The Last Cruise of the Spitfire/Chapter 2
AN UNEXPECTED LETTER.
As I walked along the street I could not help but ponder over the way I had been treated. My uncle's manner towards me was getting harsher every day. If it kept up in this fashion soon the time would come when human nature could stand it no longer.
And what was I to do then? Several times I had asked myself that question without being able to come to a satisfactory answer. It was easy enough to think of running away and so forth, but this was just the thing I did not wish to do. My uncle was my guardian, and he was bound to support me. To be sure, the support he gave me was merely a nominal one; but I was not versed in law, and was afraid if I went off he might keep my inheritance from me. I did not know how much money my father had left, but what there was I wanted to come to me.
Gus's actions puzzled me. If he was bound for a day to Coney Island what had brought him to the office at such an early hour of the morning? I knew that he disliked early rising, and was pretty well satisfied that even the delight of paying me off would not have induced him to leave his soft bed.
Arriving at the post-office, I posted Mr. Stillwell's letters, and then opened the box containing the letters for the firm. There were quite a handful, and I looked at the addresses to see that no mistakes had been made.
In an instant one of them attracted my attention.
It was directed as follows:
Mr. Luke Foster,
Care of Stillwell, Grinder & Co.,
New York City.
The letter was addressed to me, and as it was the first foreign epistle I had received since my parents' death, I looked at it with considerable curiosity. It was postmarked London, and the handwriting was cramped and heavy.
Tearing the letter open, I was still more astonished to read the following lines:
"Mr. Luke Foster,
"Of course you will be astonished to receive this, I being a stranger to you. But just before his death I became well acquainted with your father, he spending with your mother six weeks at my country residence in Northampton. We met six years ago in New York, and traveled from that city to Chicago, and from there to St. Louis; so you will see that we became quite intimate.
"While stopping at my house your father expressed the fear that should he die suddenly while on his travels, and his wife also (odd, indeed, when such proved to be the case), your future might be an uncertain one. He said he had made a will, appointing his friend, John W. Banker of Locustville, New York State, to be your guardian, but was afraid you might not like the choice, or that this man might not treat you well.
"Never expecting that your father's end was near, I laughingly replied that I was sure he had done for the best. But he shook his head in doubt, and said men were strange, and often acted in a way least expected, which is certainly true. So I agreed, should anything happen to him, to keep an eye on you. I have not done so for the following reason:
"Following close upon your parents' death came the demise of my mother in Paris, and a week later, the failure of a banking house in South America, with which I was closely connected. After the funeral of my mother I took passage for Rio de Janeiro, and it was about two weeks ago that I set foot in England. Since then I have been exceedingly busy straightening out my affairs, and this is the first chance I have had of addressing you.
"I trust your father's choice of a guardian has been a happy one, and that you are doing well. If not, write me immediately, and I will see what can be done. I send this letter in care of your uncle because I have not had your address. I know that he and your father were not on good terms, but I trust you no longer carry on that quarrel.
"43 Old Fellows Road."
Standing by one of the deep windows of the post-office, I read the letter through twice. It will be needless for me to state that it impressed me strangely.
The most important statement made by the writer was that my father had never intended my uncle to be my guardian. I knew of the family quarrel, but Mr. Stillwell, when he had taken me from the academy, had assured me that that was all past and gone, and I had been delighted to have it so, for it had always pained me to see my mother not on speaking terms with my aunt. But apparently my uncle had not told the truth, and for reasons of his own.
How was it that Mr. Stillwell had been appointed my guardian when my father wished Mr. Banker to act in that capacity? This was a question that worried me not a little. I liked Harry's father very much, and was sure he would have treated me with far more consideration than I was now receiving.
The perusal of the letter drove all thoughts of the unpleasant scene I had left behind from my mind, and I was on the point of going directly to my uncle for an explanation of the case. But then came the recollection of Mr. Stillwell's manner towards me, and I shoved the letter into my pocket, resolved to say nothing until I had thought the matter over.
I walked back to the office slowly, for I was in deep thought. For two years my uncle had been my guardian, and during that time my life had been little better than a continual hardship. The letter brought up the memory of the past, and I realized now more than ever how happy the days gone by had been. What had brought about the change?
Clearly, the way I was being treated. Mr. Stillwell cared nothing for me, body or soul. Indeed, at that moment I was inclined to think that he would be as well satisfied to see me dead as alive. Perhaps if I were dead he would inherit the money left me by my father.
This thought had never occurred to me before, and I gave it considerable attention. When I came to review the whole matter I discovered that in reality I knew very little of my own affairs. I had taken many things for granted, and my uncle's word on all occasions. Whether this was for the best was still to be seen.
I was glad I had not gone on a visit that day. Had I done so Mr. Still well would have received my letter, and I do not doubt but that he would have opened it. As it was, he knew nothing of the communication, and I did not intend that he should until I was ready to disclose it to him.
By the stamp upon the letter sheet, I saw that Mr. Nottington was a solicitor, and this made my mind revert to Mr. Ira Mason. As I have said, the lawyer had taken an interest in me, and I was sure he would now give me the best advice in his power.
I was sorry I could not go to the gentleman at once. The letter had fired my curiosity, and I wanted to get at the bottom of the affair.
But I had already lost time: to lose more would raise a storm of anger against me. I determined to wait until the noon hour, or after my uncle had gone home.
The firm of patent lawyers of which my uncle was senior partner was composed of himself, Mr. Grinder, a short, stumpy busybody, now away to Washington on business, and Mr. Canning, a young man who had been but recently taken in, not so much because he was needed, I fancied, as because he brought with him plenty of money and a good business connection.
Mr. Canning did not come to business until very late, as he lived twenty-five miles out of the city, in New Jersey. There were no clerks but Gus and myself; so when I arrived at the office I found Mr. Stillwell still alone.
My uncle's face was as dark as a thunder-cloud when I handed him the letters. I made up my mind he was about to lecture me for having taken my time, and I braced up to withstand the shower of strong language he would be sure to heap upon me.
"So, young man, you've got back at last!" he exclaimed.
"Been rather a long while."
To this I made no reply. What was there to say?
"It's a wonder you came back at all," he went on. "To be honest, I never expected to see you again."
"I'm sorry I can't please you, Uncle Felix."
"Don't Uncle Felix me!" he cried savagely. "After your dirty work to-day I don't want to be any relation to you."
This was certainly putting it rather strongly.
"Whether you believe it or not, I didn't muss up the office," I said firmly. "Gus did that."
"I left Gus at home," he cried, even more emphatically than before, and I could see that he was really angry because of my having dragged his son's name into the dispute.
"Gus was here, and left just before you came."
"I don't believe it."
"All the same, it is true."
"It's only a story to pass your crimes off on my son. But it won't wash, Luke, it won't wash."
I made no further reply, seeing it was useless to try to reason with him, but hung up my hat and turned my attention to cleaning up the floor.