- PART III
- CHAPTER V LOOKING FOR A WILL
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LOOKING FOR A WILL
For three days the Colonel lay in the great drawing-room of the Crompton House, the blinds of which were closed, while knots of crape streamed from every door, and the servants talked together in low tones, sometimes of the dead man and sometimes of the future, wondering who would be master now of Crompton Place. Speculation on this point was rife everywhere, and on no one had it a stronger hold than on Howard himself. He would not like to have had it known that within twenty-four hours after his uncle's death he had gone through every pigeon-hole and nook in the Colonel's safe and private drawers, and turned over every paper searching for a will, and when he found none, had congratulated himself that in all human probability he was the sole heir. He was very properly sad, with an unmistakable air of ownership as he went about the place, giving orders to the servants. To Amy he paid great deference, telling the undertaker to ask what she liked and abide by her decisions. And here he was perfectly safe. With the shock of the Colonel's death Amy had relapsed into a dazed, silent mood, saying always, "I don't know; ask Eloise," and when Eloise was asked, she replied, "I | | 324 have been here too short a time to give any orders. Mr. Howard will tell you."
Thus everything was left to him, as he meant it should be, stipulating that Eloise meet the people who came, some to offer their sympathy, and more from a morbid curiosity to see whatever there was to be seen. This Eloise did with a dignity which surprised herself, and if Howard were the master, she was the mistress, and apparently as much at home as if she had lived there all her life. Ruby was the first to call. She had not seen Eloise since the astounding news that she was Amy's daughter.
"I am so glad for you," she said, and the first tears Eloise had shed sprang to her eyes as she laid her head on Ruby's arm, just as she had done in the days of her trouble and pain.
Mrs. Biggs came, too,--very loud in her protestations of delight and assertions that she had always known Eloise was above the common.
Never since the memorable lawn party many years ago had there been so great a crowd in the house and grounds as on the day of the funeral. In honor of his memory, and because he had given the school-house to the town, the school was closed, and the pupils, with Ruby Ann at their head, marched up the avenue with wreaths of autumn leaves and bouquets of flowers intended for the grave. The Rev. Arthur Mason read the burial service, and as he glanced at the costly casket, nearly smothered in flowers, and at the crowd inside and out, he could not keep his thoughts from his father's description of another funeral, where the dead woman lay in her cheap coffin, with Crackers and negroes as spectators; and only a demented woman, a little child, and black | | 325 Jake and Mandy Ann as mourners. The mourners here were Amy and Howard, Eloise and Jack, and next to him a plain-looking, elderly woman, who, Mrs. Biggs told every one near her, was old Mrs. Smith, Eloise's supposed grandmother from Mayville.
Eloise had sent for her, and while telling the story of deception and wrong which had been practised so long, and to which the mother listened with streaming eyes, she had said, "But it makes no difference with us. You are mine just the same, and wherever I live in the future, you are to live, too, if you will."
Mrs. Smith had smiled upon the young girl, and felt bewildered and strange in this grand house and at this grand funeral; unlike anything she had ever seen. It seemed like an endless line of carriages and foot passengers which followed the Colonel to the grave, and when the services were over, a few friends of the Colonel, who had come from a distance, returned to the house, and among them Mr. Ferris, the lawyer, who had been the Colonel's counsel and adviser for years, and managed his affairs. This was Howard's idea. He could not rest until he knew whether there was in the lawyer's possession any will or papers bearing upon Amy. When lunch was over he took the old man into his uncle's library, and said, hesitatingly, "I do not want to be too hasty, but it is better to have such matters settled, and if I have no interest in the Crompton estate I must leave, of course. Did my uncle leave a will?"
Lawyer Ferris looked at him keenly through his glasses, took a huge pinch of snuff, and blew a good deal of it from him and some in Howard's face, mak- | | 326 ing him sneeze before he replied, "Not that I know of; more's the pity. I tried my best to have him make one. The last time I urged it he said, 'There's no need. I've fixed it. Amy will be all right.' I was thinking of her. If there is no will, and she wasn't adopted and wasn't his daughter, it's hard lines for her."
"But she was his daughter," came in a clear, decided voice, and both the lawyer and Howard turned to see Eloise standing in the door.
Rain was beginning to fall, and she had come to close a window, with no thought that any one was in the library, until she heard the lawyer's last words, which stopped her suddenly. Where her mother was concerned she could be very brave, and, stepping into the room, she startled the two men with her assertion, "She was his daughter."
"He told me so," she continued.
"He did? When? " Howard asked, and Eloise replied, "I asked him, and his eyes looked yes, and when I said, 'You are my grandfather?' I was very sure he nodded. I know he meant it."
The lawyer smiled and answered her, "That is something, but not enough. We must have a will or some document. He might have been your mother's father. I think he was; and still, she may not be--be--"
He hesitated, for Eloise's eyes were fixed upon him, and the hot blood of shame was crimsoning her face. After a moment he continued, "A will can set things right; or, if we can prove a marriage, all will be fair sailing for your mother and you."
"I was not thinking of myself," Eloise returned. "I am thinking of mother. I know all the dreadful | | 327 gossip and everything. Mrs. Biggs has told me, and I am going to find out. Somebody knows, and I shall find them."
She looked very fearless as she left the room, and Howard felt that she would be no weak antagonist if he wanted to contest his right to the estate. But he didn't, he told himself, and Mr. Ferris, too. He was willing to abide by the law. If there was a will he'd like to find it; and, in any case, should be generous to Amy and--Eloise!
"No doubt of it," the lawyer said, looking at him now over his spectacles, and taking a second pinch of snuff preparatory to the search among the dead man's papers, which Howard suggested that he make.
Every place Howard had gone through was gone through again,--every paper unfolded and every envelope looked into. There was no will or scrap of writing bearing upon Amy. There were some receipts from Tom Hardy, of Palatka, for money received from the Colonel and paid over to Eudora Harris, and at these the lawyer looked curiously.
"Harris was the name Amy sometimes went by before her marriage, I believe," he said. "Eudora was probably her mother. Now, if we can find Tom Hardy we may learn something. Shall I write to Palatka and inquire?"
"Certainly," Howard replied, with a choke in his throat which he managed to hide from the lawyer.
He didn't mean to be a scoundrel. He only wanted his own, and he meant to do right if chance made him master of Crompton, he said to himself, as he went to the drawing-room, where Jack and Eloise were sitting with a few friends who seemed | | 328 to be waiting for something. Ruby and Mrs. Biggs, who, on the strength of their intimacy with Eloise, had remained in the house while the family was at the grave, were there, evidently expectant. It was not Howard's idea to broach the subject at once. He wanted to talk it over with Jack and Eloise, and make himself right with them. The lawyer had no such scruples. He had read wills after many funerals, and now that there was none to read, he spoke up:
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry I can't oblige you, but there ain't any will as we can find, and nothing to show who Mrs. Amy is, and matters must rest for a spell as they are. Meanwhile, Mr. Howard Crompton, as the Colonel's nephew and only known heir, must take charge of things."
Eloise's face flushed, and Jack, who stole a look at her, saw that her hands trembled a little. No one spoke until Mrs. Biggs rose and said, "'Squire Ferris, if no will ain't found, and nothin' is proved for Mrs. Amy,--adoption nor nothin',--you know what I mean,--can't she inherit?"
" Not a cent! " was the reply.
"You mean she'll have nothin'?"
"And Mr. Howard will have everything?"
"Yes, everything, as he is sole heir and next of kin."
"Get out with your 'sole heir and next of kin' and law!" Mrs. Biggs exclaimed vehemently. "There ain't no justice in law. Look a-here, Squire; when women vote we'll have things different. Here is Amy, been used to them elegancies all her life." She swept her arm around the room, and, still keeping | | 329 it poised, continued: "And now she's to be turned out because there ain't no will and you can't prove nothin'! And that's law! It makes me so mad! Who is goin' to take care of her, I'd like to know?"
"I am!" and Eloise sprang to her feet, the central figure now in the room. "I shall take care of my mother! I don't care for the will, nor anything, except to prove that she is Col. Crompton's legitimate daughter, and that I will do. I am going where she was born, if I can find the place, and take her with me. I am not very lame now, and I would start to-morrow if--"
She stopped, remembering that in her purse were only two and one half dollars, and this she owed to Mrs. Biggs for board; then her eyes fell upon Ruby, the friend who had stood by her in her need, and who had been the first to congratulate her on finding her mother. Ruby had offered her money for the journey to California, and something in Ruby's face told her it was still ready for her, and she went on: "I was foolish enough to think Crompton Place was her rightful home, and be glad for her, but if it is not, I shall take her away at once. No one need worry about mother! I shall care for her."
"Bravo!" Mrs. Biggs rejoined, as Eloise sank back in her chair. "That's what I call pluck! Law, indeed! It makes me so mad! You can fetch her to my house any minit. Your old room is ready for you, and I won't charge a cent till you find something to do and can pay. Maybe Ruby'll give up the school. Won't you, Ruby Ann?"
"Certainly, if she wishes it," Ruby answered, and going over to Eloise, she said, "You are a brave | | 330 little girl, and the money is still waiting for you if you want it."
As for Jack, he was ready to lay himself at her feet, but all he could do then was to say to Ruby, "Perhaps Miss Smith had better go to her room; she seems tired," and taking her arm, he went with her to the door, which Howard opened for her. That young man did not feel very comfortable, and as soon as Eloise was gone he said to the inmates of the room, "If any of you think me such a cad as to turn Mrs. Amy and her daughter from the house, or to allow them to go, you are mistaken. If it should prove that I am master here, they will share with me. I can do no more."
"Good for you! " Jack said, wringing Howard's hand, while the party began to break up, as it was time for those who lived at a distance to take the train.
Among those who arose to go was the Rev. Arthur Mason, whom Howard had asked to lunch after the burial. As he left the house he said to Jack, who stood for a moment with him on the piazza, "Please say to Miss Smith that I can direct her to her mother's birthplace in Florida. My father is preaching there."
"Thanks! I will tell her," Jack replied, in some surprise, and then went in to where Howard was standing, with an expression on his face not quite such as one ought to have when he has just come into possession of a fortune.
"I congratulate you, old boy," Jack said cheerily, as he went up to him.
"Don't!" Howard answered impetuously. "Nothing is sure. A will may be found, or my | | 331 uncle's marriage proved; in either case, I sink back into the cipher I was before. I cannot say I'm not glad to have money, but I don't want people blaming me. I can't help it if my uncle made no will and did not marry Amy's mother, and I don't believe he did, or why was he silent so many years?"
Jack could not answer him and left the room, taking his way, he hardly knew why, to the village, where he fell in again with the rector. To talk of the recent events at the Crompton House was natural, and before they parted Jack knew the contents of the Rev. Charles's letter to his son, and in his mind there was no doubt of a secret marriage and Amy's legitimacy.
"It will be hard on Howard," he thought, "but Amy ought to have her rights,--and,--Eloise! And she shall!" he added, as he retraced his steps to the Crompton House.
Chancing to be alone with her, he told her in part what he had heard from the rector, keeping back everything pertaining to the poverty of the surroundings, and speaking mostly of Jakey and Mandy Ann, whom Amy might remember.
"She does," Eloise replied, "and at every mention of them her brain seems to get clearer. Peter has brought me a copy of a letter which Col. Crompton received from Jake just before he went for my mother, and which he has kept all these years. It may help me to find whatever there is to be found, good or bad." She handed him the copy, and continued, "The letter was mailed in Palatka, but from what you tell me, Jakey is farther up the river. Shall I have any trouble in finding him, do you think?"| | 332
"None whatever," Jack replied, a plan rapidly maturing in his mind as to what he would do if Eloise persisted in going to Florida. "Better leave your mother here," he said, when she told him of her determination to unravel the mystery.
"No," she answered. "Mother must go. I expect much from a sight of her old home and Jakey."
Jack shivered as he recalled the Rev. Charles Mason's picture of that home, but he would not enlighten her. She must guess something from Jakey's note to the Colonel, he thought. Evidently she did, for she asked him what a Cracker was.
"I ought to know, of course, and have some idea," she said. "I asked mother, and she said she was one. What did she mean?"
"If you go to Florida you will probably learn what a Cracker is," Jack replied, as he bade her good-night, pitying her for what he knew was in store for her.
The next day a telegram from New York called him to the city. But before he went he had an interview with Ruby with regard to the journey which Eloise was designing to take as soon as her mother should have recovered from the shock of the Colonel's death.
For a few days after his departure matters moved on quietly at the Crompton House, where Howard assumed the head unostentatiously, and without giving offence to any of the servants. The Crompton estate, as reported to him by Lawyer Ferris, was larger than he had supposed, and if it were his he would be a richer man than he had ever hoped to be. He liked money, and what it would bring him, and if he had been sure of his foothold he would have | | 333 been very happy. And he was nearly sure. There was no will in the house, he was certain, for he had gone a second and third time through every place where one could possibly have been put, and found nothing. He was safe there, and as he did not know all which Mr. Mason had written to his son, he did not greatly fear the result of Eloise's trip to the South, which he thought a foolish undertaking. But she was bent upon going and the day was fixed. Grandmother Smith had returned home to await developments. Amy was ready. Eloise's lameness was nearly gone, "And to-morrow we start," she said to him one evening, when, after dinner, she joined him in the library, where he spent most of his time.
Every day since his uncle's death, and he had seen so much of Eloise, Howard's interest in her had increased, until it amounted to a passion, if not positive love. Jack was a formidable rival, he knew, but now that he was probably master of Crompton Place, where her mother would be happier than elsewhere, she might think favorably of him. At all events he'd take the chance, and now was his time. Looking up quickly as she came in, and drawing a chair close to him for her, he said, "Sit down a moment while I talk to you." She sat down, and he continued, "I wish you would give up this journey, which can only end in disappointment. I have no idea there was a marriage, or that you could prove it if there was: My uncle was not a brute. He loved Amy, and would not have kept silent till he died if she had been his legitimate daughter. Give up the project. I will gladly share the fortune with you, and be a son to your mother. | | 334 Will you, Eloise? I must call you that, and I ask you to be my wife. It is not so sudden as you may think," he continued, as he saw her look of surprise. "I do not show all I feel. I admired you from the first, but Jack seemed to be ahead, and I gave way to him, not understanding until within the last few days how much you were to me. I love you, and ask you again to be my wife."
He had one of her hands in his, but it was cold and pulseless, and it seemed to him it told her answer before she said, very kindly, as if sorry to give him pain:
"I believe you are my cousin, or, rather, my mother's, and I can esteem you as such, but I cannot be your wife."
"Because you love Jack Harcourt, I suppose," Howard said, a little bitterly, and Eloise replied, "I do not think we should bring Mr. Harcourt into the discussion. When he asks me to be his wife it will be time to know whether I love him or not. I cannot marry you."
She arose to go, while Howard tried to detain her, feeling every moment how his love was growing for this girl who had so recently come into his life, and was crossing his path, as he had felt she would when he first heard of her from his uncle, and had promised to sound her as to her fitness for a teacher. There had been no need for that; his uncle was dead, and she was going from him, perhaps to return as a usurper.
"Eloise," he said again, with more feeling in his voice than when he first spoke, "you must listen to me. I cannot give you up. I would rather lose Crompton, if it is mine, than to lose you."| | 335
Rising to his feet, he took her face between his hands and kissed it passionately.
"How dare you!" she said, wresting herself from him.
"Because I dare Jack may have the second kiss, but I have had the first," he replied. Then his manner changed, and he said, entreatingly, "Forgive me, Eloise, I was beside myself for a moment. Don't give me an answer now. Think of what I have said while you are gone, if you will go; and if you fail, remember this is your home and your mother's, just as much as it will be if you succeed. Promise me you will come back here whatever happens. You will come?"
"For a time, yes; till I know what to do if I fail," she replied.
Then she went out and left him alone, to go again through the pigeon-holes and drawers and shelves he had been through so often and found nothing.
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