BY ROBERT HERRICK
BOSTON AND NEW YORK HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY The Riverside Press Cambridge 1914
COPYRIGHT, 1914, BY ROBERT HERRICK ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Published June 1914
The other day I happened to be in the town where I was born and not far from the commonplace house in the humbler quarter of the town where my parents were living at the time of my birth, half a century and more ago. I am not fond of my native town, although I lived in the place until I was seventeen or eighteen years old. It was never a distinguished spot and seems to have gained nothing as yet from having been my birthplace. It has some reputation of its own, however, but that is due to the enduring popularity of a certain cookstove that has long been manufactured there, the "Stearns and Frost Cooker," known to many housewives of several generations. In my youth the Stearns and Frost stove works were reputed to be the largest in the world, and most of the plain citizens of Alton were concerned in one way or another with them. I do not happen to be interested in the manufacture or sale, or I may add the use, of the domestic cookstove. As a boy I always thought the town a dull, ugly sort of place, and although it has grown marvelously these last thirty years, having been completely surrounded and absorbed by the neighboring city of B——, it did not seem to me that day when I revisited it to have grown perceptibly in grace....
Having a couple of spare hours before meeting a dinner engagement, I descended into a subway and was shot out in less than ten minutes from the heart of the city to the old "Square" of Alton,—a journey that took us formerly from half to three quarters of an hour, and in cold or rainy weather, of which there is a good deal in Alton, seemed truly interminable. From the "Square," which no longer had the noble amplitude of my memory, the direct way to Fuller Place lay up the South Road,—a broad thoroughfare, through the center of which there used to trickle occasionally a tiny horse-drawn vehicle to and from the great city of B——. South Road, I found, had changed its name to the more pompous designation of State Avenue, and it was noisy and busy enough to accord with my childish imagination of it, but none too large for the mammoth moving-vans in which the electric railroad now transported the inhabitants. These shot by me in bewildering numbers. I had chosen to make the rest of my journey on foot, trying leisurely to revive old memories and sensations. For a few blocks I succeeded in picking out here and there a familiar object, but by the time I reached the cross-street where we used to descend from the street-cars and penetrate the lane that led to Fuller Place I was completely at sea. The ample wooden houses fronting the South Road, each surrounded by its green lawn with appropriate shrubbery, had all given way before the march of brick business blocks. Even the "Reformed Methodist" church on the corner of Lamb Street had been replaced by a stone structure that discreetly concealed its denominational quality from the passer-by. Beyond the church there had been a half-mile of unoccupied land fronting on the Road, but now the line of "permanent improvements" ran unbroken as far as the eye could see. Into this maze of unfamiliar buildings I plunged and wandered at random for half an hour through blocks of brick stores, office buildings, factories, tenements,—chiefly tenements it seemed to me. Off in one corner of the district instead of high tenement buildings there was something almost worse, rows of mean, little two-story brick cottages that ranged upwards along a gentle slope that I tried to fancy was Swan's Hill,—a dangerous descent where my older brothers and I were once allowed to coast on our "double-runner." I will not weary the reader with further details of my wandering with its disappointment and shattered illusions, which can in no way be of interest to any but the one in search of his past, and of purely sentimental importance to him. It is, of course, a common form of egotism to chronicle such small-beer of one's origin, but it happens to have nothing to do with my purpose.
Enough to say that at last I discovered Fuller Place,—a mean, little right-angled street that led nowhere; but from one end to the other I could not find my old home. Its site must now be occupied by one of those ugly five-story apartment boxes that spring like weeds in old towns and cities. As I lingered in front of the brick wall that I judged must very nearly cover the site of my birthplace, I tried to understand the sensation of utter unfamiliarity with which the whole place filled me. The answer came to me in a flash as I turned away from Fuller Place,—Clark's Field no longer existed! Its place was completely filled by the maze of brick and mortar in which for the better part of an hour I had lost myself. There was nothing surprising that after a third of a century a large, vacant field should have been carved up into streets, alleys, and lots, and be covered with buildings to house the growing population of a city. It is one of the usual commonplaces in our American cities and towns. But to me the total disappearance of Clark's Field seemed momentous. That large, open tract near my old home had more significance, at least in memory, than the home itself. It was intricately interwoven with all the imaginative and more personal life that I had known as a boy. One corner of the irregular open land known as Clark's Field had abutted my father's small property in Fuller Place, and I and my older brothers and our friends had taken advantage of this fact to open an unauthorized entrance into the Field through the board fence in the rear yard. Over that fence lay freedom from parental control and family tasks, and there was also, it happened, a certain bed of luscious strawberries which we regularly looted until the market gardener, who at the time leased this corner of Clark's Field, resigned himself to the inevitable and substituted winter cabbages for the strawberries,—a crop he had never been able to get to market.
From the gardener's beds and small forcing-houses the land stretched away unbroken by cultivation or building to that Swan's Hill where we coasted and farther to the suburban estates of several affluent citizens,—I presume the homes of Stearns and Frost of stove fame and others no longer remembered. These places, with their stately trees and greenhouses and careful lawns, have also been merged into the domain of brick and mortar and concrete. To the right of the market garden, between us and the South Road, lay the level, treeless tract, about fifty acres in extent, which was specifically known as Clark's Field, although all the unused land in the neighborhood had originally belonged to the Clark farm. The Field was carefully fenced in with high white palings,—too high for a small boy to climb safely in a hurry. Certain large signs, at the different corners, averred that the Field was for sale and would be divided into suitable lots for building purposes, and also that trespassers were so little desired that they would be prosecuted by law. These signs were regularly defaced with stones and snowballs according to season, and were as regularly reerected every spring by the hopeful owner or his agent. For in spite of its difficult paling and warning signs, Clark's Field remained our favorite ball-field and recreation spot where in summer we dug caves and skated when the autumn rains were obliging enough to come before the frost. I suppose that we destroyed the signs as a point of honor, and preferred Clark's Field to all the other open land free to us because we could see no reason for the prohibition. At any rate, we "trespassed" upon it at all hours of day and night, and many a time have I ripped my clothes on the sharp points of those palings in my breathless haste to escape some real or fancied pursuit by one in authority. We had not only the regular police—the "cops"—to contend with, but we believed that old man Clark employed private watchmen and even descended to the mean habit of sneaking about the Field himself, peering through the close palings to snare us. There must have been some fire in all this smoke of memory, for I distinctly recall one occasion that resulted disastrously to me and has left with me such a vivid picture that its origin must have been real. I was one of the younger and less athletic of our gang and had been nabbed by the fat policeman on our beat and led ignominiously through the streets of Alton by the collar of my coat,—not to the police station in the "Square," nor to my father's house where my older brothers had often been brought in similar disgrace. This time the policeman, with the ingenuity of a Persian cadi, took me through the public streets direct to headquarters,—the home of Mr. Samuel Clark. It was, I believe, the only occasion on which I ever met the owner of Clark's Field, certainly the only time I ever had speech with him; not that there was much speech from me then. As I was reluctantly urged up the long graveled drive of the respectable wooden house near the Square, I saw an old, white-haired man getting into his family carriage with some difficulty. The large, heavy person of the owner of Clark's Field seemed to me a very formidable object when he turned upon me a pair of dark, scowling eyes beneath bushy white brows and muttered something about "bad boys." Those eyes and a curious trembling of the heavy limbs—due to palsy, I suppose—are the only things I recollect of Samuel Clark. Nor do I remember what he said to me beyond calling me a bad boy or what judgment he meted out. All I know is that I returned home without visiting the "lockup" behind the Square and became the subject of a protracted and animated family discussion. My mother, unexpectedly, took my part, inveighing against the "ogre" of a Clark who deprived "nice" boys of the enjoyment of his useless field, and urged my father, who had some acquaintance with fact as well as with law, to "do something about Clark's Field." My father, I think, was at last persuaded to visit the owner of the field to see what lawful arrangements could be made so that well-behaved boys might freely and honorably use the Field for their pleasure, until it should be disposed of to builders. (Which, of course, would have taken from it every shred of charm!) Whether in fact he made some such arrangement I cannot remember, nor whether having been once caught I was sufficiently intimidated by my visit to old Clark. All I know is that as long as we remained in Alton, the Field continued its useless, forlorn, unoccupied existence, jealously surrounded by a dilapidated though constantly patched fence, with its numerous signs inviting prospective purchasers to consult with the "owner"—signs that were regularly destroyed by succeeding generations of boys. Already in my youth the busy town was growing far beyond Clark's Field, along the South Road towards the new railroad station; but the Field remained in dreary isolation from all this new life until long after I had left the town.
As I have said, this empty field of fifty acres was the most permanent experience of my youth. Its large, level surface, so persistently offered to unwilling purchasers of real estate, seized hold of my boyish imagination. I invented mysterious reasons for its condition, which as time went on must have been influenced by what I heard at the family table of the Clarks and their possessions. Now it is all inextricably woven in my memory into a web of fact and fancy. The Field stood for me during those fertile years as the physical symbol of the unknown, the mysterious,—the source of adventure and legend,—long, long after I had outgrown childish imaginings and had become fully involved in what we like to call the serious matters of life. To-day I had but to close my eyes and think of Fuller Place and my boyhood there to see that lonely field, jealously hedged about by its fence of tall white palings,—see it in all its former emptiness and mystery.
Of Clark's Field and the Clarks I mused as I retraced my way through the maze of living that had been planted upon the old open land. All this close-packed brick and mortar, these dull streets and high business buildings, had been crowded man-fashion into the free, wind-swept field of my fancy. Five thousand people at least must now be living and largely have their being on our old playground,—a small town in itself. And the change had come about in the last fifteen years or less. How had it been brought to pass? Why after all the years of idleness that it had endured had a use for Clark's Field been found? Something must have broken that spell which had effectually restrained prospective purchasers of real estate through all the years when the city was pressing on beyond this point far away into the country.... The facts are not all dime-novelish, but very human and significant, and by chance the main thread of the real story of Clark's Field came to my knowledge shortly after my visit, correcting and enlarging the impressions I had formed from family gossip, the talk of playmates, and my own imagination. And this story—the story of Clark's Field—I deem well worth setting forth....
That same evening, when I entered the city hotel where I was to dine, I found my friend walking impatiently up and down the lobby, for in my search for the past I had forgotten my engagement and was late. Scarcely greeting my guest, I burst out,—
"Edsall, do you remember Clark's Field?" (For Edsall had once lived in Alton, though not in my part of the town.)
"Yes," he replied, somewhat surprised by my breathless eagerness. "What about it?"
"I want to know what happened to it and why?"
Edsall, being a lawyer with a special interest in real estate, could tell me many of the known facts about the Clark property over which there had been some curious litigation. So the story grew that evening over our dinner, to be filled in later by many details that came to me unexpectedly,—I suppose because I was interested in the fate of Clark's Field.
The Clarks, as their name implies, were of common English blood, originally of some clerkly tribe and so possessing no distinctive patronymic. These Clarks were ordinary Yankee farmers, who had been settled in one place for upwards of two hundred years. Very likely some ancestor of my old Samuel Clark had stood at Concord with "the embattled farmers." I know not. He easily could have done so, for Alton was not many miles distant from the battle field. But little either spiritual or militant fervor from these Puritan ancestors seems to have come down to Samuel, who in 1860 occupied the family farm of one hundred and forty acres, "more or less," according to the loose description of old deeds. Samuel, indeed, had not enough patriotism to sympathize with his son, John Parsons, who finally ran off to the war, as so many boys did, to escape the monotony of farm life. For Samuel, his father, was a plain, ordinary, selfish, and not very thrifty New England farmer, who laid down his fields every year to the same crops of oats and rye and hay, kept a few sheep and hogs and cows, and in the easy, shiftless way of his kind drained the soil of his old farm, with the narrow consolation that it would somehow last his time.
So little ambition he had that shortly after his son went to the war, thus depriving him of free labor, he "retired" from his farm,—that is, he sold what he could of its fields and pastures and bought himself a house on Church Street near the Square in Alton, probably the same house where I was taken for my one interview with him. What he did not sell of the farm he rented to another more energetic farmer, one Everitt Adams, the old market-gardener whom I remembered. Adams with more thrift and the great incentive of necessity built hothouses and went in for market-gardening to supply the wants of the neighboring city, which was already making itself felt upon the surrounding country. Hence the long rows of celery, cabbage, lettuce, and peas that I remember across my father's back fence. All the near-by farmers were doing much the same thing, turning the better part of their land into gardens. They would start before dawn in summer time for the city, making their way along the South Road, which was the main thoroughfare into this part of the country. Many a time have I seen their covered wagons returning from the city about the time when I was starting for school, the horses wearily plodding along at a walk, the farmer or his boy asleep in the wagon on his empty crates.
I don't know what sort of an arrangement old Clark made with his tenant, but Adams, who was a hard-working fellow with a tribe of strong children, must have found the business profitable, especially after he built the forcing-houses and began to supply unseasonable luxuries to the prosperous citizens of B——. Prices ran high in the years of the great war, and those farmers who stayed at home and cultivated their gardens industriously made money at every turn. At any rate, it was common knowledge in the neighborhood of Fuller Place that Everitt Adams wished to purchase Clark's Field from its owner—the last piece of the old farm that he had not hitherto disposed of—and had the money to pay for it in the River Savings Bank. Indeed, gossip said that the price was agreed upon,—five thousand dollars,—which was considered a fair price in those days for fifty acres, six or seven miles from the city. And Samuel Clark, so tradition also says, was anxious to sell his last field for that price. His son had returned from the war wounded and incapable of work, and his father wanted to set him up in a small shop in the Square. The son, in spite of his invalidism, married shortly after his return from the ranks and this made the need of ready money in the Church Street house all the more urgent.
Trouble came when the lawyer employed by the market-gardener discovered what old Clark must have known all the time, and that is that the Field had a cloud upon its title, or rather an absolute restriction which would render worthless any title that Samuel might give alone. To explain this legal obstacle we must go back before the war and my day into the previous generation. There had been a family quarrel between Samuel and his older brother, which had resulted finally in Edward Stanley—the elder son—going off to seek his fortunes in the new West, which was attracting young men from the East at that time. This was in 1840 or thereabouts when Edward S. left his father's home in Alton, and nothing more had been heard of him except the vague report from some other exile from Alton that he had been seen in Chicago where he had become a carpenter, and it was said had married. Probably Samuel, who was then a young man and recently married with two little children, had no great desire to have his elder brother's existence recalled to his father. Everything I have learned about Samuel confirms the impression of him I had as a boy, that he was not the kind of man whose conscience would be sensitive in such matters. He probably considered that his brother Ed, having taken his fate in his hands, should expect nothing from the more timid members of the family who had stuck by the old farm. But when the elder Clark died, a will was found in which to Samuel's disgust an undivided half interest in the Field—the best part of the farm—was left to his eldest son and his heirs.
There is no evidence that Samuel, at the time of his father's death, ever took any measures, even of the most casual sort, to hunt up this elder brother or find out if he had left any children. He made some sort of deal with a younger brother who could not be ignored and continued to work the old farm, living in his father's house on Swan's Hill. Probably a long term of undisturbed possession of the farm convinced him that he was the sole legitimate owner of the property, that the land was absolutely and wholly his to do with what he would. And so, as we have seen, in his old age he tried to dispose of the Field to the market-gardener for five thousand dollars. But the lawyer raised the obvious objection that the Field could not be sold without Edward's consent, and of Edward nothing whatsoever was known. Some attempt was made at this time by John Clark on behalf of his father to trace the missing Edward—a feeble attempt. He wrote to an army friend in Chicago, who found evidence that Edward S. Clark, a carpenter, had lived in the city for five or six years and had moved thence to St. Louis. No trace of him could be found in St. Louis, where John also wrote to the postmaster. At that time, it should be remembered, St. Louis was the port of departure for the little-known West, and possibly Edward and his family had taken boat up the Missouri and gone on to the distant gold fields or had merely drifted out into the neighboring prairie country and stuck in some nook. It was all speculation. Nothing further of Edward Stanley Clark was ever known by either Samuel or his son John. He never announced himself to his Eastern relatives.
But Samuel could not sell the Field. Old Adams was altogether too shrewd to spend five thousand dollars upon a property that had such an uncertainty about its title, and in those days the lawyers whose advice they were able to get could not suggest a satisfactory way of evading the difficulty. No such thing as a title guaranty company had ever been heard of in the old Commonwealth of M——. There was nothing to do but wait in the hope that either information about Edward S. would be forthcoming some day or that in time the law could be invoked to gloss over the title. But Samuel, in hope of inducing some gullible purchaser to run the risk, had the Field carefully fenced and put signs upon it. For he needed the money, and needed it more as the years went by and John's invalidism turned into chronic laziness and incapacity for earning a livelihood. Everitt Adams moved away after a time and his successors who leased the Field were never satisfactory. There were taxes and assessments to be met, which grew all the time with the rising value of adjacent land, as well as lawyer's fees. The income from the small part of the Field now under cultivation was hardly adequate to meet these, and after a time this income ceased altogether and the Field became an absolute burden. For nobody seemed willing either to rent or buy the property.
Of course, the son John, if he had had the energy, might have followed old Adams's example and worked the Field for a time, until the gas and sewer mains had corrupted the soil and spoiled it for market gardening. But he preferred to rely upon his record as an old soldier and secured a small clerkship in the Alton Gas Company, and some years later obtained a pension. Of course, all this trouble with the Field supplied both him and his father with ample cause for grumbling. Samuel had never liked his brother Edward, who seemed almost spitefully to be turning this trick against him in his old age, and he handed on his grievance to John and his wife. The small, wooden house in Church Street contained a narrow, ungracious family life, it can be seen, of petty economies and few interests. No wonder that the Field—the one important family possession remaining—became the favorite topic of discussion and speculation. The city was growing fast, and Alton was already its most considerable suburb. The lines of modern life had crept up to within call of the old Field before the death of Samuel. So the old fellow was not indulging in much exaggeration when he bragged towards the end that he wouldn't take twenty-five thousand dollars for his property, although ten years earlier he had been eager to sell for five thousand dollars!
That twenty-five thousand dollars, however, was as far away as the five thousand, and the life in the Church Street house was more penurious and uncomfortable than it had ever been on the old farm, which had provided a coarse plenty for many generations. The Clarks were obviously running out, and when the old man died in 1882 he must have had the bitter consciousness that the family destiny had dwindled in his hands. From being prosperous and respected farmers, living on their own land in their ancestral square wooden house with its one enormous chimney, they were living in real poverty in a small house on a dusty side street off the noisy Square, which was not what it had once been as a place of residence. And they did not even own this Church Street house—merely clung to it from inertia and bad habit. The only thing they did own was Clark's Field, and Mrs. John sometimes thought it would be better if that had gone the way of the rest of the Clark farm, so insidious was its moral influence upon the men as well as costly in the way of outgo....
If a man's accomplishment in this life is to be reckoned by the substantial gains he has made on his father's estate and condition, old Samuel Clark had nothing to be proud of when he was borne to his grave in the new cemetery a mile south of Clark's Field. He had left nothing to his children but the Field, encumbered with the undivided and indivisible half interest belonging to his brother Edward Stanley, were he alive at this date, and to his heirs if he had any.
The possession of property of any kind gives a curious consciousness of dignity to the human being who is its owner, due very likely to the traditional estimate of the importance of all possessions, and to the mystical but generally erroneous belief that property is in some way an outward and visible proof of the worth or the ability of its possessor—or his forbears. Even the possession of a possibility such as Clark's Field—which was of no positive value to the Clarks, and indeed an increasing source of expense and anxiety to the impoverished family, as taxes rose in company with the rise of all values—conferred upon the Clarks some small consideration in Alton and made them feel the dignity and the tragedy of property ownership. John, who was nothing but a seedy, middle-aged clerk, none too careful of his appearance and uneasily aware of his failure, had ample excuse to himself for his shortcomings and willingness to live on a kind Government, because he had been hardly used by fate in the matter of his inheritance. As the property that might have been his was just beyond his reach, he had a small swagger of superiority in the gas office, and the tradition was well established there that he belonged to a family "land poor,"—the most genteel form of poverty if any form of poverty can be genteel. Even old farmer Samuel had tottered about the Square on his malacca stick and exchanged the time of day with the small merchants there, with a sense of his own importance as the owner of "a valuable piece of property" temporarily under legal disability.
As for the women of the family this sense of unrealized importance grew tenfold in their consciousness, because they had few opportunities of encountering reality in their narrow lives and because as women they were apt to dream of wealth, even of visionary wealth. It cannot be said that Clark's Field had much to do with John's marriage which had taken place in 'sixty-seven, because at that early date it was not considered a large expectation even by the Clarks. But John had a younger sister, Ada or "Addie" Clark as she was always known, and over Addie's destiny Clark's Field had a large and sinister influence as I shall presently show. At the time when her father finally abandoned his farm in favor of town life, Addie was a mere child, so young that she could forget the wholesome pictures of domestic farm industry that she must have shared. Or, if there lingered in the background of her memory a consciousness of her mother's butter-making, feeding the pigs, cooking for the occasional farm hands, washing and mending, and all the other common tasks of this laborious condition, she conveniently ignored it as women easily contrive to do. Her life was centered in the Church Street house where the Clarks had at first indulged in certain pretensions. Addie had gone to the Alton schools and there associated with the better class of children,—a doctor's daughter and a retired bank clerk's family being the more intimate of these. As a young girl she had a transparent complexion and a thin sort of American prettiness that unfortunately quickly faded, under the influences of the Church Street house, into a sallow commonplaceness. But Addie unlike the men of the family never wholly abandoned her aspirations and ambitions. She was very careful about the young men whom she "encouraged," and the families into whose houses she would enter. Thus she sacrificed her slim chances of matrimony on the altar of a visionary family pride. One of her high-school mates, the son of the prosperous liveryman in Alton, might have married her had he been more warmly met, and taken her with him to Detroit, where in time he became the well-to-do head of a large automobile manufactory. This was not the single instance of her family pride.
It is a fascinating subject to speculate what would have happened to Ada if she had had the moral vigor to shake herself loose from the hampering family traditions of riches to be, and struck out for an independent, wholesome life as women have been known to do under similar circumstances. But Alton, like most old towns, had strong class traditions that exercised an iron influence upon feminine destinies. It was, of course, hopeless for Ada, the daughter of a retired farmer who could not sell his farm, to come into close social contact with the local aristocracy, which consisted at this time of the Stearns and Frost relationship together with a few well-to-do merchants from B—— who had always lived in Alton and owned those large semi-suburban estates in its environs. But at least she could jealously guard herself from falling into the mire of the commoner sort of small shopkeepers who were pressing into the Square. The end was that Addie fast became what was then called, without any circumlocution, an "old maid," and an uninteresting one, whose days were occupied by church and gossip, and who went over and over the threadbare family tradition. Old Mrs. Clark, her mother, was a realist and never forgot the farm days. She was enough of a woman to regret sincerely the fatal mistake that the family had made in trying to become something other than their destiny had fitted them to be. She was a thorn in the sentimental flesh of Addie, whose thoughts preferred to play with the dignities and ease that would be hers when the Field had been sold. Addie dressed herself as finely as she could on Sundays and in the afternoons would walk down the South Road past the abandoned Field and remark to a friend upon the family property and the misfortune that kept them all down in the depths of poverty. As the years went on and the price of real estate advanced, her tale sounded less ridiculous than it might. But it was a bloodless sort of consolation even for Addie, and all her friends knew the story by heart and listened to it merely with kind indulgence. "A bird in the hand," etc., is a proverb peculiarly to the liking of Yankees. They do not take much interest in Peruvian mines or other forms of non-negotiable wealth unless they see a chance to work them off on a more credulous public. As for old Mrs. Clark, when she became tied to her chair, she was bitter on the topic. "That dratted old Field!" she would say with the brutal directness of the realist; "your father would have sold the whole of it for five thousand dollars and been thankful!"—a fact that seemed to her children of no importance.
When the old woman was laid away in Woodlawn beside her husband, Addie could give free rein to her fancies, untroubled by the darts of the realist. But the family fortunes soon became most desperate. Fortunately John had no children, his one small son having died as a baby. His wife, who had perhaps become tired of the family fortune as it never quite realized itself, tried to prod her shiftless husband into a greater activity. But except for the getting of the pension, which was put through in 1885, John added little to the family purse, and before his mother's death lost his position in the gas office, a new administration of the company holding that a municipal utility was not an asylum for old soldiers. The trouble was, as Mrs. John knew, and as Ada always refused to recognize, John drank. At first it was a convivial weakness indulged in only at the reunions of old veterans,—John was a most ardent "Vet,"—but it became a habit that took away his little usefulness for anything. So now the family for steady income was reduced to the pension, which was only twenty-two dollars a month. Clearly something had to be done. Mrs. John took in lodgers in the Church Street house, a clerk or two from the neighboring shops. And Addie finally brought herself to learn the manipulation of the typewriter, which was fast becoming a woman's profession, and found a position in a large store in the city.
It would seem that the Clark fortunes had reached their lowest ebb: family extinction was all that now remained for them. The Church Street house rested solely, save for the small pension, on the exertions of two ineffective women. It could just get on as it was, and if the family life had never been a bright and cheerful one, it was now drearier than ever. Then Addie married. She was nearly if not quite forty years old, and neither her brother nor sister-in-law expected such an event. She was sallow, thin, and rather querulous in temperament. Very likely Addie felt that marriage could not make her lot worse, and as middle-age threatened, she accepted the defeat of her ambitions and in the spirit of better-late-than-never struck out for herself in the race for personal happiness, throwing over the burden of Clark's Field.
At any rate, she was married to William Scarp, a fellow-clerk in Minot Brothers—wholesale wool. Addie represented that Mr. Scarp was of excellent Southern blood from somewhere in North Carolina. It is needless to enter into that nebulous question. He was earning thirty dollars a week with Minot Brothers when they became engaged and was a few years younger than his bride. The firm gave him a five-dollar increase of salary on his marriage, old Savage remarking facetiously that he believed in rewarding courage. The couple went to live in the city, and for a year or two they moved nomadically from one boarding-house or cheap hotel to another. It may be presumed that Addie, without any clear idea of deceiving, had misled William Scarp in the matter of Clark's Field—her fixed delusion. The Field made this marriage, and it was not a happy one. The John Clarks, who still hung on in the Church Street house with an additional roomer, soon began to suspect that Addie was not wholly happy in her married life. William had a quick temper and was very plain-spoken about the "job" that Addie had "put over him" in the matter of the Clark property, though in fact she had exercised no more mendacity than women of forty in her position are wont to do. At one time shortly after the marriage Scarp had an "understanding" with John Clark about the family estate. When he learned that the Field could not be sold in the present state of its title and that such leases as had been made of it to meet taxes and other obligations tied it up until the opening of the next century, he expressed himself abusively. Later he suggested that a "syndicate" should be formed to employ lawyers to straighten out the title and dispose of the property piecemeal as the leases fell in. It seemed a brilliant plan, quite modern in its sound, but alas! William, no more than John, could finance the "syndicate." So the suggestion lapsed, and the Scarps worried along on William's salary for a time, and then moved to Philadelphia. What Addie's experiences were there, or in Cincinnati and Indianapolis, to which cities they also wandered, I have no means of knowing, nor did the John Clarks hear from her, except for a rare penciled postcard. The Clarks, as may be observed, were no great letter-writers.
All is that one day in November of 1889, Addie arrived at the Church Street house with a forlorn parcel of a little girl and a bedraggled bag that contained her entire worldly possessions. She was ill and old. She would say little about her husband, but later it came out in the newspapers that William Scarp had been convicted of forgery and sent to prison in Indiana (where he died soon after of consumption contracted in prison). Addie had come back to the only human refuge she knew. She was too ill and too beaten by life to work. She sat around in the Church Street house dumbly for nearly a year, then died, leaving the forlorn, pale little girl to her brother and sister-in-law as a legacy. This child she had named Adelle, thus proving the persistence of her fancy even in her forlornest hours. Ada or Addie was too common for the last of the Clarks. She should at least have something poetic for name. For who could say? She might some day become an heiress and shine in that social firmament so much desired by her mother. In that event she should not be handicapped by a vulgar name. As Addie had resumed her maiden name after Scarp had been sent to prison, the little girl was destined to grow up as Adelle Clark,—the last member of the Alton branch of the Clarks, ultimate heiress to Clark's Field, should there be anything of it left to inherit when the law let go.
The silent little girl, who played about the lodgers' rooms in the dingy Church Street house, was of course unaware of the weight of expectation hanging to her. She was almost abnormally silent, perhaps because of her depressing prenatal experiences as well as the forlorn environment of the rooming-house,—perhaps because of physical and spiritual anaemia. "She's a puny mite of a child," Mrs. John Clark said complainingly, unpromising like everything Clark; nevertheless, the last of the sturdy yeoman stock of Clarks.
That "weight of expectation" hanging to the little girl was not quite as fantastic as might seem. It must be remembered that old Samuel before his death, in pressing need of ready money to finance some foolish venture of his son, had leased a good part of Clark's Field to some speculative builders, who had covered that portion of the old pasture that bordered the South Road with a leprous growth of cheap stores, which brought in a fair return. The leases ran up to the new century. Just why this precise term for the gambling venture had been chosen probably only the lawyers who made the arrangement could say. Possibly old Samuel had superstitious reasons for not pledging the family expectation beyond the present century. He may have thought that the turn of the century would bring about some profound change in the customs and habits of society that the family could take advantage of. At any rate, so it was. And it was not many years now to the close of the century when Clark's Field would be released to its original owners with all its shabby encumbrances.
The field had gained enormously in value and importance in men's eyes these last years. The city of B—— had eaten far into the country, creating prosperous appendages in the way of modern suburbs for twenty miles and more from Alton, and there was much talk of its annexing the old town to itself, which it accomplished not long after. Those were the days of the "greater" everything, the worship of size. Alton in fact was now a city itself of no mean size, and the shallow stream of water that nominally divided it from B—— was a mere boundary line. As men had multiplied upon this spot of earth, needing land for dwelling and business, envious eyes had been cast upon the Field, the last large "undeveloped" tract anywhere near the great city. Men who were skillful in such real estate "deals," greedy and ingenious in the various ways of turning civic growth to private profit, were figuring upon the possibility of getting hold of Clark's Field, when the short leases expired, and after making the necessary "improvements" cutting it up for sale. They saw fat profits in the transaction. Men needed it for their lives; the community needed it for its growing corporate life. And yet it was "tied up" with a legal disability—left largely useless and waste. It looked as if when the legal spell was finally broken, as it must be, and the land so long unprofitable and idle should be apportioned to these human needs, it would be neither the Clarks nor the community that would derive benefit from it,—certainly not the people who would live upon it,—but some gang of skillful speculators, who knew the precise moment to take advantage of the mechanism of the law and the more uncertain mechanism of human nature so as to obtain for a small amount what they could sell to others for much. The crisis in the history of Clark's Field seemed approaching.
It was time. The fence of high white palings that Samuel had jealously maintained about his old field had long since completely disappeared. Latterly the neighbors crisscrossed the vacant portions of the Field with short cuts and contractors either dumped refuse upon it or burrowed into it for gravel. The sod had long since been stripped from every foot of its surface. In a word, it was treated as no man's land, so low had the Clark family sunk in the world. And it was covered with a cloud of invisible disabilities, further than the original difficulty created by Edward S. in not leaving an address behind him. There were liens against it by the city for improvements in the way of gas and sewer and water pipes, and for taxes, as well as first, second, and third mortgages of a dubious character that John in extremity had been forced to put upon the Field in order to "carry" his expectation. Under this burden of invisible lien as well as outward degradation Clark's Field had struggled until 1898, and the ultimate doom was not far off. John thought so and struggled less to preserve his inheritance. What he owned of the Field was a diminishing fraction, long since negligible, were it not for the marvelous increase in all real-estate values, due to the growth of population in these parts and the activity of the country. It was rumored about the Square that Clark's Field would shortly be sold for taxes, and a tax title, poor as that is, would probably be the best title that could ever be got for the Field. Capitalists and their lawyers were already figuring on that basis for the distribution of the property....
But before we concern ourselves in the plot of these greedy exploiters, it would be well to go back for a time to the dingy Church Street house and the pale little Adelle, who was now in her twelfth year. Her ancestors, certainly, had done little for her physical being. She was a plain, small child, with not enough active blood in her apparently to make a vivid life under any circumstances. She was meek and self-effacing,—two excellent virtues for certain spheres, but not for a poor child in America at the opening of the new century! Her earliest impressions of life must have been the dusty stairs and torn stair carpet of her aunt's house, defaced under the dirty feet of many transient "roomers," and next her aunt herself, a silent, morose woman over fifty, who accepted life as nearly in the stoic spirit as her education permitted. Mrs. John Clark had none of Addie's cheap pretentions, fortunately: she was obviously the poor woman with a worthless husband, who kept cheap lodgings for a livelihood. She was kind enough to the little girl as such people have the time and the energy to be kind. She could not give her much thought, and as soon as Adelle was old enough to handle a broom or make beds she had to help in the endless housework. At eight she was sent to school, however, to the public school close by in the rear of the livery-stable, where she learned what American children are supposed to learn in the grade schools. At twelve she was a small, undersized, poorly dressed, white-faced little girl, so little distinctive in any way that probably hundreds exactly like her could be picked from the public schools of any American city. If this story were a mere matter of fiction, we should be obliged to endow Adelle with some marks of exceptionality of person, or mind, or soul,—evident to the discerning reader even in her childhood. She would already possess the rudiments of an individuality under her Cinderella outside,—some poetic quality of day-dreaming or laughing or sketching. But this is a plain chronicle of very plain people as they actually found themselves in life, and it is not necessary to embellish the truth so that it may please any reader's sensibilities or ideals. Adelle Clark was a wholly ordinary, dumb little creature, neither passionate nor spiritual. She laughed less than children of her age because there was not much in her experience to laugh about. She talked less—much less—than other little girls, because the Church Street house was not a place to encourage conversation. She liked her aunt rather better than her uncle, who was an untidy, not to say smelly, person, who sat dozing in the kitchen much of the time, a few strands of long gray hair vainly trying to cover the baldness of a blotchy head. His principal occupation these latter years was being a "Vet." He was a faithful attendant at all "post nights," "camp-fires," and veteran "reunions," and when in funds visited neighboring posts where he had friends. On his return from these festivities he was smellier and stupider than ever,—that was all his small niece realized. He never did any work, so far as she was aware, but as his wife had accepted the fact and no longer discussed it in public, the little girl did not think much about his idleness. That might be the man-habit generally.
Adelle was in her thirteenth year and in the last grade of her school when she first began to notice the presence of some strangers in the Church Street house. She was not an observant child, and there was such a succession of "roomers" in the house that a stranger's face aroused little curiosity. But these men were better dressed than any roomers and talked in tones of authority and conscious position. They held long conversations with her uncle and aunt in the dining-room behind closed doors, and once she saw a bundle of papers spread out upon the table. These days her uncle and aunt talked much about titles, mortgages, deeds, and other matters she did not understand nor ask about. But she felt that something important was astir in the Church Street house, as a child realizes vaguely such movements outside its own sphere. Once one of the men, who was putting on his silk hat in the hall and preparing to leave the house, inquired, "Is that the girl?" To which question her uncle and aunt answered briefly, "Yes." The tone of the stranger was exactly as if he had asked, "Is that the bundle of clothes we were talking about?"
Something was afoot of momentous importance to Adelle, as we shall shortly discover. Fate once more in the person of a feeble Clark was about to play her an unkind trick. For John, reduced to complete incompetence by his life and his habit of drink, pestered by the accumulating claims upon Clark's Field, had consented to an "arrangement" that certain capitalists had presented to him through their lawyers. They had urged him to sell to them all the remaining equity that he held in the property, giving a quitclaim deed for himself and his wife and for Adelle, whose legal guardian he was. The purchasers would assume all the liabilities of the encumbered Field, the risk of title, and for this complete surrender of the family interest in Clark's Field, John Clark was to receive the sum of twenty-five thousand dollars all told in cash. It was five times what his father had been anxious to get for the same property, as the lawyers pointed out, when John in the beginning talked large about the great possibilities of his Field. It was true, so they said, that the property had increased in value in the last twenty years, but so had the encumbrances increased, and there was always the danger of expensive litigation and loss due to the cloudy title, even after the lapse of fifty years since the disappearance of Edward S. They could not see their way to offering another dollar for the dubious gamble before them, so they said. And for this twenty-five thousand dollars in ready money, all the family expectations were to be cashed in, all the hopes of Samuel, the pretensions of Addie, the desires and needs of John and his wife, not to mention the future of the small Adelle. John hesitated....
In the end he was convinced, or his desire for some ready money overcame his scruples. His wife, who was perhaps agreeably surprised to find that the Clark expectations had any cash value, counseled him to accept the offered terms. No doubt, she admitted, the lawyers were probably doing them; that was the way of lawyers. But they had no money to spend on other lawyers to find a better bargain or to engage in the speculation upon the Field themselves. As for hanging on to Clark's Field, the family had had enough of that. "A bird in the hand," etc. So the numerous papers were drawn and John even touched a small advance payment. Adelle remembered the discussions—not to say quarrels—between her uncle and aunt over the use to which they should put the Clark fortune when it should finally be theirs. John was for moving away from Alton altogether, which was not what it had been once for residence he said. He talked of going into the country and buying a farm. His wife, who remembered how he had scorned to work the old Clark farm when it was a paying possibility, smiled grimly at his talk. She wanted to take a larger house in the neighborhood, furnish it better, and bid for a higher class of roomers. Hers was, of course, the more sensible plan. They were still discussing their plans, and the lawyers were taking their time about preparing the interminable series of legal papers that seemed necessary when the great Grand Army Encampment of 1900 came off in Chicago. John, who had been obliged latterly to forego these annual sprees, resolved to attend the reunion of his old comrades and "to go in style." For this purpose he obtained a small sum from the prospective purchasers of Clark's Field, who were only too ready to get him further committed to their bargain by a payment down and a receipt on account,—on condition, of course, that he sign an agreement to sell the property when the necessary formalities could be satisfied. So he signed with an easy flourish the simple agreement presented to him, pocketed two hundred dollars, and bought a new suit of clothes with a black-felt veteran's hat, the first he had had in many years. When Adelle watched him strut down Church Street on the way to the train one hot July morning, splendid in his new uniform with his white gloves and short sword under his arm, she did not know that she herself had contributed to this piece of self-indulgence her last right to a share in the Clark possession,—her one inheritance of any value from her mother. Very possibly she would not have said anything had she known all the facts, had she been old enough to realize the significance of that signature her uncle had given the lawyers a few days before. Probably she would have accepted this act of fate as meekly as she had all else in her short life. For it must be clearly understood that the signature was irrevocable. No change of mind, no sober second thought coming into John's cloudy mind, would be of any use. A contract of sale is as binding under such circumstances as the deed itself.
Adelle felt an unconscious relief in the absence of her uncle from the house. There was an end to the disputes about the money, and his unpleasant person no longer occupied the best chair in the kitchen. Her aunt also seemed to be more cheerful than was her wont. It was the slack season in the rooming business, and so the two had some spare time on their hands in the long summer days and could dawdle about, an unusual luxury. They even went to walk in the afternoons. Her aunt took Adelle to see Clark's Field,—a forlorn expanse of empty land with a fringe of flimsy one-story shops along its edge that did not attract the child. She never remembered, naturally, what her aunt told her about the Field, but she must have learned something of its story because she always had in her mind a sense of the importance of this waste and desolate city field. In her childish way she got a vague notion of some great wrong that had been done about the land so that her uncle was smelly and stupid and her aunt had to take in more roomers than she liked. That was as close to the facts as she could get then—as close, it may be said, as many people ever get.... Then they went to look at houses, a more interesting occupation to the child. Her aunt seemed much concerned in the comparative size and location and number of rooms of different houses and this Adelle could understand. The family was going to move sometime from the Church Street house.... In these simple ways the two passed a quiet vacation of ten days. Then came a telegram, and three days later arrived the remains of Veteran John Clark, accompanied by members of the local G. A. R. post who had brought back the body of their dead comrade. John Clark had kept his boasting word to his wife that "this time he would show the boys a good time and prove to 'em that his talk about his property wasn't all hot air!" He had in truth shown himself such a good time that he could not stand a spell of excessively hot weather, to which he succumbed like a sapped reed. A very considerable funeral was arranged and conducted by the members of G. A. R. Post Number I of Alton, to which John Clark had belonged. There was a military band and the post colors, and a number of oldish men in blue uniforms trailed behind the hearse all the way to the cemetery where the veteran was laid away in the lot with his mother and father. Little Adelle, riding in the first carriage with her aunt, observed all this military display over the dead veteran, and concluded that she had done her uncle an injustice during his life. It seemed that he was really a much more important person than she had supposed him to be. This burial was the last benefit poor John Clark received from a grateful country for that spurt of patriotism or willfulness that had led him to run away from the Clark farm to the war forty years before.
And here really concludes the history of the Clarks in the story of Clark's Field. For Adelle, upon whom the burden of the inheritance was to fall, was only half a Clark at the most, and had largely escaped the deadly tradition of family expectations under which Addie had been blighted; while her aunt, of course, had no Clark blood in her veins and had been cured of the Clark habit of expecting.
It may easily be imagined that the veteran's untimely death at the Grand Army Reunion caused more uneasiness in certain other quarters than it did in the Church Street house, where John's going had its mitigations. The lawyers who had arranged the purchase of the Clark interest in the great Field did not really fear that their plans for the cheap capture of the property would ultimately miscarry. But John's death must cause further delay, which might possibly be improved by other interested speculators. And so the legal representatives of the capitalists concerned in the "deal" constituted themselves at once friends and advisers of the widow. They assured her that a mere formality must be satisfied before she could actually touch her husband's estate, and promised to attend to the legal matters without expense to her, it being understood, of course, that whenever the law allowed she should carry out her husband's agreement to sell the Clark interest in the Field. They even went so far as to offer further small advances to the widow if she found herself in immediate need. But this the widow resolutely refused. She was becoming a little suspicious of so much thoughtful kindliness from these lawyers, whom after the prejudice of her sort she was wont to regard as human harpies. She had her widow's pension and her roomers, and her expenses would be considerably lessened by the death of the incompetent veteran, who would no longer be begging money for his "reunions."
There was, of course, Adelle. Her uncle had been her legal guardian and as such had intended to sell her interest in the Field for a pittance. The lawyers assumed that her aunt would be appointed by the probate court to the empty honor of guardianship. Otherwise they regarded her, as everybody always did, as entirely negligible. And she so regarded herself. The lawyers were prompt in having the guardianship question brought up in the probate court for settlement first. It was introduced there as a motion early in the fall term of court, the papers being presented to the judge by the junior member of the distinguished firm of B—— lawyers, Bright, Seagrove, and Bright. Any other judge, probably, would have scribbled his initials then and there upon the printed application for guardianship,—the affair being in charge of such eminent counsel,—and there must have been an end altogether to Adelle's expectations and of this story. That was what the lawyers naturally expected. But this judge, after a hasty glance or two at the application, took the matter under advisement.
"Of course the old boy had to sleep upon it!" young Bright reported to the senior members of the firm. The lawyers of B—— were accustomed to make fun of Judge Orcutt or grumble about his ways of doing things. He was certainly different from the ordinary run of probate judges or of all judges for that matter. The smart law firms that had dealings with him professed to consider him a poor lawyer, but everybody knows that eminent lawyers usually have a poor opinion of the ability of judges. They reason that if the judges had their ability, they would not be poorly paid judges, but holding out their baskets for the fat fruit falling abundantly from the corporation trees.
It should be said that the law was not Judge Orcutt's first love: probably was not his supreme mistress at any time. Perhaps for that very reason he made a better probate judge—a more human judge—than any of the smart lawyers could have made. The little gray-haired judge was a poet, and not an unpublished poet. I will not stop to pass judgment on those thin volumes of verse, elegantly printed and bound, that from time to time appeared in the welter of modern literature with the judge's name. The judge was fonder of them, no doubt, and perhaps prouder of them than Bright, Seagrove, and Bright are of their large retainers. And I believe that the published volumes of verse, and the unprinted ones within his heart and brain, made Judge Orcutt an altogether sounder judge than if he had mused in his idle hours upon the law or upon corporation fees. He was one of those rare judges, who even after twenty years of forms—motions and pleas and precedents—could never wholly forget the individual human being behind the legal form.
And so in this trivial matter of appointing a guardian for a poor girl, the probate judge could not ignore Adelle in the mass of legal verbiage through which such things are done. Who was this Adelle Clark? and what sort of person was this aunt who seemed willing and anxious to assume the legal and moral guardianship of the minor? An aunt by marriage only, wasn't it? Yes, by marriage he assured himself after consulting again the stiff paper form that the lawyers had properly filled out; and he gave one of those funny little quirks to his eye which he did when not wholly satisfied with a "proposition" presented to him. And here was the characteristic difference between Judge Orcutt and any other probate judge. He speculated—maybe for only the better part of ten seconds—but he speculated upon the entity of the small human being that had fallen within the bounds of his court. Was it really for this little girl's best good to let this aunt by marriage take charge of her? Did any hocus-pocus contriving, with which he had become only too familiar, lie beneath this innocent application?
Probably at this point the poet judge would have dismissed the matter from speculation and signed the papers as he usually did, very much, after all, like any other judge, with an additional sigh because he could never really discover all the necessary facts. But another observation held his pen. The paper had been brought to him by young Bright, of Bright, Seagrove, and Bright—a notable firm of lawyers, but not one famous for their charitable practice. Why should Bright, Seagrove, and Bright interest themselves in procuring the guardianship of a poor girl? Ah, it is to be feared that this is where the eminent counsel "fell down" badly, as young Bright said. They should have sent an office boy with the papers or let the aunt go there alone to see the judge! For Judge Orcutt, after another moment of frowning meditation, threw the document into that basket which contained papers for further consideration. Had the girl expectations of property? He would inquire, at least have the girl and her aunt into his court and get a good look at them before performing his routine function of initialing the legal form. Poet that he was, he prided himself much on his powers of penetration into human motives, when he had his subject before him....
For this reason Adelle and her aunt were notified that they should appear before His Honor. The lawyers told Mrs. Clark that the visit to the probate court was a mere formality,—meant nothing at all. But under their breaths they cursed Judge Orcutt for a meddlesome old nuisance, which would not have worried him. Adelle and her aunt, got up in their best mourning, accordingly appeared before the probate judge, who at the moment was hearing a case of non-support. So they waited in the dim, empty courtroom, while the judge, ignoring their presence, went on with the question of whether John Thums could pay his wife three dollars a week or only two-fifty. At last he settled it at three dollars and beckoned to Mrs. Clark and the little girl to come forward and courteously inquired their business. Ignoring the officious young lawyer, who was there and tried to shuffle the matter through, Judge Orcutt asked both Adelle and her aunt all sorts of questions that did not always seem to the point. He appeared to be curious about the family history. Mr. Bright fumed. However, it was all going well enough until Mrs. John blurted out something about the girl's share of the money that was coming to them. At the word "money" the judge pricked up his ears. In his court certainly money was the root of much evil as well as of pain. What money? Was the little girl an heiress? From the blundering lips of honest Mrs. Clark the story tumbled out, under the judge's expert questioning, exactly as it was. At the conclusion, with one significant scowl at the uncomfortable Mr. Bright, the judge gathered to himself all the papers, saying that he should give the matter further consideration and disappeared into his private chamber. The two Clarks returned to Alton much mystified.
Young Mr. Bright remarked to his superiors, on his return to the office, that he thought "there will be the devil to pay!" And there was. Of this the little girl and her aunt knew nothing except that another legal difficulty had been discovered and that the lawyers did not seem as genial and happy as they had before. Thus a week slipped past, and then they were again summoned to the probate court and taken into the judge's private chamber behind the courtroom.
A good deal had happened in a quiet way during these seven days that had much influence upon the fate of Clark's Field and of Adelle Clark. Up to this time Judge Orcutt had never heard of Clark's Field or of the Clarks. He lived on the other side of B——, in the country, and was not much of a gossip. But he had ways of finding out about what was going on when he wanted to. A word lightly cast forth at the club table where he always lunched, and he could get a clue to almost anything of current interest. And that noon, after he had first seen Mrs. Clark and her niece, my friend Edsall happened to be at the judge's table. Orcutt asked him what he knew about the Clark property in Alton. Edsall happened to know almost all of importance that has been told here and more. He knew of the movement on foot to develop the property, so long held in idleness, but he did not know who were the persons interested. He could find out. He did so, and within the week he had given the probate judge the outline of as pretty a story of cheap knavishness as the judge had come across for years.
"No one can say what the property is worth now," Edsall reported, "but it must be millions."
"Millions!" the judge growled. "And they're trying to get it from an old woman and a girl for twenty-five thousand dollars."
"A plain steal," the real estate man remarked.
"Sculduggery—I smelt it!" laughed the judge.
One of the first results of this was that Mr. Osmond Bright, senior member of Bright, Seagrove, and Bright, was invited to call upon Judge Orcutt in his chambers, and there received probably the worst lecture this eminent corporation lawyer ever took from any man. He blustered, of course, and defended his clients on the ground that they were taking a great risk with the title, which was unsound, etc., etc. The poet judge dealt him a savage look and curtly advised him to withdraw at once from the position of counsel to the men involved in this shady transaction; at least never to appear in his court in the guardianship case. (It may be said here that the firm did withdraw from the case, as there was, in their words, "nothing doing." But not much was accomplished, for another equally eminent and unscrupulous firm of lawyers was employed the next day and went to work in a more devious manner to get hold of the Field.)
Next the judge devoted half an hour to meditation over the fate of Adelle Clark, more time than any one in her whole career hitherto had given to consideration of her. It was clear enough to him that Mrs. John Clark, honest woman though she appeared to be, could not cope with the situation that must present itself. Nor, of course, could the girl. The nefarious agreement to sell out all the Clark equity in the Field which John Clark had executed prior to his departure for the Grand Army Reunion, and which Judge Orcutt had forced the elder Bright to produce, was evidence enough that the little girl needed some strong defender if she were not to be fleeced utterly of her property. For she was heir now to nearly three fourths of what the Clark estate might bring, and her aunt to the remaining portion—so said the law. But who could be found, modern knight, honest and disinterested and able enough to take upon his shoulders the difficult defense of the girl's rights?
Judge Orcutt had not been greatly impressed by the appearance of the girl. She was nearly fourteen now, and seemed to the discriminating taste of the judge to be a quite ordinary young girl with a rather common aunt. Nevertheless that must not enter into the question: she had her rights just as much as if she had been all that his poet's heart might desire a young girl to be! Rights—a curious term over which the judge often stumbled. Had she any more real right to the property than the sharks who were trying to steal it from her? Who had any right to this abandoned field that for fifty years had been waiting for an absent heir to announce himself? Did it really belong to the Public? When he got thus far in his speculation, the judge always pulled himself up with a start. That wasn't his business. He was bound to administer the antiquated and curious system of laws concerning the bequest of property with a serious sense of their sacredness whether he felt it or not. They seemed to be an essential part of the crazy structure of society that must not be questioned, least of all by a probate judge! If men had devised these unreal rules and absurd regulations, probably there was some divine necessity for them beyond his human insight. Judge Orcutt never got farther than this point in his speculations. With a sigh he dropped the Clark case, and the next morning sent for the two women to appear in his court.
It did not take him long this time to discover that they were singularly without good friends or advisers. They had no known relatives, no one who could be expected to take a friendly interest in their affairs and trusted to manage the business wisely. In earlier days Judge Orcutt would have tried to find, in such a case, some able and scrupulous young lawyer to perform the necessary function, somebody like himself who would have a chivalrous regard for the defenseless condition of the two women. Either that breed of lawyers had run out, or the judge was becoming less confiding. For latterly, since the introduction of trust companies, he had more than once put such cases in charge of these impersonal agents. Trust companies were specially designed to meet two pressing human wants,—permanence and honesty. They might not always be efficient, for they were under such strict legal supervision that they must always take the timid course, and they charged highly for their services. But they could not very well be dishonest, nor die! They would go on forever, at least as long as there was the institution of private property and an intricate code of laws to safeguard it. Thus the judge argued to himself again in considering the plight of these Clarks, and decided to use the Washington Trust Company of B——, whose officers he knew....
After explaining all this in simple terms to Mrs. Clark, he proposed to her that her niece's interest in the Clark estate should be placed in the hands of the trust company rather than hers, if they would accept such an involved guardianship as Adelle Clark's promised to be.
"You know, my good woman," he said in conclusion, "you must be careful in this matter." (The judge's manner towards "ordinary people" was aristocratically condescending, and he considered the rooming-house keeper very ordinary.) "Of course, you understand that I—that this court—has no control whatever over your acts. You can if you like carry out your husband's intention and convey to these parties all your interest in his estate. But I cannot permit you to jeopardize the interests of this minor, who is a ward of my court, by conveying her share of the estate to them on any such terms as they propose."
"I'm sure," Mrs. John Clark mumbled in an aggrieved tone, "I had no idea of doing any harm to the girl."
"No, of course not, my good woman. But you don't understand. As I have told you, it looks as if there might be some money, considerable money, coming to you and to her from this land when the title is straightened out, and you don't want to do anything foolish now."
"I s'pose not," Mrs. Clark assented, somewhat dubiously. The "good woman" had heard of this bonanza to come from Clark's Field when the title was made right for so many years that she was humanly anxious to touch a tangible profit at once. But she knew only too well that her husband was a poor business man and probably the judge was right in telling her not to sell the Field yet. The probate judge seemed to take a good deal of interest in them for a gentleman of his importance. So she listened respectfully to what he went on to say.
"You can do whatever you like, as I said. But if you should decide to dispose of your husband's estate as he intended, your niece's representative might be forced to oppose you, which would add another bad complication to the legal troubles of Clark's Field, and necessarily defer the time when either of you could sell the land or derive an adequate return from it."
He paused after this polite threat, to let the idea sink in.
"I'm sure she and me don't want to fight," Mrs. Clark quickly replied with a touch of humor, and the first expression that the judge had seen upon the little girl's mute face appeared. A smile touched her lips, flickered and went out. She sat stiffly beside her aunt in the judge's great leather chair,—a pale, badly dressed little mouse of a girl, who did not seem to understand the conversation.
"Well, then, I take it you will be guided in your actions about your estate by the advice of your niece's guardian, whom I shall appoint."
He explained to them what a trust company was, and said that he hoped to get the Washington Trust Company to undertake the guardianship of the little girl. Then he dismissed them, appointing another meeting a week hence when they were to return for final settlement of the matter. So they left the judge's chambers. The girl neither dropped a curtesy, as the judge would have thought suitable, nor gave him another smile, nor even opened her lips. She faded out of his chambers after her black aunt like a pale winter shadow.
The judge thought she showed a deplorable lack of breeding. He was conscious that he had probably saved a fortune for the girl by all the pains he was taking in this matter and felt that at least common politeness was his due. But one was never paid for these things except by a sense of duty generously performed. What was duty? And off the judge went into another thorny speculation that would have made Bright, Seagrove, and Bright laugh, and they were not inclined to laugh either at or with Judge Orcutt these days. For in the words of the junior member, this old maid of a probate judge had cut them out of the fattest little piece of graft the office had seen in a twelvemonth! If judges had been elective in the good old Commonwealth of M——, Judge Orcutt's chances of reelection would have been slim, for Bright, Seagrove, and Bright had strange underground connections with the politicians then governing the city. Perhaps the poet in the judge would have rejoiced at such a misadventure and profited thereby. As it was, whenever Bright, Seagrove, and Bright had business in the probate court, which was not often, they got other lawyers to represent them. Even "eminent counsel" shrink from appearing before a judge who knows their real character.
Adelle was not really unresponsive to the judge's kindness. She liked the polite old gentleman,—old to fourteen because of the grizzled mustache,—and was for her deeply impressed by her visits to the probate judge's chambers. It was the first real event in her pale life, that and her uncle's funeral, which seemed closely related. They made the date from which she could reckon herself a person. What impressed her more than the austere dignity of the judge's private rooms, with their prints of famous personages, lined bookcases, and rich furniture, was Judge Orcutt himself. He was the first gentleman she had ever met in any real sense of the word. And Judge Orcutt was very much of a gentleman in almost every sense of the word. He came from an old Puritan family, as American families are reckoned, which had had its worthies for a young man to respect, and its traditions, not of wealth but of culture and breeding, kindly humanity, and an interest in life and letters. Something of this aristocratic inheritance could be felt in his manners by the two women who were not of his social class and who were treated with an even greater consideration than if they had been. Adelle liked also his sober gray suit with the very white linen and black tie, which he wore like a man who cares more for the cleanliness and propriety of his person than for fashion. All this and the modulated tones of his cultivated voice had made a lively impression upon the dumb little girl. She would have done anything in the world to please the judge, even defying her aunt if that had been necessary. And she had always stood in a healthy awe of her vigorous, outspoken aunt.
The first occasion when Adelle had an opinion all her own and announced it publicly and unasked was due to the judge. Of course the question of guardianship was much discussed in their very limited circle. Joseph Lovejoy, the manager of Pike's Livery at the corner of Church Street,—the Pike whose son Addie Clark had disdained,—was the oldest and most important of the "roomers." Mr. Lovejoy was of the opinion that trust companies were risky inventions that might some day disappear in smoke. He advised the perplexed widow to "hire a smart lawyer" to look out for her business interests. What did an old probate judge know about real estate? This was the occasion on which Adelle made her one contribution: she thought that "Judge Orcutt must be wiser than any lawyer because he was a judge." A silly answer as the liveryman said, yet surprising to her aunt. And she added—"He's a gentleman, too," though how the little girl discovered it is inexplicable.
The news of the prospective importance of Clark's Field had quickly spread through Church Street and the Square, where the widow's credit much improved. Something really seemed about to happen of consequence to the old Field and the modest remnants of the Clark family. Emissaries from the routed speculators came to see the widow. It dribbled down from the magnates of the local bank, the River National, by way of the cashier to the chief clerk, that the widow Clark might easily get herself into trouble and lose her property if she took everybody's advice. It should be said that the River National Bank disliked these rich upstart trust companies; also that the capitalists who had laid envious eyes on the Field were associated with the local bank, which expected to derive profit from this deal,-the largest that Alton had ever known even during the boom years at the turn of the century.
What wonder, then, that the widow Clark, who was a sensible enough woman in the matter of roomers and household management and knew a bum from a modest paying laboring man as well as any one in the profession, was perplexed in the present situation as to the course of true wisdom? Incredible as it may seem, it was Adelle who during this time of doubt gave her aunt strength to resist much bad advice. Her influence was, as might be expected, merely negative. For after that single deliverance of opinion she made no comment on all the discussion and advice. She seemed to consider the question settled already: it was this tacit method of treating the guardianship as an accomplished fact that really influenced her troubled aunt. When a certain point of household routine came up between them, Adelle observed that, as they should not be at home on Thursday morning, the thing would have to go over till the following day. Thursday was the day of their appointment with the probate judge. Mrs. Clark, of course, had not forgotten this important fact, but not having yet made up her distracted mind she had purposely ignored the appointment to see what her niece would say. Thus Adelle quietly settled the point: they were to keep the appointment with the judge. Another faint occasion of displaying will came to her, so faint that it would seem hardly worth mentioning except that a faithful historian must present every possible manifestation of character on the part of this colorless heroine.
It occurred when they saw the judge on Thursday. The probate judge, who was busy with another case on their arrival, did not invite them into his private room as on former occasions, but merely shoved across his bench a card on which he had written a name and an address.
"It's all arranged," he said to Mrs. Clark. "Just go over to the Washington Trust Company and ask for Mr. Gardiner. He will take care of you," and he smiled pleasantly in dismissal.
The widow was much put out by this summary way of dealing, for she had intended to pour out to the judge her doubts, though she probably knew that in the end she should follow his advice. She hesitated in the corridor of the court-house, saying something about not being in any hurry to go to the Washington Trust Company. She had not fully made up her mind, etc. But Adelle, as if she had not heard her aunt's objections, set off down the street in the direction of the trust company's handsome building. Her aunt followed her. The matter was thus settled.
Adelle had also felt disappointed at their brief interview; not bitterly disappointed because she never felt bitterly about anything, but consciously sorry to have missed the expected conference in the judge's private chamber. She might never see him again! As a matter of fact, although the probate court necessarily had much to do with her fate in the settlement of the involved estate, it was not for seven years that she had another chance of seeing the judge in chambers, and that, as we shall discover, was on a very different occasion. Whether during all these years Adelle ever thought much about the judge, nobody knows, but Judge Orcutt often had occasion to recollect the pale, badly dressed little girl who had no manners, when he signed orders and approved papers in re Adelle Clark, minor.
The Washington Trust Company had grown in power to the envy of its conservative rivals ever since its organization, and was now one of the richest reservoirs of capital in the city. Recently it had moved into its new home in the banking quarter of the city,—the most expensive, commodious, and richly ornamented bank premises in B——. The Washington Trust Company was managed by "the younger crowd," and one way in which the new blood manifested itself was by the erection of this handsome granite building with its ornate bronze and marble appointments. The officers felt that theirs was a new kind of business, largely involving women, invalids, and dependents of rich habits, and for these a display of magnificence was "good business."
When Adelle and her aunt paused inside the massive bronze doors of the Trust Building and looked about them in bewilderment across the immense surface of polished marble floor, it probably did not occur to either of them that a new page in the book of destiny had been turned for them. Yet even in Adelle's small, silent brain there must have penetrated a consciousness of the place,—the home as it were of her new guardian,—and such a magnificent home that it inspired at once both timidity and pride. The two women wandered about the banking floor for some minutes, peering through the various grilles at the busy clerks, observing the careless profusion of notes, gold, and documents of value that seemed piled on every desk, as if to indicate ostentatiously the immensity of the property interests confided to the company's care. At last, after they had been rebuffed by several busy clerks, a uniformed attendant found them and inquired their business. The widow handed to him the card she had received from the probate judge, and the usher at once led them to an elegant little private elevator that shot them upwards through the floors of the bank to the upper story. Here, in a small, heavily rugged room behind a broad mahogany table, they met Mr. John Gardiner, then the "trust officer" of the Washington Trust Company. He was a heavy, serious-minded, bald man of middle age, and Adelle at once made up her mind that she liked him far less than the judge. The trust officer did not rise on their entrance as the judge always had risen; merely nodded to them, motioned to some chairs against the wall, and continued writing on a memorandum pad. Both the widow and Adelle felt that they were not of much importance to the Washington Trust Company, which was precisely what the trust company liked to have its clients feel.