Cap'n Warren's Wards by Joseph Crosby Lincoln
Two more hours passed before the lawyers and their client rose from their seats about the long table. Even then the consultation was not at an end. Sylvester and the Captain lunched together at the Central Club and sat in the smoking room until after four, talking earnestly. When they parted, the attorney was grave and troubled.
"All right, Captain Warren," he said; "I'll do it. And you may be right. I certainly hope you are. But I must confess I don't look forward to my task with pleasure. I think I've got the roughest end."
"It'll be rough, there's no doubt about that. Rough for all hands, I guess. And I hope you understand, Mr. Sylvester, that there ain't many men I'd trust to do what I ask you to. I appreciate your doin' it more'n I can tell you. Be as--as gentle as you can, won't you?"
"I will. You can depend upon that."
"I do. And I sha'n't forget it. Good-by, till the next time."
They shook hands. Captain Elisha returned to the boarding house, where he found a letter awaiting him. It was from Caroline, telling him of her engagement to Malcolm Dunn. She wrote that, while not recognizing his right to interfere in any way, she felt that perhaps he should know of her action. He did not go down to supper, and, when Pearson came to inquire the reason, excused himself, pleading a late luncheon and no appetite. He guessed he would turn in early, so he said. It was a poor guess.
Next morning he went uptown. Edwards, opening the door of the Warren apartment, was surprised to find who had rung the bell.
"Mornin', Commodore!" hailed the captain, as casually as if he were merely returning from a stroll. "Is Miss Caroline aboard ship?"
"Why--why, I don't know, sir. I'll see."
"That's all right. She's aboard or you wouldn't have to see. You and me sailed together quite a spell, so I know your little habits. I'll wait in the library, Commodore. Tell her there's no particular hurry."
His niece was expecting him. She had anticipated his visit and was prepared for it. From the emotion caused by his departure after the eventful birthday, she had entirely recovered, or thought she had. The surprise and shock of his leaving and the consequent sense of loneliness and responsibility overcame her at the time, but Stephen's ridicule and Mrs. Corcoran Dunn's congratulations on riddance from the "encumbrance" shamed her and stilled the reproaches of her conscience. Mrs. Dunn, as always, played the diplomat and mingled just the proper quantity of comprehending sympathy with the congratulations.
"I understand exactly how you feel, my dear," she said. "You have a tender heart, and it pains you to hurt anyone's feelings, no matter how much they deserve to be hurt. Every time I dismiss an incompetent or dishonest servant I feel that I have done wrong; sometimes I cry, actually shed tears, you know, and yet my reason tells me I am right. You feel that you may have been too harsh with that guardian of yours. You remember what you said to him and forget how hypocritically he behaved toward you. I can't forgive him that. I may forget how he misrepresented Malcolm and me to you--that I may even pardon, in time--but to deceive his own brother's children and introduce into their society a creature who had slandered and maligned their father--that I never shall forget or forgive. And--you'll excuse my frankness, dear--you should never forget or forgive it, either. You have nothing with which to reproach yourself. You were a brave girl, and if you are not proud of yourself, I am proud of you."
So, when her uncle was announced, Caroline was ready. She entered the library and acknowledged his greeting with a distant bow. He regarded her kindly, but his manner was grave.
"Well, Caroline," he began, "I got your letter."
"Yes, I presumed you did."
"Um-hm. I got it. It didn't surprise me, what you wrote, because I'd seen the news in the papers; but I was hopin' you'd tell me yourself, and I'm real glad you did. I'm much obliged to you."
She had not expected him to take this tone, and it embarrassed her.
"I--I gave you my reasons for writing," she said. "Although I do not consider that I am, in any sense, duty bound to refer matters, other than financial, to you; and, although my feelings toward you have not changed--still, you are my guardian, and--and--"
"I understand. So you're really engaged?"
"Engaged to Mr. Dunn?"
"And you're cal'latin' to marry him?"
"One might almost take that for granted," impatiently.
"Almost--yes. Not always, but generally, I will give in. You're goin' to marry Malcolm Dunn. Why?"
"Why?" she repeated the question as if she doubted his sanity.
"Yes. Be as patient with me as you can, Caroline. I ain't askin' these things without what seems to me a good reason. Why are you goin' to marry him?"
"Why because I choose, I suppose."
"Um-hm. Are you sure of that?"
"Am I sure?" indignantly. "What do you mean?"
"I mean are you sure that it's because you choose, or because he does, or maybe, because his mother does?"
She turned angrily away. "If you came here to insult me--" she began. He interrupted her.
"No, no," he protested gently. "Insultin' you is the last thing I want to do. But, as your father did put you in my charge, I want you to bear with me while we talk this over together. Remember, Caroline, I ain't bothered you a great deal lately. I shouldn't now if I hadn't thought 'twas necessary. So please don't get mad, but answer me this: Do you care for this man you've promised to marry?"
This was a plain question. It should have been answered without the slightest hesitation. Moreover, the girl had expected him to ask it. Yet, for a moment, she did hesitate.
"I mean," continued Captain Elisha, "do you care for him enough?" Enough to live with him all your life, and see him every day, and be to him what a true wife ought to be? See him, not with his company manners on or in his automobile, but at the breakfast table, and when he comes home tired and cross, maybe. When you've got to be forbearin' and forgivin' and--"
"He is one of my oldest and best friends--" she interrupted. Her uncle went on without waiting for her to end the sentence.
"I know," he said. "One of the oldest, that's sure. But friendship, 'cordin' to my notion, is somethin' so small in comparison that it hardly counts in the manifest. Married folks ought to be friends, sartin sure; but they ought to be a whole lot more'n that. I'm an old bach, you say, and ain't had no experience. That's true; but I've been young, and there was a time when I made plans... However, she died, and it never come to nothin'. But I know what it means to be engaged, the right kind of engagement. It means that you don't count yourself at all, not a bit. You're ready, each of you, to give up all you've got--your wishes, comfort, money and what it'll buy, and your life, if it should come to that, for that other one. Do you care for Malcolm Dunn like that, Caroline?"
She answered defiantly.
"Yes, I do," she said.
"You do. Well, do you think he feels the same way about you?"
"Yes," with not quite the same promptness, but still defiantly.
"You feel sartin of it, do you?"
She stamped her foot. "Yes! yes! yes!" she cried. "Oh, do say what you came to say, and end it!"
Her uncle rose to his feet.
"Why, I guess likely I've said it," he observed. "When two people care for each other like that, they ought to be married, and the sooner the better. I knew that you'd been lonesome and troubled, maybe; and some of the friends you used to have had kind of dropped away--busy with other affairs, which is natural enough--and, you needin' sympathy and companionship, I was sort of worried for fear all this had influenced you more'n it ought to, and you'd been led into sayin' yes without realizin' what it meant. But you tell me that ain't so; you do realize. So all I can say is that I'm awful glad for you. God bless you, my dear! I hope you'll be as happy as the day is long."
His niece gazed at him, bewildered and incredulous. This she had not expected.
"Thank you," she stammered. "I did not know--I thought--"
"Of course you did--of course. Well, then, Caroline, I guess that's all. I won't trouble you any longer. Good-by."
He turned toward the door, but stopped, hesitated, and turned back again.
"There is just one thing more," he said solemnly. "I don't know's I ought to speak, but--I want to--and I'm goin' to. And I want you to believe it! I do want you to!"
He was so earnest, and the look he gave her was so strange, that she began to be alarmed.
"What is it?" she demanded.
"Why--why, just this, Caroline. This is a tough old world we live in. Things don't always go on in it as we think they'd ought to. Trouble comes to everybody, and when it all looks right sometimes it turns out to be all wrong. If--if there should come a time like that to you and Steve, I want you to remember that you've got me to turn to. No matter what you think of me, what folks have made you think of me, just remember that I'm waitin' and ready to help you all I can. Any time I'm ready--and glad. Just remember that, won't you, because... Well, there! Good-by, Good-by!"
He hurried away. She stood gazing after him, astonished, a little frightened, and not a little disturbed and touched. His emotion was so evident; his attitude toward her engagement was so different from that which she had anticipated; and there was something in his manner which she could not understand. He had acted as if he pitied her. Why? It could not be because she was to marry Malcolm Dunn. If it were that, she resented his pity, of course. But it could not be that, because he had given her his blessing. What was it? Was there something else; something that she did not know and he did? Why was he so kind and forbearing and patient?
All her old doubts and questionings returned. She had resolutely kept them from her thoughts, but they had been there, in the background, always. When, after the long siege, she had at last yielded and said yes to Malcolm, she felt that that question, at least, was settled. She would marry him. He was one whom she had known all her life, the son of the dearest friend she had; he and his mother had been faithful at the time when she needed friends. As her husband, he would protect her and give her the affection and companionship she craved. He might appear careless and indifferent at times, but that was merely his manner. Had not Mrs. Dunn told her over and over again what a good son he was, and what a kind heart he had, and how he worshiped her? Oh, she ought to be a very happy girl! Of course she was happy. But why had her uncle looked at her as he did? And what did he mean by hinting that when things looked right they sometimes were all wrong? She wished Malcolm was with her then; she needed him.
She heard the clang of the elevator door. Then the bell rang furiously. She heard Edwards hasten to answer it. Then, to her amazement, she heard her brother's voice.
"Caroline!" demanded Stephen. "Caroline! Where are you?"
He burst into the room, still wearing his coat and hat, and carrying a traveling bag in his hand.
"Why, Steve!" she said, going toward him. "Why, Steve! what--"
He was very much excited.
"Oh!" he exclaimed, "you're all right then! You are all right, aren't you?
"All right? Why shouldn't I be all right? What do you mean? And why are you here?"
He returned her look of surprise with one of great astonishment.
"Why am I here?" he repeated.
"Yes. Why did you come from New Haven?"
"Why, because I got the telegram, of course! You expected me to come, didn't you?"
"I expected you? Telegram? What telegram?"
"Why, the--Good Lord, Caro! what are you talking about? Didn't you know they telegraphed me to come home at once? I've pretty nearly broke my neck, and the taxicab man's, getting here from the station. I thought you must be very ill, or something worse."
"They telegraphed you to come here? Who... Edwards, you may take Mr. Warren's things to his room."
"Just a moment, Steve. Give Edwards your coat and hat. Yes, and your bag. That will be all, Edwards. We sha'n't need you."
When they were alone, she turned again to her brother.
"Now, Steve," she said, "sit down and tell me what you mean. Who telegraphed you?"
"Why, old Sylvester, father's lawyer. I've got the message here somewhere. No, never mind! I've lost it, I guess. He wired me to come home as early as possible this morning. Said it was very important. And you didn't know anything about it?"
"No, not a thing. What can it mean?"
"I don't know! That's the bell, isn't it? Edwards!"
But the butler was already on his way to the door. A moment later he returned.
"Mr. Sylvester," he announced.
Captain Elisha scarcely left his room, except for meals, during the remainder of that day and for two days thereafter. He was unusually silent at table and avoided conversation even with Pearson, who was depressed and gloomy and made no attempt to force his society upon his friend. Once, passing the door of the latter's room, he heard the captain pacing back and forth as if he were walking the quarter-deck of one of his old ships. As Pearson stood listening the footsteps ceased; silence, then a deep sigh, and they began again. The young man sighed in sympathy and wearily climbed to his den. The prospect of chimneys and roofs across the way was never more desolate or more pregnant with discouragement.
Several times Captain Elisha descended to the closet where the telephone was fastened to the wall and held long conversations with someone. Mrs. Hepton, who knew that her newest boarder was anxious and disturbed, and was very curious to learn the reason, made it a point to be busy near that closet while these conversations took place; but, as the captain was always careful to close the door, she was disappointed. Once the mysterious Mr. Sylvester called up and asked for "Captain Warren," and the landlady hastened with the summons.
"I hope it's nothing serious," she observed, feelingly.
"Yes, ma'am," replied the captain, on his way to the stairs. "Much obliged."
"It is the same person who was so very anxious to get you the other night," she continued, making desperate efforts not to be left behind in the descent. "I declare he quite frightened me! And--you'll excuse me, Captain Warren, but I take such a real friendly interest in my boarders--you have seemed to me rather--rather upset lately, and I do hope it isn't bad news."
"Well, I tell you, ma'am," was the unsatisfactory answer, given just before the closet door closed; "we'll do the way the poor relation did when he got word his uncle had willed him one of his suits of clothes--we'll hope for the best."
Sylvester had a report to make.
"The other party has been here," he said. "He has just gone."
"The other party? Why--you don't mean--him?"
"Was he alone? Nobody along to look after him?"
"He was alone, for a wonder. He had heard the news, too. Apparently had just learned it."
"He had? I want to know! Who told him?"
"He didn't say. He was very much agitated. Wouldn't say anything except to ask if it was true. I think we can guess who told him."
"Maybe. Well, what did you say?"
"Nothing of importance. I refused to discuss my clients' affairs."
"Right you are! How did he take that?"
"He went up like a sky-rocket. Said he had a right to know, under the circumstances. I admitted it, but said I could tell him nothing--yet. He went away frantic, and I called you."
"Um-hm. Well, Mr. Sylvester, suppose you do see him and his boss. See 'em and tell 'em some of the truth. Don't tell too much though; not who was to blame nor how, but just that it looks pretty bad so fur as the estate's concerned. Then say you want to see 'em again and will arrange another interview. Don't set any time and place for that until you hear from me. Understand?"
"I think so, partially. But--"
"Until you hear from me--that's the important part. And, if you can, convenient, I'd have the fust interview right off; this afternoon, if it's possible."
"Captain, what have you got up your sleeve? Why don't you come down here and talk it over?"
"'Cause I'm stickin' close aboard and waitin' developments. Maybe there won't be any, but I'm goin' to wait a spell and see. There ain't much up my sleeve just now but goose-flesh; there's plenty of that. So long."
A development came that evening. Mrs. Hepton heralded it.
"Captain," she said, when he answered her knock, "there's a young gentleman to see you. I think he must be a relative of yours. His name is Warren."
Captain Elisha pulled his beard. "A young gentleman?" he repeated.
"Yes. I showed him into the parlor. There will be no one there but you and he, and I thought it would be more comfortable."
"Um-hm. I see. Well, I guess you'd better send him up. This is comfortable enough, and there won't be nobody but him and me here, either--and I'll be more sartin of it."
The landlady, who considered herself snubbed, flounced away. Captain Elisha stepped to the head of the stairs.
"Come right up, Steve!" he called.
Stephen came. His uncle ushered him into the room, closed the door, and turned the key.
"Stevie," he said, kindly, "I'm glad to see you. Take off your things and set down."
The boy accepted the invitation only to the extent of throwing his hat on the table. He did not sit or remove his overcoat. He was pale, his eyes were swollen and red, his hair was disarranged, and in all respects he looked unlike his usual blase and immaculate self. His forehead was wet, showing that he had hurried on his way to the boarding house.
The captain regarded him pityingly.
"Set down, Stevie," he urged. "You're all het up and worn out."
His nephew paid no attention. Instead he asked a question.
"You know about it?" he demanded.
"Yes, Stevie; I know."
"You do? I--I mean about the--the Akrae Company and--and all?"
"Yes. I know all about all of it. Do set down!"
Stephen struck his closed fist into the palm of his other hand. He wore one glove. What had become of the other he could not have told.
"You do?" he shouted. "You do? By gad! Then do you know what it means?"
"Yes, I know that, too. Now, Stevie, be a good boy and set down and keep cool. Yes, I want you to."
He put his hands on his nephew's shoulders and forced him into a chair.
"Now, just calm yourself," urged the captain. "There ain't a mite of use workin' yourself up this way. I know the whole business, and I can't tell you--I can't begin to tell you how sorry I feel for you. Yet you mustn't give up the ship because--"
"Mustn't give up!" Stephen was on his feet again. "Why, what are you talking about? I thought you said you knew! Do you think that losing every cent you've got in the world is a joke? Do you think that--See here, do you know who this shareholder is; this fellow who's going to rob us of all we own? Who is he?"
"Didn't Mr. Sylvester tell you?"
"He said that there was such a man and that he had the estate cinched. He told us about that note and all the rest. But he wouldn't tell the man's name. Said he had been forbidden to mention it. Do you know him? What sort of fellow is he? Don't you think he could be reasoned with? Hasn't he got any decency--or pity--or--"
He choked, and the tears rushed to his eyes. He wiped them angrily away with the back of his glove.
"It's a crime!" he cried. "Can't he be held off somehow? Who is he? I want to know his name."
Captain Elisha sadly shook his head. "I'm afraid he can't, Stevie," he said. "He's got a legal right to all 'Bije left, and more, too. It may be he won't be too hard; perhaps he'll... but there," hastily. "I mustn't say that. We've got to face the situation as 'tis. And I can't tell you his name because he don't want it mentioned unless it's absolutely necessary. And we don't, either. We don't want--any of us--to have this get into the papers. We mustn't have any disgrace."
"Disgrace! Good heavens! Isn't there disgrace enough already? Isn't it enough to know father was a crook as well as an idiot? I've always thought he was insane ever since that crazy will of his came to light; but to steal! and then to leave a paper proving it, so that we've got to lose everything! His children! It's--"
"Now hold on, boy! Your dad didn't mean to take what didn't belong to him--for good, that is; the note proves that. He did do wrong and used another man's money, but--"
"Then why didn't he keep it? If you're going to steal, steal like a man, I say!"
"Steve, Steve! steady now!" The captain's tone was sterner. "Don't speak that way. You'll be sorry for it later. I tell you I don't condemn your father ha'f so much as I pity him."
"Oh, shut up! You make me sick. You talk just as Caro does. I'll never forgive him, no matter how much she preaches, and I told her so. Pity! Pity him! How about pity for me? I--I--"
His overwrought nerves gave way, and, throwing himself into the chair, he broke down completely and, forgetting the manhood of which he was so fond of boasting, cried like a baby. Captain Elisha turned away, to hide his own emotion.
"It's hard," he said slowly. "It's awfully hard for you, my boy. I hate to see you suffer this way." Then, in a lower tone, he added doubtfully. "I wonder if--if--I wonder--"
His nephew heard the word and interrupted.
"You wonder?" he demanded, hysterically; "you wonder what? What are you going to do about it? It's up to you, isn't it? You're our guardian, aren't you?"
"Yes, Stevie, I'm your guardian."
"Yes, you are! But no one would guess it. When we didn't want you, you wouldn't leave us for a minute. Now, when we need you, when there isn't a soul for us to turn to, you stay away. You haven't been near us. It's up to you, I say! and what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do?"
His uncle held up his hand.
"S-shh!" he said. "Don't raise your voice like that, son! I can hear you without that, and we don't want anybody else to hear. What am I goin' to do? Stevie, I don't know exactly. I ain't made up my mind yet."
"Well, it's time you did!"
"Yes, I guess likely 'tis. As for my not comin' to see you, you know the reason for that. I'd have come quick enough, but I wa'n't sure I'd be welcome. And I told your sister only 'tother day that--by the way, Steve, how is she? How is Caroline?"
"She's a fool!" The boy sprang up again and shook his fist. "She's the one I've come here to speak about. If we don't stop her she'll ruin us altogether. She--she's a damned fool, I tell you!"
"There! there!" the captain's tone was sharp and emphatic. "That's enough of that," he said. "I don't want to hear you call your sister names. What do you mean by it?"
"I mean what I say. She is a fool. Do you know what she's done? She's written Mal Dunn all about it! I'd have stopped her, but I didn't know until it was too late. She's told him the whole thing."
"She has? About 'Bije?"
"Well, perhaps she didn't tell him father was a thief, but she did tell that the estate was gone--that we were flat broke and worse."
"Hum!" Captain Elisha seemed more gratified than displeased. "Hum!... Well, I kind of expected she would. Knowin' her, I kind of expected it."
"You did?" Stephen glared in wrathful amazement. "You expected it?"
"Yes. What of it?"
"What of it? Why, everything! Can't you see? Mal's our only chance. If she marries him she'll be looked out for and so will I. She needn't have told him until they were married. The wedding could have been hurried along; the Dunns were crazy to have it as soon as possible. Now--"
"Hold on, Steve! Belay! What difference does her tellin' him make? Maybe she hasn't mentioned it to you, but I had a talk with your sister the other mornin'. She thinks the world of Malcolm, and he does of her. She told me so herself. Of course she'd go to him in her trouble. And he'll be proud--yes, and glad to know that he can help her. As for the weddin', I don't see that this'll have any effect except to hurry it up a little more, maybe."
Steve looked at him suspiciously, but there was no trace of sarcasm in the captain's face or voice. The boy scowled.
"Ugh!" he grunted.
"What's the 'ugh' for? See here, you ain't hintin' that young Dunn was cal'latin' to marry Caroline just for her money, are you? Of course you ain't! Why, you and he are the thickest sort of chums. You wouldn't chum with a feller who would play such a trick as that on your own sister."
Stephen's scowl deepened. He thrust his hands into his pocket, and shifted his feet uneasily.
"You don't understand," he said. "People don't do things here as they do where you come from."
"I understand that, all right," with dry emphasis. "I've been here long enough to understand that. But maybe I don't understand you. Heave ahead, and make it plain."
"Well--well, then--I mean this: I don't know that Mal was after Caro's money, but--but he had a right to expect some. If he didn't, why, then her not telling him until after they were married wouldn't have made any difference. And--and if her tellin' him beforehand should make a difference and he wanted to break the engagement, she's just romantic fool enough to let him."
"Well? If she doesn't marry him, who's going to take care of her? What's going to become of me? We haven't a cent. What kind of a guardian are you? Do you want us to starve?"
He was shouting again. The captain was calm. "Oh," he said, "I guess it won't reach to the starvation point. I'm a pretty tough old critter, 'cordin' to your estimate, but I shouldn't let my brother's children starve. If the wust comes to the wust, there's always a home and plenty to eat for you both at South Denboro."
This offer did not appear to comfort the young gentleman greatly. His disgust was evident.
"South Denhoro!" he repeated, scornfully. "Gad!... South Denboro!"
"Yup. But we'll let South Denboro alone for now and stick to New York. What is it you expect me to do? What are you drivin' at?"
Stephen shook a forefinger in his guardian's face.
"I expect you to make her stick to her engagement," he cried. "And make her make him stick. She can, can't she? It's been announced, hasn't it? Everybody knows of it! She's got the right--the legal right to hold him, hasn't she?"
His uncle regarded him with a quizzical smile. "Why, ye-es," he answered, "I cal'late she has, maybe. Course, there's no danger of his wantin' to do such a thing, but if he should I presume likely we could make it uncomfortable for him, anyhow. What are you hankerin' for, Steve--a breach-of-promise suit? I've always understood those sort of cases were kind of unpleasant--for everybody but the newspapers."
The boy was in deadly earnest. "Pleasant!" he repeated. "Is any of this business pleasant? You make her act like a sensible girl! You're her guardian, and you make her! And, after that, if he tries to hedge, you tell him a few things. You can hold him! Do it! Do it!"
Captain Elisha turned on his heel and began pacing up and down the room. His nephew watched him eagerly.
"Well," he demanded, after a moment, "what are we going to do? Are we going to make him make good?"
The captain paused. "Steve," he answered, deliberately, "I ain't sure as we are. And, as I've said, if he's got a spark of decency, it won't be necessary for us to try. If it should be--if it should be--"
"Well, if it should be?"
"Then we can try, that's all. Maybe you run a course a little different from me, Stevie; you navigate 'cordin' to your ideas, and I do by mine. But in some ways we ain't so fur apart. Son," with a grim nod, "you rest easy on one thing--the Corcoran Dunn fleet is goin' to show its colors."