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   Chapter 18 AN UNFORESEEN FOE

That Mainwaring Affair By A. Maynard Barbour Characters: 24137

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Though nearly six weeks had elapsed since the death of the master of Fair Oaks, and as yet no light had been shed on that mysterious event, the interest of the public mind in the affair had in no wise abated during this brief interim. On the contrary, its curiosity had been so whetted by the partial revelations of the inquest, that it had eagerly followed each step of the legal proceedings leading towards the inevitable contest over the property, ready to hail with delight the appearance of the Mainwaring skeleton when it should step forth from its long hiding to disclose the secrets of the past.

As early as possible, a petition, setting forth the terms and conditions of the last will and testament of Hugh Mainwaring, and praying for letters of administration in accordance therewith to be issued to William H. Whitney, the executor named in said will, had been filed in the district court. A few days thereafter, the petition of Eleanor Houghton Mainwaring, for letters to be issued to Richard Hobson, was also filed. The hearing in the application for letters of administration occupied several days; very little evidence was adduced, however, which had not already been given at the inquest, and in due time an order was issued by the court, appointing Mr. Whitney administrator of the estate, with instructions that the same be adjusted according to the terms of the lost will. From this order, Eleanor Houghton Mainwaring, through her attorney, Hobson, had appealed, and the contest had at last begun.

For greater convenience during the legal proceedings, Ralph Mainwaring had closed the suburban residence, dismissing what servants were no longer needed, though still retaining the new coachman, and had removed to Hugh Mainwaring's city residence, where he and his son made themselves perfectly at home, dining with Mr. Whitney at his club. Mrs. LaGrange, having been compelled to resign her position at Fair Oaks, had also removed to the city and taken apartments in a convenient hotel until the termination of her suit.

The afternoon of the second day since the opening of the case was drawing to a close; the testimony on the appellant's side had been taken, and it was expected that the respondent would be heard on the following day, when an event transpired which completely overthrew all proceedings had thus far, and which promised the waiting public developments as startling as could be desired.

This event was none other than the filing in the district court of a document purporting to be the last will and testament of the father of the deceased Hugh Mainwaring, by the terms of which the Mainwaring estate, as it then existed, together with the bulk of his other property, passed to Harold Scott Mainwaring, an elder son who had been previously disinherited, but was by this will restored to his full rights. With this document, worn and yellow with age, was filed a petition, setting forth the claims of one Harold Scott Mainwaring, the lawful, living, and only son of the said Harold Scott Mainwaring named in the will, but since deceased, and sole heir of the Mainwaring estate, and praying for letters of administration to be issued to George D. Sutherland, attorney for the said lawful heir.

The court adjourned amid intense excitement, just as the newsboys were crying the headlines of the evening papers,-

"A New Heir to the Mainwaring Property! Discovery of Will secreted more than Twenty-five Years! Millions wrongfully withheld from the Rightful Owner!"

Strangely enough, the two most interested in this unexpected turn of affairs were among the latest to learn the surprising news. Ralph Mainwaring, having felt slightly indisposed, and knowing that his side would not come up for hearing until the following day, had made himself as comfortable as possible in the elegant apartments which he had appropriated to his own use, while his son had left the court-room at an early hour to devote the remainder of the afternoon to letter-writing.

The latter glanced up from his writing and nodded pleasantly, as Mr. Whitney, pale with excitement, was ushered by the butler into the library.

"Mr. Mainwaring, is your father in?" the attorney inquired, hastily.

"I believe so," replied the young man, smiling broadly; "the last I knew, the governor was luxuriating in his rooms up-stairs; I think you will find him there now. How's the case coming on, sir?" he added, as the attorney turned quickly towards the hall. "Anything new developed?"

"Yes; decidedly new!" Mr. Whitney answered, rather brusquely; "you had better join us up-stairs!" and he disappeared.

The young man's face grew suddenly serious, and, springing from his chair, he swiftly followed the retreating figure of the attorney, arriving just in time to hear the latter exclaim, in reply to some question from his father,-

"Well, sir, the storm has burst!"

Ralph Mainwaring was, as his son had said, "luxuriating" in a superb reclining chair, his eyes half closed, enjoying a fine Havana, but the attorney's words seemed to produce the effect of an electric shock.

"The deuce, sir! what do you mean?" he demanded, instantly assuming an upright position.

"I simply mean that what I have expected and dreaded all along has at last come to pass."

"Then, since it was not unexpected, it is to be presumed that you were at least prepared for it! That shyster and his designing client must, at the last moment, have exerted their inventive faculties to a remarkable degree!"

"On the contrary," said the attorney, quietly ignoring the other's sarcasm, and handing copies of the evening papers to father and son, "I am satisfied that neither Hobson nor his client has any part in the developments of this afternoon."

A brief silence followed, during which the attorney watched the two men before him, noting the strange contrast between them, never until that moment so apparent. Young Mainwaring's boyish face grew pale as he read, and he occasionally glanced at Mr. Whitney, as though seeking in his face either confirmation or contradiction of the report, but he remained calm and self-possessed, preserving his gentlemanly bearing to the close of the interview. The face of the elder man, however, rapidly assumed an almost apoplectic hue, the veins standing out from his temples like whip-cords, and when he spoke his voice trembled with rage. He was the first to break the silence, as, with an oath, he flung the papers upon the floor, exclaiming,-

"It is a lie from beginning to end! The most preposterous fabrication of falsehood that could be devised! The 'will,' as it is called, is nothing but a rank forgery, and the man who dares assert any claim to the estate is a damned impostor, and I'll tell him so to his face!"

"I examined the document very carefully, Mr. Mainwaring," said the attorney, "and I shall have to admit that it certainly had every appearance of genuineness; if it is a forgery, it is an exceedingly clever one."

"Do you mean to tell me that you believe, for one moment, in this balderdash?" demanded Ralph Mainwaring, at the same time rising and striding about the room in his wrath. "The utter absurdity of the thing, that such a will ever existed, in the first place, and then that it would be secreted all these years only to be 'discovered' just at this critical moment! It is the most transparent invention I ever heard of, and it is a disgrace to your American courts that the thing was not quashed at once!"

"That could not very well be done," said Mr. Whitney, with a quiet smile; "and as the matter now stands, the only course left open for us is to prepare ourselves for a thorough investigation of the case."

"Investigation be damned!" interrupted the other, but, before he could proceed further, he was in turn interrupted by young Mainwaring.

"I say, governor, you'd best cool down a bit and listen to what Mr. Whitney has to say; if this thing is a forgery, we surely can prove it so; and if it isn't, why, all the bluster in the world won't help it, you know."

His father faced him with a look of withering contempt. "'If' it is a forgery! I tell you there are no 'ifs' about it. I suppose, though, you are just fool enough that, if any man made a pretence of a claim to the estate, you would simply hand it over to him, and thank him for taking it off your hands!"

"That's just where you are wrong, governor. I would fight him, fair and square, and he would have to prove a better claim than mine before he could win. But the point is this, don't you know, you can fight better with your head cool and your plans well laid beforehand."

"The young man is right," said Mr. Whitney, quickly; "there is every indication that our opponent, whoever or whatever he may be, is well prepared for contesting the case. I understand he has plenty of evidence on his side and the best of legal counsel."

"Evidence, I suppose," interposed Ralph Mainwaring, with a sneer, "in support of a document that never existed, and a man that never lived on the face of the earth; for Harold Mainwaring never had a living son. Have you seen this remarkable individual?"

"I believe no one in this country has seen him as yet, sir. He is expected to arrive on the 'Umbria,' which I understand is due the early part of next week."

The face of the other showed slight surprise at this statement, but, before he could speak, the young man inquired,-

"I say, Mr. Whitney, what sort of a man is this attorney, Sutherland? Is he another Hobson?"

Mr. Whitney shook his head significantly. "Mr. Sutherland is one of the ablest men in his profession. I consider him a fine jurist, an eloquent pleader, and a perfect gentleman. I had some conversation with him after court adjourned, and while he, of course, stated no details, he gave me to understand that his client had a strong case. He also informed me that Barton & Barton, of London, had been retained in the case, and that his client would be accompanied to this country by the junior member of the firm, Alfred Barton."

"By Jove, that looks bad for us!" ejaculated young Mainwaring, while his father exclaimed, impatiently,-

"Barton & Barton? Impossible! that is mere bombast! Why, man, the Bartons, father and sons, have been the family solicitors of the Mainwarings for the past fifty years. The old firm of Barton & Sons had charge of the settlement of the estate when it passed into Hugh Mainwaring's possession at the death of his father."

"So I had understood," said the attorney; "I have heard Mr. Mainwaring himself speak of them."

"And," continued the other, "only a few days before sailing for America, I called at their chambers in London and told them of Hugh's intentions regarding my son and received their congratulations. Now, sir, do you mean to tell me, in the face of all this, that Barton & Barton are retained by this mushroom claimant, whoever he is? Pooh! preposterous!"

Mr. Whitney shook his head slowly. "Mr. Sutherland is not the man to make any misstatements or allow himself to be misinformed. All I have to say is, if those attorneys are retained in the case, it certainly looks as though our opponent must have some tenable ground in support of his claim. I am inclined to think they will make us a hard fight, but I am confident that we will win in the end. The main point is this: we must be prepared to meet them on whatever ground they may take, and, after hearing their side and the proof they set up, we can easily determine our line of defence."

"To the deuce with your line of defence! I tell you, Whitney, there is just one point to be maintained, and, by my soul, it shall be maintained at any cost!" and the speaker emphasized his words by bringing his clinched hand down upon a table beside him with terrific force "that point is this: Harold Scott Mainwaring never had a living, lawful son; no such person exists, or ever has existed on the face of the earth, and I can prove what I say."

"Have you absolute proof of that?" Mr. Whitney inquire

d, quickly.

"I have," replied Ralph Mainwaring, triumphantly, while his cold, calculating gray eyes glittered like burnished steel. "If any man thinks I have been asleep for the past twenty-one years, he is deucedly mistaken. Mr. Whitney, since the day of that boy's birth," pointing to his son, "I have had but one fixed resolve, which has been paramount to everything else, to which everything else has had to subserve,-the Mainwaring estate with its millions should one day be his. Not a day has passed in which this was not uppermost in my mind; not a day in which I have not scanned the horizon in every direction to detect the least shadow likely to intervene between me and the attainment of the dearest object of my life. When the news of Harold Mainwaring's death reached England, in order to guard against the possibility of a claim ever being asserted in that direction, I set myself at once to the task of finding for a certainty whether or not he had left any issue. I never rested day or night until, after infinite labor and pains, I had secured the certificate of the attendant physician to the effect that the only child of Harold Mainwaring died within an hour from its birth."

"Have you that certificate now?" inquired the attorney.

"Not here; it is among my private papers at home."

"Cable for it at once; with the death of Harold Mainwaring's child fully established, the will would cut no figure, one way or another."

"That will," said Ralph Mainwaring, fiercely, turning upon Mr. Whitney with an expression which the latter had never seen, "let me tell you, will cut no figure one way or another in any event. That will, remember, is a forgery; and, if necessary, I will prove it so, if it takes my last shilling and the last drop of my heart's blood to do it; do you understand?"

The attorney understood, and was more than ever convinced in his ow mind that the old will filed that day was genuine.

Meanwhile, in another part of the city, Mrs. LaGrange sat alone in her apartments, awaiting the coming of Richard Hobson. It was considerably past the hour which he had set and daylight was slowly merging into dusk, yet enough light still remained to show the changes which the last few weeks had wrought in her face. Her features looked pinched and drawn, and a strange pallor had replaced the rich coloring of the olive skin, while her dark eyes, cold and brilliant as ever, had the look of some wild creature suddenly brought to bay. She shuddered now, as, from her window, she saw the cringing form of Hobson approaching the building.

"To think," she exclaimed to herself, passionately, "that that creature is the only one to whom I can go for counsel or advice! I loathe the very sight of him; fool that I was ever to place myself within his power! I thought I could use him as a tool like the rest; but it is like playing with edged tools; yet I dare not let him go."

A moment later, she heard a stealthy, cat-like tread in the corridor outside, followed by a low, peculiar tap at the door, and Hobson entered.

She crossed the room slowly, keeping her face in the shadow, and, motioning him to a chair, seated herself opposite, watching him narrowly.

"You are late," she said, coldly, in response to his greeting.

"Admitted, my lady," he replied, in his usual unctuous tones, "but I naturally wished to ascertain all the facts possible regarding this new deal, and, seeing Whitney nosing about on the trail, I decided to remain within ear-shot and pick up what information I could second-hand."

"What did you learn?"

"Nothing very definite, and yet enough, perhaps, to give us our cue until further developments. My dear lady, what do you think of this new turn of affairs?"

"The whole thing is simply preposterous; a piece of the most consummate audacity I ever dreamed of!"

"Ha! I thought it would strike you as particularly nervy. It is the most daring bit of invention I have seen for some time; and it must be a pretty cleverly concocted scheme and pretty well backed with the ducats also, for I learned to-night that the 'heir,'" laying special emphasis on the word, "has secured the services of Barton & Barton, and those birds are too old to be caught with chaff; besides, you know as well as I the part that firm has taken in the Mainwaring affairs."

"Barton & Barton? Incredible! The case is hopeless then for Ralph Mainwaring: he is a fool if he expects to win."

"Just what I was leading up to. Whitney is no match even for this man, Sutherland, and he will be a mere child in the hands of the Bartons. Now, the question is, where do we come in? As you say, Ralph Mainwaring's case is hopeless, unless-" and he looked significantly at his client.

"I do not think I quite catch the drift of your meaning," she answered, slowly.

"Has it not occurred to you that there are not two people in existence who can so quickly tear to shreds the scheme of this impostor as you and I? There is not a human being living outside of myself who knows the real facts concerning that will; and who could give such effective and convincing testimony regarding Harold Mainwaring's son as yourself?"

"Admitting all this, what do you propose?"

"When Ralph Mainwaring has staked his highest card and finds that the game is irrevocably lost, what will he not give at the last critical moment for assistance such as we can then furnish him?"

"And which course would you pursue in that event?" she asked, a tinge of irony in her tone. "Would you deny that such a will ever existed in face of whatever evidence may be brought forward in its support? or would you admit being a party to the destruction of the will?"

"My dear madam, I am perfectly capable of conducting this affair to our mutual satisfaction and without running my head into any trap, as you so pleasantly suggest. And right here allow me to say that it would be just as well for you not to make those insinuations which you are so fond of throwing out at random. As I said before, no living person outside of myself, including even yourself, knows the facts regarding that will. You have your own surmises, but they are only surmises, and you had best keep them to yourself as you know enough of me by this time to know it will be to your interest to accept my suggestions and fall in line with my plans."

Her face was in the shadow, and he did not see the scornful curl of her lip or her peculiar expression, as she remarked coldly,-

"You are only wasting words and time in your efforts to intimidate me. You have not yet made any suggestions or outlined any plans. I have asked you what you propose to do."

"I have not time to go into details, but, briefly stated, I propose, when the right opportunity presents itself, to prove, first, that this document filed to-day is a forgery. If I can show conclusively that the original will was accidentally lost, or intentionally destroyed, or if I happen to have the original in my possession,-under any of these conditions I gain my first point. Then, through your testimony, I shall demonstrate unequivocally a still more important point, that this so-called heir is a gross impostor, that no such individual exists."

"And for this, you expect-what?"

"For this I shall demand a handsome remuneration, to be divided, of course, between yourself and myself, and Ralph Mainwaring will only too gladly give the half of his kingdom for such services."

"And your testimony would have so much weight with Ralph Mainwaring and the Bartons, and with every one else who has any knowledge of your London history!"

Hobson winced visibly, but before he could reply she continued:

"You are talking the most arrant foolishness. You know that those men would not allow your testimony in court; they would very quickly procure evidence to show that your word, even under oath, is worthless; that you are a liar, a perjurer and a-"

"Not so fast, not so fast, my lady. If past histories are to be raked up, I know of one which embraces a much wider area than London alone; Melbourne, for instance, and Paris and Vienna, to say nothing of more recent events!"

"Do your worst, and I will do mine!" she replied, defiantly. "That is nothing to the point, however. What I have to say is this: You are a fool if you think that you or I can ever extort money from Ralph Mainwaring. He would give no credence whatever to anything that you might say, and if once my identity were revealed to him, he would go through fire and blood rather than that one shilling of his should ever become mine."

"And what do you propose to do?" he asked, sullenly. "Do you intend to give up the game?"

"Give up? Never! I would give my life first! I will yet have my revenge on the Mainwarings, one and all; and I will repay them double for all the insult and ignominy they have heaped upon me."

"That is to the point; but how will you accomplish it?" said Hobson, in a more conciliatory tone, for each feared the other, and he thoroughly understood the spirit of his client. "Let us be reasonable about this; you and I have too much at stake and too many interests in common for us to quarrel like children."

"If I were differently situated, I can assure you we would then have very few interests in common," she replied, bitterly.

"Well, supposing you were, what would you do in this case?" he inquired, softly, apparently taking no notice of her remark, but in reality making a mental note of it for future reckoning.

"Defeat Ralph Mainwaring, by all means; if necessary, produce testimony to show that this will is genuine. If he spends his last shilling to fight the case, so much the better. Then, when the case is settled and this so-called heir is master of the situation, or supposes himself so, bring suit to show that he is an impostor, and assert my own claim as the nearest living heir."

Hobson whistled softly. "A plan worthy of your ambition, my lady, but hardly feasible. It is one thing to assert a claim, and another to be able to establish it. Through your over-ambition you would lose in the end, for, should you succeed in dispossessing this stranger, Ralph Mainwaring would surely come forward with his claim, and you would be beaten."

"When I lay down arms to a Mainwaring, I will lay down my life also," she answered, proudly.

"You think so, perhaps; but let me tell you the best course for you to pursue is to make terms, either with Ralph Mainwaring, as I first suggested, or else with this new-comer-should he prove victorious-by threatening to expose his whole scheme."

Mrs. LaGrange made no reply, and Hobson, rising to take leave, saw her face for the first time and paused, surprised at its strange expression.

"Well?" he said, with a look of inquiry.

"My thoughts were wandering just then," she said, with a faint smile, and her tone was so changed the voice scarcely seemed her own. "I was wishing, just for the moment, that this stranger, whoever he may be, was in reality the one he claims to be. I would need no attorney to make terms with him then!"

"You forget; he would be a Mainwaring!"

"Yes; but he would be the only Mainwaring and the only human being I could ever have loved, and I would have loved him better than my own life."

"Love!" repeated Hobson, with a sneer. "Who would ever have thought to hear that word from your lips! But how about your son, Walter; do you not love him?"

"Him!" she exclaimed, passionately; "the price I paid hoping to win Hugh Mainwaring! I am proud of him as my own flesh and blood, but love him? Never!"

"But you have not yet told me what you think of my last suggestion," he said, tentatively, watching her closely. Her manner changed instantly; rising with all her accustomed hauteur and turning from him with a gesture of dismissal, she replied,-

"Come to me later, when I shall have measured lances with our new opponent, and you shall have your answer."

He would have spoken, but her dismissal was final, and with darkening face he left the room.

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