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Mary-'Gusta By Joseph Crosby Lincoln Characters: 20672

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


"And now, gentlemen," said Judge Baxter, "here we are. Sit down and make yourselves comfortable. I shall have a good deal to say and I expect to surprise you. Sit down."

Captain Gould and Mr. Hamilton were in the Judge's library at his home. The funeral was over, all that was mortal of Marcellus Hall had been laid to rest in the Ostable cemetery, and his two friends and former partners had, on their return from that cemetery, stopped at the Judge's, at the latter's request. He wished, so he said, to speak with them on an important matter.

"Why don't you sit down, Captain?" asked the Judge, noticing that, although Zoeth had seated himself in the rocker which his host had indicated, Shadrach was still standing.

Captain Shadrach laid a hand on the back of the armchair and regarded the lawyer with a very grave face, but with a twinkle in his eye.

"To tell you the truth, Judge," he said, slowly, "I don't cal'late I ever shall set down again quite so whole-hearted as I used to. You spoke of a surprise, didn't you? I've had one surprise this afternoon that's liable to stay with me for a spell. I'm an unsuspectin' critter, generally speakin', but after that-Say, you ain't got a brass band nor fireworks hitched to THIS chair, have you?"

Judge Baxter laughed heartily. "No," he said, as soon as he could speak. "No, Captain, my furniture isn't loaded."

The Captain shook his head. "Whew!" he whistled, sitting down gingerly in the armchair. "Well, that's a mercy. I ain't so young as I used to be and I couldn't stand many such shocks. Whew! Don't talk to ME! When that devilish jig tune started up underneath me I'll bet I hopped up three foot straight. I may be kind of slow sittin' down, but you'll bear me out that I can GET UP sudden when it's necessary. And I thought the dum thing never would STOP."

Mr. Hamilton stirred uneasily. "Hush, hush, Shadrach!" he pleaded. "Don't be so profane. Remember you've just come from the graveyard."

"Come from it! By fire! There was a time there when I'd have been willin' to go to it-yes, and stay. All I wanted was to get out of that room and hide somewheres where folks couldn't look at me. I give you my word I could feel myself heatin' up like an airtight stove. Good thing I didn't have on a celluloid collar or 'twould have bust into a blaze. Of all the dummed outrages to spring on a man, that-"

"Shadrach!"

"There, there, Zoeth! I'll calm down. But as for swearin'-well, if you knew how full of cusswords I was there one spell you wouldn't find fault; you'd thank me for holdin' 'em in. I had to batten down my hatches to do it, though; I tell you that."

Mr. Hamilton turned to their host. "You'll excuse Shadrach, won't you, Judge," he said, apologetically. "He don't mean nothin' wicked, really. And he feels as bad as I do about Marcellus's bein' took."

"Course I do!" put in the Captain. "Zoeth's always scared to death for fear I'm bound to the everlastin' brimstone. He forgets I've been to sea a good part of my life and that a feller has to talk strong aboard ship. Common language may do for keepin' store, but it don't get a vessel nowheres; the salt sort of takes the tang out of it, seems so. I'm through for the present, Zoeth. I'll keep the rest till I meet the swab that loaded up that chair for me."

The Judge laughed again. Then he opened his desk and took from a drawer two folded papers.

"Gentlemen," he said, gravely, "I asked you to come here with me because there is an important matter, a very important matter, which I, as Captain Hall's legal adviser, must discuss with you."

Captain Shadrach and Zoeth looked at each other. The former tugged at his beard.

"Hum!" he mused. "Somethin' to do with Marcellus's affairs, is it?"

"Yes."

"Want to know! And somethin' to do with me and Zoeth?"

"Yes, with both of you. This," holding up one of the folded papers, "is Captain Hall's will. I drew it for him a year ago and he has appointed me his executor."

Zoeth nodded. "We supposed likely he would," he observed.

"Couldn't get a better man," added Shadrach, with emphasis.

"Thank you. Captain Hall leaves all he possessed-practically all; there is a matter of two hundred dollars for his housekeeper, Mrs. Hobbs, and a few other personal gifts-but he leaves practically all he possessed to his stepdaughter, Mary Lathrop."

Both his hearers nodded again. "We expected that, naturally," said the Captain. "It's what he'd ought to have done, of course. Well, she'll be pretty well fixed, won't she?"

Judge Baxter shook his head. "Why, no-she won't," he said, soberly. "That is a part of the surprise which I mentioned at first. Captain Hall was, practically, a poor man when he died."

That the prophesied surprise was now a reality was manifest. Both men looked aghast.

"You-you don't mean that, Judge?" gasped Zoeth.

"Poor? Marcellus poor?" cried Shadrach. "Why-why, what kind of talk's that? He didn't have no more than the rest of us when-" he hesitated, glanced at Zoeth, and continued, "when the firm give up business back in '79; but he went to sea again and made considerable, and then he made a whole lot in stocks. I know he did. You know it, too, Zoeth. How could he be poor?"

"Because, like so many other fortunate speculators, he continued to speculate and became unfortunate. He lost the bulk of his winnings in the stock market and-well, to be quite frank, Captain Hall has been a broken man, mentally as well as physically, since his wife's death and his own serious illness. You, yourselves, must have noticed the change in his habits. From being an active man, a man of affairs, he became almost a hermit. He saw but few people, dropped the society of all his old friends, and lived alone-alone except for his various housekeepers and Mary-'Gusta-the little girl, I mean. You must have noticed the change in his relations with you."

Mr. Hamilton sighed. "Yes," he said, "we noticed he never came to see us and-and-"

"And wasn't over'n above sociable when we come to see him," finished Captain Shadrach. "Yes, we noticed that. But I say, Judge, he must have had SOME money left. What became of it?"

"Goodness knows! He was a child, so far as money matters went, in his later years. Very likely he frittered it away in more stock ventures; I know he bought a lot of good for nothing mining shares. At any rate it has gone, all except a few thousands. The house and land where he lived is mortgaged up to the handle, and I imagine there are debts, a good many of them. But whatever there is is left to Mary-'Gusta-everyone calls her that and I seem to have caught the habit. It is left to her-in trust."

Captain Shadrach thought this over. "In trust with you, I presume likely," he observed. "Well, as I said afore, he couldn't have found a better man."

"HE thought he could, two better men. I rather think he was right. You are the two, gentlemen."

This statement did not have the effect which the Judge expected. He expected exclamations and protests. Instead his visitors looked at each other and at him in a puzzled fashion.

"Er-er-what was that?" queried Mr. Hamilton. "I didn't exactly seem to catch that, somehow or 'nother."

Judge Baxter turned to the Captain.

"You understood me, didn't you, Captain Gould?" he asked.

Shadrach shook his head.

"Why-why, no," he stammered; "it didn't seem to soak in, somehow. Cal'late my head must have stopped goin'; maybe the shock I had a spell ago broke the mainspring. All I seem to be real sartin of just now is that the Campbells are comin'. What was it you said?"

"I said that Captain Marcellus Hall has left whatever property he owned, after his creditors are satisfied, to his stepdaughter. He has left it in trust until she becomes of age. And he asks you two to accept that trust and the care of the child. Is that plain?"

It was plain and they understood. But with understanding came, apparently, a species of paralysis of the vocal organs. Zoeth turned pale and leaned back in his chair. Shadrach's mouth opened and closed several times, but he said nothing.

"Of course," went on Baxter, "before I say any more I think you should be told this: It was Captain Hall's wish that you jointly accept the guardianship of Mary-'Gusta-of the girl-that she live with you and that you use whatever money comes to her from her stepfather's estate in educating and clothing her. Also, of course, that a certain sum each week be paid you from that estate as her board. That was Marcellus's wish; but it is a wish, nothing more. It is not binding upon you in any way. You have a perfect right to decline and-"

Captain Shadrach interrupted.

"Heave to!" he ordered, breathlessly. "Come up into the wind a minute, for mercy sakes! Do you mean to say that me and Zoeth are asked to take that young-one home with us, and take care of her, and dress her, and-and eat her, and bring her up and-and-"

He paused, incoherent in his excitement. The Judge nodded.

"Yes," he replied, "that is what he asks you to do. But, as I say, you are not obliged to do it; there is no legal obligation. You can say no, if you think it best."

"If we think-for thunder sakes, Baxter, what was the matter with Marcellus? Was he out of his head? Was he loony?"

"No, he was perfectly sane."

"Then-then, what-Zoeth," turning wildly to Mr. Hamilton, who still sat, pale and speechless, in his chair; "Zoeth," he demanded, "did you ever hear such craziness in your life? Did you ever HEAR such stuff?"

Zoeth merely shook his head. His silence appeared to add to his friend's excitement.

"Did you?" he roared.

Zoeth muttered something to the effect that he didn't know as he ever did.

"You don't know! Yes, you do know, too. Speak up, why don't you? Don't sit there like a ship's figgerhead, starin' at nothin'. You know it's craziness as well's I do. For God sakes, say somethin'! TALK!"

Mr. Hamilton talked-to this extent:

"Hush, Shadrach," he faltered. "Don't be profane."

"Profane! Pup-pup-profane! You set there and-and-Oh, jumpin', creepin' Judas! I-I-" Language-even his language-failed to express his feelings and he waved his fists and sputtered. Baxter seized the opportunity.

"Before you make your decision, gentlemen," he said, "I hope you will conside

r the situation carefully. The girl is only seven years old; she has no relations anywhere, so far as we know. If you decline the trust a guardian will have to be appointed by the courts, I suppose. Who that guardian will be, or what will become of the poor child I'm sure I don't know. And Captain Marcellus was perfectly sane; he knew what he was doing."

Shadrach interrupted.

"He did!" he shouted. "Well, then, I must say-"

"Just a minute, please, I have a letter here which he wrote at the time he made his will. It is addressed to both of you. Here it is. Shall I read it to you, or had you rather read it yourselves?"

Zoeth answered. "I guess maybe you'd better read it, Judge," he said. "I don't cal'late Shadrach nor me are capable of readin' much of anything just this minute. You read it. Shadrach, you be still now and listen."

The Captain opened his mouth and raised a hand. "Be still, Shadrach," repeated Zoeth. The hand fell. Captain Gould sighed.

"All right, Zoeth," he said. "I'll keep my batch closed long's I can. Heave ahead, Judge."

The letter was a long one, covering several sheets of foolscap. It began:

To Shadrach, Gould and Zoeth Hamilton, my old partners and friends.

DEAR SHAD AND ZOETH:

I am writing this to you because I have known you pretty much all my life and you are the only real friends I have got in this world.

"I was his friend, or I tried to be," commented Baxter, interrupting his reading; "but he considered you two, and always spoke of you, as his oldest and nearest friends. He has often told me that he knew he could depend on you. Now listen."

The letter went on to state that the writer realized his health was no longer good, that he was likely to die at any time and was quite reconciled.

I should be glad to go [Captain Hall had written], if it was not for one thing. Since my wife was took from me I care precious little for life and the sooner it ends the better. That is the way I look at it. But I have a stepdaughter, Mary Augusta Lathrop, and for her sake I must stick to the ship as long as I can. I have not been the right kind of father to her. I have tried, but I don't seem to know how and I guess likely I was too old to learn. When I go she won't have a relation to look out for her. That has troubled me a lot and I have thought about it more than a little, I can tell you. And so I have decided to leave her in your care. I am hoping you will take charge of her and bring her up to be a good girl and a good woman, same as her mother was before her. I know you two will be just the ones for the job.

"Jumpin' fire!" broke in Shadrach, the irrepressible.

"Hush, Shadrach," continued Mr. Hamilton. "Go on, Judge."

Baxter continued his reading. The letter told of the will, of the property, whatever it might be, left in trust for the child, and of the writer's desire that it might be used, when turned into money, for her education. There were two pages of rambling references to stocks and investments, the very vagueness of these references proving the weakening shrewdness and lack of business acumen of Captain Hall in his later years. Then came this:

When this first comes to you I know you will both feel you are not fitted to take charge of my girl. You will say that neither of you has had any children of his own and you have not got experience in that line. But I have thought it over and I know I am right. I couldn't find better pilots afloat or ashore. Shadrach has been to sea and commanded vessels and is used to giving orders and having them carried out. He sailed mate with me for a good many voyages and was my partner ashore. I know him from truck to keelson. He is honest and able and can handle any craft. He will keep the girl on the course she ought to sail in her schooling and such and see she does not get on the rocks or take to cruising in bad company. Zoeth has had the land training. He is a pious man and as good outside the church as he is in, which is not always the case according to my experience. He has the name all up and down the Cape of being a square, honest storekeeper. He will look out for Mary's religious bringing up and learn her how to keep straight and think square. You are both of you different from each other in most ways but you are each of you honest and straight in his own way. I don't leave Mary in the care of one but in the charge of both. I know I am right.

"He said that very thing to me a good many times," put in the Judge. "He seemed to feel that the very fact of your being men of different training and habits of thought made the combination ideal. Between you, so he seemed to think, the girl could not help but grow up as she should. I am almost through; there is a little more."

I want you fellows to do this for my sake. I know you will, after you have thought it over. You and I have been through good times and bad together. We have made money and we have seen it go faster than it came. Shad has seen his savings taken away from him, partly because I trusted where he did not, and he never spoke a word of complaint nor found a mite of fault. Zoeth has borne my greatest trouble with me and though his share was far away bigger than mine, he kept me from breaking under it. I have not seen as much of you lately as I used to see, but that was my fault. Not my fault exactly, maybe, but my misfortune. I have not been the man I was and seeing you made me realize it. That is why I have not been to South Harniss and why I acted so queer when you came here. I was sort of ashamed, I guess. You remember when the old Hall and Company firm started business there were four of us who agreed to stick by each other through foul weather and fair till we died. One of that four broke his promise and pretty nigh wrecked us all, as he did wreck the firm. Now I am asking you two to stick by me and mine. I am trusting and believing that you are going to do it as I write this. When you read it I shan't be on hand. But, if I am where I can see and hear I shall still be believing you will do this last favor for your old messmate.

MARCELLUS.

Judge Baxter folded the sheets of foolscap and laid them on the table. Then he took off his spectacles and wiped them with his handkerchief.

"Well, gentlemen?" he said, after a moment.

Captain Gould drew a long breath.

"I don't think it's well," he observed. "I think it's about as sick as it can be, and I cal'late Zoeth feels the same; eh, Zoeth?"

Mr. Hamilton did not answer. He neither spoke nor moved.

"Of course," said the lawyer, "it is not necessary that you make up your minds this instant. You will probably wish a few days to think the matter over in and then you can let me know what you decide. You have heard the letter and I have explained the situation. Are there any questions you would like to ask?"

Shadrach shook his head.

"No, not far's I'm concerned," he said. "My mind is made up now. I did think there wasn't anything I wouldn't do for Marcellus. And I would have done anything in reason. But this ain't reason-it's what I called it in the beginnin', craziness. Me and Zoeth can't go crazy for anybody."

"Then you decline?"

"Yes, sir; I'm mighty sorry but of course we can't do such a thing. Me and Zoeth, one of us a bach all his life, and t'other one a-a widower for twenty years, for us to take a child to bring up! My soul and body! Havin' hung on to the heft of our senses so far, course we decline! We can't do nothin' else."

"And you, Mr. Hamilton?"

Zoeth appeared to hesitate. Then he asked:

"What sort of a girl is she?"

"Mary-'Gusta? She's a bright child, and a well-behaved one, generally speaking. Rather old for her years, and a little-well, peculiar. That isn't strange, considering the life she has led since her mother's death. But she is a good girl and a pretty little thing. I like her; so does my wife."

"That was her at the cemetery, wasn't it? She was with that Hobbs woman?"

"Yes."

"I thought so. Shadrach and I met her when we was over here two years ago. I thought the one at the graveyard was her. Poor little critter! Where is she now; at the house-at Marcellus's?"

"Yes; that is, I suppose she is."

"Do you-do you cal'late we could see her if we went there now?"

"Yes, I am sure you could."

Zoeth rose.

"Come on, Shadrach," he said, "let's go."

The Captain stared at him.

"Go?" he repeated. "Where? Home, do you mean?"

"No, not yet. I mean over to Marcellus's to see that little girl."

"Zoeth Hamilton! Do you mean to tell me-What do you want to see her for? Do you want to make it harder for her and for us and for all hands? What good is seein' her goin' to do? Ain't it twice as easy to say no now and be done with it?"

"I suppose likely 'twould be, but it wouldn't be right Marcellus asked us to do this thing for him and-"

"Jumpin' Judas! ASKED us! Do you mean to say you're thinkin' of doin' what he asked? Are you loony, too? Are you-"

"Shh, Shadrach! He asked us, as a last favor, to take charge of his girl. I feel as you do that we can't do it, 'tain't sensible nor possible for us to do it, but-"

"There ain't any buts."

"But the very least we can do is go and see her and talk to her."

"What for? So we'll feel meaner and more sneaky when we HAVE to say no? I shan't go to see her."

"All right. Then I shall. You can wait here for me till I come back."

"Hold on, Zoeth! Hold on! Don't-"

But Mr. Hamilton was at the door and did not turn back. Judge Baxter, who was following him, spoke.

"Sit right here, Captain," he said. "Make yourself as comfortable as you can. We shan't be long."

For an instant Shadrach remained where he was. Then he, too, sprang to his feet. He overtook the lawyer just as the latter reached the side door.

"Hello, Captain," exclaimed Baxter, "changed your mind?"

"Changed nothin'. Zoeth's makin' a fool of himself and I know it, but he ain't goin' to be a fool ALL by himself. I've seen him try it afore and 'tain't safe."

"What do you mean?"

The Captain grunted scornfully.

"I mean there's safety in numbers, whether it's the number of fools or anything else," he said. "One idiot's a risky proposition, but two or three in a bunch can watch each other. Come on, Judge, and be the third."

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