Cap'n Warren's Wards by Joseph Crosby Lincoln
The note on the dining room table proved, to the captain's delight, to be from James Pearson. It was brief and to the point.
"Why don't you come and see me?" wrote the young man. "I've been expecting you, and you promised to come. Have you forgotten my address? If so, here it is. I expect to be in all day to-morrow."
The consequence of this was that eleven o'clock the next day found Captain Elisha pulling the bell at a brick house in a long brick block on a West Side street. The block had evidently been, in its time, the homes of well-to-do people, but now it was rather dingy and gone to seed. Across the street the first floors were, for the most part, small shops, and in the windows above them doctors' signs alternated with those of modistes, manicure artists, and milliners.
The captain had come a roundabout way, stopping in at the Moriarty flat, where he found Mrs. Moriarty in a curious state of woe and tearful pride. "Oh, what will I do, sir?" she moaned. "When I think he's gone, it seems as if I'd die, too. But, thanks to you and Miss Warren--Mary make it up to her!--my Pat'll have the finest funeral since the Guinny saloon man was buried. Ah, if he could have lived to see it, he'd have died content!"
The pull at the boarding-house bell was answered by a rather slatternly maid, who informed the visitor that she guessed Mr. Pearson was in; he 'most always was around lunch time. So Captain Elisha waited in a typical boarding-house parlor, before a grate with no fire in it and surrounded by walnut and plush furniture, until Pearson himself came hurrying downstairs.
"Say, you're a brick, Captain Warren!" he declared, as they shook hands. "I hoped you'd come to-day. Why haven't you before?"
The captain explained his having mislaid the address.
"Oh, was that it? Then I'm glad I reminded you. Rather a cheeky thing to do, but I've been a reporter, and nerve is necessary in that profession. I began to be afraid living among the blue-bloods had had its effect, and you were getting finicky as to your acquaintances."
"You didn't believe any such thing."
"Didn't I? Well, perhaps I didn't. Come up to my room. I think we can just about squeeze in, if you don't mind sitting close."
Pearson's room was on the third flight, at the front of the house. Through the window one saw the upper half of the buildings opposite, and above them a stretch of sky. The bed was a small brass and iron affair, but the rest of the furniture was of good quality, the chairs were easy and comfortable, and the walls were thickly hung with photographs, framed drawings, and prints.
"I put those up to cover the wall paper," explained the host. "I don't offer them as an art collection, but as a screen. Sit down. Put your coat on the bed. Shall I close the window? I usually keep the upper half open to let out the pipe smoke. Otherwise I might not be able to navigate without fog signals."
His visitor chuckled, followed directions with his coat and hat, and sat down. Pearson took the chair by the small flat-topped desk.
"How about that window?" he asked. "Shall I shut it?"
"No, no! We'll be warm enough, I guess. You've got steam heat, I see."
"You mean you hear. Those pipes make noise enough to wake the dead. At first I thought I couldn't sleep because of the racket they made. Now I doubt if I could without it. Would you consider a cigar, Captain?"
"Hum! I don't usually stop to consider. But I tell you, Jim--just now you said something about a pipe. I've got mine aboard, but I ain't dared to smoke it since I left South Denboro. If you wouldn't mind--"
"Not a bit. Tobacco in this jar on the desk. I keep a temporary supply in my jacket pocket. Matches? Here you are! What do you think of my--er--stateroom?"
"Think it makes nice, snug quarters," was the prompt answer.
"Humph! Snug is a good word. Much like living in an omnibus, but it answers the purpose. I furnished it myself, except for the bed. The original bureau had pictures of cauliflowers painted on each drawer front. Mrs. Hepton--my landlady--was convinced that they were roses. I told her she might be right, but, at all events, looking at them made me hungry. Perhaps she noticed the effect on my appetite and was willing for me to substitute."
The captain laughed. Then, pointing, he asked: "What's that handbill?"
The "handbill" was a fair-sized poster announcing the production at the "Eureka Opera House" of the "Thrilling Comedy-Drama, The Golden Gods." Pearson looked at it, made a face, and shook his head.
"That," he said, "is my combined crusher and comforter. It is the announcement of the first, and next to the last, performance of a play I wrote in my calf days. The 'Eureka Opera Houses is--or was, if the 'gods' weren't too much for it--located at Daybury, Illinois. I keep that bill to prevent my conceit getting away with me. Also, when I get discouraged over my novel, it reminds me that, however bad the yarn may turn out to be, I have committed worse crimes."
This led to the captain's asking about the novel and how it was progressing. His companion admitted having made some progress, more in the line of revision than anything else. He had remodeled his hero somewhat, in accordance with his new friend's suggestions during their interview at the Warren apartment, and had introduced other characters, portrait sketches from memory of persons whom he had known in his boyhood days in the Maine town. He read a few chapters aloud, and Captain Elisha waxed almost enthusiastic over them.
Then followed a long discussion over a point of seamanship, the handling of a bark in a gale. It developed that the young author's knowledge of saltwater strategy was extensive and correct in the main, though somewhat theoretical. That of his critic was based upon practice and hard experience. He cited this skipper and that as examples, and carried them through no'theasters off Hatteras and typhoons in the Indian Ocean. The room, in spite of the open window, grew thick with pipe smoke, and the argument was punctuated by thumps on the desk and chair arms, and illustrated by diagrams drawn by the captain's forefinger on the side of the dresser. The effects of oil on breaking rollers, the use of a "sea-anchor" over the side to "hold her to it," whether or not a man was justified in abandoning his ship under certain given circumstances, these were debated pro and con. Always Pearson's "Uncle Jim" was held up as the final authority, the paragon of sea captains, by the visitor, and, while his host pretended to agree, with modest reservations, in this estimate of his relative, he was more and more certain that his hero was bound to become a youthful edition of Elisha Warren himself--and he thanked the fates which had brought this fine, able, old-school mariner to his door.
At length, Captain Elisha, having worked "Uncle Jim" into a safe harbor after a hundred mile cruise under jury jig, with all hands watch and watch at the pumps, leaned forward in triumph to refill his pipe. Having done so, his eyes remained fixed upon a photograph standing, partially hidden by a leather collar box, upon the dresser. He looked at it intently, then rose and took it in his hand.
"Well, I swan!" he exclaimed. "Either what my head's been the fullest of lately has struck to my eyesight, or else--why, say, Jim, that's Caroline, ain't it?"
Pearson colored and seemed embarrassed. "Yes," he answered, "that is Miss Warren."
"Humph! Good likeness, too! But what kind of rig has she got on? I've seen her wear a good many dresses--seems to have a different one for every day, pretty nigh--but I never saw her in anything like that. Looks sort of outlandish; like one of them foreign girls at Geneva--or Leghorn, say."
"Yes. That is an Italian peasant costume. Miss Warren wore it at a fancy dress ball a year ago."
"Want to know! I-talian peasant, hey! Fifth Avenue peasant with diamonds in her hair. Becomin' to her, ain't it."
"I thought so."
"Yup. She looks pretty enough! But she don't need diamonds nor hand-organ clothes to make her pretty."
Then, looking up from the photograph, he asked, "Give you this picture, did she?"
His friend's embarrassment increased. "No," he answered shortly. Then, after an instant's hesitation. "That ball was given by the Astorbilts and was one of the most swagger affairs of the season. The Planet--the paper with which I was connected--issues a Sunday supplement of half-tone reproductions of photographs. One page was given up to pictures of the ball and the costumes worn there."
"I see. Astonishin' how folks do like to get their faces into print. I used to know an old woman--Aunt Hepsibah Tucker, her name was--she's dead now. The pride of Aunt Hepsy's heart was that she took nineteen bottles of 'Balm of Burdock Tea' and the tea folks printed her picture as a testimonial that she lived through it. Ho, ho! And society big-bugs appear to have the same cravin'."
"Some of them do. But that of your niece was obtained by our society reporter from the photographer who took it. Bribery and corruption, of course. Miss Warren would have been at least surprised to see it in our supplement. I fancied she might not care for so much publicity and suppressed it."
"Um-hm. Well, I guess you did right. I'll thank you for her. By the way, I told Caroline where I was cal'latin' to go this mornin', and she wished to be remembered to you."
Pearson seemed pleased, but he made no comment. Captain Elisha blew a smoke ring from his pipe.
"And say, Jim," he added, embarrassed in his turn, "I hope you won't think I'm interferin' in your affairs, but are you still set against comin' up to where I live? I know you said you had a reason, but are you sure it's a good one?"
He waited for an answer but none came. Pearson was gazing out of the window. The captain looked at his watch and rose.
"I guess I'll have to be goin'," he said. "It's after twelve now."
His host swung around in his chair. "Sit down, Captain," he said. "I've been doing a lot of thinking since I saw you, and I'm not sure about that reason. I believe I'll ask your advice. It is a delicate matter, and it involves your brother. You may see it as he did, and, if so, our friendship ends, I suppose. But I'm going to risk it.
"Mr. Rodgers Warren and I," he went on, "were well acquainted during the latter part of my newspaper work. I was financial man on the Planet, and some articles I wrote took your brother's fancy. At all events, he wrote me concerning them in highly complimentary terms and asked me to call and see him at his office. I did so and--well, we became very friendly, so much so that he invited me to his house. I dined there several times, was invited to call often, and--I enjoyed it. You see, I had few friends in the city, outside my journalistic acquaintances, and I suppose I was flattered by Mr. Warren's kindness and the fancy he seemed to have taken to me. And I liked Miss Warren--no one could help that--and I believed she liked me."
"She does like you," interrupted his companion, with surprise. "Caroline's a good girl."
"Yes, she is. However, she isn't in this story, except as a side-issue. At this time my ambitions were for a newspaper career, and I thought I was succeeding. And her father's marked interest and the things he said to me promised more than an ordinary success. He was a well known man on the street, and influential. So my head began to swell, and I dreamed--a lot of foolishness. And then--"
He paused, put down his empty pipe, and sighed.
"Well, then," he continued, "came the upset. I judged from what you said at our previous conversation, Captain, that you were well enough acquainted with Wall Street to know that queer operations take place there. Did you read about the South Shore Trolley business?"
Captain Elisha considered. "Why, yes," he said, slowly, "seem's if I did. One of those consolidations with 'holdin' companies' and franchises and extensions and water by the hogshead. Wa'n't that it? I remember now; the Boston papers had considerable about it, and I presume likely the New York ones had more. One of those all-accordin'-to-law swindles that sprout same as toadstools in a dark place, but die out if the light's turned on too sudden. This one didn't come to nothin' but a bad smell, if I remember right."
"You do. And I suppose I'm responsible for the smell. I got wind of the thing, investigated, found out something of what was going on, and printed a preliminary story in the Planet. It caused a sensation."
He paused once more. Captain Elisha, for the sake of saying something, observed, "I shouldn't wonder."
"It certainly did. And the morning on which it appeared, Mr. Rodgers Warren 'phoned me. He wished to see me at once. I went down to his office. Captain, I dislike to tell you this. Mr. Warren was your brother."
"I know he was. And I'm his executor. Both those reasons make me 'specially anxious to have you tell me the truth. Heave ahead now, to oblige me."
"Well, I found him very polite and cordial, at first. He said that a ridiculous and sensational story concerning the Trolley Combine had appeared in the Planet, and he would like to have me contradict it and suppress further falsehoods of the kind. I told him I couldn't do that, because the story was true. I had written it myself. He was angry, and I could see that he was holding himself in by main strength. I went on to explain that it was the duty of an honest paper, as I saw it, to expose such trespass upon the people's rights. He asked me if I knew who was behind the scheme. I said I knew some of the backers. They were pretty big men, too. Then he informed me that he himself was deeply interested.
"I was knocked off my feet by that, you can imagine. And, to be frank, Captain, if I had known it at first I'm not sure that I, personally, would have taken the matter up. Yet I might; I can't tell. But now that I had done it and discovered what I had, I couldn't give it up. I must go on and learn more. And I knew enough already to be certain that the more I learned the more I should write and have published. It was one of those things which had to be made public--if a fellow had a conscience about him and a pride in the decency of his profession.
"All this was going through my head as I sat there in his private office. And he took my surprise and hesitation as symptoms of wavering and went at me, hard. Of course I knew, he said, that the operation was absolutely within the law. I did, but that didn't make it more honest or moral or just. He went on to say that in large financial deals of this nature petty scruples must be lost sight of. Good of the business, rights of stockholders, all that sort of stuff; he rang the changes. All the papers cared for was sensation; to imperil the fortune of widows and orphans whose savings were invested in the South Shore Stock, for the sake of sensation, was a crime. He should have known better than to say that to me; it is such an ancient, worn-out platitude."
"I know. I've been to political meetin's. The widows and orphans are always hangin' on the success of the Republican party--or the Democratic, whichever way you vote. The amount of tears shed over their investments by fellers you wouldn't trust with a brass five-cent piece, is somethin' amazin'. Go on; I didn't mean to interrupt."
"Then he switched to a more personal appeal. He said he had taken a fancy to me; had liked me from the very beginning. He recognized my unusual genius at first sight and had gone as far as to make plans bearing directly on my future. He was associated with men of wealth and business sagacity. Large deals, of which the Trolley Combine was but one, were on foot. He and his friends needed a representative on the press--a publicity agent, so to speak. Some of the greatest corporations employed men of that kind, and the salaries paid were large and the opportunities afforded greater still. Well, that's true enough. I know writers who are doing just that thing and getting rich at it. I suppose they've squared their consciences somehow and are willing to write lies and misleading articles for what there is in it. I can't, that's all; I'm not built that way, and I told him so.
"It ended in an open break. He reminded me of the favors he had done me. He had treated me almost like a son, had introduced me to his family, entertaining me at his table. Where was my gratitude? That was another bad break on his part, for it made me mad. I told him I had not asked to be adopted or fed by him; if I had supposed his kindness had an ulterior motive, I would have seen him at the devil before I accepted a favor. My career as a financial visitor was ended. Get out of his office! I got. But the Trolley Combine did not go through. The Planet and the other papers kept up the fight and--and the widows and orphans are bankrupt, I presume."
Captain Elisha's pipe had gone out long since. He absently rubbed the warm bowl between his palms.
"Humph!" he muttered. "So 'Bije was deep in that business, was he?"
"He was. Very deep indeed, I found out afterwards. And, I declare, I almost pitied him at the time. He acted as if his whole fortune was staked on the gamble. His hands shook, and the perspiration stood on his forehead as he talked. I felt as if I had been the means of ruining him. But of course, I hadn't. He lived for some time after that, and, I understand, died a rich man."
"Yes. He left what I'd call a heap of money. My nephew and niece don't seem to think so, but I do."
"So you see, Captain, why I stopped calling on the Warrens, and why I did not accept Miss Warren's invitation."
"I see... I see... And yet I don't know. 'Bije may have took to you for business reasons, but the children didn't. They liked you for yourself. Caroline as much as said so. And their father never told 'em a word about the row, neither. Of course you couldn't have called when he was alive, but he's gone, and I'm--well, I'm sort of temporary skipper there now. And I want you to come."
"But if Miss Warren did know? She should know, I think."
"I ain't sure that she should. I guess there's consider'ble in her pa's life she ain't acquainted with. And she's as straight and honest and upright as a schooner's fo'mast. You did nothin' to be 'shamed of. It's the other way 'round, 'cordin' to my notion. But leave her out of it now. I've sacrificed some few things to take the job I've got at present, but I can't afford to sacrifice my friends. I count on you as a friend, and I want you to come and see me. Will you?"
"I don't know, Captain Warren. I must think it over a while, I guess."
"All right--think. But the invitation stands--my invitation. And, if you want to shift responsibility, shift it on to me. Some day, if it'll make you feel better, I'll tell Caroline and Stevie the whole story. But I want them to know you and the world--and me--a little better first. 'Cordin' to my notion, they need education just along that line. They've got teachers in other branches, but... There! I've got to be goin'. There's the dinner bell now."
The string of Japanese gongs, hung in the lower hall, sounded sonorously. Captain Elisha reached for his coat and hat, but Pearson caught his arm.
"No, you don't!" he declared. "You're going to stay and have lunch with me--here. If you say no, I shall believe it is because you are afraid of a boarding-house meal."
His guest protested, but the protests were overruled, and he and his host went down to the dining room. The captain whispered as they entered, "Land sakes, Jim, this takes me back home. It's pretty nigh a twin to the dinin' room at the Centre House in South Denboro."
All boarding-house dining rooms bear a family likeness, so the comment was not far wrong. A long table, rows of chairs on each side, ancient and honorable pictures on the walls, the landlady presiding majestically over the teapot, the boarders' napkins in rings--all the familiar landmarks were present.
Most of the male "regulars" were in business about the city and therefore lunched elsewhere, but the females were in evidence. Pearson introduced his guest. The captain met Mrs. Hepton, the landlady, plump, gray-haired, and graciously hospitable. She did not look at all like a business woman, but appearances are not always to be trusted; Mrs. Hepton had learned not to trust them--also delinquent boarders, too far. He met Miss Sherborne, whose coiffure did not match in spots, but whose voice, so he learned afterward, had been "cultivated abroad." Miss Sherborne gave music lessons. Mrs. Van Winkle Ruggles also claimed his attention and held it, principally because of the faded richness of her apparel. Mrs. Ruggles was a widow, suffering from financial reverses; the contrast between her present mode of living and the grandeur of the past formed her principal topic of conversation.
There were half a dozen others, including an artist whose aversion to barbers was proclaimed by the luxuriant length of his locks, a quiet old gentleman who kept the second-hand book store two doors below; his wife, a neat, trim little body; and Mr. and Mrs. C. Dickens, no less.
Mr. Dickens was bald, an affliction which he tried to conceal by brushing the hair at the sides of his head across the desert at the top. He shaved his cheeks and wore a beard and mustache. Mrs. Dickens addressed him as "C.," and handed him the sauce bottle, the bread, or whatever she imagined he desired, as if she were offering sacrifice to an idol.
She sat next to Captain Elisha and imparted information concerning her lord and master in whispers, during the intervals between offerings.
"My husband will be pleased to meet you, Captain Warren," she murmured. "Any friend of Mr. Pearson is certain to be an acquisition. Mr. Pearson and my husband are congenial spirits; they are members of the same profession."
"I want to know, ma'am."
"Yes. What is it, 'C.' dear? Oh, the butter! Margaret--" to the waitress--"Mr. Dickens wishes another butter-ball. Yes, Captain Warren, Mr. Dickens is an author. Haven't you noticed the--er--resemblance? It is considered quite remarkable."
Captain Elisha looked puzzled. "Why," he said, "I hadn't noticed it 'special. Jim's--Mr. Pearson's--eyes and his are some the same color, but--"
"Oh, no! not the resemblance to Mr. Pearson. I didn't mean that. The resemblance to his more famous namesake. Surely you notice it now."
The captain shook his head. "I--I'm afraid I'm thick-headed, ma'am," he admitted. "I'm out of soundin's."
"But the nose, and his beard, and his manner. Don't they remind you of the English Dickens?"
"O-oh!" Captain Elisha inspected the great man with interest. He had a vague memory of a portrait in a volume of "Pickwick" at home. "Oh, I see! Yes, yes."
"Of course you see! Everyone does. Mr. Dickens often says--it is one of his favorite jokes--that while other men must choose a profession, his was chosen for him by fate. How, with such a name, could he do anything except write?"
"I don't know, ma'am. But names are risky pilots, ain't they? I've run against a consider'ble number of Solomons, but there wa'n't one of 'em that carried more'n a deckload of wisdom. They christened me Elisha, but I can't even prophesy the weather with sartinty enough to bet. However, I daresay in your husband's case it's all right."
The lady had turned away, and he was afraid he might have offended her. The fear was groundless; she was merely offering another sacrifice, the sugar this time.
"Yes?" she asked, turning, "you were saying--"
"Why--er--nothin' of account. I cal'late the C. stands for Charles, then."
"No-o. Mr. Dickens's Christian name is Cornelius; but don't mention it before him, he is very sensitive on that point."
The Dickenses "tickled" the captain exceedingly, and, after the meal was over, he spoke of them to Pearson.
"Say," he said, "you're in notorious company, ain't you, Jim? What has Cornelius Charles turned out so far, in the way of masterpieces?"
Pearson laughed. "I believe he is employed by a subscription house," he replied. "Doing hack work on an encyclopedia. A great collection of freaks, aren't they, Captain Warren?"
"Kind of. But that old book-shop man and his wife seem nice folks. And, as for freaks, the average boardin' house, city or country, seems to draw 'em like flies. I guess most anybody would get queer if they boarded all the time."
"Perhaps so. Or, if they weren't queer, they wouldn't board permanently from choice. There are two or three good fellows who dine and breakfast here. The food isn't bad, considering the price."
"No, it ain't. Tasted more like home than any meal I've had for a good while. I'm afraid I never was cut out for swell livin'."
Mrs. Hepton approached them as they stood in the hall. She wished to know if Mr. Pearson's friend was thinking of finding lodgings. Because Mr. Saks--the artist's name--was giving up the second floor back in a fortnight, and it was a very pleasant room. "We should be delighted to add you to our little circle, Captain Warren."
Pearson told her that his companion was already lodged, and she said good-by and left them. The captain smiled broadly.
"Everything in New York seems to be circles," he declared. "Well, Jim, you come up and circulate with me, first chance you get. I'm dependin' on you to call, remember."
The young man was still doubtful.
"I'll see," he said. "I can't promise yet--perhaps I will."
"You will--after you've thought it out to a finish. And come soon. I'm gettin' interested in that second edition of your Uncle Jim, and I want to keep along with him as fast as you write. Good-by. Much obliged for the dinner--there I go again!--luncheon, I mean."