Cap'n Warren's Wards by Joseph Crosby Lincoln
Captain Elisha was very far from considering himself a Solomon. As he would have said he had lived long enough with himself to know what a lot he didn't know. Nevertheless, deep down in his inner consciousness, he cherished a belief in his judgment of human nature. This judgment was not of the snap variety; he took his time in forming it. People and their habits, their opinions and characters, were to him interesting problems. He liked to study them and to reach conclusions founded upon reason, observation, and common sense. Having reached such a conclusion, it disturbed him when the subjects of the problem suddenly upset the whole process of reasoning and apparently proved him wrong by behavior exactly contrary to that which he had expected.
He had been pretty well satisfied with the result of his visit to young Dunn at the latter's office. Malcolm had surrendered, perhaps not gracefully or unconditionally, but he had surrendered, and the condition--secrecy--was one which the captain himself had suggested. Captain Elisha's mental attitude toward the son of the late Tammany leader had been a sort of good-natured but alert tolerance. He judged the young man to be a product of rearing and environment. He had known spoiled youths at the Cape and, in their surroundings, they behaved much as Malcolm did in his. The same disrespect to their elders, the same cock-sureness, and the same careless indifference concerning the effect which their actions might have upon other people--these were natural and nothing but years and the hard knocks of experience could bring about a change. Elkanah Chase, country swell and pampered heir to the cranberry grower's few thousands, and Malcolm Dunn, idol of his set at the Metropolitan Club, were not so very different, except in externals. The similarity confirmed his opinion that New York was merely South Denboro many thousand times magnified.
He knew how young Chase had behaved after an interview not unlike that just described. In Elkanah's case several broken windows and property destroyed on a revel the night before the Fourth had caused the trouble. In Malcolm's it was an automobile. Both had listened to reason and had knuckled under rather than face possible lawsuits and certain publicity. Chase, however, had sulkily refused to speak to him for a month, and regained affability merely because he wished to borrow money. According to the captain's deduction, Dunn should have acted in similar fashion. But he didn't; that was the odd part of it.
For Malcolm, when he next called, in company with his mother, at the Warren apartment, was not in the least sulky. Neither was he over effusive, which would have argued fear and a desire to conciliate. Possibly there was a bit more respect in his greeting of the new guardian and a trifle less condescension, but not much. He still hailed Captain Elisha as "Admiral," and was as mockingly careless as ever in his remarks concerning the latter's newness in the big city. In fact, he was so little changed that the captain was perplexed. A chap who could take a licking when he deserved it, and not hold malice, must have good in him, unless, of course, he was hiding the malice for a purpose. And if that purpose was the wish to appear friendly, then the manner of hiding it proved Malcolm Dunn to possess more brains than Captain Elisha had given him credit for.
One thing seemed sure, the Dunns were not openly hostile. And Caroline was. Since the interview in the library, when the girl had, as she considered it, humiliated herself by asking her guardian for money to help the Moriartys, she had scarcely spoken to him. Stephen, taking his cue from his sister, was morose and silent, also. Captain Elisha found it hard to forgive his dead brother for bringing all this trouble upon him.
His lawyers, so Sylvester informed him, were setting about getting Rodgers Warren's tangible assets together. The task was likely to be a long one. The late broker's affairs were in a muddled state, the books were anything but clear, some of the investments were foreign, and, at the very earliest, months must elapse before the executor and trustee could know, for certain, just how large a property he was in charge of.
He found some solace and forgetfulness of the unpleasant life he was leading in helping the stricken Moriarty family. Annie, the maid at the apartment, he swore to secrecy. She must not tell Miss Caroline of his visits to her parents' home. Doctor Henry, also, though he could not understand why, promised silence. Caroline herself had engaged his services in the case, and he was faithful. But the patient was more seriously hurt than at first appeared, and consultations with a specialist were necessary.
"Goin' to be a pretty expensive job, ain't it, Doctor?" asked the captain of the physician.
"Rather, I'm afraid."
"All right. If expense is necessary, don't be afraid of it. You do just what you'd ought to, and send the bill to me."
"But Miss Warren insisted upon my sending it to her. She said it was a private matter, and one with which you, as her guardian, had nothing to do."
"I know. Caroline intends to use her own allowance, I s'pose. Well, let her think she will, if 'twill please her. But when it comes to the settlement, call on me. Give her any reason you want to; say a--er--wealthy friend of the family come to life all at once and couldn't sleep nights unless he paid the costs."
"But there isn't any such friend, is there, Captain Warren? Other than yourself, I mean?"
Captain Elisha grinned in appreciation of a private joke. "There is somebody else," he admitted, "who'll pay a share, anyhow. I don't know's he's what you call a bosom friend, and, as for his sleepin' nights--well, I never heard he couldn't do that, after he went to bed. But, anyhow, you saw wood, or bones, or whatever you have to do, and leave the rest to me. And don't tell Caroline or anybody else a word."
The Moriartys lived in a four-room flat on the East Side, uptown, and his visits there gave the captain a glimpse of another sort of New York life, as different from that of Central Park West as could well be imagined. The old man, Patrick, his wife, Margaret, the unmarried son, Dennis, who worked in the gas house, and five other children of various ages were hived somehow in those four small rooms and Captain Elisha marveled greatly thereat.
"For the land sakes, ma'am," he asked of the nurse, "how do they do it? Where do they put 'em nights? That--that closet in there's the pantry and woodshed and kitchen and dinin' room; and that one's the settin' room and parlor; and them two dry-goods boxes with doors to 'em are bedrooms. There's eight livin' critters to stow away when it's time to turn in, and one whole bed's took up by the patient. Where do they put the rest? Hang 'em up on nails?"
The nurse laughed. "Goodness knows!" she said. "He should have been taken to the hospital. In fact, the doctor and I at first insisted upon his removal there. He would have been much better off. But neither he nor his wife would hear of it. She said he would die sure without his home comforts."
"Humph! I should think more likely he'd die with 'em, or under 'em. I watch that fleshy wife of his with fear and tremblin'. Every time she goes nigh the bed I expect her to trip over a young one and fall. And if she fell on that poor rack-o'-bones," with a wave of the hand toward the invalid, "'twould be the final smash--like a brick chimney fallin' on a lath hencoop."
At that moment the "brick chimney" herself entered the rooms and the nurse accosted her.
"Captain Warren here," she said, "was asking where you all found sleeping quarters."
Mrs. Moriarty smiled broadly. "Sure, 'tis aisy," she explained. "When the ould man is laid up we're all happy to be a bit uncomfortable. Not that we are, neither. You see, sor, me and Nora and Rosy sleep in the other bed; and Dinnie has a bit of a shakedown in the parlor; and Honora is in the kitchen; and--"
"There! there!" Captain Elisha interrupted hastily, "don't tell me any more. I'd rather guess that the baby bunks in the cookstove oven than know it for sartin. How did the grapes I sent you go?" turning to the sick man.
"Aw, sor! they were foine. God bless you, sor! Mary be kind to you, sor! Sure the angels'll watch over you every day you live and breathe!"
Captain Elisha bolted for the parlor, the sufferer firing a gatling fusillade of blessings after him. Mrs. Moriarty continued the bombardment, as she escorted him to the door of the flat.
"There! there!" protested the captain. "Just belay! cut it short, there's a good woman! I'll admit I'm a saint and would wear a halo instead of a hat if 'twa'n't so unfashionable. Good day. If you need anything you ain't got, tell the nurse."
The grateful Irish woman did not intend to let him escape so easily.
"Aw, sor," she went on, "it's all right for you to make fun. I'm the jokin' kind, sor, meself. Whin the flats where we used to be got afire and Pat had to lug me down the fire escape in his arms, they tell me I was laughin' fit to kill; that is, when I wasn't screechin' for fear he'd drop me. And him, poor soul, never seein' the joke, but puffin' and groanin' that his back was in two pieces. Ha, ha! Oh, dear! And him in two pieces now for sure and all! Aw, sor, it's all right for you to laugh it off, but what would we do without you? You and Miss Caroline, God bless her!"
"Caroline? She doesn't come here, does she?"
"Indade she does. Sure, she's the perfect little lady! Hardly a day passes--or a week, anyhow--that she doesn't drop in to see how the ould man's gettin' on."
"Humph! Well, see that you don't tell her about me."
Mrs. Moriarty held up both hands in righteous protestation. She tell? Might the tongue of her wither between her teeth before it let slip a word, and so on. Captain Elisha waved her to silence.
"All right! all right!" he exclaimed. "So long! Take good care of your husband, and, and--for Heaven's sake, walk careful and don't step on any of the children."
Mrs. Moriarty's tongue did not wither; at all events, it was lively enough when he next met her. The captain's secret was not divulged, and he continued his visits to the flat, taking care, however, to ascertain his niece's whereabouts beforehand. It was not altogether a desire to avoid making his charitable deeds public which influenced him. He had a habit of not letting his right hand know what his left was about in such cases, and he detested a Pharisaical philanthropist. But there was another reason why Caroline must not learn of his interest in the Moriartys. If she did learn it, she would believe him to be helping them on his own responsibility; or, if not, that he was using money belonging to the estate. Of course he would, and honestly must, deny the latter charge, and, therefore, the first would, to her mind, be proven. He intended that Malcolm Dunn should pay the larger share of the bills, as was right and proper. But he could not tell Caroline that, because she must not know of the young man's responsibility for the accident. He could not give Malcolm the credit, and he felt that he ought not to take it himself. It was a delicate situation.
He was lonely, and the days seemed long. Reading the paper, walking in the park, occasionally dropping in at the lawyers' offices, or visiting the shops and other places of interest about town made up the monotonous routine. He breakfasted early, waited upon by Edwards, got lunch at the restaurant nearest to wherever he happened to be at noon, and returned to the apartment for dinner. His niece and nephew dined with him, but when he attempted conversation they answered in monosyllables or not at all. Every evening he wrote a letter to Abbie, and the mail each morning brought him one from her. The Dunns came frequently and seemed disposed to be friendly, but he kept out of their way as much as possible.
Pearson he had not seen since the latter's call. This was a disappointment, for he fancied the young fellow and believed he should like him even better on closer acquaintance. He would have returned the visit, but somehow or other the card with the boarding-house street and number had been lost or mislaid, and the long list of "James Pearsons" in the directory discouraged him. He speculated much concerning the mystery at which the would-be novelist hinted as preventing his accepting Caroline's invitation. Evidently Pearson had once known Rodgers Warren well, and had been esteemed and respected by the latter. Caroline, too, had known him, and was frankly pleased to meet him again. Whatever the trouble might be, she, evidently, was ignorant of it. The captain wondered and pondered, but reached no satisfactory conclusion. It seemed the irony of fate that the one congenial person--Sylvester excepted--whom he had met during his stay in the big city should be scratched from his small list of acquaintances.
With Sylvester he held many familiar and enjoyable chats. The good-natured, democratic senior member of the law firm liked to have Captain Elisha drop in for advice or to spin yarns. Graves, who was well again, regarded the new guardian with respect of a kind, but with distinct disapproval. The captain was, in his opinion, altogether too flippant and jolly. There was nothing humorous in the situation, as Graves saw it, and to laugh when one's brother's estate is in a tangle, indicated unfitness, if nothing worse. Kuhn was a sharp, quick-moving man, who had no time for frivolity if it delayed business.
It was after a long interview with Sylvester that Captain Elisha decided to send Stephen back to college. When he broke the news there was rebellion, brief but lively. Stephen had no desire to continue his studies; he wished to become a stock broker at once, and, as soon as he was of age, take his father's seat on the Exchange.
"Stevie," said Captain Elisha, "one of these days, when you get to be as old as I am or before, you'll realize that an education is worth somethin'."
"Ugh!" grunted the boy, in supreme disgust. "What do you know about that?"
"Why, not much, maybe, but enough."
"Yes?" sarcastically. "What college did you attend?"
"Me? Why, none, more's the pity. What learnin' there was in our family your dad had. Maybe that's why he was what he was, so fur as money and position and society and so on went, and I'm what I am."
"Oh, rubbish! What difference does it make to Malcolm Dunn--now--his going through college?"
"Well, he went, didn't he?"
Stephen grinned. Malcolm had told him some particulars concerning his university career and its termination.
"He went--part way," he answered.
"Ya-as. Well, you've gone part way, so fur. And now you'll go the rest."
"I'd like to know why."
"For one reason, because I'm your guardian and I say so."
Stephen was furiously angry. His father's indulgence and his sister's tolerance had, in most cases, made his will law in the household. To be ordered about in this way by an ignorant interloper, as he considered his uncle, was too much.
"By gad," he shouted, "we'll see!"
"No, we've seen. You run along now and pack your trunk. And take my advice and study hard. You'll be behindhand in your work, so Mr. Sylvester tells me, but you're smart, and you can catch up. Make us proud of you; that's what you can do."
His nephew glanced at him. Captain Elisha was smiling kindly, but there was no sign of change of purpose in his look.
Stephen ground his teeth.
"Oh," he snarled, "if it wasn't for the disgrace! If things weren't as they are, I'd--"
"S-s-s-h! I know; but they are. Maybe I wish they wa'n't 'most as much as you do, but they are. I don't blame you for feelin' mad now; but I'm right and I know it. And some day you'll know it, and thank me."
"When I do, I'll be insane."
"No, you'll be older, that's all. Now pack your trunk--or get the Commodore to pack it for you."
News from the Moriarty sick room continued favorable for a time. Then, with alarming suddenness, a change came. The broken hip was mending slowly, but poor Pat's age was against him, and the shock and long illness were too much for his system to fight. Dr. Henry shook his head dubiously when the captain asked questions. And, one morning at breakfast, Edwards informed him that the old man was dead. Annie had been summoned by telephone at midnight and had gone home.
Captain Elisha, though not greatly surprised, was shocked and grieved. It seemed such a needless tragedy, almost like murder, although there was no malice in it. And the thought of the fatherless children and the poverty of the stricken family made him shudder. Death at any time, amid any surroundings, is terrible; when the dead hands have earned the bread for many mouths it is appalling.
The captain dreaded visiting the flat, but because he felt it to be a duty he went immediately. And the misery and wailing and dismay he found there were worse than his anticipations. He did his best to comfort and cheer. Mrs. Moriarty alternately called upon the saints to bless him and begged to know what she would do now that they were all sure to starve. Luckily, the family priest, a kind-hearted, quiet man who faced similar scenes almost every day of his life, was there, and Captain Elisha had a long talk with him. With Dennis, the oldest son, and Annie, the maid at the Warrens', he also consulted. Money for their immediate needs, he told them, he would provide. And the funeral expenses must not worry them. Afterward--well, plans for the future could be discussed at another time. But upon Dennis and Annie he tried to impress a sense of their responsibility.
"It's up to you, Boy," he said to the former. "Annie's job's sure, I guess, as long as she wants it, and she can give her mother somethin' every month. But you're the man of the house now, and you've got to steer the ship and keep it afloat. That means work, and hard work, lots of it, too. You can do it, if you've got the grit. If I can find a better place and more pay for you, I will, but you mustn't depend on that. It's up to you, I tell you, and you've got to show what's in you. If you get stuck and need advice, come to me."
He handed the priest a sum of money to cover immediate contingencies, and departed. His letter to Abbie that afternoon was so blue that the housekeeper felt sure he was "coming down" with some disease or other. He had been riding in that awful subway, where the air--so the papers said--was not fit to breathe, and just as like as not he'd caught consumption. His great-uncle on his mother's side died of it, so it "run in the family." Either he must come home or she should come to him, one or the other.
But before evening his blueness had disappeared. He had just returned to his room, after stepping into the hall to drop his letter in the mail chute, when his niece knocked at the door. He was surprised to see her, for she had not spoken to him, except in brief reply to questions, since their misunderstanding in that very room. He looked at her wonderingly, not knowing what to say or what to expect; but she spoke first.
"Captain Warren," she began, hurriedly, "the last time I came to you--the last time I came here, I came to ask a favor, and you--I thought you--"
She was evidently embarrassed and confused. Her guardian was embarrassed, also, but he tried to be hospitable.
"Yes, Caroline," he said, gravely, "I know what you mean. Won't you--won't you sit down?"
To his surprise, she accepted the invitation, taking the same chair she had taken on the occasion of their former interview. But there was a look in her eyes he had never seen there before; at least, not when she was addressing him.
She went on, speaking hastily, as though determined to head off any questioning on his part.
"Captain Warren," she began once more, "the time I came to you in this room you were, so I thought, unreasonable and unkind. I asked you for money to help a poor family in trouble, and you refused to give it to me."
"No, Caroline," he interrupted, "I didn't refuse, you only thought I did."
She held up her hand. "Please let me go on," she begged. "I thought you refused, and I couldn't understand why. I was hurt and angry. I knew that father never would have refused me under such circumstances, and you were his brother. But since then, only to-day, I have learned that I was wrong. I have learned--"
She paused. The captain was silent. He was beginning to hope, to believe once more in his judgment of character; and yet, with his hope and growing joy, there was a trifle of anxiety.
"I have learned," went on his niece, "that I was mistaken. I can't understand yet why you wished to wait before saying yes, but I do know that it must have been neither because you were unkind nor ungenerous. I have just come from those poor people, and they have told me everything."
Captain Elisha started. "What did they tell you?" he asked, quickly. "Who told you?"
"Annie and her mother. They told me what you had done and were doing for them. How kind you had been all through the illness and to-day. Oh, I know you made them promise not to tell me; and you made the doctor and nurse promise, too. But I knew someone had helped, and Annie dropped a hint. Then I suspected, and now I know. Those poor people!"
The captain, who had been looking at the floor, and frowning a bit, suddenly glanced up to find his niece's eyes fixed upon him, and they were filled with tears.
"Will you forgive me?" she asked, rising from her chair, and coming impulsively toward him. "I'm sorry I misjudged you and treated you so. You must be a very good man. Please forgive me."
He took her hand, which was swallowed up in his big one. His eyes were moist, also.
"Lord love you, dearie," he said, "there's nothin' to forgive. I realized that I must have seemed like a mean, stingy old scamp. Yet I didn't mean to be. I only wanted to look into this thing just a little. Just as a matter of business, you know. And I... Caroline, did that doctor tell you anything more?"
"Any more?" she repeated in bewilderment. "He told me that you were the kindest man he had ever seen."
"Yes, yes. Well, maybe his eyesight's poor. What I mean is did he tell you anything about anybody else bein' in this with me?"
"Anybody else? What do you mean?"
"Oh, nothin', nothin'. I joked with him a spell ago about a wealthy relation of the Moriarty tribe turnin up. 'Twas only a joke, of course. And yet, Caroline, I--I think I'd ought to say--He hesitated. What could he say? Even a hint might lead to embarrassing questions and he had promised Dunn.
"What ought you to say?" asked his niece.
"Why, nothin', I guess. I'm glad you understand matters a little better and I don't intend for the estate nor you to pay these Moriarty bills. Just get 'em off your mind. Forget 'em. I'll see that everything's attended to. And, later on, if you and me can, by puttin' our heads together, help those folks to earnin' a better livin', why, we will, hey?"
The girl smiled up at him. "I think," she said, "that you must be one who likes to hide his light under a bushel."
"I guess likely a two-quart measure'd be plenty big enough to hide mine. There! there! We won't have any more misunderstandin's, will we? I'm a pretty green vegetable and about as out of place here as a lobster in a balloon, but, as I said to you and Steve once before, if you'll just remember I am green and sort of rough, and maybe make allowances accordin', this cruise of ours may not be so unpleasant. Now you run along and get ready for dinner, or the Commodore'll petrify from standin' so long behind your chair."
She laughed, as she turned to go. "I should hate to have him do that," she said. "He would make a depressing statue. I shall see you again in a few minutes, at dinner. Thank you--Uncle."
She left Captain Elisha in a curious state of mind. Against his will he had been forced to accept thanks and credit which, he believed, did not rightfully belong to him. It was the only thing to do, and yet it seemed almost like disloyalty to Malcolm Dunn. This troubled him, but the trouble was, just then, a mere pinhead of blackness against the radiance of his spirit.
His brother's daughter had, for the first time, called him uncle.