not do that."

"Then you think he's--dead?"

"I did not say that, madam. I said I was very sure he would not come back and claim this money that is to be paid over to your husband and his brother and sister. Dead or alive, he has no further power over that money now."

"Oh-h!" breathed Mellicent. "Then it is--ours!"

"It is yours," bowed the lawyer.

"But Mr. Smith says we've probably got to pay a tax on it," thrust in Mrs. Jane, in a worried voice. "Do you know how much we'll have to pay? And isn't there any way we can save doing that?"

Before Mr. Norton could answer, a heavy step down the hall heralded Mr. Frank Blaisdell's advance, and in the ensuing confusion of his arrival, Mr. Smith slipped away. As he passed the lawyer, however, Mellicent thought she heard him mutter, "You rascal!" But afterwards she concluded she must have been mistaken, for the two men appeared to become at once the best of friends. Mr. Norton remained in town several days, and frequently she saw him and Mr. Smith chatting pleasantly together, or starting off apparently for a walk. Mellicent was very sure, therefore, that she must have been mistaken in thinking she had heard Mr. Smith utter so remarkable an exclamation as he left the room that first day.

During the stay of Mr. Norton in Hillerton, and for some days afterward, the Blaisdells were too absorbed in the mere details of acquiring and temporarily investing their wealth to pay attention to anything else. Under the guidance of Mr. Norton, Mr. Robert Chalmers, and the heads of two other Hillerton banks, the three legatees set themselves to the task of "finding a place to put it," as Miss Flora breathlessly termed it.

Mrs. Hattie said that, for her part, she should like to leave their share all in the bank: then she'd have it to spend whenever she wanted it. She yielded to the shocked protestations of the others, however, and finally consented that her husband should invest a large part of it in the bonds he so wanted, leaving a generous sum in the bank in her own name. She was assured that the bonds were just as good as money, anyway, as they were the kind that were readily convertible into cash.

Mrs. Jane, when she understood the matter, was for investing every cent of theirs where it would draw the largest interest possible. Mrs. Jane had never before known very much about interest, and she was fascinated with its delightful possibilities. She spent whole days joyfully figuring percentages, and was awakened from her happy absorption only by the unpleasant realization that her husband was not in sympathy with her ideas at all. He said that the money was his, not hers, and that, for once in his life, he was going to have his way. "His way" in this case proved to be the prompt buying-out of the competing grocery on the other corner, and the establishing of good- sized bank account. The rest of the money he said Jane might invest for a hundred per cent, if she wanted to.

Jane was pleased to this extent, and asked if it were possible that she could get such a splendid rate as one hundred per cent. She had not figured on that! She was not so pleased later, when Mr. Norton and the bankers told her what she could get--with safety; and she was very angry because they finally appealed to her husband and she was obliged to content herself with a paltry five or six per cent, when there were such lovely mining stocks and oil wells everywhere that would pay so much more.

She told Flora that she ought to thank her stars that she had the money herself in her own name, to do just as she pleased with, without any old-fogy men bossing her.

But Flora only shivered and said "Mercy me!" and that, for her part, she wished she didn't have to say what to do with. it. She was scared of her life of it, anyway, and she was just sure she should lose it, whatever she did with it; and she 'most wished she didn't have it, only it would be nice, of course, to buy things with it--and she supposed she would buy things with it, after a while, when she got used to it, and was not afraid to spend it.

Miss Flora was, indeed, quite breathless most of the time, these days. She tried very hard to give the kind gentlemen who were helping her no trouble, and she showed herself eager always to take their advice. But she wished they would not ask her opinion; she was always afraid to give it, and she didn't have one, anyway; only she did worry, of course, and she had to ask them sometimes if they were real sure the places they had put her money were perfectly safe, and just couldn't blow up. It was so comforting always to see them smile, and hear them say: "Perfectly, my dear Miss Flora, perfectly! Give yourself no uneasiness." To be sure, one day, the big fat man, not Mr. Chalmers, did snap out: "No, madam; only the Lord Almighty can guarantee a government bond--the whole country may be blown to atoms by a volcano to-morrow morning!"

She was startled, terribly startled; but she saw at once, of course, that it must be just his way of joking, for of course there wasn't any volcano big enough to blow up the whole United States; and, anyway, she did not think it was nice of him, and it was almost like swearing, to say "the Lord Almighty" in that tone of voice. She never liked that fat man again. After that she always talked to Mr. Chalmers, or to the other man with a wart on his nose.

Miss Flora had never had a check-book before, but she tried very hard to learn how to use it, and to show herself not too stupid. She was glad there were such a lot of checks in the book, but she didn't believe she'd ever spend them all--such a lot of money! She had had a savings-bank book, to be sure, but she not been able to put anything in the bank for a long time, and she had been worrying a good deal lately for fear she would have to draw some out, business had been so dull. But she would not have to do that now, of course, with all this money that had come to her.

They told her that she could have all the money she wanted by just filling out one of the little slips in her check-book the way they had told her to do it and taking it to Mr. Chalmers's bank--that there were a good many thousand dollars there waiting for her to spend, just as she liked; and that, when they were gone, Mr. Chalmers would tell her how to sell some of her bonds and get more. It seemed very wonderful!

There were other things, too, that they had told her--too many for her to remember--something about interest, and things called coupons that must be cut off the bonds at certain times. She tried to remember it all; but Mr. Chalmers had been very kind and had told her not to fret. He would help her when the time came. Meanwhile, he had rented her a nice tin box (that pulled out like a drawer) in the safety-deposit vault under the bank, where she could keep her bonds and all the other papers--such a lot of them!--that Mr. Chalmers told her she must keep very carefully.

But it was all so new and complicated, and everybody was always talking at once, so!

No wonder, indeed, that Miss Flora was quite breathless with it all.

By the time the Blaisdells found themselves able to pay attention to Hillerton, or to anything outside their own astounding personal affairs, they became suddenly aware of the attention Hillerton was paying to them.

The whole town was agog. The grocery store, the residence of Frank Blaisdell, and Miss Flora's humble cottage might be found at nearly any daylight hour with from one to a dozen curious-eyed gazers on the sidewalk before them. The town paper had contained an elaborate account of the bequest and the remarkable circumstances attending it; and Hillerton became the Mecca of wandering automobiles for miles around. Big metropolitan dailies got wind of the affair, recognized the magic name of Stanley G. Fulton, and sent reporters post-haste to Hillerton.

Speculation as to whether the multi-millionaire was really dead was prevalent everywhere, and a search for some clue to his reported South American exploring expedition was undertaken in several quarters. Various rumors concerning the expedition appeared immediately, but none of them seemed to have any really solid foundation. Interviews with the great law firm having the handling of Mr. Fulton's affairs were printed, but even here little could be learned save the mere fact of the letter of instructions, upon which they had acted according to directions, and the other fact that there still remained one more packet--understood to be the last will and testament--to be opened in two years' time if Mr. Fulton remained unheard from. The lawyers were bland and courteous, but they really had nothing to say, they declared, beyond the already published facts.

In Hillerton the Blaisdells accepted this notoriety with characteristic variation. Miss Flora, after cordially welcoming one "nice young man," and telling him all about how strange and wonderful it was, and how frightened she felt, was so shocked and distressed to find all that she said (and a great deal that she did not say!) staring at her from the first page of a big newspaper, that she forthwith barred her doors, and refused to open them till she satisfied herself, by surreptitious peeps through the blinds, that it was only a neighbor who was knocking for admittance. An offer of marriage from a Western ranchman and another from a Vermont farmer (both entire strangers) did not tend to lessen her perturbation of mind.

Frank, at the grocery store, rather welcomed questioners--so long as there was a hope of turning them into customers; but his wife and Mellicent showed almost as much terror of them as did Miss Flora herself.

James Blaisdell and Fred stoically endured such as refused to be silenced by their brusque non-committalism. Benny, at first welcoming everything with the enthusiasm he would accord to a circus, soon sniffed his disdain, as at a show that had gone stale.

Of them all, perhaps Mrs. Hattie was the only one that found in it any real joy and comfort. Even Bessie, excited and interested as she was, failed to respond with quite the enthusiasm that her mother showed. Mrs. Hattie saw every reporter, talked freely of "dear Cousin Stanley" and his wonderful generosity, and explained that she would go into mourning, of course, if she knew he was really dead. She sat for two new portraits for newspaper use, besides graciously posing for staff photographers whenever requested to do so; and she treasured carefully every scrap of the printed interviews or references to the affair that she could find. She talked with the townspeople, also, and told Al Smith how fine it was that he could have something really worth while for his book.

Mr. Smith, these days, was keeping rather closely to his work, especially when reporters were in evidence. He had been heard to remark, indeed, that he had no use for reporters. Certainly he fought shy of those investigating the Fulton-Blaisdell legacy. He read the newspaper accounts, though, most attentively, particularly the ones from Chicago that Mr. Norton kindly sent him sometimes. It was in one of these papers that he found this paragraph:--

There seems to be really nothing more that can be learned about the extraordinary Stanley G. Fulton-Blaisdell affair. The bequests have been paid, the Blaisdells are reveling in their new wealth, and Mr. Fulton is still unheard from. There is nothing now to do but to await the opening of the second mysterious packet two years hence. This, it is understood, is the final disposition of his estate; and if he is really dead, such will doubtless prove to be the case. There are those, however, who, remembering the multi-millionaire's well-known eccentricities, are suspecting him of living in quiet retirement somewhere, laughing in his sleeve at the tempest in the teapot that he has created; and that long before the two years are up, he will be back on Chicago's streets, debonair and smiling as ever. The fact that so little can be found in regard to the South American exploring expedition might give color to this suspicion; but where on this terrestrial ball could Mr. Stanley G. Fulton find a place to live in unreported retirement?

Mr. Smith did not show this paragraph to the Blaisdells. He destroyed the paper containing it, indeed, promptly and effectually--with a furtive glance over his shoulder as he did so. It was at about this time, too, that Mr. Smith began to complain of his eyes and to wear smoked glasses. He said he found the new snow glaring.

"But you look so funny, Mr. Smith," said Benny, the first time he saw him. "Why, I didn't hardly know you!"

"Didn't you, Benny?" asked Mr. Smith, with suddenly a beaming countenance. "Oh, well, that doesn't matter, does it?" And Mr. Smith gave an odd little chuckle as he turned away.