Cap'n Warren's Wards by Joseph Crosby Lincoln
Nine o'clock is an early hour for a New York lawyer of prominence to be at his place of business. Yet, when Captain Elisha asked the office boy of Sylvester, Kuhn and Graves if the senior partner was in, he received an affirmative answer.
"Yes, sir," said Tim, respectfully. His manner toward the captain had changed surprisingly since the latter's first call. "Yes, sir; Mr. Sylvester's in. He expects you. I'll tell him you're here. Sit down and wait, please."
Captain Elisha sat down, but he did not have to wait long. The boy returned at once and ushered him into the private office. Sylvester welcomed him gravely.
"You got my message, then," he said. "I spent hours last evening chasing you by 'phone. And I was prepared to begin again this morning."
"So? That's why you're on deck so early? Didn't sleep here, did you? Well, I cal'late I know what you want to talk about. You ain't the only one that reads the newspapers."
"The newspapers? Great heavens! it isn't in the newspapers, is it? It can't be!"
He seemed much perturbed. Captain Elisha looked puzzled.
"Course it is," he said. "But I heard it afore I saw it. Perhaps you think I take it pretty easy. Maybe I act as if I did. But you expected it, and so did I, so we ain't exactly surprised. And," seriously, "I realize that it's no joke as well as you do. But we've got a year to fight in, and now we must plan the campaign. I did cal'late to see Caroline this mornin'. Then, if I heard from her own lips that 'twas actually so, I didn't know's I wouldn't drop in and give Sister Corcoran-Queen-Victoria-Dunn a few plain facts about it not bein' a healthy investment to hurry matters. You're wantin' to see me headed me off, and I come here instead."
The lawyer looked at him in astonishment.
"See here, Captain Warren," he demanded, "what do you imagine I asked you to come here for?"
"Why, to talk about that miserable engagement, sartin. Poor girl! I've been awake ha'f the night thinkin' of the mess she's been led into. And she believes she's happy, I suppose."
Sylvester shook his head. "I see," he said, slowly. "You would think it that, naturally. No, Captain, it isn't the engagement. It's more serious than that."
"More serious than--more serious! Why, what on earth? Hey? Mr. Sylvester, has that rock-lighthouse business come to somethin' after all?"
The lawyer nodded. "It has," he replied.
"I want to know! And I'd almost forgot it, not hearin' from you. It's a rock, too, I judge, by the looks of your face. Humph!... Is it very bad?"
"I'm afraid so."
The captain pulled his beard. "Well," he said, wearily, after a moment, "I guess likely I can bear it. I've had to bear some things in my time. Anyhow, I'll try. Heave ahead and get it over with. I'm ready."
Instead of answering, Sylvester pushed an electric button on his desk. The office boy answered the ring.
"Have Mr. Kuhn and Mr. Graves arrived?" asked the lawyer.
"Yes, sir. Both of them, sir."
"Tell them Captain Warren is here, and ask them to join us in the inner room. Remind Mr. Graves to bring the papers. And, Tim, remember that none of us is to be disturbed. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," said Tim and departed.
Captain Elisha regarded his friend with some dismay.
"Say!" he exclaimed, "this must be serious, if it takes the skipper and both mates to handle it."
Sylvester did not smile. "It is," he answered. "Come."
He led the way into the room opening from the rear of his own. It was a large apartment with a long table in the center. Mr. Kuhn, brisk and business-like, was already there. He shook hands with his client. As he did so, Graves, dignified and precise as ever, entered, carrying a small portfolio filled with papers.
"Mornin', Mr. Graves," said the captain; "glad to see you, even under such distressin' circumstances, as the undertaker said to the sick man. Feelin' all right again, I hope. No more colds or nothin' like that?"
"No. Thank you. I am quite well, at present."
"That's hearty. If you and me don't do any more buggy ridin' in Cape Cod typhoons, we'll last a spell yet, hey? What you got there, the death warrant?" referring to the portfolio and its contents.
Mr. Graves evidently did not consider this flippancy worth a reply, for he made none.
"Sit down, gentlemen," said Sylvester.
The four took chairs at the table. Graves untied and opened the portfolio. Captain Elisha looked at his solemn companions, and his lips twitched.
"You'll excuse me," he observed, "but I feel as if I was goin' to be tried for piracy on the high seas. Has the court any objection to tobacco smoke? I'm puttin' the emphasis strong on the 'tobacco,'" he added, "because this is a cigar you give me yourself, Mr. Sylvester, last time I was down here."
"No, indeed," replied the senior partner. "Smoke, if you wish. No one here has any objection, unless it may be Graves."
"Oh, Mr. Graves ain't. He and I fired up together that night we fust met. Hot smoke tasted grateful after all the cold water we'd had poured onto us in that storm. Graves is all right. He's a sportin' character, like myself. Maybe he'll jine us. Got another cigar in my pocket."
But the invitation was declined. The "sporting character" might deign to relax amid proper and fitting surroundings, but not in the sacred precincts of his office. So the captain smoked alone.
"Well," he observed, after a few preliminary puffs, "go on! Don't keep me in suspenders, as the feller said. Where did the lightnin' strike, and what's the damage?"
Sylvester took a card from his pocket and referred to a penciled memorandum on its back.
"Captain Warren," he began, slowly, "as you know, and as directed by you, my partners here and I have been engaged for months in carefully going over your brother's effects, estimating values, tabulating and sorting his various properties and securities, separating the good from the worthless--and there was, as we saw at a glance, a surprising amount of the latter--"
"Um-hm," interrupted the captain, "Cut Short bonds and the like of that. I know. Excuse me. Go on."
"Yes. Precisely. And there were many just as valueless. But we have been gradually getting those out of the way and listing and appraising the remainder. It was a tangle. Your brother's business methods, especially of late years, were decidedly unsystematic and slipshod. It may have been the condition of his health which prevented his attending to them as he should. Or," he hesitated slightly, "it may have been that he was secretly in great trouble and mental distress. At all events, the task has been a hard one for us. But, largely owing to Graves and his patient work, our report was practically ready a month ago."
He paused. Captain Elisha, who had been listening attentively, nodded.
"Yes," he said; "you told me 'twas. What does the whole thing tot up to? What's the final figger, Mr. Graves?"
The junior partner adjusted his eyeglasses to his thin nose.
"I have them here," he said. "The list of securities, et cetera, is rather long, but--"
"Never mind them now, Graves," interrupted Kuhn. "The amount, roughly speaking, is close to over our original estimate, half a million."
The captain drew a breath of relief. "Well," he exclaimed, "that's all right then, ain't it? That's no poorhouse pension."
Sylvester answered. "Yes," he said, "that's all right, as far as it goes."
"Humph! Well, I cal'late I could make it go to the end of the route; and then have enough left for a return ticket. Say!" with another look at the solemn faces of the three, "what is the row? If the estate is wuth ha'f a million, what's the matter with it?"
"That is what we are here this morning to discuss, Captain. A month ago, as I said, we considered our report practically ready. Then we suddenly happened on the trail of something which, upon investigation, upset all our calculations. If true, it threatened, not to mention its effect upon the estate, to prove so distressing and painful to us, Rodgers Warren's friends and legal advisers, that we decided not to alarm you, his brother, by disclosing our suspicions until we were sure there was no mistake. I did drop you a hint, you will remember--"
"I remember. Now we're comin' to the rock!"
"Yes. Captain Warren, I think perhaps I ought to warn you that what my partners and I are about to say will shock and hurt you. I, personally, knew your brother well and respected him as an honorable business man. A lawyer learns not to put too much trust in human nature, but, I confess, this--this--"
He was evidently greatly disturbed. Captain Elisha, regarding him intently, nodded.
"I judge it's sort of hard for you to go on, Mr. Sylvester," he said. "I'll help you all I can. You and Mr. Kuhn and Mr. Graves here have found out somethin' that ain't exactly straight in 'Bije's doin's? Am I right?"
"Yes, Captain Warren, you are."
"Somethin' that don't help his character, hey?"
"Somethin's he's, done that's--well, to speak plain, that's crooked?"
"I'm afraid there's no doubt of it."
"Humph!" The captain frowned. His cigar had gone out, and he idly twisted the stump between his fingers. "Well," he said, with a sigh, "our family, gen'rally speakin', has always held its head pretty high. Dad was poor, but he prided himself on bein' straight as a plumb line. And, as for mother, she... " Then, looking up quickly, he asked, "Does anybody outside know about this?"
"No one but ourselves--yet."
"Yet? Is it goin' to be necessary for anybody else to know it?"
"We hope not. But there is a possibility."
"I was thinkin' about the children."
"Of course. So are we all."
"Um-hm. Poor Caroline! she put her father on a sort of altar and bowed down afore him, as you might say. Any sort of disgrace to his name would about kill her. As for me," with another sigh, "I ain't so much surprised as you might think. I know that sounds tough to say about your own brother, but I've been afraid all along. You see, 'Bije always steered pretty close to the edge of the channel. He had ideas about honesty and fair dealin' in business that didn't jibe with mine. We split on just that, as I told you, Mr. Graves, when you and I fust met. He got some South Denboro folks to invest money along with him; sort of savin's account, they figgered it; but I found out he was usin' it to speculate with. So that's why we had our row. I took pains to see that the money was paid back, but he and I never spoke afterwards. Fur as my own money was concerned, I hadn't any kick, but... However, I'm talkin' too much. Go on, Mr. Sylvester, I'm ready to hear whatever you've got to say."
"Thank you, Captain. You make it easier for me. It seems that your brother's first step toward wealth and success was taken about nineteen years ago. Then, somehow or other, probably through a combination of luck and shrewdness, he obtained a grant, a concession from the Brazilian Government, the long term lease of a good-sized tract of land on the upper Amazon. It was very valuable because of its rubber trees."
"Hey?" Captain Elisha leaned forward. "Say that again!" he commanded sharply.
Sylvester repeated his statement. "He got the concession by paying twenty thousand dollars to the government of Brazil," he continued. "To raise the twenty thousand he formed a stock company of two hundred and fifty shares at one hundred dollars each. One hundred of these shares were in his own name. Fifty were in the name of one 'Thomas A. Craven,' a clerk at that time in his office. Craven was only a dummy, however. Do you understand what I mean by a dummy?"
"I can guess. Sort of a wooden image that moved when 'Bije pulled the strings. Like one of these straw directors that clutter up the insurance companies, 'cordin' to the papers. Yes, yes; I understand well enough. Go ahead! go ahead!"
"That's it. The fifty shares were in Craven's name, but they were transferred in blank and in Mr. Warren's safe. Together with his own hundred, they gave him control and a voting majority. That much we know by the records."
"I see. But this rubber con--contraption wa'n't really wuth anything, was it?"
"Worth anything! Captain Warren, I give you my word that it was worth more than all the rest of the investments that your brother made during his lifetime."
"No!" The exclamation was almost a shout.
"Why, yes, decidedly more. Does that surprise you, Captain?"
Captain Elisha did not answer. He was regarding the lawyer with a dazed expression. He breathed heavily.
"What's the matter?" demanded the watchful Kuhn, his gaze fixed upon his client's face. "Do you know anything--"
The captain interrupted him. "Go on!" he commanded. "But tell me this fust: What was the name of this rubber concern of 'Bije's?"
"The Akrae Rubber Company."
"I see.... Yes, yes.... Akry, hey!... Well, what about it? Tell me the rest."
"For the first year or two this company did nothing. Then, in March, of the third year, the property was released by Mr. Warren to persons in Para, who were to develop and operate. The terms of his new lease were very advantageous. Royalties were to be paid on a sliding scale, and, from the very first, they were large. The Akrae Company paid enormous dividends."
"Did, hey? I want to know!"
"Yes. In fact, for twelve years the company's royalties averaged $50,000 yearly."
"Whe-e-w!" Captain Elisha whistled. "Fifty thousand a year!" he repeated slowly. "'Bije! 'Bije!"
"Yes. And three years ago the Akrae Company sold its lease, sold out completely to the Para people, for seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars."
"Godfreys mighty! Well," after a moment, "that's what I'd call a middlin' fair profit on a twenty thousand dollar investment--not to mention the dividends."
"Captain," Sylvester leaned forward now; "Captain," he repeated, "it is that sale and the dividends which are troubling us. I told you that the Akrae Company was organized with two hundred and fifty shares of stock. Your brother held one hundred in his own name and fifty transferred to him by his dummy, Craven. What I did not tell you was that there were another hundred shares, held by someone, someone who paid ten thousand dollars for them--we know that--and was, therefore, entitled to two-fifths of every dollar earned by the company during its existence, and two-fifths of the amount received for the sale of the lease. So far as we can find out, this stockholder has never received one cent."
The effect of this amazing announcement upon the uniniated member of the council was not as great as the lawyers expected it to be. "You don't tell me!" was his sole comment.
Graves broke in impatiently: "I think, Captain Warren," he declared, "that you probably do not realize what this means. Besides proving your brother dishonest, it means that this stockholder, whoever he may have been--"
"Hey? What's that? Don't you know who he was?"
"No, we do not. The name upon the stub of the transfer book has been scratched out."
Captain Elisha looked the speaker in the face, then slowly turned his look upon the other two faces.
"Scratched out?" he repeated. "Who scratched it out?"
Graves shrugged his shoulders.
"Yes, yes," said the captain. "You don't know, but we're all entitled to guess, hey?... Humph!"
"If this person is living," began Sylvester, "it follows that--"
"Hold on a minute! I don't know much about corporations, of course--that's more in your line than 'tis in mine--but I want to ask one question. You say this what-d'ye-call-it--this Akrae thingamajig--was sold out, hull, canvas and riggin', to a crowd in Brazil? It's gone out of business then? It's dead?"
"Wait! Ain't it customary, when a sale like this is made, to turn over all the stock, certificates and all? Sometimes you get stock in the new company in exchange; I know that. But to complete the trade, wouldn't this extry hundred shares be turned in? Or some sharp questionin' done if 'twa'n't?"
He addressed the query to Sylvester. The latter seemed more troubled than before.
"That," he said with some hesitation, "is one of the delicate points in this talk of ours, Captain Warren. A certificate for the missing hundred shares was turned in. It was dated at the time of the original issue, made out in the name of one Edward Bradley, and transferred on the back by him to your brother. That is, it was presumably so transferred."
"Presumably. Pre-sumably? You mean--?"
"I mean that this certificate is--well, let us say, rather queer. To begin with, no one knows who this Bradley is, or was. His name appears nowhere except on that certificate, unless, of course, it did appear on the stub where the scratching has been done; we doubt that, for reasons. Nobody ever heard of the man; and his transfer to your brother was made, and the certificate signed by him, only three years ago, when the Akrae Company sold out. It will take too long to go into details; but thanks to the kindness of the Para concern, which has offices in this city--we have been able to examine this Bradley certificate. Experts have examined it, also. And they tell us--"
"Well, what do they tell?" demanded the captain.
"They tell us that--that, in their opinion, the certificate was never issued at the time when, by this date, it presumes to have been. It was made out no longer ago than five years, probably less. The signature of Bradley on the back is--is--well, I hate to say it, Captain Warren, but the handwriting on that signature resembles very closely that of your brother."
Captain Elisha was silent for some moments. The others did not speak, but waited. Even Graves, between whom and his client there was little in common, felt the general sympathy.
At length the captain raised his head.
"Well," he said slowly, "we ain't children. We might as well call things by their right names. 'Bije forged that certificate."
"I'm afraid there is no doubt of it."
"Dear! dear! dear! Why, they put folks in state's, prison for that!"
"Yes. But a dead man is beyond prisons."
"That's so. Then I don't see--"
"You will. You don't grasp the full meaning of this affair even yet. If the Bradley certificate is a forgery, a fraud from beginning to end, then the presumption is that there was never any such person as Bradley. But someone paid ten thousand dollars for one hundred Akrae shares when the company was formed. That certificate has never been turned in. Some person or persons, somewhere, hold one hundred shares of Akrae Rubber Company stock. Think, now! Suppose that someone turns up and demands all that he has been cheated out of for the past seventeen years! Think of that!"
"Well... I am thinkin' of it. I got the scent of what you was drivin' at five minutes ago. And I don't see that we need to be afraid. He could have put 'Bije in jail; but 'Bije is already servin' a longer sentence than he could give him. So that disgrace ain't bearin' down on us. And, if I understand about such things, his claim is against the Akrae Company, and that's dead--dead as the man that started it. Maybe he could put in a keeper, or a receiver, or some such critter, but there's nothin' left to keep or receive. Ain't I right?"
"You are. Or you would be, but for one thing, the really inexplicable thing in this whole miserable affair. Your brother, Captain Warren, was dishonest. He took money that didn't belong to him, and he forged that certificate. But he must have intended to make restitution. He must have been conscience-stricken and more to be pitied, perhaps, than condemned. No doubt, when he first began to withhold the dividends and use the money which was not his, he intended merely to borrow. He was always optimistic and always plunging in desperate and sometimes rather shady speculations which, he was sure, would turn out favorably. If they had--if, for instance, the South Shore Trolley Combine had been put through--You knew of that, did you?"
"I've been told somethin' about it. Go on!"
"Well, it was not put through, so his hopes there were frustrated. And that was but one of his schemes. However, when the sale of the Company was consummated, he did an extraordinary thing. He made out and signed his personal note, payable to the Akrae Company, for every cent he had misappropriated. And we found that note in his safe after his death. That was what first aroused our suspicions. Now, Captain Warren, do you understand?"
Captain Elisha did not understand, that was evident. His look of wondering amazement traveled from one face to the others about the table.
"A note!" he repeated. "'Bije put his note in the safe? A note promisin' to pay all he'd stole! And left it there where it could be found? Why, that's pretty nigh unbelievable, Mr. Sylvester! He might just as well have confessed his crookedness and be done with it."
"Yes. It is unbelievable, but it is true. Graves can show you the note."
The junior partner produced a slip of paper from the portfolio and regarded it frowningly.
"Of all the pieces of sheer lunacy," he observed, "that ever came under my observation, this is the worst. Here it is, Captain Warren."
He extended the paper. Captain Elisha waved it aside.
"I don't want to see it--not yet," he protested. "I want to think. I want to get at the reason if I can. Why did he do it?"
"That is what we've been tryin' to find--the reason," remarked Kuhn, "and we can only guess. Sylvester has told you the guess. Rodgers Warren intended, or hoped, to make restitution before he died."
"Yes. Knowin' 'Bije, I can see that. He was weak, that was his main trouble. He didn't mean to be crooked, but his knees wa'n't strong enough to keep him straight when it come to a hard push. But he made his note payable to a Company that was already sold out, so it ain't good for nothin'. Now, why--"
Graves struck the table with his open hand.
"He doesn't understand at all," he exclaimed, impatiently. "Captain Warren, listen! That note is made payable to the Akrae Company. Against that company some unknown stockholder has an apparent claim for two-fifths of all dividends ever paid and two-fifths of the seven hundred and fifty thousand received for the sale. With accrued interest, that claim amounts to over five hundred thousand dollars."
"That note binds Rodgers Warren's estate to pay that claim. His own personal estate! And that estate is not worth over four hundred and sixty thousand dollars! If this stockholder should appear and press his claim, your brother's children would be, not only penniless, but thirty thousand dollars in debt! There! I think that is plain enough!"
He leaned back, grimly satisfied with the effect of his statement. Captain Elisha stared straight before him, unseeingly, the color fading from his cheeks. Then he put both elbows on the table and covered his face with his hands.
"You see, Captain," said Sylvester, gently, "how very serious the situation is. Graves has put it bluntly, but what he says is literally true. If your brother had deliberately planned to hand his children over to the mercy of that missing stockholder, he couldn't have done it more completely."
Slowly the captain raised his head. His expression was a strange one; agitated and shocked, but with a curious look of relief, almost of triumph.
"At last!" he said, solemnly. "At last! Now it's all plain!"
"All?" repeated Sylvester. "You mean--?"
"I mean everything, all that's been puzzlin' me and troublin' my head since the very beginnin'. All of it! Now I know why! Oh, 'Bije! 'Bije! 'Bije!"
Kuhn spoke quickly.
"Captain," he said, "I believe you know who the owner of that one hundred shares is. Do you?"
Captain Elisha gravely nodded.
"Yes," he answered. "I know him."
"Who is it?"
The questions were blurted out together. The captain looked at the three excited faces. He hesitated and then, taking the stub of a pencil from his pocket, drew toward him a memorandum pad lying on the table and wrote a line upon the uppermost sheet. Tearing off the page, he tossed it to Sylvester.
"That's the name," he said.