Cap'n Warren's Wards by Joseph Crosby Lincoln
"It's a box of a place, though, isn't it," declared Mr. Stephen Warren, contemptuously glancing about the library of the apartment. "A box, by George! I think it's a blooming shame that we have to put up with it, Sis."
Mr. Warren sprawled in the most comfortable chair in the room, was looking out through the window, across the wind-swept width of Central Park West, over the knolls and valleys of the Park itself, now bare of foliage and sprinkled with patches of snow. There was a discontented look on his face, and his hands were jammed deep in his trousers pockets.
His sister, Caroline, sat opposite to him, also looking out at the December landscape. She, too, was discontented and unhappy, though she tried not to show it.
"Why don't you say something," snapped Stephen, after a moment of silence. "Isn't it a box of a place? Now come."
"Yes," replied the young lady, without looking at her brother. "Yes, Steve, I suppose it is. But you must remember that we must make the best of it. I always wondered how people could live in apartments. Now I suppose I shall have to find out."
"Well, I maintain that we don't have to. We aren't paupers, even though father wasn't so well fixed as everyone thought. With management and care, we could have stayed in the old house, I believe, and kept up appearances, at least. What's the use of advertising that we're broke?"
"But, Steve, you know Mr. Graves said--"
"Oh, yes, I know. You swallowed every word Graves said, Caro, as if he was the whole book of Proverbs. By George, I don't; I'm from Missouri."
Mr. Warren, being in the Sophomore class at Yale, was of the age when one is constitutionally "from Missouri." Probably King Solomon, at sixty, had doubts concerning the scope and depth of his wisdom; at eighteen he would have admitted its all-embracing infallibility without a blush.
"I tell you," continued Stephen, "there's no sense in it, Sis. You and I know plenty of people whose incomes are no larger than ours. Do they 'economize,' as Graves is continually preaching? They do not, publicly at least. They may save a bit, here and there, but they do it where it doesn't show and nobody knows. Take the Blaisdells, for instance. When the Sodality Bank went up, and old Blaisdell died, everybody said the family was down and out. They must have lost millions. But did they move into 'apartments' and put up a placard, 'Home of the Dead-Brokes. Walk in and Sympathize?' I guess they didn't! They went into mourning, of course, and that let them out of entertaining and all that, but they stayed where they were and kept up the bluff. That's the thing that counts in this world--keeping up the bluff."
"Yes, but everyone knows they are--bluffing, as you call it."
"What of it? They don't really know, they only suspect. And I met Jim Blaisdell yesterday and he shook my hand, after I had held it in front of his eyes where he couldn't help seeing it, and had the nerve to tell me he hoped things weren't as bad with us as he had heard."
"I never liked the Blaisdells," declared Caroline, indignantly.
"Neither did I. Neither do most people. But Jim is just as much in the swim as he ever was, and he's got his governor's place on the board of directors at the bank, now that it's reorganized, and an office down town, and he's hand and glove with Von Blarcom and all the rest. They think he's a promising, plucky young man. They'll help his bluff through. And are his mother and sister dropped by the people in their set? I haven't noticed it."
"Well, Mrs. Corcoran Dunn told me that everyone was talking about the Blaisdells and wondering how long they could keep it up. And the newspapers have been printing all sorts of things, and hinting that young Mr. Blaisdell's appointment as director, after his father wrecked the bank, was a scandal. At least, we haven't that to bear up under. Father was honest, if he wasn't rich."
"Who cares for the newspapers? They're all run by demagogues hunting sensations. What makes me feel the worst about all this is that Stock Exchange seat of father's. If I were only of age, so that I could go down there on the floor, I tell you it wouldn't be long before you and I were back where we belong, Sis. But, no, I'm a kid, so Graves thinks, in charge of a guardian--a guardian, by gad!"
He snorted, in manly indignation. Caroline, her pretty face troubled, rose and walked slowly across the room. It was a large room, in spite of the fact that it was one of a suite in an apartment hotel, and furnished richly. A. Rodgers Warren spent his money with taste, and spent it freely while he lived. The furniture, the paintings, and bric-a-brac were of the very best, chosen with care, here and abroad.
"Oh, dear!" sighed the girl. "I do hope Mr. Graves will be well enough to call to-day. He expected to. Except for the telephone message telling us that that man at Denboro--"
"Our dear Uncle Elisha," put in Stephen, with sarcasm. "Uncle ''Lish!' Heavens! what a name!"
"Hush! He can't help his name. And father's was worse yet--Abijah! Think of it!"
"I don't want to think of it. Neither did the governor; that's why he dropped it, I suppose. Just what did Graves say? Give me his exact words."
"His partner, Mr. Kuhn, telephoned. He said that Mr. Graves had a bad cold, having been wet through in a dreadful storm down there in the country. The doctor forbade his leaving the house for a day or two, but he would call on Tuesday--to-day--if he was sufficiently recovered. And Mr. Kuhn said that everything was satisfactory. This Captain Warren--a ship captain, I suppose he is--would, in all probability, refuse to accept the guardianship and the rest of it--"
"Refuse? I should think so. I'm just as certain father was insane when he made that will as I am that I'm alive. If I thought he wasn't, I'd never forgive him."
"Hush, Steve. You promised me you wouldn't speak in that way."
"Well, all right, I won't. But, Caro, he must have been insane. If he wasn't, do you suppose he would have put us and the estate in the care of a Down-East jay? It's inconceivable! It's ridiculous! Think of it. Suppose this uncle of ours had accepted. Suppose he had come to town here and any of our friends had met him. 'This is our guardian, Captain Warren, of Punkin Centre.' 'Please to meet ye,' says Uncle 'Lish. 'How's taters?' Horrors! Say, Caro, you haven't told anyone, Malcolm or his mother, or anyone, have you?"
"Of course not, Steve. You know I wouldn't."
"Well, don't. They needn't know it, now or at any other time. Graves will probably get himself appointed, and he's respectable if he is an old fogy. We'll worry along till I'm twenty-one, and then--well, then I'll handle our business myself."
Evidently there was no question in his mind as to his ability to handle this or any business, no matter how involved. He rose from his chair and yawned.
"It's deadly dull," he complained. "You don't need me, do you, Caro? I believe I'll go out for a while. That is, unless you really care."
His sister hesitated before replying. When she spoke, there was disappointment in her tone.
"Why, Steve," she said, "I did hope you might be here when Mr. Graves came. He will wish to speak of important matters, and it seems to me that both of us should hear what he has to say."
Young Warren, who had started for the door, stopped and kicked impatiently at the corners of the rug.
"Oh, well!" he observed, "if you want me of course I'll stay. But why doesn't old Graves come, if he is coming. Maybe he's under the weather yet," he added, hopefully. "Perhaps he isn't coming at all to-day. I believe I'll call up Kuhn on the 'phone and find out."
He was on his way to the telephone when the doorbell buzzed.
"Gad! there he is now," he exclaimed. "Now I suppose I'll have to stay. We'll hear about dear Uncle 'Lish, won't we? Oh, joy!"
But the staid butler, when he entered the library, did not announce the lawyer's name.
"Mrs. Corcoran Dunn and Mr. Malcolm," he said. "Will you see them, Miss Caroline?"
The young lady's face lit up.
"Certainly, Edwards," she said. "Show them--Oh, Mrs. Dunn, I'm so glad to see you! It was ever so good of you to come. And Malcolm."
Mrs. M. Corcoran Dunn was tall and, in South Denboro, would have been called "fleshy," in spite of her own and the dressmaker's efforts to conceal the fact. She was elaborately gowned and furred, and something about her creaked when she walked. She rushed into the room, at the butler's heels, and, greeting Caroline with outstretched hands, kissed her effusively on the cheek.
"My dear child," she cried, "how could I stay away? We have spoken of you and Stephen so often this morning. We know how lonely you must be, and Malcolm and I decided we must run in on you after lunch. Didn't we, Malcolm?"
Mr. Malcolm Corcoran Dunn, her son, was a blond young man, with a rather indolent manner.
"Sure, Mater!" he said, calmly. "How d'ye do, Caroline? 'Lo, Steve!"
The quartette shook hands. Mrs. Dunn sank creakingly into a chair and gazed about the room. Malcolm strolled to the window and looked out. Stephen followed and stood beside him.
"My dear," said Mrs. Dunn, addressing Caroline, "how are you getting on? How are your nerves? Is all the dreadful 'settling' over?"
"Very nearly, thank goodness."
"That's a mercy. I should certainly have been here yesterday to help you in superintending and arranging and so on, but I was suffering from one of my 'hearts,' and you know what they are."
Everyone who knew Mrs. Corcoran Dunn was acquainted with her "hearts." The attacks came, so she was accustomed to explain, from an impaired valve, and "some day"--she usually completed the sentence with upturned eyes and a resigned upward wave of the hand.
Her son turned from the window.
"I say, Mother," he explained, wearily, "I do wish you wouldn't speak of your vital organs in the plural. Anyone would imagine you were a sort of freak, like the two-headed boy at the circus. It's positively distressing."
Stephen laughed. He admired young Dunn immensely. Mrs. Dunn sighed.
"Don't, Malcolm, dear," she pleaded. "You sound so unfeeling. One not acquainted with your real kindness of heart--"
"Oh, drop it," interrupted Malcolm. "Let's omit the heart interest. This isn't a clinic. I say, Steve, how do you like the new flat? It is a flat, isn't it?"
Stephen turned red. His sister colored and bit her lip. Mrs. Dunn hastened to the rescue.
"Horrors!" she exclaimed. "Malcolm, you really are insufferable. Flat! Caroline, dear, you mustn't mind him. He will have his joke. Malcolm, apologize."
The command was sharp, and her son obeyed it.
"Beg your pardon, Steve," he said. "Yours, too, Caroline. I was only joking. There's a little beast of a bookkeeper down at the office who is forever talking of his 'nice flat in the Bronx.' It's a standing guy, you know. So far as I can see, these are pretty snug quarters. And attractively arranged, too. Your taste, Caroline, I'm betting."
Miss Warren, slightly mollified, bowed assent.
"I thought so," continued Malcolm. "No one but you would have known exactly the right spot for everything. Show us through, won't you?"
But Mrs. Dunn had other plans.
"Not now, Malcolm," she put in. "Caroline is tired out, I'm sure. A little fresh air will do her good. I was going to suggest that you and she and Stephen go for a short ride. Yes, really you must, my dear," she added, turning to the girl beside her. "Our car is at the door, it's not at all a bad afternoon, and the outing will be just what you need."
"Thank you, Mrs. Dunn," said Caroline, gratefully. "I should like to. Indeed, I should. But we have been expecting a business call from Mr. Graves, father's lawyer, and--"
"Oh, come on, Sis!" interrupted Stephen. "I'm dying to get out of this jail. Let old Graves wait, if he comes. We won't be long; and, besides, it's not certain that he is coming to-day. Come on!"
"I'm afraid I ought not, Steve. Mr. Graves may come, and--and it seems too bad to trouble our friends--"
"It's not trouble, it's pleasure," urged Mrs. Dunn. "Malcolm will be delighted. It was his idea. Wasn't it?" turning to her son.
"Oh, yes! certainly," replied the young gentleman. "Hope you'll come, Caroline. And you, of course, Steve. The blessed machine's been off its feed for a week or more, but Peter says he thinks it's all right again. We'll give it a try-out on the Drive. Hope we have better luck than my last," with a laugh. "They nabbed us for speeding, and I had to promise to be a good boy or to be fined. Said we were hitting it at fifty an hour. We were going some, that's a fact. Ha! ha!"
"But he won't be reckless when you're with him, Caroline," put in his mother. "You will go? That's so nice! As for Mr. Graves, I'll explain if he comes. Oh, no! I'M not going! I shall remain here in this comfortable chair and rest until you return. It's exactly what my physician orders, and for once I'm going to obey him. My heart, you know, my poor heart--"
She waved her hand and raised her eyes. Miss Warren expostulated, but to no purpose. Mrs. Corcoran Dunn would not go, but the others must. So, at last, they did. When Caroline and her brother had gone for their wraps, Mrs. Dunn laid a hand on her son's arm.
"Now mind," she whispered, "see if you can find out anything during the ride. Something more explicit about the size of their estate and who the guardian is to be. There are all sorts of stories, you know, and we must learn the truth very soon. Don't appear curious, but merely friendly. You understand?"
"Sure, Mater," was the careless answer. "I'll pump."
The two departed, leaving their lady visitor ensconced in the comfortable chair. She remained in it for perhaps five minutes. Then she rose and sauntered about the room. She drifted into the drawing-room, returning a moment later and sauntering casually toward the open desk by the fireplace. There were papers and letters scattered about this desk, and these she turned over, glancing toward the door to be sure no one was coming. The letters were, for the most part, messages of sympathy from friends of the Warren family. Hearing an approaching step, she hastily returned to the chair.
Edwards, the butler, entered the library and replenished the fire. Mrs. Dunn languidly accosted him.
"Ah--er--Edwards," she said, "you are--er--growing familiar with your new home?"
"Yes, ma'am," replied Edwards, politely.
"It must seem--er--small compared to the other."
"Smaller; yes, ma'am."
"But very snug and comfortable."
"Yes, ma 'am."
"It is fortunate that Miss Warren and her brother have the aid of such a--an old servant of the family."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"Is Miss Caroline managing her own affairs?"
"Apparently so. Yes, ma'am."
"I presume, however, a guardian has been appointed? With an estate such as the late Mr. Warren must have left, some responsible person would be, of course, necessary."
She paused. Edwards, having arranged the logs to his liking, brushed the dust from his hands.
"I don't know, ma'am, I'm sure," he said. "Neither Miss Caroline nor Mr. Stephen have spoken with me concerning the family affairs."
Mrs. Corcoran Dunn straightened, with hauteur.
"I think that was the doorbell," she remarked, a trifle sharply. "If it should be Mr. Graves, the attorney, you may show him into the library here."
"Yes, ma'am," said Edwards once more, and departed.
The lady visitor heard voices in the passage. She listened, but could hear nothing understandable. Evidently the butler was having an argument with someone. It could not be Graves.
Edwards reappeared, looking troubled.
"It's a--a gentleman to see Miss Caroline," he said. "He won't give his name, ma'am, but says she's expecting him."
"Yes, ma'am. I told him she was out, but he said he was intending to stay a while anyway, and would wait. I asked his business, but he wouldn't tell it."
"That's odd." Mrs. Dunn was slightly interested. "A tradesman, perhaps; or an agent of the landlord."
"No-o, ma'am. I don't think he's either of them, ma'am."
"What sort of a person is he, Edwards?"
The butler's face twitched for an instant with a troubled smile. Then it resumed its customary respectful calm.
"I hardly know, ma'am. He's an oddish man. He--I think he's from the country."
From behind him came a quiet chuckle.
"You're right, Commodore," said a man s voice; "I'm from the country. You guessed it."
Edwards jumped, startled out of his respectable wits. Mrs. Dunn rose indignantly from her chair.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am," said the intruder, appearing in the doorway. "You mustn't think I'm forcin' my way where I ain't wanted. But it seemed to take so long to make the Admiral here understand that I was goin' to wait until Caroline came back that I thought I'd save time and breath by provin' it to him. I didn't know there was any company. Excuse me, ma'am, I won't bother you. I'll just come to anchor out here in the entry. Don't mind me."
He bowed politely, picked up the large suit-case, plainly bran-new, which he had momentarily placed on the rug at his feet, and, with it in one hand and a big soft felt hat in the other, stepped back into the hall out of sight. The astonished Mrs. Dunn and the paralyzed Edwards heard a chair crack as if a heavy weight had descended upon it. Evidently he had "come to anchor."
The lady was the first to recover the power of speech.
"Why!" she exclaimed, in an alarmed whisper. "Why! I never heard of such brazen impertinence in my life. He must be insane. He is a lunatic, isn't he, Edwards?"
The butler shook his head. "I--I don't know, ma'am," he stammered.
"I believe he is." Mrs. Dunn's presence of mind was returning, and with it her courage. Her florid cheeks flamed a more vivid red, and her eyes snapped. "But whether he is or not, he sha'n't bulldoze me."
She strode majestically to the door. The visitor was seated in the hall, calmly reading a newspaper. Hat and suit-case were on the floor beside him.
"What do you mean by this?" demanded the lady. "Who are you? If you have any business here, state it at once."
The man glanced at her, over his spectacles, rose and stood looking down at her. His expression was pleasant, and he was remarkably cool.
"Yes, ma'am," he said, gravely. "I'll be glad to tell you who I am, if you'd like to have me. I'd have done it before, but I thought there weren't any use troublin' you with my affairs. But, just a minute--" he hesitated--"I haven't made any mistake, have I? I understood your steward--the feller with the brass buttons, to say that Abijah Warren's children lived here. That's so, ain't it? If not, then I am mistaken."
Mrs. Dunn regarded him with indignation. "You are," she said coldly. "The family of the late Mr. Rodgers Warren lives here. I presume the slight resemblance in names misled you. Edwards, show the gentleman out."
"Just one moment more, ma'am. It was Rodgers Warren's children I was lookin' for. A. Rodgers Warren he called himself, didn't he? Yes. Well, the A stood for Abijah; that was his Christian name. And he left two children, Caroline and Stephen? Good! I thought for a jiffy I'd blundered in where I had no business, but it's all right. You see, ma'am, I'm their uncle from South Denboro, Massachusetts. My name is Elisha Warren."
Mrs. Dunn gasped. Edwards, peering over her shoulder, breathed heavily.
"You are--their uncle?" repeated the lady.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm 'Bije's brother. Oh, don't worry. It's all right. And don't fret yourself about me, either. I'll set right down out here and read my paper and wait till Caroline or Stephen get home. They're expectin' me. Mr. Graves, the lawyer, told 'em I was comin'."
He calmly seated himself and adjusted his spectacles. Mrs. Dunn stared at him, then at Edwards. After an instant's indecision, she stepped back into the library and walked to the window. She beckoned, with an agitated finger, to the butler, who joined her.
"Edwards," she whispered, "did you hear what he said?"
"Yes, ma'am," replied Edwards, wide-eyed and wondering.
"Is it true?"
"I don't know, ma'am."
"Did Mr. Warren have a brother?"
"I didn't know that he had, ma'am."
"Do you--do you think it likely that he would have a brother like--like that?"
"I don't know, ma'am."
"Was Miss Caroline expecting him?"
"I don't know, ma'am. She--"
"Oh, you don't know anything! You're impossible. Go away!"
"Yes, ma'am," said Edwards thankfully; and went. Mrs. Corcoran Dunn stood for some minutes by the window, thinking, or trying to think a way to the truth in this astounding development. Of course the man might be a lunatic who had gained his information concerning the Warren family from the papers; but he did not look like a lunatic. On the other hand, he certainly did not look as one would have expected a brother of Rodgers Warren's to look. Oddest of all, if he was such a brother, why had neither Caroline or Stephen mentioned his existence? According to his story, Graves, the Warren lawyer, had warned the children of his coming. Caroline had been very reticent concerning her father's will, the amount of his estate, and the like. And Mrs. Dunn had repeatedly, though discreetly, endeavored to find out these important details. Neither hints nor questions had resulted satisfactorily. Was it possible that this was the reason, this country uncle? If so--well, if so, here was a Heaven-sent opportunity for a little genteel and perfectly safe detective work. Mrs. Dunn creakingly crossed the room and spoke.
"Mr. Warren," she said, "I feel guilty in keeping you out there. Won't you come into the library?"
"Why, thank you, ma'am, I'm all right. Don't you trouble about me. Go right on with your readin' or sewing or knittin' or whatever you was doin' and--"
"I was not reading," replied Mrs. Dunn, with a slight shudder. "Come in, please. I wish you to."
Captain Elisha folded his paper and put it in his pocket. Entering the library, he stood quietly waiting.
"Won't you sit down?" asked his impromptu hostess, trying hard to be gracious.
"Thank you," said the captain. He sank into an armchair and looked curiously about him.
"So you are the late Mr. Warren's brother?" asked the lady, making her first lead in the game.
"Yes, ma'am. His older brother. 'Bije was ten year younger'n I am, Mrs.--er--"
"Dunn. I am an old friend of the family."
"That's good. I'm glad to hear they've got friends. When you're in sickness or trouble or sorrer, friendship counts for consider'ble. How are the young folks--Caroline and Stephen--pretty smart, hey?"
"Smart? Why, they are intelligent, naturally. I--"
"No, no. I mean are they pretty well?"
"Very well, indeed, considering the shock of their recent bereavement."
"Yes, yes. Of course. And they've moved, too. Movin's an awful job. They say three movin's are as bad as a fire, but I cal'late I'd rather burn up a set of carpets than pull 'em up, 'specially if they was insured. 'Tain't half so much strain on your religion. I remember the last time we took up our carpets at home, Abbie--she's my second cousin, keepin' house for me--said if gettin' down on my knees has that effect on me she'd never ask me to go to prayer-meetin' again. Ho! ho!"
He chuckled. Mrs. Dunn elevated her nose and looked out of the window. Then she led another small trump.
"You say that Miss Caroline and her brother expect you," she said. "You surprise me. Are you sure?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am. I'm sure. When Mr. Graves came down to see me, last week 'twas, I told him to say I'd be up pretty soon to look the ground over. This is a pretty fine place the young folks have got here," he added, gazing admiringly at the paintings and bookcases.
"Yes," assented the lady, condescendingly. "For an apartment it is really quite livable."
"Livable!" Captain Elisha's astonishment got the better of his politeness for the moment. "Um! Yes, I should say a body might manage to worry along in it. Was the place where they used to live any finer than this?"
"You don't tell me! No wonder they talked about economi--Humph!"
"What were you about to say, Mr. Warren?"
"Oh, nothin', nothin'! Talkin' to myself is a habit I've got. Abbie--my second cousin; I guess I told you about her--says it's a sure sign that a person's rich or out of his head, one or t'other. I ain't rich, so--" He chuckled once more.
"Mr. Graves came to see you at your home, did he?"
"Yes, ma'am. At South Denboro. And he certainly did have a rough passage. Ho! ho! Probably you heard about it, bein' so friendly with the family."
"Ahem! Doubtless he would have mentioned it, but he has been ill."
"Sho! I'm sorry to hear that. I was afraid he'd catch cold."
"Yes. I hope Mr. Graves's errand was successful?"
"Well, sort of so--so."
"Yes. He came to see you in connection with your brother's estate--some legacy, perhaps?"
She did not look at the captain when she asked this question. Therefore, she did not notice the glance which he gave her. When he answered, it was in the same deliberate, provokingly deliberate, manner.
"Um-hm. Somethin' of that kind, Mrs. Dunn. I can't help thinkin'," he went on, "how nice it is that Caroline and Steve have such a good friend as you to help 'em. Your husband and 'Bije was chums, I s'pose?
"No, not exactly. The friendship was on my side of the family."
"So? Want to know! Your husband dead, ma'am?"
Mrs. Dunn changed the subject. Her husband, Mr. Corcoran Dunn--once Mike Dunn, contractor and Tammany politician--was buried in Calvary Cemetery. She mourned him, after a fashion, but she preferred not to talk about him.
"Yes," she answered shortly. "It--it looks as if it might snow, doesn't it?"
"I shouldn't wonder. Have you any children, ma'am?"
"One--a son." The widow's tone was frigid.
"So? He must be a comfort to you. I s'pose likely he's a friend of my nephew and niece, too."
"That's good. Young folks ought to have young friends. You live in this neighborhood, ma'am?"
The lady did not answer. She gazed haughtily at the trees in the Park. Captain Elisha rubbed a smile from his lips with his hand and remained silent. The tall clock ticked loud.
There came the sound of laughter from the passage outside. The hall door opened. A moment later, Caroline, followed by her brother and young Dunn, entered the library.
The girl's cheeks were rosy from the cold wind. Her hair, beneath the fur auto cap, had blown in brown, rippled disorder across her forehead. She was smiling.
"Oh, Mrs. Dunn!" she cried. "I'm so glad I accepted your--Malcolm's--invitation. We had a glorious ride! I--"
She stopped short. Captain Warren had risen from his chair and was facing her. Mrs. Dunn also rose.
"Caroline," she said, nervously, "this"--pausing on the word--"gentleman is here to see you. He says he is--"
The captain interrupted her. Stepping forward he seized his niece's hands in his. "Well, well!" he exclaimed admiringly. "'Bije's girl, that I ain't seen since you was a little mite of a baby! Caroline, I'm your Uncle Elisha."
"Good lord!" groaned Stephen Warren.