Cap'n Warren's Wards by Joseph Crosby Lincoln
Announcement of Captain Elisha's decision followed quickly. Sylvester, Kuhn, and Graves received the telephone message stating it, and the senior partner was unqualifiedly delighted. Kuhn accepted his associate's opinion with some reservation. "It is an odd piece of business, the whole of it," he declared. "I shall be curious to see how it works out." As for Mr. Graves, when the information was conveyed to him by messenger, he expressed disgust and dismay. "Ridiculous!" he said. "Doctor, I simply must be up and about within the next few days. It is necessary that a sane, conservative man be at the office. Far be it from me to say a word against Sylvester, as a lawyer, but he is subject to impressions. I imagine this Cape Codder made him laugh, and, therefore, in his opinion, is all right. I'm glad I'm not a joker."
The captain said that he would be down later on to talk things over. Meanwhile, if the "papers and such" could be gotten together, it would "sort of help along." Sylvester explained that there were certain legal and formal ceremonies pertaining to the acceptance of the trust to be gone through with, and these must have precedence. "All right," answered the captain. "Let's have 'em all out at once and get the ache and agony over. I'll see you by and by."
When Mrs. Corcoran Dunn made her daily visit to the Warren apartment that afternoon, she found Caroline alone and almost in tears. Captain Elisha had broken the news at the table during luncheon, after which he went downtown. Stephen, having raved, protested, and made himself generally disagreeable and his sister correspondingly miserable, had departed for the club. It was a time for confidences, and the wily Mrs. Dunn realized that fact. She soothed, comforted, and within half an hour, had learned the whole story. Caroline told her all, the strange will, the disclosure concerning the country uncle, and the inexplicable clauses begging the latter to accept the executorship, the trust, and the charge of her brother and herself. Incidentally she mentioned that a possible five hundred thousand was the extreme limit of the family's pecuniary resources.
"Now you know everything," sobbed Caroline. "Oh, Mrs. Dunn, you won't desert us, will you?"
The widow's reply was a triumph, of its kind. In it were expressed sorrow, indignation, pity, and unswerving loyalty. Desert them? Desert the young people, toward whom she had come to feel almost like a mother? Never!
"You may depend on Malcolm and me, my dear," she declared. "We are not fair-weather friends. And, after all, it is not so very bad. Affairs might be very much worse."
"Worse! Oh, Mrs. Dunn, how could they be? Think of it! Stephen and I are dependent upon him for everything. We must ask him for every penny. And whatever he says to do we must do. We're obliged to. Just think! if he decides to take us back with him to--South Denboro, or whatever dreadful place he comes from, we shall have to go--and live there."
"But he won't, my dear. He won't. It will take some time to settle your father's affairs, and the business will have to be transacted here in New York."
"I know. I suppose that's true. But that doesn't make it any easier. If he stops here he will stay with us. And what shall we do? We can't introduce him to our friends, or, at least, to any except our best, our understanding friends, like you and Malcolm."
"Why, I'm not sure. He is rather--well--er--countryfied, but I believe he has a good heart. He is not rude or unkind or anything of that sort, is he?"
"No. No-o. He's not that, at all. In fact, he means to be kind in his way. But it's such a different way from ours. He is not used to society; he wouldn't understand that certain things and ways were absolutely essential. I suppose it isn't his fault exactly, but that doesn't help. And how can we tell him?"
"I don't know that you can tell him, but you might hint. Diplomacy, my dear, is one of the necessary elements of life. Whatever else you do remember to be diplomatic. My poor husband used to have a pet proverb--he was interested in politics, my dear, and some of his sayings were a trifle grotesque but very much to the point. He used to say that one could get rid of more flies with molasses than with a club. And I think he was right. Now let me consider. Let's look the situation right in the face. Of course your guardian, as a companion, as an associate for us, for our kind of people, is, to be quite frank, impossible."
"Yes. Yes, I'm sure he is."
"Yes. But he is your guardian. Therefore, we can't get rid of him with--well, with a club. He must be endured and made as endurable as possible. And it certainly will not do to offend him."
"Steve says we must do what he calls freezing him out--make him feel that we do not want him here."
"Hum! Well, Stephen is a nice boy--Malcolm adores him--but he isn't a diplomat. If we should--what is it?--freeze out your uncle--"
"Please call him something else."
"Well, we'll call him the encumbrance on the estate; that's legal, I believe, and expresses it nicely. If we should freeze out the encumbrance, we might freeze him to his village, and he might insist on your going with him, which wouldn't do at all, my dear. For one thing, Malcolm would probably insist on going, also, and I, for one, don't yearn for rural simplicity. Ha! ha! Oh, you mustn't mind me. I'm only a doting mamma, dearie, and I have my air castles like everyone else. So, freezing out won't do. No, you and Steve must be polite to our encumbrance."
"I shall not get on my knees to him and beg. That I sha'n't do."
"No one expects you to. If anyone begs it should be he. Condescend to just a little. Make him feel his place. Correct him when he goes too far wrong, and ignore him when he gets assertive. As for getting rid of him at times when it may be necessary--well, I think you may safely leave that to me."
"To you? Oh, Mrs. Dunn, we couldn't think of dragging you into it. It is bad enough that we should be disgraced; but you must not be."
"My dear child, I think my position in society is sufficiently established to warrant a risk or two. If I am seen in company with--with the encumbrance, people will merely say, 'Oh, it's another of her eccentricities!' that's all. Now, don't worry, and don't fret all that pretty color from your cheeks. Always remember this: it is but for a year or a trifle over. Then you will be of age and can send your encumbrance to the right-about in a hurry."
Caroline, under the spell of this convincing eloquence, began to cheer up. She even smiled.
"Well," she said, "I will try to be diplomatic. I really will. But Stephen--I'm not sure what dreadful thing he will do."
"He will return to college soon. I will take upon myself the convincing of the encumbrance to that effect. And while he is at home, Malcolm will take charge of him. He will be delighted to do it."
"Mrs. Dunn, how can we ever thank you sufficiently? What should we do without you and Malcolm?"
"I hope, my dear, that you will never have to do without me; not for many years, at any rate. Of course, there is always my poor heart, but--we won't worry, will we?"
So, with a kiss and an embrace, this affecting interview ended.
There was another that evening between Mrs. Dunn and her son, which was not devoid of interest. Malcolm listened to the information which his mother gave him, and commented upon it in characteristic fashion.
"Humph!" he observed, "two hundred and fifty thousand, instead of the two million you figured on, Mater! Two hundred and fifty thousand isn't so much, in these days."
"No," replied his parent, sharply, "it isn't so much, but it isn't so little, either."
"I suppose one can get along on it."
"Yes, one can. In fact, I know of two who are managing with a good deal less. Don't be any more of a fool than you can help, Malcolm. The sum itself isn't small, and, besides, the Warrens are a family of standing. To be connected with them is worth a good deal. There are infinite possibilities in it. Oh, if only I might live to see the day when tradespeople meant something other than nuisances to be dodged, I think I could die contented."
"Caro's a decent sort of a girl," commented Malcolm, reflectively.
"She's a bright girl and an attractive one. Just now she is in a mood to turn to us, to you. But, for Heaven's sake, be careful! She is delicate and sensitive and requires managing. She likes you. If only you weren't such a blunderer!"
"Much obliged, Mater. You're free with your compliments this evening. What's the trouble? Another 'heart'?
"No. My heart I can trust, up to certain limits. But I'm afraid of your head, just as I always was of your father's. And here's one more bit of advice: Be careful how you treat that country uncle."
"The Admiral! Ho! ho! He's a card."
"He may be the trump that will lose us the trick. Treat him civilly; yes, even cordially, if you can. And don't insult him as you did the first time you and he met."
The young man crossed his legs, and grunted in resignation.
"Well," he said, "it's going to be a confounded bore, but, at the very longest, it'll last but a year. Then Caro will be her own mistress."
"Yes. But there are three hundred and sixty-five days in a year; remember that."
"All right, Mater. You can bet on me. The old hayseed and I will be bosom pals. Wait and see."
The formalities at the lawyers' took some time. Captain Elisha was absent from the apartment the better part of the following two days. The evenings, however, he spent with his niece and nephew, and, if at all sensitive to sudden changes of the temperature, he must have noticed that the atmosphere of the library was less frigid. Caroline was not communicative, did not make conversation, nor was she in the least familiar; but she answered his questions, did not leave the room when he entered, and seemed inclined to accept his society with resignation, if not with enthusiasm. Even Stephen was less sarcastic and bitter. At times, when his new guardian did or said something which offended his highly cultivated sense of the proprieties, he seemed inclined to burst out with a sneer; but a quick "ahem!" or a warning glance from his sister caused him to remain silent and vent his indignation by kicking a footstool or barking a violent order at the unresisting Edwards. Caroline and her brother had had a heart to heart talk, and, as a result, the all-wise young gentleman promised to make no more trouble than he could help.
"Though, by gad, Caro," he declared, "it's only for you I do it! If I had my way the old butt-in should understand exactly what I think of him."
On Thursday, after luncheon, as Captain Elisha sat in his own room, reading a book he had taken from the library, there came a knock at the door.
"Come ahead in!" ordered the captain. Caroline entered. Her uncle rose and put down the book.
"Oh!" he exclaimed, "is it you? Excuse me. I thought 'twas the Commodore--Edwards, I mean. If I'd known you was comin' callin', Caroline, I shouldn't have been quite so bossy. Guess I'd have opened the door for you, instead of lettin' you do it yourself."
"Thank you," answered his niece. "I came to see you on--I suppose you might call it business. At any rate, it is a financial matter. I sha'n't detain you long."
Captain Elisha was a trifle disappointed.
"Oh," he said, "on business, was it? I hoped--I didn't know but you'd come just out of sociability. However, I'm mighty glad to see you, Caroline, no matter what it's for. That's a real becomin' dress you've got on," he added, inspecting her admiringly. "I declare, you look prettier every time I see you. You favor your pa consider'ble; I can see it more and more. 'Bije had about all the good looks there was in our family," with a chuckle. "Set down, do."
The girl seated herself in a rocker, and looked at him for a moment without speaking. She seemed to have something on her mind, and not to know exactly how to express it.
"Captain Warren," she began, "I--I came to ask a favor. I am obliged to ask it, because you are our--" she almost choked over the hated word--"our guardian, and I can no longer act on my own responsibility. I wish to ask you for some money."
Captain Elisha nodded gravely.
"I see" he said. "Well, Caroline, I don't believe you'll find me very close-fisted. I think I told you and Steve that you was to do just as you'd been in the habit of doin'. Of course I am your guardian now, and I shall be held responsible for whatever expense comes to the estate. It is quite a responsibility, and I so understand it. As I said to you when I told you I'd decided to take the job on trial, while I have it it'll be my pride to see that you or your brother don't lose anything. I intend, if the Almighty spares me so long and I keep on with the trust, to turn over, when my term's out, at least as much to you and Steve as your father left. That's all. Excuse me for mentioning it again. Now, how much do you want? Is your reg'lar allowance too small? Remember, I don't know much about such things here in New York, and you must be frank and aboveboard and tell me if you have any complaints."
"I have no complaints. My allowance is sufficient. It is the same that father used to give me, and it is all I need. But this is a matter outside my personal needs."
"Um-hm. Somethin' to do with the household expenses, hey?"
"No. It is--is a matter of--well, of charity. It may amount to several hundred dollars."
"Yes, yes. I see. Charity, hey? Church?"
"No. One of the maids, Annie, has trouble at home, and I wanted to help her."
The captain nodded once more.
"Annie," he repeated, "that's the rosy-faced one? The Irish one?"
"Yes. Her father was seriously injured the other day and cannot work. His hip is broken, and the doctor's bill will be large. They are very poor, and I thought perhaps--" She hesitated, faltered, and then said haughtily: "Father was very sympathetic and liked to have me do such things."
"Sho! sho! Sartin! Course he did. I like it, too. I'm glad you came to me just as you did, Caroline. How much do you want to start with?"
"I don't know, exactly. I thought I might ask our own doctor to attend to the case, and might send them some delicacies and food."
"Good idea! Go right ahead, Caroline."
"Thank you. I have been over to see them, and they need help--they really do."
"I presume likely. How'd the accident happen? Anybody's fault, was it?"
Caroline's eyes snapped. "Indeed it was!" she said, indignantly. "It was a wet morning, after a rain, and the pavement was slippery. Mr. Moriarty, Annie's father, was not working that day--they were making some repairs at the factory where he is employed, I believe--and he had gone out to do the family marketing. He was crossing the street when an automobile, recklessly driven, so everyone says, drove directly down on him. He tried to jump out of the way and succeeded--otherwise he might have been killed; but he fell and broke his hip. He is an old man, and the case is serious."
"Dear! dear! you don't tell me! Poor old chap! The auto feller--did he help? Seems to me he ought to be the one to be spendin' the money. 'Twas his fault."
"Help! Indeed he didn't! He and the man with him merely laughed, as if it was a good joke, put on speed, and disappeared as quickly as possible."
"Why, the mean swab! Did this Mr. Moriarty or the folks around get the license number of the auto?"
"No. All they know is that it was a big yellow car with two men in it."
"Hey? A yellow car?"
"Yes. Somewhat similar to the one Malcolm--Mr. Dunn drives."
"So, so! Hum! Where did it happen?"
"On Saint Nicholas Avenue, near One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Street."
"Eh? Saint Nicholas Avenue, you say?"
"Yes." Caroline rose and turned to go. "Thank you, Captain Warren," she said. "I will tell Doctor Henry to take the case at once."
The captain did not answer immediately. With his chin in his hand he was gazing at the floor.
"Good afternoon," said Caroline.
Her uncle looked up.
"Er--Wait just a minute, Caroline," he said. "I guess maybe, if you don't mind, I'd like to think this over a little afore you go too far. You have your doctor go right ahead and see to the old man, and you order the things to eat and whatever's necessary. But afore you give Annie or her father any money, I'd kind of like to figger a little mite."
His niece stopped short, turned and stared at him.
"Oh!" she said, slowly and icily, "I see. Please don't trouble yourself. I should have known. However, my allowance is my own, and I presume I am permitted to do what I please with that."
"Caroline, don't be hasty. I ain't sayin' no about the money. Far from it. I only--"
"I understand--thoroughly. Don't trouble to 'figure,' as you call it. Oh! Why did I humiliate myself? I should have known!"
But the girl had gone, closing the door after her. Captain Elisha shook his head, heaved a deep sigh, and then, sinking back into his chair, relapsed into meditation. Soon afterward he put on his hat and coat and went out.
Half an hour later he entered the office of a firm of commission brokers on lower Broad Street, and inquired if a gentleman by the name of Mr. Malcolm Dunn was connected with that establishment. On being answered in the affirmative, he asked if Mr. Dunn were in. Yes, he was.
"Well," said Captain Elisha, "I'd like to speak to him a minute or so. Just tell him my name's Warren, if you don't mind, young feller."
The clerk objected to being addressed as "young feller," and showed his disapproval by the haughty and indifferent manner in which he departed on the errand. However, he did so depart, and returned followed by Malcolm himself. The latter, who had been misled by the name into supposing his caller to be Stephen Warren, was much astonished when he saw the captain seated outside the railing.
"Good afternoon," said Captain Elisha, rising and extending his hand: "How are you to-day, sir? Pretty smart?"
The young man answered briefly that he was all right. He added he was glad to see his visitor, a statement more polite than truthful.
"Well, what's up?" he inquired, condescendingly. "Nothing wrong with Caro or Steve, I hope."
"No, they're fust-rate, thank you."
"What's doing, then? Is it pleasure or business?"
"Well, a little of both, maybe. It's always a pleasure to see you, of course; and I have got a little mite of business on hand."
Malcolm smiled, in his languid fashion. If he suspected sarcasm in the first part of the captain's reply, it did not trouble him. His self-sufficiency was proof against anything of that sort.
"Business," he repeated. "Well, that's what I'm here for. Thinking of cornering the--er--potato market, were you?"
"No-o. Cranberries would be more in my line, and I cal'late you fellers don't deal in that kind of sass. I had a private matter I wanted to talk over with you, Mr. Dunn; that is, if you ain't too busy."
Malcolm looked at him with an amused curiosity. As he had expressed it in the conversation with his mother, this old fellow certainly was a "card." He seated himself on the arm of the oak settle from which the captain had risen and, lazily swinging a polished shoe, admitted that he was always busy but never too busy to oblige.
"What's on your mind, Captain?" he drawled.
Captain Elisha glanced about him somewhat uneasily.
"I--I don't know as I made it quite clear," he said, "that it was sort of private; somethin' just between us, you understand."
Malcolm hesitated. Sliding from the settle, and impatiently commanding the clerk to open the gate in the railing, he led his caller through the main office and into a small room beyond. On the glass pane of the door was lettered, "Mr. Dunn--Private." A roll-top desk in the corner and three chairs were the furniture. Malcolm, after closing the door, sprawled in the swing chair before the desk, threw one leg over a drawer, which he pulled out for that purpose, and motioned his companion to occupy one of the other chairs.
Captain Elisha took the offered chair and dropped his hat on the floor beside it. Then he inspected the room and its furnishings with interest. Dunn drew out a pocket case, extracted a cigarette, lit it, and waited for him to speak.
"Well," observed the young man, after a moment, "what's the trouble, Admiral? Better get it off your chest, hadn't you? We're private enough here."
The captain answered the last question. "Yes," he said, "this is nice and private. Got a stateroom all to yourself; name on the door, and everything complete. You must be one of the officers of the craft."
"Um-hm. I sort of expected to find your name on the door outside, but there 'twas, 'Smith, Haynes & Co.' I presume likely you're the 'Co.'"
"I 'presume likely,'" with mocking impatience. "What about that private matter?"
Captain Elisha did not appear to hear him. His eyes were fixed on several photographs stuck in the rail of Mr. Dunn's desk. The photos were those of young ladies.
"Friends of yours?" inquired the captain, nodding toward the photographs.
"No." Dunn took the photos from the rack and threw them into a pigeon hole. "Look here," he said, pointedly, "I wouldn't hurry you for the world, but--"
He paused. Captain Elisha did not take the hint. His mind was evidently still busy with the vanished photographs.
"Just fancy pictures, I s'pose, hey?" he commented.
"Doubtless. Any other little points I can give you?"
"I guess not. I thought they was fancy; looked so to me. Well, about that private matter. Mr. Dunn, I come to see you about an automobile."
"An automobile!" The young man was so astonished that he actually removed his feet from the desk. Then he burst into a laugh. "An automobile?" he repeated. "Captain, has the influence of the metropolis made you a sport already? Do you want to buy a car?"
"Buy one?" It was Captain Elisha's turn to show irritation. "Buy one of them things? Me? I wouldn't buy one of 'em, or run one of 'em, for somethin', I tell you! No, I don't want to buy one."
"Why not? Sell you mine for a price."
"Not if I see you fust, thank you. No, Mr. Dunn, 'tain't that. But one of the hired help up to our place--Caroline's place, I mean--is in trouble on account of one of the dratted machines. They're poor folks, of course, and they need money to help 'em through the doctorin' and nursin' and while the old man's out of work. Caroline was for givin' it to 'em right off, she's a good-hearted girl; but I said--that is, I kind of coaxed her out of it. I thought I'd ask some questions first."
"So you came to me to ask them?" Malcolm smiled contentedly. Evidently the cares and complications of guardianship were already proving too intricate for the unsophisticated countryman. He wished advice, and had come to him for it, possibly at Caroline's suggestion. Affairs were shaping themselves well. Here was an opportunity to act the disinterested friend, as per maternal instructions.
"So you wanted to ask questions, did you, Captain?" he repeated. "Well, fire away. Anything I can do to help you or Caroline will be a pleasure, of course. Smoke?"
He offered the cigarette case. The captain eyed it dubiously and shook his head.
"No," he said; "no, thank you, I commenced smokin' at the butt end, I guess. Begun with a pipe, and them things would seem sort of kindergarten, I'm afraid. No offense meant, you understand. It's all accordin' to what you've been used to. Well, about the questions. Here's the first one: Don't it seem to you that the right one to pay for the doctorin' and nursin' and such of Mr. Moriarty--that's Annie's pa--ought to be the feller who hurt him? That feller, instead of Caroline?"
"Sure thing! If you know who did it, he's your mark."
"He could be held responsible, couldn't he?"
"Um-hm. So I thought. And if he was a right-minded chap, he'd be glad to help the poor critter, providin' he knew what damage he'd done; wouldn't you think so?"
Malcolm nodded sagely, opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. A sudden recollection came to him, an alarming recollection. He turned in his chair and looked at his visitor. Captain Elisha met his gaze frankly.
"Where did this accident happen?" asked Mr. Dunn, his condescending smile absent.
"At the corner of Saint Nicholas Avenue and One Hundred and Twenty-Eighth Street. It happened last Friday mornin', a week ago. And the car that hit him was a yellow one."
Malcolm did not answer. His pale face grew paler, and then flushed a brilliant red. The captain seemed to feel sorry for him.
"Naturally," he went on, "when I heard about it, I remembered what you told Mr. Sylvester and me at the club that afternoon. I understand how 'twas, of course. You never thought you'd done any real harm and just went on, thinkin' 'twas a good joke, much as anything. If you'd known you'd really hurt the poor old man, you'd have stopped to see him. I understand that. But--"
"Look here!" interrupted Dunn, sharply, "did Caroline send you to me?"
"Caroline? No, no! She don't know 'twas your automobile at all. I never said a word to her, 'tain't likely. But afore she spent any of her money, I thought you'd ought to know, because I was sure you wouldn't let her. That's the way I'd feel, and I felt 'twas no more'n honest to give you the chance. I come on my own hook; she didn't know anything about it."
Malcolm drummed on the desk with nervous fingers. The flush remained on his face, his cigarette had gone out, and he threw the stump savagely into the wastepaper basket. Captain Elisha remained silent. At length the young man spoke.
"Well," he growled, pettishly, "how much will it take to square things with the gang? How much damages do they want?"
"Damages? Oh, there won't be any claim for damages, I guess. That is, no lawsuit, or anything of that kind. The Moriartys don't know you did it, and there's no reason why they should. I thought maybe I'd see to 'em and do whatever was necessary; then you could settle with me, and the whole business would be just between us two. Outside the doctor's bills and food and nursin' and such, all the extry will be just the old man's wages for the time he's away from the factory. 'Twon't be very heavy."
More reflection and finger tattoo by his companion. Then:
"All right! I'm in it, I can see that; and it's up to me to get out as easy as I can. I don't want any newspaper publicity. Go ahead! I'll pay the freight."
Captain Elisha arose and picked up his hat.
"That's fust-rate," he said, with emphasis. "I felt sure you'd see it just as I did. There's one thing I would like to say," he added: "that is, that you mustn't think I was stingy about helpin' 'em myself. But it wa'n't really my affair; and when Caroline spoke of spendin' her money and Steve's, I didn't feel I'd ought to let her. You see, I don't know as you know it yet, Mr. Dunn, but my brother 'Bije left me in charge of his whole estate, and, now that I've decided to take the responsibility, I've got a sort of pride in not wastin' any of his children's inheritance. Good day, Mr. Dunn. I'm much obliged to you."
He opened the office door. Malcolm, frowning heavily, suddenly asked a final question.
"Say!" he demanded, "you'll not tell Caroline or Steve a word of this, mind!"
The captain seemed surprised.
"I guess you didn't catch what I said, Mr. Dunn," he observed, mildly. "I told you this whole business would be just between you and me."