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Horatio Alger Jr.
Not many minutes walk from Broadway, situated on one of the cross streets intersecting the great thoroughfare, is a large building not especially inviting in its aspect, used as a lodging and boarding-house. It is very far from fashionable, since, with hardly an exception, those who avail themselves of its accommodations belong to the great class who are compelled to earn their bread before they eat it. Mechanics, working-men, clerks on small salaries, seamstresses, and specimens of decayed gentility, all find a place beneath its roof, forming a somewhat miscellaneous assemblage. It must not be supposed, however, that perfect equality exists even here. It is often remarked, that social distinctions are more jealously maintained in the lower ranks than in the higher. Here, for instance, Alphonso Eustace, a dashing young clerk, who occupies the first floor front, looks down with hauteur upon the industrious mechanic, who rooms in the second story back. Mademoiselle Fanchette, the fashionable modiste, occupying the second story front, considers it beneath her dignity to hold much intercourse with Martha Grey, the pale seamstress, whose small room at the head of the third landing affords a delightful prospect of the back yard. Even the occupants of the fourth story look down, which indeed their elevated position enables them to do, upon the basement lodgers across the way.
Mother Morton is the presiding genius of the establishment. She is a stout, bustling woman, of considerable business capacity; one of those restless characters to whom nothing is so irksome as want of occupation, and who are never more in their element than when they have a world of business on their hands, with little time to do it in.
Mrs. Morton is a widow, having with characteristic despatch, hustled her husband out of the world in less than four years from her wedding-day. Shortly afterwards, being obliged to seek a subsistence in some way, good luck suggested the expediency of opening a boarding-house. Here at length she found scope for her superabundant energies, and in the course of seventeen years had succeeded in amassing several thousand dollars, in the investment of which she had sought advice from no one, but acted according to the dictates of her own judgment. These investments, it must be acknowledged, proved to have been wisely made, affording a complete refutation, in one case at least, of the assertion often made, that women have no business capacity.
Why Mrs. Morton should have had the title of mother, so generally conferred upon her, is not quite clear. She had never been blessed with children. It might have been her ample proportions, for Nature had moulded her when in a generous mood; but at all events for many years, she had been best known by the name of Mother Morton.
Our landlady required promptness on the part of her lodgers in the payment of their bills. She had no mercy on those whom she suspected of fraudulent intentions. In such cases she had but one remedy, and that a most efficacious one,—immediate ejectment. When, however, no such design was suspected, and failure to make the regular payment proceeded from sickness or misfortune, she had been known to manifest great kindness and consideration. When, for example—Martha Grey, the young seamstress, was stricken down by a fever, induced by over-work, Mother Morton attended her faithfully during her illness, and, so far from making an extra charge, even remitted her rent for the time she had been ill.
With these preliminary words, our story begins.
The dinner hour had passed. The last lingerer at the table had left the scene of devastation, which he had contributed to make, and the landlady, who superintended the clearing away, had just sent away the last dish, when her attention was arrested by a faint ring of the door-bell. Hastily adjusting her dress before the glass, she proceeded to answer the summons in person.
Opening the door, she saw standing before her a young girl of perhaps fourteen, and a man, who, though but little over forty, looked nearly ten years older. The little girl is mentioned first, for in spite of her youth, and the filial relation which she bore to her companion, she was the spokesman, and appeared to feel that the responsibility in the present instance fell upon her. There was a curious air of protection in her manner towards her father, as if the relationship between them were reversed, and he were the child.
“You have lodgings to let?” she said, in a tone of inquiry.
“We’re pretty full, now,” said Mother Morton, looking with some curiosity at the eager face of the young questioner. “All our best rooms are taken.”
“That makes no difference,” said the young girl; “about the best rooms, I mean. We are not able to pay much.”
She cast a glance at her father, who wore an abstracted look as if he were thinking of some matter quite foreign to the matter in hand. Catching her glance and thinking that an appeal was made to him, he said, hurriedly, “Yes, my child, you are quite right.”
“I wonder whether he’s in his right mind,” thought the practical Mrs. Morton. “The little girl seems to be worth two of him.”
“I have one room in the fourth story,” she said aloud, “which is now vacant. It is rather small; but, if it will suit you, you shall have it cheaper on that account.”
“I should like to see it,” said the child. “Come, father,” taking him by the hand, and leading him as if she were the elder; “we’re going up stairs to look at a room which, perhaps, we may like well enough to hire.”
At the head of the fourth landing the landlady threw open a door, revealing a small room, some twelve feet square, scantily provided with furniture. Its dreariness was, in some measure, relieved by a good supply of light,—there being two windows.
The young girl was evidently accustomed to look on the bright side of things; for, instead of spying out the defects and inconveniences of the apartment, her face brightened, and she said, cheerfully, “Just what we want, isn’t it, papa? See how bright and pleasant it is.”
Thus applied to, her father answered, “Yes, certainly;” and relapsed into his former abstraction.
“I think,” said the young girl, addressing the landlady, “that we will engage the room; that is,” she added, with hesitation, “if the rent isn’t too high.”
Mother Morton had been interested in the child’s behalf by the mingling of frank simplicity and worldly wisdom, which she exhibited, and perhaps not least by the quiet air of protection which she assumed towards her father, for whom it was evident she entertained the deepest and most devoted affection. An impulse, which she did not pause to question, led her to name a rent much less than she had been accustomed to receive for the room.
“One dollar and seventy-five cents a week,” repeated the child. “Yes, that is reasonable. I think we had better engage the room; don’t you, papa?”
“I think we had better engage this room at one dollar and seventy-five cents a week.”
“Oh, certainly,—that is, by all means, if you think best, my child. You know I leave all such matters to you. I have so many other things to think of,” he added, dreamily, raising his hand to his forehead.
“Yes,” said the child, softly; “I know you have, dear papa.”
“We’ll take the room,” she said to Mother Morton, whose curiosity momentarily increased, “at the price you named, and will commence now, if you have no objection.”
“Oh, no; but your baggage. You will need to bring that.”
“We have not much to bring. We shall get it to-morrow.”
“You will board yourselves?” asked the landlady.
“Yes, I shall cook. I am quite used to it,” was the grave reply.
“At any rate you won’t feel like it to-night. I will send you up some supper.”
“Thank you,” said the child, her face lighting up gratefully; “I am sure you are very kind,” and she held out her hand in instinctive acknowledgment.
If Mother Morton had before been prepossessed in her favor, this act, so frank and child-like, completed the conquest of her heart.
“I am very glad,” said she, quite enveloping in her own broad palm the little hand which the child extended; “I am very glad, my dear child, that you are going to live here. I think I shall like you.”
“How kind you are!” said the child, earnestly. “Everybody is kind to father and me;” and she turned towards her parent, who was gazing abstractedly from the window.
“Your father does not say much,” said Mrs. Morton, unable to repress her curiosity.
“He has a great deal on his mind,” said the child, lowering her voice, and looking cautiously to see whether he heard her; but the report of a pistol would scarcely have disturbed him, so profound seemed his meditations.
“Oh!” said the landlady, somewhat surprised; “business, is it?”
“No,” said the child; “not exactly business.”
Observing that the landlady looked thoroughly mystified, she added, quietly, “Papa has a great genius for inventing. He is going to make a discovery that will give him money and fame. He is thinking about it all the time, and that is the reason he doesn’t say much. I wish he wouldn’t think quite so much, for I am afraid it will hurt him.”
Mother Morton looked at the father with a sudden accession of respect.
“Perhaps there is something in him, after all,” she thought. “There must be, or this little girl, who has a great deal more sense than many that are older, wouldn’t believe in him so firmly. I suppose he’s a genius. I’ve heard of such, but I never saw one before. I must think well of him for the child’s sake.”
“I hope your father’ll succeed,” she said aloud, “for your sake, my child. I am going down stairs now. Is there anything you would like to have sent up?”
“Nothing, thank you.”
“One thing more. Your names, please?”
“My father’s name is Robert Ford. My name is Helen.”
“Good afternoon, Helen. I hope you will like your room.”
“Thank you; I am quite sure I shall.”
The landlady descended the stairs, wondering a little at the sudden liking she began to feel for her young lodger.
The light of a June morning lent a warm and cheerful look to the broad streets, and under its influence even the dingy lanes and alleys looked a little less gloomy than usual. The spell which had lain upon the city during the night season was broken. Here and there might be seen a vegetable cart or a milk wagon rumbling through the streets, of late so silent and deserted. Sleepy clerks unlocked the shops and warehouses, and swept them in readiness for the business of the day. Hackmen betook themselves to the steamboat landings in the hope of obtaining a fare before breakfast. Creeping out from beneath old wagons and stray corners where they had been able to procure shelter and lodging, came the newsboys, those useful adjuncts to our modern civilization. Little time wasted they on the duties of the toilet, but shook themselves wide awake, and with the keen instinct of trade, hurried to the newspaper offices to secure their pile of merchandise.
Morning found no sluggards at Mrs. Morton’s boarding-house. With the first flush of dawn she was astir, ordering about her servants, and superintending the preparations for breakfast. This must be ready at an early hour, since her boarders were, for the most part, engaged in some daily avocation which required their early attention.
With the early sun Helen rose. Her father was still sleeping. From the nail on which it hung she took down her bonnet, and, with a tin pail depending from her arm, she left the room with softened tread, lest she might awaken her father. Betaking herself to a baker’s near by, she bought a couple of loaves of bread, and stopping a milkman, had her pail filled with milk. A half-pound of butter purchased at a grocery completed her simple marketing, and she hastened home.
When she entered the boarding-house, her cheeks were flushed with exercise, her eyes sparkled with a pleasant light, and her rare beauty, despite her plain attire, appeared to unusual advantage. She returned just in time to meet the boarders descending to breakfast. Her childish beauty did not fail to attract attention. Conscious of being observed, Helen blushed a deeper crimson, which added to the charm of her beauty.
“Hey! What have we here?” exclaimed Alphonso Eustace, the dashing young clerk, fixing a glance of undisguised admiration upon her embarrassed face. “A very Peri, by Jove! Deign to inform me, fair maid, by what name thou art known.”
So saying, he purposely placed himself directly in her path.
“Will you let me pass, sir?” said Helen, uneasily. “My father is waiting for me.”
“Your father! Then you live here. I am glad of that. We shall be well acquainted before long, I hope. Won’t you tell me your name?”
“My name is Helen Ford,” said the child, rather reluctantly, for the clerk did not impress her favorably.
“And mine is Alphonso Eustace. Let us shake hands to our better acquaintance.”
“I have both hands full,” returned Helen, who did not much relish the freedom of her new acquaintance.
“Then I will await another opportunity. But you don’t seem gracious, my dear. You must be very tired, carrying that heavy pail. Allow me to carry it for you.”
“I am not at all tired, and I would much rather carry it myself.”
Helen managed to slip by, much to her relief, and somewhat to the discomfiture of the young clerk, who could not conceal from himself that his overtures had met with a decided rebuff.
“Never mind,” thought he; “we shall be better acquainted by and by.”
“By the way, Mrs. Morton,” he inquired, “tell me something about the little fairy I met on the stairs. I tried to scrape acquaintance with her, but she gave me very short answers.”
“I suppose it was Helen Ford,” returned the landlady. “She is a little fairy, as you say. Is your coffee right, M’lle Fanchette?”
“Quite right,” replied that lady, sipping it. “What room do the little girl and her father occupy?”
“The fourth story back.”
“Ah, indeed!” said M’lle Fanchette, elevating her eyebrows. It was easy to see that lodging in the fourth story back was sufficient in her eyes to stamp Helen as one whose acquaintance it was quite beneath her dignity to cultivate.
“She has a very sweet, attractive face,” said Martha Grey.
“Beautiful! angelic!” exclaimed Mr. Eustace, with enthusiasm.
“I don’t see anything very beautiful or angelic about her,” remarked M’lle Fanchette, who would much prefer to have had her dashing neighbor’s admiration bestowed upon herself.
“You should have seen the beautiful flush upon her cheeks.”
“So I did.”
“And did you not admire it?”
“I happened to look into the kitchen yesterday,” returned M’lle Fanchette, passing her plate for some toast, “and I saw Bridget who had been over the hot stove all day, with just such a pair of red cheeks. Did I admire her?”
There was a momentary silence. All who had seen Helen, felt the injustice of the comparison.
“There is no accounting for tastes,” interrupted the landlady, somewhat indignantly. “If you had seen the tenderness with which she waits upon her father, who, poor man, seems quite incapable of taking care of himself, you would find that she has a heart as beautiful as her face. Her beauty is not her only attraction.”
“What does her father do?”
“That is more than I can tell. Helen says that he is an inventor, and that he has made some discovery which is going to make them rich.”
“After all,” thought M’lle Fanchette, “it may be well to notice her. But they are poor now?” she said aloud.
“Yes. They seem to have little baggage, and dress quite plainly. They cannot have much property.”
Meanwhile, Helen, quite unconscious that she had been a subject of discussion among the boarders, drew out the table into the middle of the room, and spread over it a neat white cloth. She then placed upon it two bowls of different sizes into which she poured the milk. Several slices were cut from one of the loaves and laid on a plate. Near by stood the butter. These simple preparations being concluded, she called upon her father to partake.
“You are a good girl, Helen,” said he, rousing for the moment from his fit of abstraction. “You are a good girl, and I don’t know how I should get along without you.”
“And I am sure I could not get along without you, papa,” was her reply, accompanied with a glance of affection.
“Have you not always cared for me, Helen, and given up the society of those of your own age in order to minister to my comfort? But it shall not always be so. Someday I shall be rich——”
“When you have completed your invention, papa.”
“Yes, when that is completed,” said her father, earnestly. “Then we shall be rich and honored, and my Helen shall be dressed in silks, and ride in a carriage of her own.”
“You are quite sure you shall succeed, papa?”
“I am sure of it,” he answered, in a tone of quiet conviction. “I only fear that someone will be beforehand with me, and snatch away the honor for which I am toiling. To me it seems passing strange that mankind should have been content for so many years to grope about upon the earth and never striven to rise into the nobler element of the air, while the sea, which presents difficulties as great, is traversed in every part. For me,” he continued, assuming a loftier mien, and pacing the small room proudly,—“for me it remains to open a new highway to the world. What compared with this will be the proudest triumphs of modern science? How like a snail shall we regard the locomotive, which now seems a miracle of swiftness! Borne aloft by the appliances which I shall furnish, man will emulate the proud flight of the eagle. He will skim over land and sea, and in his airy flight look down upon the monuments of human skill and industry flitting before him, like the shifting scenes of a panorama.”
“It will be a glorious destiny,” said the child, “and how proud I shall feel of you who have done all this!”
“While we are speaking, time passes,” said the father. “I should be at work even now. I must bring hither my implements without delay. Every moment wasted before I attain my object, is not my loss, only, but the world’s.”
“Wait till I have cleared away the table, papa, and I will go with you.”
This was speedily done, and the two descended the stairs, and went forth into the busy streets hand in hand. Helen diligently cared for the safety of her father, who, plunged into his usual abstraction, would more than once have been run over by some passing vehicle but for her guardianship.
The character of Robert Ford may be divined without much difficulty from the glimpses which have already been given. He was an amiable man, but strikingly deficient in those practical traits which usually mark our countrymen and command success even under the most unpromising circumstances. He was not a man to succeed in business, nor suited for the rough jostling with the world which business men must expect. He ought rather to have been a quiet scholar, and dreamed away long days in his library,—“the world forgetting, by the world forgot.” Such would have been his choice if his circumstances had been easy. Under the pressure of necessity he had turned aside from the ordinary paths of money-making to devote himself to a chimerical plan by which he hoped to attain wealth and distinction.
No man of a well balanced mind would have labored with such sanguine expectations of success on a project so uncertain as the invention of a flying machine. But Mr. Ford had not a well balanced mind. He was much given to theorizing, and, like many amiable but obstinate persons, it was as difficult to dislodge from his mind a purpose which had once gained entrance there as to convert him by some miraculous transformation into a sharp man of the world. Had he lived in the middle ages it is very probable that his tastes and the habits of his mind would have led him to devote himself to alchemy, or some other recondite science, which would have consumed his time and money without any adequate return.
We will now suppose three months to have elapsed since the events recorded in our first chapter; three months in which the flowers of June had been exchanged for the fruits of September, and the mellow beauty of autumn had succeeded the glory of early summer.
During this time Helen has become an established favorite with all the inmates except M’lle Fanchette, who yet, finding the tide of general opinion against her, is content with privately stigmatizing the child as an “upstart,” and a “forward hussy,” though in truth it would be difficult to imagine anything more modest or retiring than her conduct. She and her father still occupy the little room in the fourth story back. Nothing has come of Mr. Ford’s invention yet, though he has filled the room with strange, out-of-the-way appliances, wheels, and bits of machinery, on which he labors day after day in the construction of his proposed flying machine. His repeated failures have little effect in damping his spirits. He has the true spirit of a discoverer, and is as sanguine as ever of ultimate success. He has learned the difficult lesson of patience.
“With such an end in view,” he sometimes exclaims with enthusiasm, half to himself, half to Helen, “what matter a few months or years! Rome was not built in a day, nor is it to be expected that a discovery which is to affect the whole world in its consequences, should be the result of a few hours’ or days’ labor.”
Helen, whose veneration for her father is unbounded, listens with the fullest confidence, to his repeated assurances. It pains her to find that others are more skeptical. Even Mother Morton who, though some find her rough, is invariably kind to Helen, looks upon the father as a visionary, since she has discovered the nature of his labors. She one day intimated this to Helen. It was some time before the latter could understand that a doubt was entertained as to her father’s success, and when the conviction came slowly, it brought such an expression of pain to her face, that the landlady resolved never in future to venture upon an allusion which should grieve the child, whom she could not but love the better for her filial trust and confidence.
Meanwhile the rent of the apartment which they occupy, and the cost of living, simple as is their fare, have sensibly diminished their scanty supply of money. This Helen, who is the steward and treasurer, cannot help seeing, and she succeeds in obtaining work from the slop-shops. Her father does not at first discover this. One day, however, he said abruptly, as if the idea had for the first time occurred to him, “Helen, you always seem to be sewing, lately.”
The child cast down her eyes in some embarrassment.
“You cannot be sewing so much for yourself,” continued her father. “Why, what is this?” taking a boy’s vest from her reluctant fingers. “Surely, this is not yours.”
“No, papa,” answered Helen, laughing; “you don’t think I have turned Bloomer, do you?”
“Then what does it mean?” questioned her father, in real perplexity.
“Only this, papa, that being quite tired of sitting idle, and having done all my own sewing, I thought I might as well fill up the time, and earn some money at the same time by working for other people. Is that satisfactory?” she concluded, playfully.
“Surely this was not necessary,” said Mr. Ford, with pain. “Are we then so poor?”
“Do not be troubled, papa,” said Helen, cheerfully. “We could get along very well without it; but I wanted something to do, and it gives me some pocket-money for myself. You must know that I am getting extravagant.”
“Is that all?” said her father, in a tone of relief, the shadow passing from his face. “I am glad of it. I could not bear to think of my little Helen being compelled to work. Someday,” passing his hands fondly over her luxuriant curls; “someday she shall have plenty of money.”
This thought incited him to fresh activity, and with new zeal he turned to the odd jumble of machinery in the corner.
The evening meal was studiously simple and frugal, though Helen could not resist the temptation of now and then purchasing some little delicacy for her father. He was so abstracted that he gave little heed to what was set before him, and never noticed that Helen always abstained from tasting any luxury thus procured, confining herself strictly to the usual frugal fare.
After tea it was the custom for father and daughter to walk out, sometimes in one direction sometimes in another. Often they would walk up Broadway, and Helen, at least, found amusement in watching the shifting scenes which present themselves to the beholder in that crowded thoroughfare. Life in all its varieties, from pampered wealth to squalid poverty, too often the fruit of a mis-spent life jostled each other upon the sidewalk, or in the street. The splendid equipage dashes past the humble handcart; the dashing buggy jostles against the loaded dray. Broadway is no exclusive thoroughfare. In the shadow of the magnificent hotel leans the foreign beggar, just landed on our shores, and there is no one to bid him “move on.” The shop windows, too, are a free “World’s Fair Exhibition,” constantly changing, never exhausted. Helen and her father had just returned from a leisurely walk, taken at the close of a day of labor and confinement, and paused to rest for a moment on the west side of the Park.
While they were standing there, a handsome carriage drove past. Within were two gentlemen. One was already well advanced in years, as his gray hairs and wrinkled face made apparent. He wore an expression of indefinable sorrow and weariness, as if life had long ago ceased to have charms for him. His companion might be somewhat under forty. He was tall and spare, with a dark, forbidding face, which repelled rather than attracted the beholder.
As the carriage neared the Park, the elder of the two looked out to rest his gaze, wearied with the sight of brick and stone, upon the verdure of this inclosure. This, be it remembered, was twenty years since, before the Park had so completely lost its fresh country look. He chanced to see Mr. Ford and Helen. He started suddenly in visible agitation.
“Look, Lewis!” he exclaimed, clutching the arm of his companion, and pointing to Mr. Ford.
The younger man started almost imperceptibly, and his face paled, but he almost instantly recovered himself.
“Yes,” he said, carelessly; “the Park is looking well.”
“Not that, not that,” said the old man, hurriedly. “That man with the little girl. He is,—he must be Robert, my long-lost son. Stop the carriage. I must get out.”
“My dear uncle,” expostulated the younger man, who had been addressed as Lewis, “you are laboring under a strange hallucination. This man does not in the least resemble my cousin. Besides, you remember that we have undoubted proof of his death in Chicago two years since.”
“You may be right,” said the old man, as he sank back into his seat with a sigh, “but the resemblance was wonderful.”
“But, uncle, let me suggest that more than fifteen years have passed away since my cousin left home, and even if he were living, he must have changed so much that we could not expect to recognize him.”
“Perhaps you are right, Lewis; and yet, when I looked at that man, I was startled by a look that brought before me my dead wife,—my precious Helen. I fear I have dealt harshly with her boy.”
He relapsed into a silence which his companion did not care to disturb. He watched guardedly the expression of the old man, and a close observer might have detected a shade of anxiety, as if there were something connected with his uncle’s present mood which alarmed him. After a short scrutiny he himself fell into thought, and as we are privileged to read what is concealed from all else, we will give the substance of his reflections.
“Here is a new danger to be guarded against, just at the most critical time, too. Shall I never attain the object of my wishes? Shall I never be paid for the years in which I have danced attendance upon my uncle? I must succeed by whatever means. He cannot last much longer.”
The evident weakness of his uncle seemed to justify his prediction. He looked like one whose feet are drawing very near the brink of that mysterious river which it is appointed to all of us at some time to cross.
It was growing late. Night had drawn its sombre veil over the great city, and the streets, a little while before filled with busy passers-by, now echoed but seldom to the steps of an occasional wayfarer. The shops were closed, the long day assigned to trade being over. To plodding feet and busy brains, to frames weary with exhausting labor, to minds harassed by anxious cares, night came in friendly guise, bringing the rest and temporary oblivion of sleep.
From a small building in a by-street, or rather lane, which nevertheless was not far removed from the main thoroughfare, there gleamed a solitary candle, emitting a fitful glare, which served, so far as it went, to give a very unfavorable idea of the immediate vicinity. Within, a young man, painfully thin, was seated at a low table, engrossing a legal document. The face was not an agreeable one. The prevailing expression was one of discontent and weak repining. He was one who could complain of circumstances without having the energy to control them; born to be a subordinate of loftier and more daring intellects.
He wrote with rapidity and, at the same time, with scrupulous elegance. He was evidently a professional copyist.
After bending over his writing for a time, during which he was rapidly approaching the completion of his task, he at length threw aside the pen, exclaiming, with an air of relief, “At last it is finished! Thank Heaven! That is,” he added, after a slight pause, “if there be such a place, which I am sometimes inclined to doubt. Finished; but what after all is a single day’s work? To-night I may sleep in peace, but to-morrow the work must begin once more. It is like a tread-mill, continually going round, but making no real progress. I wish,” he resumed, after a slight pause, “there were some way of becoming suddenly rich, without this wear and tear of hand and brain. I don’t know that I am so much surprised at the stories of those who, in utter disgust of labor, have sold themselves to the arch fiend. Why should I have been born with such a keen enjoyment of luxuries, and without the means of obtaining them? Why should I be doomed——”
When discontent had thus opened the way for its favorable reception, temptation came.
There was a knock at the door.
Thinking it might be some strolling vagabond who, in his intoxication, was wandering he knew not whither, he did not at first respond, but waited till it should be repeated.
It was repeated, this time with a considerable degree of force.
The young man approached the door, but feeling apprehensive that it might prove to be some unwelcome visitor, he paused before drawing the bolt, and called out, in a voice marked by a tremulous quaver, for he possessed but little physical courage, “Who are you that come here at such an unseasonable hour? Unless I know your name, I shall not let you in.”
“Don’t be alarmed, Jacob,” was the reply. “It is only I, Lewis Rand. Open at once, for I come on business which must be quickly despatched.”
The explanation was evidently satisfactory, for the scrivener in eager haste opened the door, and admitted his visitor. It was the younger of the two men upon whom the chance meeting with Helen and her father seemed to have produced an impression so powerful. Jacob, though well acquainted with him, was evidently surprised at his presence at an hour so unseasonable, for he exclaimed, in a tone of mingled surprise and deference, “You here, Mr. Rand, and at this time of night! It must be something important which has called you at an hour when most men are quietly sleeping in their beds.”
“Yet you are up, Jacob, and at work, as I conjecture,” said the visitor, pointing to the table on which the completed sheets were still lying.
“True,” said the copyist, for this recalled to him the grounds of his discontent; “but I must work while others sleep, or accept a worse alternative. Sometimes I am tempted to give up the struggle. You have never known what a hard taskmaster poverty is.”
“Perhaps not,” returned the other; “but I can testify that the apprehension of poverty is not less formidable. However, I can perhaps lend you a helping hand, since the business on which I come, if successfully carried out, of which with your co-operation I have strong hopes, will prove so important to me that I shall be able to put a better face upon your affairs.”
“Ah!” said the young man, with suddenly awakening interest; “what may it be? I will gladly give you all the aid in my power.”
“Jacob,” said his visitor, fixing his eyes steadily upon the scrivener, “you know there is an old maxim, ‘Nothing venture, nothing have.’ In other words, he who aims to be successful in his undertakings, must not scruple to employ the means best suited to advance his interests, even though they may involve the possibility of disaster to himself. Do you comprehend my meaning?”
“Not entirely. At least, I need to be informed of the connection between what has just been said and the service you require at my hands.”
“You shall presently know. But first promise me solemnly that what I may say, and any proposition which I may make to you to-night, shall forever remain a secret between us two.”
The scrivener made the required promise, though his wonder was not a little excited by the extraordinary language and significant tone of his companion.
“I promise,” he said. “You may proceed. I am ready.”
“You are quite alone, I suppose,” said Lewis, inquiringly. “There is no fear of eavesdroppers?”
“Not the least,” replied Jacob, muttering to himself in an undertone, “Margaret must be fast asleep, I think. You need be under no apprehensions,” he said, aloud. “We shall not be disturbed.”
At this moment a small clock over the mantel struck two.
“Two o’clock!” exclaimed Lewis. “I had not supposed it so late. However, it is perhaps better, since we are the safer from interruption. You are somewhat acquainted,” he continued, “with the position in which I stand to my uncle. For years I have been his constant companion, the slave of his whims and caprices, depriving myself of more agreeable and congenial society, in order to maintain my hold upon his affections, and secure the inheritance of his large property. No son would have done as much as I have. And now, when half my life is gone, and the realization of my hopes is apparently near at hand, an incident has occurred, which threatens to disarrange all my plans, and defraud me of all but a tithe of that which I have so long looked upon as my sure inheritance.”
“Surely, your uncle has no nearer relatives than yourself!” exclaimed Jack, in surprise.
“That is what the world thinks, but they are deceived. My uncle has a son, and that son has a daughter. You see, therefore, that there is no lack of heirs. But you need an explanation.
“My father died when I was not quite five years of age. He was what is called a gay man, and spent freely what property he possessed, in extravagant living, and, lest that might not prove sufficient, he lost large sums at the gaming table. He died in an affair of honor which grew out of a dispute with one of his gambling acquaintances, leaving, as my inheritance, a few debts and nothing more. But for my uncle I should have been thrown upon the cold charities of the world. Fortunately for me, my uncle had none of his brother’s vices, and had preserved his property intact, so that when need came, he was able to stretch forth a helping hand to his nephew.
“I can remember the day when I became an inmate of my uncle’s household. I did not mourn much for my father, who seldom took any notice of me. Child as I was, I understood that his death, in consigning me to my uncle’s care, had left me better off than before.
“I was nearly five, as I have said. My uncle had a son,—but one,—who was two years my senior. So my cousin Robert and I grew up together. Although we were treated in every respect alike, having the same tutors, the same wardrobe, and even sharing the same room, I cannot remember a time when I did not hate him. There was nothing in his manner or his treatment of me that should lead to this, I acknowledge. He always treated me as a brother, and I suffered not a word or a gesture, not even a look, to indicate that I did not regard him in the same light. You will perhaps wonder at my aversion. It is easily explained. Although our treatment was the same, I soon learned that our prospects were very different. I soon became aware that he, as heir of his father’s wealth, already considerable and rapidly increasing, was considered, by many, a far more important personage than myself. Notwithstanding my uncle’s indulgence to me, I well knew that his pride, and a certain desire, inherited from his English ancestors, that his estate should be handed down entire from generation to generation, would receive anything beyond a moderate annuity. I could not brook my cousin’s superior prospects, and determined to injure him with my uncle, if an opportunity offered.
“The opportunity came. My cousin fell in love with a beautiful girl, who, but for her poverty, would have attracted me also. This, however, proved an insuperable obstacle. I waited until the attachment had ripened into the most ardent affection, and then I made it known to my uncle with all the embellishments which I thought best calculated to arouse his irritation. The object of my cousin’s attachment I described as an awkward country-girl, without cultivation or refinement. It was a heavy blow to my uncle’s pride, for he had nourished high hopes for his son, and aspired to an alliance with a family as old and distinguished as his own. In the exasperation of the moment he summoned Robert to him, and peremptorily insisted on his at once giving up his attachment, stigmatizing the object of it in such terms as I had employed in describing her. My cousin’s spirit was naturally roused by such manifest injustice, and he refused to accede to his father’s wishes. The discussion was a stormy one, and terminated as I hoped and believed it would. My cousin went forth from the house, disowned and disinherited, and I remained, filling his place as heir.”
Jacob surveyed the speaker with a glance of admiration. He paid homage to a rascality which surpassed his own. He admired his craftiness and address, while his want of principle did not repel him.
“What became of your cousin?” inquired the scrivener, after a pause.
“He married and went out West. He possessed a small property inherited from his mother, and this enabled him to live in a humble way. I have heard little of him since, except that he had but one child, a daughter, who must now be not far from fourteen years old. This I learned from a letter of her father’s which I intercepted.”
“Has your uncle ever shown any symptoms of relenting?” asked Jacob.
“Two years ago he was very sick and it was thought he might die. During that sickness he referred so often to his son that I began to tremble for my prospective inheritance. I accordingly procured a notice of his death to be inserted in a Chicago paper, which I took care to show my uncle. The authenticity of this he never dreamed of doubting, and I felt that my chances were as good as ever. But within the last week a fact has come to my knowledge which fills me with alarm.”
The copyist looked up inquiringly.
“It is this,” resumed Lewis. “Not only is my cousin living, but he is in this city. Furthermore my uncle has seen him, and but for my solemn assurance that he was mistaken, and my recalling to his recollection that Robert’s death was well attested, he would have taken immediate measures for finding him out. If found, he would be at once reinstated in his birthright, and I should be reduced to the position of a humble dependent upon my uncle’s bounty.”
“But you have escaped the danger, and all is well again.”
“By no means. Notwithstanding my representation, my uncle clings obstinately to the belief that either he or some child of his may be living, and only yesterday caused a new will to be drawn up, leaving the bulk of his estate to his son or his son’s issue; and, failing these, to me. You will readily see how I stand affected by this. Of course in the event of my cousin’s death a search will be immediately instituted for my cousin and his daughter, and being in the city they will probably be found.”
“Your prospects are certainly not of the most encouraging character,” said Jacob, after a pause. “But, if I may venture to inquire, what assurance have you that such is the tenor of your uncle’s will?”
“This,” replied Rand, taking from a side-pocket a piece of parchment tied with a blue ribbon, and leisurely unrolling it. Jacob watched his movements with curiosity.
“This,” said he, bending a searching glance upon the scrivener, as if to test his fidelity; “this is my uncle’s will.”
The copyist could not repress a start of astonishment.
“The will!” he exclaimed. “How did you obtain possession of it?”
“It was for my interest,” he said briefly, “to learn the contents of this document, and I therefore made it my business to find it. You see that I have been successful. Read it.”
The copyist drew the lamp nearer, and read it slowly and deliberately.
“Yes,” said he, at length, looking up thoughtfully; “the contents are as you have described. May I ask what it is your intention to do about it, and what is the service I am to render you?”
“Can you not guess?” demanded his visitor, fixing his eyes meaningly upon him.
“No,” returned the scrivener, a little uneasily; “I cannot.”
“You are skilful with the pen, exceedingly skilful,” resumed Lewis, meaningly. “Indeed, there has been a time when this accomplishment came near standing you in good stead, though it might also have turned to your harm.”
“Ah!” pursued the visitor, “I see you have not forgotten a little occurrence in the past, when, but for my intervention, you might have been convicted of—shall I say it?—forgery. You need not thank me. I never do anything without a motive. I don’t believe in disinterestedness. The idea struck me even at that time that I might at some time have need of you.”
“I am ready,” said Jacob, submissively.
“That is well. What I want you to do is this. You must draw me up another will as nearly like this as possible, except that the whole estate shall be devised to me unconditionally. Well, man, what means that look of alarm?”
“It will be very dangerous to both of us,” faltered the copyist.
“It will be a forgery, I admit,” said Lewis, calmly; “but what is there in that word, forgery, which should so discompose you? Did it ever occur to you that the old charge might be renewed against you, when no intervention of mine will avail to save you?”
The copyist perceived the threat implied in those words, and hastened to propitiate his visitor, of whom he seemed to stand in wholesome fear.
“Nay,” said he, submissively, “you know best the danger to both of us.”
“And I tell you, Jacob, there is none at all. You are so cunning with the pen that you may easily defy detection, and for the rest, I will take the hazard.”
“And what will be the recompense?” inquired the scrivener.
“Two hundred dollars as soon as the task is completed,” was the prompt reply. “One thousand more when the success of the plan is assured.”
Jacob’s eyes sparkled. To him the bribe was a fortune.
“I consent,” he said; “give me the will. I must study it for a time to become familiar with the handwriting.”
He drew the lamp nearer and began to pore earnestly over the manuscript, occasionally scrawling with the pen which he held in his hand an imitation of some of the characters. It was a study for an artist,—those two men,—each determined upon a wrong deed for the sake of personal advantage. Lewis, with his cool, self-possessed manner, and the copyist, with his ignoble features and nervous eagerness, divided between the desire of gain and the fear of detection.
All this time a woman’s eye might have been seen peering through a slightly open door, and regarding with a careful glance all that was passing. The two men were so intent upon the work before them that she escaped their notice.
“Oho,” said she to herself, “there shall be a third in the secret which you fancy confined to yourselves. Who knows but it may turn out to my advantage, some day? I will stay and see the whole.”
She drew back silently, and took her position just behind the door, where nothing that was said could escape her.
Meanwhile Jacob, having satisfied himself that he could imitate the handwriting of the will, commenced the task of copying. Half an hour elapsed during which both parties preserved strict silence. At the end of that time the copyist, with a satisfied air, handed Lewis the manuscript he had completed. The latter compared the two with a critical eye. Everything, including the names of the witnesses, was wonderfully like. It was extremely difficult from the external appearance, to distinguish the original from the copy.
“You have done your work faithfully and well,” said Lewis, with evident satisfaction, “and deserve great credit. You are wonderfully skilful with the pen.”
The copyist rubbed his hands complacently.
“With this I think we need not fear detection. Here are the two hundred dollars which I promised you. The remainder is contingent on my getting the estate. I shall be faithful, in that event, to my part of the compact.”
“It must be very late,” said Lewis, drawing out his watch. “I am sorry to have kept you up so late; but no doubt you feel paid. I must hasten back.”