- PART III
- CHAPTER IX WHAT HOWARD FOUND
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WHAT HOWARD FOUND
Jack had sent Howard a postal on the road to Florida, and a few lines from Enterprise on the day of their arrival. Since that time he had been so busy that he had failed to write, thinking he could tell the news so much better, and Howard argued from his silence that the errand had been unsuccessful. Crompton Place was undoubtedly his, and still he had not been altogether happy in his rôle as heir. The servants had been very respectful; people had treated him with deference; trades-people had sought his patronage; subscription papers had poured in upon him from all quarters, and in many ways he was made to feel that he was really Crompton of Crompton, with a prospective income of many thousands. He had gone over his uncle's papers, and knew exactly what he was worth, and when his dividends and rents were due. He was a rich man, unless they found something unexpected in Florida, and he did not believe they would. It seemed impossible that if there were a marriage it should have been kept secret so long. "My uncle would certainly have told it at the last and not left a stain on Amy," he said to himself again and again, and nearly succeeded in making himself believe that he had a right to be where he was,--his uncle's heir and head of the | | 363 house. Why no provision was made for Amy he could not imagine. "But it will make no difference," he said; "I shall provide for her and Eloise."
At the thought of her his heart gave a great throb, for she was dearer to him than he had supposed. "I believe I'd give up Crompton if I could win her," he thought, "but that cannot be; Jack is the lucky fellow," and then he began to calculate how much he would give Amy out and out. "She can live here, of course, if she will, but she must have something of her own. Will twenty thousand be enough, or too much?" he said, and from the sum total of the estate he subtracted twenty thousand dollars, with so large a remainder that he decided to give her that amount in bonds and mortgages, which would cause her as little trouble as possible. There were some government bonds in a private drawer, through which he had searched for a will. He would have a look at them and see which were the more desirable for Amy. He had been through that drawer three or four times, and there was no thought of the will now as he opened it, wondering that it came so hard, as if something were binding on the top or side. It shut harder, or, rather, it didn't shut at all, and with a jerk he pulled it out to see what was the matter. As he did so a folded sheet of foolscap, which had been lodged between the drawer and the side of the desk, fell to the floor. With a presentiment of the truth Howard took it up and read, "THE LAST WILL AND CONFESSION OF JAMES CROMPTON!"
It had come at last, and, unfolding the sheet, Howard began to read, glancing first at the date, which was a few weeks after Amy came from California.
"KNOW ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS," it began, | | 364 "that I, JAMES CROMPTON, am a coward and a sneak and a villain, and have lived a lie for forty years, hiding a secret I was too proud to divulge at first, and which grew harder and harder to tell as time went on and people held me so high as the soul of honor and rectitude. Honor! There isn't a hair of it on my head! I broke the heart of an innocent girl, and left her to die alone. AMY EUDORA SMITH is my own daughter, the lawful child of my marriage with EUDORA HARRIS, which took place December --, 18--, on the Hardy Plantation, Fulton County, in Georgia, several miles from Atlanta."
Up to this point Howard had been standing, but now the floor seemed to rise up and strike him in the face. Sitting down in the nearest chair, he breathed hard for a moment, and then went on with what the Colonel called his CONFESSION, which he had not had courage to make verbally while living.
When in college he had for his room-mate Tom Hardy from Atlanta. The two were fast friends, and when the Colonel was invited to visit Georgia he did so gladly. Some miles from the town was the plantation owned by the Hardys. This the Colonel visited in company with his friend. A small log house on a part of the farm was rented to a Mr. Brown, a perfectly respectable man, but ignorant and coarse. His family consisted of himself and wife and son, and daughter Mary, a pretty girl of twenty, and a cousin from Florida, Eudora Harris, a beautiful girl of sixteen, wholly uneducated and shy as a bird. There was about her a wonderful fascination for the Colonel, who went with his friend several times to the Brown's, and mixed with them familiarly for the sake of the girl whose eyes wel- | | 365 comed him so gladly, and in which he at last read unmistakable signs of love for himself, while the broad jokes of her friends warned him of his danger. Then his calls ceased, for nothing was further from his thought than marriage with Eudora. At last there came to him and Tom a badly written and spelled invitation to Mary's wedding, which was to take place on the afternoon of the nineteenth day of December, 18--.
"Let's go; there'll be no end of fun," Tom said, but when the day came he was ill in bed with influenza, and the Colonel went without him, reaching the house just as the family were taking a hasty lunch, preparatory to the feast which was to follow the wedding.
"I sat down with them," the Colonel wrote, "and made myself one of them, and drank vile whiskey and home-made wine until my head began to feel as big as two heads, and I do not think I knew what I was about. As bad luck would have it, the man who was to stand with Eudora as groomsman failed to come, and I was asked to take his place.
"'Certainly, I am ready for anything,' I said, and my voice sounded husky and unnatural, and I wondered what ailed me.
"'Then, s'posin' you and Dory get spliced, and we'll have a double weddin'. You have sparked it long enough, and we don't stand foolin' here,' Mr. Brown said to me, in a half-laughing, half-threatening tone.
"I looked at Eudora, and her beautiful eyes were shining upon me with a look which made my pulses quicken as they never had before. I don't know what demon possessed me, unless it were the demon | | 366 of the whiskey punch, of which I had drank far too much, and which prompted me to say, 'All right, if Eudora is willing.'
"To do her justice, she hesitated a moment, but when I kissed her she yielded, and with the touch of her lips there came over me a feeling I mistook for love, and everything was forgotten except the girl. Elder Covil performed the double ceremony, and looked questioningly. at me, as if doubtful whether I were in my right mind or not. I thought I was, and felt extremely happy, until I woke to what I had done, and from which there was no escape. I was bound to a girl whose sweet disposition and great beauty were her only attractions, and whose environments made me shudder. I could not bring her to Crompton Place and introduce her to my friends, and I did not know what to do.
"Tom was furious when he heard of it, and suggested suicide and divorce, and everything else that was bad. But Dora's eyes held me for two weeks, and then I became so disillusionized and so sick of my surroundings, that I was nearly ready to follow Tom's advice and blow out my brains.
"'If you won't kill yourself,' he said, 'send the girl home to Florida, and leave her there till you make up your mind what to do. There must be some way to untie that knot. If not, you are in for it.'
"I sent her home, and after two or three weeks, during which Tom and I revolved a hundred plans, I decided on one, and went to see her in her home--and such a home! A log-house in a palmetto clearing, with a foolish old grandmother who did not know enough to ask or care what I was to Eudora. | | 367 I could not endure it, and I told Eudora how impossible it was for me to take her North until she had some education and knowledge of the world. I would leave her, I said, until I could decide upon a school to which I would send her, and, as it would be absurd for a married woman to be attending school, she was to retain her maiden name of Harris, and tell no one of our marriage until I gave her permission to do so. I think she would have jumped into the river at my bidding, and she promised all that I required.
"'I shall never tell I am your wife until you say I may,' she said to me when I left her, but there was a look in her eyes like that I once saw in a pet dog I had shot, and which in dying licked my hands.
"Through Tom Hardy, who left Atlanta for Palatka, I sent her money regularly and wrote occasionally, while she replied through the same medium. Loving, pitiful letters they were, and would have moved the heart of any man who was not a brute and steeped to the dregs in pride and cowardice. I burned them as soon as I read them, for fear they might be found. I told her to do the same with mine, and have no doubt she did. I did mean fair about the school, and was making inquiries, slowly, it is true, as my heart was not in it, and I had nearly decided upon Lexington, Kentucky, when the birth of a little girl changed everything, but did not reconcile me to the situation. I never cared for children,--disliked them rather than otherwise,--and the fact that I was a father did not move me a whit.
"There was a letter imploring me to come and see our baby, and I promised to go, with a vague idea that I might some time keep my word. But I didn't. | | 368 I had no love for Eudora, none for the child; and still a thought of it haunted me continually, and was the cause of my giving the grounds and the school-house to the town. I wanted to expiate my sin, and at the same time increase my popularity, for at that time I was trying to make up my mind to acknowledge my marriage and bring Eudora home. The poor girl never knew it, for on the day of the lawn party she was buried. Tom Hardy wrote me she was dead, and that he was about starting for Europe, and had given Jake, a faithful servant of the family, my address. God knows my remorse when I heard it, and still I put off going for the child until Jake wrote me that the grandmother, too, had died, and added that it was not fitting for the little girl to be brought up with Crackers and negroes. He did not know that I had heard of Eudora's death from Tom, and was waiting for--I did not know what, unless it was to hear from him personally. There was more manliness in that negro's nature than in mine, and I knew it, and was ashamed of myself, and went for my daughter and stood by my wife's grave, and heard from Jake the story of her life, and knew she had kept her promise and never opened her lips, except to say that 'it was all right.'
"The people believed her for the most part, and anathematized the unknown man who had deserted her, but they could not heap upon me all the odium I deserved. Why the story has never reached here I hardly know, except that intercourse between the North and the extreme South was not as easy as it is now, and then the war swept off Tom Hardy and most likely all who knew of the marriage.
"When I brought Amy home I was too proud to | | 369 acknowledge her as my daughter. The Harrises and the palmetto clearing stood in the way, and I let people think what they chose, hating myself with an added hatred for allowing a stain to rest on her birth. I was fond of her in a way, and angry when she married Candida, who died in Rome. Then she married a Smith, who took her round the country to sing in concerts, until her mind gave way, when he put her in a private asylum in San Francisco. I was very proud of her, and loved her more than she ever knew, but could not confess my relationship to her. When she married Candida I cast her off. She must have some of my spirit, for she never came begging for favors. Her rascally second husband wrote once for money, but I shut him up so that he never wrote again, and the next I heard was a message from Santa Barbara, where he died, and where, before he died, he had bidden his physician to write to me that his wife was in an asylum in San Francisco. I found her and brought her home, shattered in health and in mind, but I think she will recover. If she does before I die, I have sworn to tell her the truth, and will do it, so help me God!
"She has at times spoken of a baby who died,--Smith's probably, and I hated him and did not care for his child. I have thought to make my will, but would rather write this confession, which will explain things and put Amy right as my heir. I have, however, one request to make to her, or those who attend to her affairs. I want my nephew, Howard, to have twenty thousand dollars,--enough for any young man to start on if there is any get-up in him, and Howard has considerable.| | 370
"Written by me and signed this -- day of July, 18--, the anniversary of Eudora's funeral and the big picnic on my grounds."JAMES M. CROMPTON."
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